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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July 21, 2000

Spirituality in the Martial Arts – An overview of the issues

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

In March of this year, I attended the first World Congress on Combat Sports and Martial Arts in Amiens, France.  Weirdly, in spite of it being billed as a “World Congress” the attendees were mostly European, and the Europeans mostly French.  I sat through three solid days of presentations, including one on adaptations of judo for disabled students, microanalyses of muscle movements in Tae Kwon Do (TKD) players, and other physiological and kineseological analyses of TKD, judo (and more judo), karate, and occasionally more esoteric pursuits, such as fencing.

After three days of PowerPoint presentations in a cold lecture hall (and one night of sports – martial arts exhibitions, which I, unfortunately or not, had to miss), the final remarks wrapping up the congress were to be given by Roland Habersetzer, a prominent French martial arts teacher.  I am not sure what art form he taught, but, based on three days of presentations, my best guess would be judo.  He was the only guy there whom I heard a few others address as “sensei”.
Habersetzer was a large man, around 60 years old, with steel gray hair and the kind of gaze that sort of riveted one like a deer caught in headlights.  I would not have wanted to be a student of this guy on a bad day, I thought.

He sat down at the table, adjusted the mic, and proceeded, in a thoughtfully worded response, to tell how he listened to three days of congress presentations that dissected martial arts from every angle except the aesthetic and spiritual aspects.  These, he suggested, formed the heart of martial arts, affecting how they are taught and practiced in every way.  Without considering the heart, martial arts becomes just another set of sporting activities.  He said the presenters removed the heart of martial arts, which, in his opinion, was a great injustice.  Habersetzer’s remarks got the loudest applause of any presentation all weekend.

However, some of the other speakers, many of whom were martial arts practitioners (mostly of judo) leaped to defend themselves.  One gentleman declared that this was a scientific conference, and that if one wanted to discuss spirituality, one should go to the Cathedral--a huge, Gothic edifice packed with gory, violent Christian artwork--across the street.  Others defended Habersetzer.  For a minute there, it almost evolved into a real fight, the only one to take place all weekend, with the “scientists” saying their analyses were pure and fact based, and the doubters pointing out there was no such thing.

This argument illustrated an important point on martial arts study: the martial arts are more than just a physical pursuit, but it’s extremely difficult to discuss their non-physical aspects.  This paper is an attempt to lay a ground for this troublesome subject of spirituality in the martial arts.
In pursuit of some understanding from an anthropological perspective, I looked at some texts on the anthropology of religion.  In these articles, I found detailed descriptions of religious rituals.  Some of them were fascinating.  Informants were interviewed regarding the meaning of the rituals for them (as close a discussion of spirituality as anything got, really).  In true social science fashion, the anthropologists themselves never discussed their own reactions to these spiritual practices.  The closest to do so was a student of the Urasenke school of tea.  She attempted, as a participant-observer, to describe what her teacher suggested were the spiritual aspects of the tea ceremony.  Though the article contained some interesting insider information, explaining the spiritual nature of tea was beyond the anthropologist/tea student’s powers of description.  Perhaps her training as a social scientist prevented her from discussing her personal reactions—spirituality is a personal subject.  On the other hand, some of her interpretations of traditional Japanese culture were pretty facile, suggesting the subject may have actually been beyond her altogether.

Social scientists are not the only ones to struggle with this topic.  Spirituality in the West, is, at best, treated with suspicion by ordinary people, and serious discussion of it (outside of New Agey folks) is generally found within the confines of established religions.  Even at that, the sense one gets is that spirituality, like a lot of sports these days, is for professionals.  The rest of us are too busy in the world of work, family and material pursuits to consider our own spiritual development or practice.  Moreover, giving over time to contemplation that one could bill to a client instead is practically unthinkable in the 21st century.

Frustrated with the anthropologists, I decided to take a different tack and investigate the only contemporary theologian I can stand, Thomas Merton.

Merton (1915 – 1968) was a Trappist monk, who, after many adventures, came to live as a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  He was interested in Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Western religious practices, as well as Western Christianity.  He was also a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War.  In 1968, en route to a meeting of religious superiors in Bangkok, Thailand, he had a series of meetings with the Dalai Lama and investigated places of spiritual importance in India and other parts of Asia.  Just after giving his paper at the Bangkok meeting, he died, suddenly and tragically, by accidental electrocution at the age of 53.
Merton published a great deal on Catholic theology, and was something of a public figure.  For this paper, however, I decided to read The Other Side of the Mountain, his journals from the last year of his life.  Rather than looking at spirituality through established religions, whether Christian, about which I know some, or Buddhism or other Asian religions, about which I know less, I was looking for an approach to spirituality in everyday life.  I believe this approach works best with regard to considering spirituality (or lack of it) in martial arts practice because it is still largely an amateur pursuit.

Merton’s book consists of his daily activities – his writing and reading, his daily walks, visits with friends (which he insists are too many, and too often), and monastic politics.  His life revolved around daily recitations of Hours, masses and other aspects of Catholic liturgy which I have no idea of, having been raised Protestant and now considering myself a Presbyterian Buddhist.  There are a number of elements of Merton’s journal that do provide some clues to the essential nature of everyday spirituality.  They are:

1. Taking time for contemplation – for Merton, this involved looking up a the night sky and identifying constellations (he expressed delight at one point when he realized he could figure out where the major ones were even in the daytime).  Clouds were another favorite observation – whether stormy or brilliantly colored by the sunset.

2. Noting the daily, weekly and seasonal rituals of his life; not just in liturgy, but in doing the chores around his hermitage as well;

3. Reading books by writers on matters of race, religion and other topics, including both old and new texts; and

4. Reading and writing things of his own, including book reviews, poetry, journal articles and books.  He also carried on voluminous correspondence with readers who wrote him with insights or questions.

Rather than just a diversion, Merton’s star-gazing and amateur meteorology had a major spiritual effect on him: seeing his tiny place in the vast universe, the world spinning and affording a changing light show created millions of light-years away.  Likewise for the changing weather, over which, whether he prayed or not, he had no control whatsoever.

The descriptions of daily activities and chores showed Merton as being acutely aware of detail, and definitely living in every moment of every day.  Additionally, reading, writing and granting rare speaking engagements or conducting retreats were all ways in which Merton passed on his understanding of spirituality to others.  His unpublished papers were placed in a literary trust during his lifetime with the intention that they eventually be published, which is why I was able to read his last journal. Though he often complained of his give and take correspondence with readers and friends as a chore, Merton also remarked upon how much he learned from his correspondents’ insights.

Ritual and contemplation.  Teaching and being taught.  On a spiritual level, this could be a definition of martial arts practice, a definition that does not refer to any particular creed or established religion, and is an emotional locus of practice.  Occupying a small niche in the ryu of a particular practice, considering the size of oneself within it, teaching and being taught the techniques and rituals that relate to it in the form of reishiki, etiquette, kata and waza, and eventually becoming part of a tradition much larger and older than oneself.

On the other hand, this sense of spirituality can and has been affiliated with established religion.  For example, iaido is associated, to a certain extent, with Zen, Buddhism, ancestor worship, Confucian ethics, and Shinto.  There is evidence that spiritual aspects of Japanese martial art date back at least 1,000 years, with bushi offering up oaths and offerings to Marishten sama, the Buddhist goddess of war.  Though trained and professed to die in combat, bushi laid their hope for survival of battles at her feet through her primary attributes of “invisibility, ability to confuse enemies, clarity of mind, imperturbability, selflessness and .....compassion” (Hall 1997, 88-89).
However, it is also important to note that, in the development period of the koryu arts that in turn gave rise to modern “do” forms, Buddhism and Shinto were so syncretized as to be inseparable and indistinguishable.  The hard line of separation between Shinto and Buddhism did not take place until after 1868, when they were forcibly ripped apart for largely political reasons (Tyler 1992, passim).  Therefore, both older koryu forms and what I call traditional or conservative “do” forms, such as iaido, do not fit in with the Westernized idea of discreet religions.  Their relationship to a sort of pan-religious spirituality is deeply ingrained and cannot separated from it, save by equally harsh means.

How important is the spiritual element in contemporary times?  In Japan at least, as John Donohue has pointed out in his article “Ideological Elasticity: Enduring form and changing function in the Japanese martial tradition” (1997), spiritual interest overtook combat as one of the changing reasons for martial study as bushi became samurai bureaucrats during the peace of the Tokugawa shogunate.  In modern Japan, lacking a sense of compartmentalization of religion and life fostered by more Westernized ideas of religion, an everyday sense of spirituality in martial arts appears to be taken entirely for granted and is inseparable from the practice itself.  Even in Japan’s approach to sport or competitive martial arts, though some show concern for the overcompetitiveness of judo, for example, spiritual elements are not considered to be necessarily at odds with competition.  Aged kendoka and judoka continue to practice every day, long beyond their competitive years.  I have some wonderful pictures from when I went to a dojo in Kitakyushu, where an old man, dressed all in white with a long white beard, taught kendo to the very youngest students – the six- to eight-year-olds.  The sight was very moving.  Something motivated this individual to come to dojo every day at 5:30 in the morning and again in the late afternoon.  I doubt it was concern over his aerobic fitness or a desire to place in the next big tournament in Fukuoka.

Even at kendo matches in the US and Canada, a non-placing tournament competitor will receive the “fighting spirit” award, acknowledging that the competitor with the most heart is not necessarily the one who wins, but deserves recognition nonetheless.

In China, which has had an official policy of atheism since 1949, martial arts have been promoted as athletic activity, and spiritual aspects of practice have been discouraged.  This policy may complement some forms of Chinese martial art as they move toward competitive sport, in the Western sense.  However, overt spirituality in Chinese martial arts still flourishes in Taiwan, and, at least until recently, Hong Kong, asserting itself as part of folk possession rituals (see, for example, Amos 1997 and Amos and Sun, 1999).  Martial arts practice is also a spiritual vehicle in the belief system of Falun Gong, recently the subject of harsh Chinese mainland government crackdowns.

What happens then, when a conservative “do” form, such as an iaido ryu or Heki ryu Bisshu Chikurin ha kyudo, for example, is transplanted to the West, with its Judeo-Christian orientation, and, in particular, US cultural constructs of separation of “church” and “state”?
Several things can, and potentially do, happen.  On the one hand, a martial practice can be transplanted and allowed to grow without changing much of its spiritual orientation, since church/state separation ideally fosters tolerance for religious and spiritual practices.  On the other, spiritual aspects of martial arts can be stripped away, owing to the sense of compartmentalization this mentality implies.  Thirdly, misunderstandings and even wholesale invention of spiritual aspects of a given martial art practice can take place.  Needless to say, opinions differ as to the importance of a spiritual element in martial arts in the West, and practices also vary widely, to say the least.

Which brings us, I guess, to some concluding points:

Can spirituality in the Asian martial arts be considered independently of organized religion?  I think yes, given the foregoing consideration of the high degree of syncretism in religion during the time of much of its development, and the casual acceptance of spirituality in everyday life in countries of origin.

Can spirituality in an Asian martial artform be adapted to a particular religion, say Christianity or Judaism?  I’ve seen evidence of that too, though I prefer the former, pan-religious approach.  In the case where I have seen Asian martial art practices adapted particularly to Judaism, the teacher drew heavily on Jewish warrior traditions for historical parallels.  However, he was also liberal in some of his interpretations of Judaic spiritual practices.  Some more conservative or fundamentalist religious believers have trouble with rituals pertaining to specific martial arts, bowing to the sword, for example.  They see these rituals as too different from their own religious practices to be adaptable, in which case the martial arts rituals are discarded.
Can martial arts still be martial arts without a spiritual aspect?  Hmmmm.

There has been some legal controversy over this last one recently, in Canada and the US.  In both cases, participants refused to bow to the mat before a judo tournament, because they were professed atheists (some reports say “agnostics”), but insisted on their right to participate in the tournaments anyway.  The agnostics insisted that bowing to the mat was an act of Shinto, and therefore a religious practice.  The US Federal court agreed with them and issued an injunction (separation of church and state again); I do not know the Canadian outcome.  At stake was the status of the tournament in world judo federations, since bowing to the mat is a requirement.  Western proponents of bowing to the mat feared losing their rankings in the world organizations if the rules were not followed. Actually, bowing to the mat is simply manners in showing respect to the space.  However, the atheists’ victory in US court underlines the question of whether martial arts, stripped of its spiritual aspects, retains its original character.  In making its ruling, the U.S. Federal court made judo solely a physical activity.  This interpretation is certainly at odds with Kano’s original vision.  Roland Habersetzer made the same point in Amiens.
Given the foregoing, I think the spiritual element is essential to martial art practice.  In maintaining my opinion, I have the support of historical practices, scholars, Dr. Habersetzer, and many of the people in this room.  This is not an either/or proposition, as I have shown already.  Sport martial arts can coexist with a spiritual element, which enriches participation in the sport and prolongs the active careers of those who study it.

Martial arts practiced without acknowledging the spiritual element remains a physical activity, certainly.  The U.S. judo tournaments, whether internationally recognized or not, will continue.  But without reward of some kind, martial art will come and go like any other fad.  Even Billy Blanks, in his Taebo videos, exhorts participants to ally themselves with a “higher power” in order to survive his workouts!  As we have seen in the pro sport scene in the U.S., money, sex, ego and other such rewards come and go to the few that attain that physical level of achievement.  After that, participants in a physical activity seek something else, and give up when it is not forthcoming.  In more traditional martial art forms that hold out no hope of material reward, heart is all you get from the beginning.  I see people come and go all the time for whom this is not enough, but, at bottom, that’s all there really is.

At yet another conference this past Spring, I had the privilege of taking part in a panel entitled “Anthropological approaches to expressive culture,” a hodgepodge of papers on Native American singing, drumming, and my abstruse paper on the endurance of the Chushingura story in film (1).  The panel was chaired by Dr. Justine M. Cordwell.  Retired from academia but still active in her eighties, Cordwell has turned her attention to just these intangible elements of human experience that are so difficult to meaningfully write about, one of the few social scientists I’ve met who does so.  In her introductory remarks, she pointed out that anthropology is the study of human culture.  As humans, we share with each other the ability to make and use symbols.  We all perceive colors, and have emotional reactions to them.  We have emotional experiences in common as well.  It’s a mistake, she said, for anthropologists to ignore emotional reactions to cultural phenomena in their work.  Their reluctance to do so means it remains a huge gap in our understanding of each other, but it is also a rich field for discovery.  It’s a point martial arts researchers could take to heart, as it were, as well.


(1) The story of the 47 masterless samurai.  See Sato (1995), pp 304-341 for a brief retelling.


Amos, Daniel Miles
1997 “Hong Kong’s Southern Praying Mantis cult” in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 6:4, pp.30-61.

Amos, Daniel Miles and Sun Ma Kai
1998 1999 “Spirit Boxing in Hong Kong: two observers, native and foreign” in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 8:4, pp.8-27.

Anderson, Jennifer L.
1998 “Japanese tea ritual: religion in practice” in Religion in Culture and Society (John R. Bowen, Ed.), Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, pp. 30-52.

Cordwell, Justine M.
2000 “It’s all in your imagination: Ignoring feeling in the more comfortable analyses of art as material culture” Paper given at the 77th Annual Meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society in Bloomington, IN.

Donohue, John D.
1997 “Ideological elasticity: Enduring form and changing function in the Japanese martial tradition” in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 6:2, pp.10-25.

Hall, David A.
1997 “Marishiten: Buddhist influences on combative behaviour” in Koryu Bujutsu: Classical warrior traditions of Japan (Diane Skoss, Ed.) Berkeley Heights, NJ: Koryu Books, pp. 87-120.

Merton, Thomas
1998 The other side of the mountain (Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O, Ed.) San Francisco: Harper/Collins.

Sato, Hiroaki
1995 Legends of the Samurai NY: Overlook press.

Tyler, Susan C.
1992 The cult of Kasuga seen through its art Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, Univ. of Michigan.