Philosophical Base

In this article, Sensei Roy examines the history and philosophy of oriental martial arts.

As we enter the 21st century, our Western religions are becoming more popular in Eastern countries. And here in the West, Eastern religions are becoming more popular. It would appear that people from both cultures are questioning their religious values, and seeking a broader spiritual perspective.

It could be said that these two very different perceptions (East and West) are simply two sides of the same coin. The Eastern religious perception focuses on the group (no individuality), while the Western perception focuses on the individual.

Here in the West we study various martial art traditions that are based on Eastern religious principles and philosophies. However, the way we think about the martial arts expresses our own Western religious principles and philosophies.

This clash of cultures can sometimes make it difficult for people to understand and appreciate the Eastern teaching methods. And it can also make it difficult for Eastern Masters who are striving to teach their martial art traditions to interested Westerners.

But if we look to the distant past, perhaps we can better understand both points of view. In fact, both points of view had the same philosophical origin.

If we go back in history some 8000 years, we arrive at the time when the science of agriculture started to develop. Before this, tribes of people were either hunter-gathers, or herdsmen.

In a hunting culture, the individual was highly regarded. In fact the survival of the tribe depended on individuals who could successfully hunt for food. Herding cultures also valued the individual... the warrior who could defend the tribe’s livestock, and fight for new grazing land.

But with the emergence of agricultural techniques, people no longer had to constantly move to follow the migration of wild animals, or fight for fresh grazing land. Agriculture allowed people to stay in one place and grow the food they needed.

By 3500 BC in the Near East, the science of agriculture had led to the establishment of large cities... and also a change in the psychology of the people who lived in the cities. The population was now divided into different functions. There were workers, craftsman, soldiers, governors, servants and priests... just to name a few.

No longer did every person represent the whole cultural tradition of the tribe as they did in the hunter-gather and herding cultures.

During this era, the religious Priests were the scientists of the time. And by studying the heavens they discovered the path of the five visible planets across the night sky... marking the seasons. This allowed them to plot the movement of the Heavens, and predict the best times for planting and harvesting crops.

The priests also conceived the concept of a Divine Cosmic Order ... an Order so grand, that it made the daily affairs of mankind seem insignificant.

It seemed natural to the people of this time that this Divine Order should be depicted in earthly affairs, and consequently a new mythology came into being. The King and his Royal Court came to represent the Divine Order. In fact, the King was considered to be a God King ... and he often wore a golden crown to represent the centre of the Heavens (the Sun).

In this type of culture there was no place for the individual. Like the Heavens, there must be order in society. A place for everyone, and everyone in their place. And each person was expected to obediently accept their role in that order.

In time, this concept spread across to Egypt, India, China and Japan, and eventually became the basis for the Oriental culture.  People were expected to be obedient, and never question the authority of the King ... who was after all, a God !

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a herding tribe called the Semites moved into an agricultural region known as Mesopotamia (the Middle East).

The Semites were a warrior race, and so they valued the individual. They eventually dominated the area and gradually influenced the local mythology to include their own way of thinking. This was the origin of the Jewish and Christian religions. And it also became one of the foundations of Western culture.

This is how and why we came to value "the individual " here in the West.

In fact it could be said that we celebrate the experience of the individual. It is our contribution to human spirituality.

We acknowledge that you/me, in this place, at this time, has never happened before. And this should be valued because it’s unique ... an example of the nature of the human potential.

But in the Orient, it's "the group " that is valued and celebrated. Every person is simply a part of a united whole.

There is no place for the individual in an Oriental culture. Instead, there is a place for everyone, and everyone has their place.

People in an Oriental culture are expected to :

• believe what they are told

• do what they are told

• and not question authority.

This "authority" came to represent different things as various religious and philosophical points of view developed. For the Taoist religion, the authority was Nature. In Confusism, the authority was Society. Today in many Asian countries, the authority is the Government.

This submission to a group authority also extends to :

• a company or business

• a sporting or social club

• or a martial art school.

In return for sacrificing their individuality for the common good of the group, people are relieved of responsibility. If something goes wrong, they are not held personally responsible because they were simply following instructions. And if something needs fixing, they just fix it. They don’t waste time worrying about whose to blame.

While this way of thinking may seem strange to people from a Western culture, there is no denying the economic power and military strength that can come from this way of thinking.

For centuries, the teaching methods of the Oriental martial arts have expressed this Eastern mythology.

Traditionally, there is a strict hierarchy in the school. The Sensei is at the top, followed by the senior students, followed by the junior students... who in some cases were expected to wash the clothes of the senior students, and prepare their meals. In turn, the senior students would take care of the teacher’s needs.

No students would ask any unnecessary questions. It was believed that if a student was expected to know something, then the teacher would tell them. If they weren’t told, then they weren’t expected to know it ! In many cases, this still continues today.

When I first lived in Japan, I asked my teacher lots and lots of questions about Ninjutsu. And there were many he couldn’t answer. Although he had lived in America for a while, and had an appreciation of Western society, he eventually became frustrated and embarrassed, and reprimanded me for asking too many questions.

At the time I didn’t understand why a martial arts Master didn’t know all the answers to my questions. I considered him to be an expert. And in a Western sense, an expert knows everything.

I eventually came to understand the Oriental way of thinking ... but it took many years because very little explanation is given in the traditional Japanese way of teaching.

This clash of Oriental and Western philosophies can cause frustration for both the Oriental teacher and the Western student. When an Japanese instructor visits a Western country to teach their art, they naturally expect the students to conduct themselves in the proper way. But what is the proper way?

For the Japanese Teacher, the proper way is the traditional Japanese way. Students are expected to :

• believe what you're told

• do what you're told

• do not question what you're told.

But for the Western students, the proper way is the way they're used to learning :

• freedom to believe what you want

• freedom to do what you want

• and freedom to ask questions.

However, as the exchange between Eastern and Western continues, an appreciation of the differences is developing. And there seems to be a growing focus on the very essence of the martial art traditions.

I believe that in time, this will strip away all unnecessary cultural customs, and allow people from all over the world to enjoy the physical and philosophical benefits of the Oriental martial arts.

So be patient, and strive to understand the philosophical base of your martial art, as well as the philosophical base of your own culture. Most importantly, don’t be too quick to judge something just because it’s strange or different. Whether it’s from the East or the West, it may turn out to be a very valuable and worthwhile learning experience !


Copyright 1981-2008 © Wayne L. Roy.
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