"This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny, and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine."
The above quote, in case you didn't gather, is from the movie 300. A great movie, brutal and gruesome, moving and empowering. I enjoy it every time =). Anyway this movie, in case you haven't seen it, is about 300 Spartans standing up to an endless army of Persians. A huge piece of it hinges on the clash of eastern and western philosophies. On the one hand a massive Persian empire lead by God King Xerces built on mystics, magic, and esoteric powers, on the other a self-sustaining, Greece standing on principles of self-reliance, free will, and sheer development of personal strength, led by Leonidas who will sacrifice his character and principles for nothing. Regardless of the historical accuracy of the film, it brings up a lot of questions, particularly to martial arts and combat effectiveness. =)
What place does mysticism have in the practice of martial arts? Whether it's Russian, Chinese, or Japanese it seems to be there, why and what purpose does it serve, if any? Should mysticism be painted in a bad light? Is it ethical to use as a teaching tool?
What is mysticism?
According to google mysticism is defined as: "a belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender"
What place does mysticism have in the practice of martial arts?
Mysticism is linked to the martial arts by the religious foundations these arts came from. With each one the religion is what provided their first founding principles, which is why they still hold a strong cornerstone in each. Lets explore what those foundations are in each art specifically...
Religious foundation of...
Beyond the religious foundations, mystical views of unity with the Tao, Buddha nature, or Christ//God grant immense forms of power, indeed un-ending power. When we pay attention to everything that entails the practice of martial arts, progress and abilities that result from it can be baffling. I think this is what drives the mystical link. An idea that there must be something more which brings about these personal changes. When our body does things i.e. reacts and defends itself faster than we can rationally make it do the thing, it becomes easy to chuck it up to divinity. If we decide to do this it poses a problem for something that should be rooted in self-defense as much as it's rooted in self-development. That problem is: By believing such a thing do you come to rely on your connection with 'divinity' or your persistence in practice? In short devine power is a belief, personal power is a belief that can be tested. So should we rely on working toward a divine power? or a sort of divine connection?
Should mysticism be painted in a bad light?
Seeking a divine connection, sure why not? In martial arts practice, however, the view should be balanced. Seeking divinity in practice is one thing, imbuing yourself with some sort of divine power in a live physical altercation would be a terrible mistake. Divinity in practice is fine as long as it doesn't outweigh, or interfere with practicality.
Mysticism, like many things, on its own is not bad, linking it to a physical thing brings problems. You find mystical connections, or symbolism used all throughout Chinese and Japanese arts. The use of these symbols are to help elicit a feeling or attribute within the body for practical use. This is very different than some ‘spiritual’ unknown working of the things, however, these two become confused often, and some say this very reason is why the ancient Chinese and Japanese used these methods in teaching.
Is it ethical to use mysticism as a teaching tool?
My personal opinion is that the use of mysticism has its place to convey a feeling or attribute we should seek to have. That being said I'm also a firm believer in transparency, that things should be taught clearly, using the best language and illustrations now available to do so. In short, for many things mystical explanations hold no value, the exception being that they illicit a strong feeling for the practitioner which guides them to correct use of principles. Beyond this it should be avoided.
Daniel R. Hyde
Licensed Massage Therapist
OIF, OEF Veteran
U.S. Marine Corps
Tui Na, Chinese Massage
Shiatsu, Japanese Massage
Tai Chi Chuan
Kwan Ying Do Kung Fu