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Philosophy and martial arts have been associated with each other since… well, not really as long as we would like to think. As much as we want to believe that all the great warriors of old were virtuous and wise sages, it seems highly unlikely. Systems of truly efficient combat are developed by, or derived from, the methods of those who are truly proficient at violence. It is as simple and straightforward as that. The martial artists who have made the biggest tremors in the martial arts community are those who have tested and applied their skills in real life violence or, at least, those who have trained under others who have this level of experience. The true roots of martial arts are found in fighters, be they soldiers, pugilists, street brawlers or people involved in security, who passed their knowledge onto others. The philosophy came later and the esoteric and “character building” stuff came much later.

If we look back further than the twentieth century it is difficult to find many texts that see philosophy as an integral part of physical martial arts training. There is nothing, at least on the surface, that proves that famous literature like Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings” is about anything else other than efficient combat strategy.

Tzu’s work, as the title implies, is a treatise on waging war, perhaps the oldest in existence, where he states his most famous sentence, “All warfare is based on deception.” That early line, which is the eighteenth paragraph of chapter one in most translations, should have been a dead giveaway: this is not a discussion on the virtues of love and peace.

Likewise the proof that Musashi was a great philosopher is not found in his most famous text, “The Book of Five Rings”. Like Tzu’s work this treatise deals with combat in an efficient, pragmatic and, arguably, amoral manner. It is a book that describes the best strategies Musashi found worked in the practice of Kenjutsu, Japanese sword-fighting. Musashi apparently was also a keen calligrapher. So what? Hitler liked to paint and it didn’t mean he was a peaceful or “spiritual” person. Musashi, it would appear, was anything but a peaceful person. From an early age he wanted toexercise 2.jpg fight, and throughout his life he would use any means necessary to win, most of which involved outright deception. ome historians have regarded him more as a bully than the archetypical figure of samurai virtue. Before his death Musashi wrote “Dokkodo”, which is perhaps the closest we have to his life philosophy. However, don’t expect to find a text that speaks deeply about loving your fellow human beings or attaining spiritual enlightenment. The 21 precepts for self-discipline contained within the text are more in line with the selfish ideologies of Ayn Rand or Friedrich Nietzsche than an altruistic code of ethics.

It is fair to argue that the principles contained within both “The Art of War” and “The Book of Five Rings” has stood the test of time, but there is always the danger of reading too deep into what has been written or, as is too often the case, twisting the meanings and principles in the text to correspond with one’s own beliefs and ideas. This is avoided when you keep in mind the clear reasons why both texts were written; their historical context and their target readership. In short: why, when and for whom. So, Musashi’s seventeenth century manual on Japanese sword fighting strategies for pupils of his samurai school might share some interesting parallels with the ruthless attitude taken by a 1980s yuppie when he attacked the stock market, but I don’t think it is the best text for advising an early twenty-first century suburbanite how to contribute towards a more caring community.

Readership, now that’s another point worth remembering when we consult ancient texts. Widespread literacy is a modern phenomenon and this brings us onto the reason why we have great historical philosophical martial arts writers. Philosophers were learned people. They could write. Therefore it is not surprising that their interpretations of the martial arts are the most numerous. They could leave a legacy where their illiterate contemporaries could not. It has only been since the early 1990s that the “True Crime” subgenre of factual books has spawned dozens of ghost-written autobiographies that detail the “philosophies” of real fighters. Such biographies vary from earlier works where violent men were seemingly repentant about their violent lives to those who see violence as a type of celebratory culture.

There are modern exceptions to the rule, perhaps even pioneers, like the realistic martial artist/doorman Geoff Thompson, who is also a legitimate writer and motivational philosopher. Geoff Thompson, in many ways, is a link to all these sides of the martial arts and gives us a glimpse of what the scholarly martial arts pioneers were like and how they developed in their respective journeys. He was a martial artist first who decided to test his skills in a real-life environment. He became a doorman, a person who would face the realities of fighting. The lessons he learnt were brought back to his martial arts classes. However, once the “fight outside of a chip shop” area was covered thoroughly and the physical limitations were established, it was only natural for the great martial artist to pursue other attributes that had been developed as bi-products through his intensive training experiments. These attributes moved further away from the visceral area of last resort civilian self-defence and more into developing character. Although Geoff Thompson has maintained his roots in “hard skills” it also important to remember that he always had a literate soul. He wrote plays at home and he wrote his autobiography “sitting on the toilet” when he worked at a factory. He worked as a nightclub bouncer, but even in those “blood and snot” days, as he gradually went from a martial arts denier to martial arts sceptic, he couldn’t help but notice the poetry in the language of the door and the culture of the door. With this in mind, it is little surprising that as Geoff Thompson changed there were certain principles, deep within him, that were always going to emerge.

However, it is with an early twentieth century example of the fighting philosopher that historians like Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo say that “for better or worse” our ideas relating to martial arts religious philosophy have been shaped.

Sun Lu Tang was both a highly respected martial arts fighter and an esteemed scholar. He was also a follower of Taoism and was able to synergise his knowledge of the three great schools of internal martial arts training with his religious and philosophical training. Sun had a thorough education in philosophy and taught it alongside the martial arts. His books made links between the martial arts and Taoist cosmology. Furthermore, as China entered a new more open and modern phase that would make martial arts more accessible to the general public, Sun promoted the concept of practicing martial arts for health reasons rather than combat.

This gave birth to the modern idea of Tai Chi Chuan, Pakua and Hsing-I being the “new age” systems for wellbeing, often reinforced with pseudoscientific and superstitious ideas relating to the cultivation of mystical energy. There is no empirical historical evidence to prove that Tai Chi Chuan or any of the other internal arts have their roots in anything more mystical than straightforward combat efficiency




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