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Atheism, Spirituality, and the Martial Arts

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Regardless of what people may think of the concept, it seems pretty clear that spirituality always has, and to some degree always will have, a place in the martial arts and the martial sports that surround them. And it is equally clear that this place has consistently been and will continue to be misunderstood and misapplied.

The idea of spirituality governing the martial arts goes back to the first of them that we know of. The Greeks and Romans had a god specifically dedicated to governing war as a concept, and who embodied the martial virtues and failures alike. The concept of ki is embedded firmly into the eastern martial arts, whether as an abstracted concept embodying a warrior spirit and tenacity of effort, or peddled as magical power by frauds and charlatans.

The swordplay I practice in my HEMA studies is not exempt, either. One of the greatest masters of the tradition, Johannes Liechtenauer, says in his Epitome (a series of poems describing the secrets of the Knightly Arts) - "Young knight, learn to love God and revere women; thus your honor will grow." (from the Von Danzig Fechtbuch, specifically the In Saint George's Name collection by Christian Henry Tobler).

This is the very first verse he put to paper in his Epitome. Spirituality was foremost on his mind, as was its companion, Mystery - Liechtenauer demanded that his art be kept secret from the masses, relegated only to the virtuous, spiritual elite of the Knightly class, whom God himself had set aside to learn war and govern the land.

The trend continues today, with the aforementioned hucksters claiming that you can defeat an enemy without ever touching him, simply by using 'bio force' or 'ki energy' and so forth.

It is even present in the diluted form wherein martial arts claim to promote family values, both secular and religious. (The family that kicks together sticks together, the family that prays together stays together - an actual motto I saw at a martial arts school). Closely related are the ideals of self-development, self-confidence, self-esteem, etc and so on.

Needless to say, it raises quite a few questions for someone in my place in life.

As a kid, I was a Christian, and my mother had a conniption about me learning karate, claiming I was going to become a Buddhist and that I shouldn't be bowing to anyone but Jesus. From what I hear, this isn't exactly an uncommon reaction, albeit it isn't the ONLY one. But still, the idea of spirituality itself wasn't a problem, and I simply had to reinterpret it through the lens of my own beliefs.

Well, how exactly do I approach this since acknowledging I am in fact an atheist? I don't believe in anything spiritual. And it isn't simply atheism, many Buddhists are atheists but still believe in spiritual things such as reincarnation, karma, and so forth. I am a rational materialist, believing only in what can be examined through the matrix of the scientific method. What room is there for the spiritual in this perception of the universe?

More and more, I've come to view it through a pantheist perspective - the application of religious terminology to natural things. When I see my judo coach, Mike Donnley, teaching, it's something close to hero worship for me. He's a Sandan at Judo, a father of an accomplished wrestler and Judo brown belt, a wrestling coach for his local school, and he is also a nurse who helps people combat the illnesses and frailties of our mortal existence. He is very much what I would consider an ideal person - healthy, active, vibrant, and eager to help the people around him. He teaches Judo for a love of the gentle way, and encourages people to be exuberant and to show their fighting spirit in class.

There, I just did it again, fighting 'spirit.' Intellectually I know there is no such animal. But as a metaphor for the complex mental states we term 'willpower,' it does the job nicely.

Many of the people I admire in the Historical European Martial Arts are spiritual men as well, in the traditional sense of the word. They are Christians of every sort, Buddhists, some Muslim, some neopagan. It would be petty of me to let this color my perceptions of the Art they teach with such excellence.

Spirituality in the martial arts is, I find, very much where you wish to find it. But above all, it must be your own. You must above all not accept the spirituality of another unless you are prepared to make it your own without reservation. My own atheistic spirituality is fine for me - it allows me to express the exultant feelings I get when I land a strong Tai Otoshi, or counter a stroke from above with the Thwarting Cut and strike my partner's head in the same motion. But it may not work for another. Perhaps they prefer the metaphor of zazen, or another metaphor entirely. That is fine. All I ask is that people make their metaphor their own, and allow others to find their own way.

Yours Fraternally,

William Cain
Kron Martial Arts, Team Katame

1 Comments On This Entry

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24 October 2011 - 11:10 PM
Hi there

Just wanted to say that your post is pretty much exactly the way I feel. I hope it helps others to be more comfortable in their own beliefs.


PS Hope the kampfringen is going well. I have a friend who studies ancient history who I would love to get involved in this stuff. Unfortunately there is nothing around here for it.
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