Buddhism and Martial Practice

By Robert Nakashima

There is a deep, intrinsic connection between the practice of traditional martial arts and the philosophy of Buddhism. Both can be defined as a set of ‘strategies for awakening.’ The desire to protect oneself and others is primal and instinctive. The fundamental premise of martial training is to perfect one’s skills through the systematic study of human conflict. This is accomplished through ritual (the formal practice of solo movement sequences within which are encoded the technical and spiritual cabala of the style), cooperative two-person practices (during which the fear-inducing and chaotic elements of human interaction are studied, slowed-down and deconstructed to facilitate deep understanding and the development of real skill), and a comprehensive set of energy-building and meditative practices known as neigong or qigong. Moreover, by its very nature, the pursuit of martial skill requires the presence of the classic Buddhist concept of Sangha, i.e. the supportive community of fellow learners and teachers.

While the acquisition of workable techniques for self-preservation is a desirable and necessary outcome of training, the true harvest may lie in the realm of consciousness and spirit.

Martial arts offers a systematic, safe and ritualized method of confronting the unthinkable. By allowing ourselves to exist within the pulse-pounding space of (symbolic) violent confrontation, we are able to access and confront aspects of our personality that may be hidden under layers of fear and denial. It is for this reason that martial arts are often described as a kind of ‘spiritual X-Ray’; revealing, exposing, and ultimately, healing.

From the Kalaripayat warrior caste of Prince Siddhartha’s day, to the Shaolin monks, to the elite swordsmen of Japan trained in esoteric Buddhist meditation, all have sought oneness with the ground of being that connects us all.

The objective of Buddhist meditation is to perceive the underlying reality underpinning consciousness, thereby gaining an understanding of the source of suffering. If, in these jangled and disturbing times, we can define a major component of our daily suffering as fear of the Other, then martial arts can be seen as an effective and vital example of ‘applied Buddhism.’ In Buddhism, as well as in traditional martial arts, the essential components—ritual, mindfulness, cooperation and community—are paramount to success.

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