Martial Arts in the Name of God


The martial arts are fighting techniques and systems that emerged in China, Japan, Korea, and regions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. They are as varied and distinct as the cultures from which they arose. To many, the martial arts are not just for self-defense but represent a means to enlightenment and are a way of life. Religious and philosophical schools that influenced the development of these arts include Taoism and Zen Buddhism. These elements can be seen today in the different styles.
High flying kicks combined with deadly punches and lethal throws. A lone warrior single-handedly overpowering a band of burly attackers. An old sage imparting wisdom to a young, attentive disciple. These images depict how many people perceive the martial arts, or arts of warfare, and for good reason. These popular images of Asian-based fighting techniques stem from what is seen on television and in the movies.
Some of today's leading action stars have made it big because of the martial arts. Bruce Lee, who tragically died in 1973 of a cerebral aneurysm, popularized the martial arts in the U.S. with films like Enter the Dragon, which to date has grossed $150 million ( Rifkin 10). Karate champion Chuck Norris, Aikido black belt, Steven Segal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme are all heroes to today's audiences. There are the Karate Kid films as well as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that my son was fond of as a preschooler.
Over the past few decades the martial arts have emerged from relative obscurity, a practice reserved for a select few, to become a booming industry. Almost every sizable city in the country has at least one martial arts school. In fact, between 1987 and 1991, the number of such schools jumped 50 percent from 4,600 to 7,000. ( Corcoran 80). Of the two to three million practitioners in the U.S., about 40 percent are children between the ages of seven and fourteen (Castinado 23). With lessons running anywhere from $60 per month at my dojo to well over $100 at those in bigger cities, it's easy to see how the industry as a whole is generating making healthy profits.
The practice of the martial arts is not confined to the dojos (training facilities). Military and law enforcement agencies actively incorporate these techniques and weapons into their regimen. When I was being trained as a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard, our instructors were all Navy SEALS. All but one of them held the rank of black belt in Karate. As a member of an aviation search and rescue team I was given some introductory martial arts training. My fellow classmates who were Navy fighter pilots were given much more extensive martial art training because of the potential hand-to- hand combat they may face. Some police departments have even traded in their nightsticks for nunchakus, a classical weapon from Okinawa. This weapon is made from two foot-long wooden sticks attached by a short chain (See 78). It is common for universities to offer martial arts classes ranging from practical self-defense methods to more spiritually oriented styles such as t'ai chi ch'uan and aikido.
The martial arts are a topic of much confusion and misunderstanding today, especially within the Christian community I have affiliated myself with. Some view the Asian arts as incompatible with Christianity, while some say the two naturally blend. This has been a question I've asked myself many times. One statistic that I found surprising was the percentage of martial artists claiming to be Christians. Scot Conway, founder of the Christian Martial Arts Foundation, estimates that in the U.S. roughly 60 percent of all martial artists are of the Christian faith (Conway 14). He also claims that the "dragon" is Satan entering our society through martial arts. I certainly hope not. While in search for an answer, I have researched the vast differences separating the various arts from China and Japan and will explain their historical roots and traditions. To conclude, I will give my reasons as to the compatibility of Christianity with martial art training.
China: The Wellspring
With its rich heritage, China is considered by many to be the main source that has shaped the martial arts (Maliszewski 11). The earliest traces of the Chinese martial arts date back to the Chou Dynasty (1122 B.C.) During this period various religious schools influenced the developing arts of fighting.
Taoism. Based on the teachings of Lao Tzu, the central theme has to do with harmony with the "natural flow" of the universe. Letting nature take its course is believed to be the key to happiness and fulfillment. Life should be approached with the goal of "taking no action that is contrary to Nature" (Wing-Tsit Chan 136). The Tao (universe) is made up of two forces called yin and yang. Yin and yang are the negative and positive aspects of the universe, each flowing into one another in a continuous cycle of change. The universe is a balance between these two inseparable, opposing forces. Becoming one with the Tao is the goal for many martial artists. Attaining this is said to come through meditation, along with breathing exercises (Schumacher and Woerner 356).
Chinese shamans' primary objective was the attainment of physical immortality. Meditation, along with magical practices, physical and breathing exercises, were considered to be the means of retaining vigor and achieving everlasting life (Schumacher and Woerner 358). The practice of breath control called chi kung was believed to be a mystical energy that, when mastered, was equivalent to mastery of the universe. Religious Taoists believe that breath control is the means of tapping into and controlling the chi force:
The Taoist believed that, through his own supremely concentrated breath control, he could inhale the chi of the universe into his body and fuse it with his own self-energized chi. This combination could only result in a healthful extension of life. This practice demands extraordinary patience and consistently deep meditation. The practitioner, after clearing his mind of extraneous thoughts in a kind of "fast of the mind," must focus only on the constant feeling and sound of the inhalation and exhalation of his respiration. This experience will enable one, in time, to circulate and direct the power of chi into any part of the body. (Chow and Spangler 24-25

The connection between breath control and breaking boards with a single blow of the hand becomes obvious. It is believed that tapping into chi enables the martial artist to perform acts requiring great strength and power.

Buddhism. Attaining strength and power was of interest to Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who is said to be the father of the martial arts (Speisbach 26). Bodhidharma brought to China the religion of Buddhism which taught mental control and meditation as a means to enlightenment. He devised a set of calisthenics to keep the Shaolin monks awake during meditation that formed the basis of their unique style of boxing. His knowledge of Indian fighting systems marked the beginning of Shaolin Temple boxing (Chow and Spangler 11).
Taoism and Buddhism, therefore, serve as the philosophical and religious foundation for the various martial arts. The Chinese martial arts had great influence far beyond China's borders.
Japan: The Military Tradition
The ninth century A.D. saw the emergence of the professional warrior called Bushi. A man by the name of Minamoto Yoritomo (A.D. 1147-1199) became the first permanent Shogun and established the Kamakura military government. During this period the professional warriors of Japan refined their "arts of warfare," most of which were derived from China (Draeger 25). The classic Japanese arts of warfare were swordsmanship, archery and combat use of stick-like weapons. There are many martial arts that I could examine in this category but I will limit my attention to the two most popular today: Jujutsu and Ninjutsu. Jujutsu "the art of flexibility" was a term coined for the various fighting techniques that use few or no weapons. It includes methods of kicking, striking, kneeing, throwing, and joint-locking. It is indeed a "flexible" art. Ninjutsu "the art of stealth" attained wide notoriety during the Kamakura era. Ninjas, who were the practitioners of this art, were warrior-mystics in the mountainous regions of southern Japan. They were contracted by Japan's professional warriors to engage in espionage and sabotage.
Along with their martial arts, Japan's warriors were strongly influenced by Confucian ideals, which emphasized ethics and social order. The ethical code to which these men adhered is known as "the way of the warrior" or Bushido. It incorporated Shinto, Zen Buddhist and Confucian ideas.
Many of today's Japanese martial arts are more concerned with spiritual discipline where one elevates himself mentally and physically in search of self-perfection (Draeger and Smith 91). They are less combatively oriented that the ancient arts of warfare. Three widely popular "martial ways" are aikido, judo, and karate-do.
Aikido "the way of harmony with ki [the chi force]" was developed in 1942 by Morihei Ueshiba. His goal with this martial art was deeply religious: "The unification of the ki that permeates the universe with the individual ki of each person." (Ueshiba 15) Aikido employs a series of flowing circular movements in conjunction with locking, holding, moving, and tumbling techniques-to turn an opponent's force against himself. These can be seen in Steven Segal's movies.
Judo "the peaceful way" was introduced in 1882 by educator Jigoro Kano as a sport exercise based on numerous grappling and throwing techniques. Developed from jujutsu, judo focuses on timing, speed, balance and falling. Kano desired that judo training be undertaken not only in the training facility but also outside it. He believed that endeavoring to master the physical aspects of Judo could contribute to the progress and development of man (Draeger 91).
Karate-do, "the way of the empty hand," is a form of fighting that was secretly developed on the island of Okinawa from Chinese sources as early as the 17th century A.D. in response to a ban of weapons imposed by the ruling Okinawan and succeeding Japanese governments. Recognized for its devastating array of hand and foot strikes, karate is characterized by its demanding regimen of rigorous physical conditioning, concentrated breathing exercises, and repetitive rehearsals of blocking, striking, and breaking techniques (for breaking boards, bricks, and the like). Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced his brand of karate to the Japanese public in 1922, declared karate to be "a medium for character building, and the final goal of training to be the perfection of the self." (Wingate 35)
The Japanese and Chinese martial arts have thoroughly penetrated American soil. Though each of these arts has distinctive qualities, they are dynamic and ever changing. I have seen traditionalists who try to maintain the heart and soul of their systems, but eventually have to make modifications to meet the needs of the general population. I believe that original techniques can be altered for improvement. For example, consider the Americanized Kajukenbo system which is essentially a collation of karate, judo, jujitsu, and Chinese boxing (Beaver 21).
What have I concluded from the brief survey above? For one thing, the martial arts are here to stay. They have become, in many ways a part of the American mainstream. Beyond this, I recognize that the martial arts are as rich and diverse as the Asian culture from which they emerged. Their roots and traditions derive from a variety of sources, from fierce warriors of the past, to Taoist and Buddhist monks in search of harmony and enlightenment.
I have concluded that the goals and focus of the assorted arts range from the purely pragmatic (e.g., physical fitness and self-defense) to the deeply religious and philosophical. As a Christian, there are some believers who may question the value of this training. Is it right for Christians to defend themselves via the martial arts when the Bible says to "turn the other cheek?" Is it right to participate in what many consider to be a violent activity? Even if the answer was a simple "yes", is it possible for a Christian to completely divorce the Eastern religious philosophy and mysticism that often accompanies the martial arts from the purely physical discipline? Let me begin to answer this by explaining the Rules of the Dojo or "kuhn."
  • Strive for completion of character
  • Protect the way of the truth
  • Foster the spirit of effort
  • Respect the principles of etiquette
  • Guard against impetuous courage
These five precepts are really common sense guidelines and have no ulterior evil motive. They insure that violence is not tolerated. The Bible states that if a person is living a Christ-like life they will bear the fruits of the spirit, which are: LOVE, JOY, PEACE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS, and SELF-CONTROL. Galatians 5:22.
As I see it, the dojo and the Christian life are very compatible. They both strive to build people of good character. The question that has to be asked is: For what reasons are you studying martial arts? We all have different reasons and if one is training for an immoral purpose, then they may be in conflict with their own conscience, which is a God-given check and balance system. The other traditions such as bowing to pictures of former Masters or any other ritualistic motions are really innocuous gestures.
To conclude, I have found no conflict with my Karate training and my religious beliefs and it has been my experience that I am a much better person now because of it.

Works Cited
  1. Beaver, William K., "Kajukenbo: The Perfected Art of Dirty Streetfighting," Karate/Kung-fu Illustrated February 1992: 16-21.
  2. Castinado, Marian., "Interview with Marian Castinado," Black Belt Magazine July 1993: 78.
  3. Chan, Wing-Tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
  4. Chow, David and Spangler, Richard. Kung Fu: History, Philosophy and Technique. Hollywood: Unique Publications Company, 1980.
  5. Conway, Scot. "Enter the Dragon? Wrestling With the Martial Arts Phenomenon," Christian Martial Arts Foundation July 1993: 27.
  6. Corcoran, John. The Martial Arts Companion: Culture, History, and Enlightenment. New York: Mallard Press, 1992.
  7. Draeger, Donn F. and Smith, Robert W. Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1980.
  8. Draeger, Donn F. Classical Bujutsu, Modern Bujutsu and Budo. New York: Weatherhill, 1974.
  9. Maliszewski, Michael. "Meditative-Religious Traditions of Fighting Arts and Ways." Journal of Asian Martial Arts July 1992: 11.
  10. Rifkin, Glenn. " The Black Belts of the Screen are Filling the Dojos." The New York Times 16 February 1992: 10.
  11. Schumacher, Stephen and Gert Woerner, eds. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1989.
  12. See, Kim. "Nunchaku? No Thank You-That's What Angry Demonstrators Are Saying to a Painful New Twist in Police Hardware." People Weekly. 28 May 1990: 105-6.
  13. Speisbach, Michael F. " Bodhidharma: Meditating Monk, Martial Arts Master or Make Believe?" Journal of Asian Martial Arts October 1992: 10-26.
  14. Ueshiba, Kisshomaru. The Spirit of Aikido. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1987.
  15. Wingate, Carrie. "Exploring our Roots: Historical and Cultural Foundations of the Ideology of Karate-do." Journal of Asian Martial Arts March 1993: 10-35.
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