Buddhism and the Martial Arts

 and the Martial Arts

A Basic Understanding of the First Will Give You a Deeper Understanding of the Second!

Life is chaos. How we deal with that chaos is the key to living life without having life merely throw us about. Buddhist thinking holds that "Life is suffering." It doesn't say, "Life is terrible" or "Life is unlivable." It's how we use martial arts to deal with the chaos, not so much with the combat, that makes life livable. It can even bring us happiness.

An examination of the philosophical side of Buddhism, as opposed to the religious side, has a lot to offer people, martial artists in particular. That's because more than a few arts, styles such as China's Shaolin kung fu, Japan's Shorinji kempo and Korea's bulmudo, are closely tied to the culture of and the mental processes taught in Buddhism. As such, a cursory study of Buddhism can give us insight directly into these specific arts and indirectly into the arts we practice.

Before we begin: A familiar adage advises us to "Seek not to be like the men of old; instead, seek what they sought." That's what we must pursue if we want to break away from simply "staring at the finger and missing the moon." In short, without a cursory understanding of Buddhism, we risk seeing only the surface of our arts — and thereby miss the substance of them.


Buddhism includes many commonly mentioned ideas and practices that are known to the general public, such as the Four Noble Truths, the notion of reincarnation, the Eightfold Path and so on. Here, we'll examine the most common misconceptions that afflict martial artists who have been exposed to Buddhist thought passively through their training. In this way, we can stop staring at the finger and instead turn our attention to the moon itself.

The first Noble Truth is "Life is suffering." At first glance, Westerners likely will find this distasteful. However, it doesn't mean that suffering or experiencing suffering is a terrible thing in and of itself.

The Buddhist idea of impermanence is a vital part of this thought process. All things decay, and entropy always wins in the end. Since the very state of being alive is a process of growth that becomes decay as we age, as health problems begin and as death eventually comes, one can say that impermanence is a truth of existence. Even the stars eventually will expend their energy stores and burn out.

On a grand scale, this seems obvious and has little relevance to our daily lives. But we must remember that the teaching says that all things come to pass. We lose friends, jobs, loved ones and parents, and we eventually will age and die. It's a simple fact of life. What the first Noble Truth tells us is that we need to make peace with this. We cannot fight against it because doing so is a recipe for misery. Ignoring this Noble Truth yields similar results. Taking charge of our lives begins with accepting this.

Take-away: Understanding that suffering is part of life is one way to bolster ourselves during hard workouts in the dojo. Once we accept reality for what it is each moment, we can work to make better decisions in that moment.


The notion of reincarnation is another element of Buddhism that's often viewed in a religious way. That can be shortsighted. In life, I'm fortunate to have had a close friend and student who was raised in a Buddhist household and who spent the first few years of his life with a Tibetan lama. As a child, he was smuggled out of Tibet and brought to North America to begin a new life. The conversation about reincarnation has been a recurring favorite for the two of us, and his interpretation helped me understand this philosophy.

Reincarnation, from a philosophical point of view, need not mean a person is born again as another being after death. Rather, it's a concept about living in the present rather than projecting ourselves into the future or clinging to the past.

Each situation in life presents an opportunity to be "reborn." It's another opportunity to do our best and be the person we aspire to be — inside and outside the dojo. Think of people who move to a new city. Making a fresh start gives them a chance to be someone who's better than they were. Note, however, that the adage "Wherever you go, there you are" still applies.

It's not necessary to physically move to have a fresh start. Every moment of the day is a chance to be born again and make better decisions than we may have made in the past. Using the past as a source of experience with which to make good choices is healthy, but lingering and clinging to the past is a good way to miss out on the present. Excessive longing for the past leads to depression. Anger at past experiences creates a hostile attitude that manifests in the present and affects the here and now. Allowing ourselves to find the present moment and choose our actions carefully is being reborn; there's no need to die first to be reincarnated.

Take-away: The idea of looking back to the past to inform our present shows how practicing movements and studying the associated principles give us information we can call on in the present when needed. However, being reborn in every moment allows us to let go of past victories and defeats lest they poison our minds through the creation of an inflated ego, which can result in underestimating an opponent. In a worst-case scenario, it can foster fear, which will defeat our minds before we even pick up our hands.

Take-away: The only thing that exists in martial arts or in life is the present. In that moment, there is suffering and a chance to remove ourselves from suffering. There is an opportunity to be fully present — or to linger in the past or project ourselves into the future. Mike Tyson acknowledged the danger of this latter option when he said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." Do you want to lose a fight quickly? Make plans about how it will go.


One of the most-talked-about parts of Buddhism, one that's generally expressed as "Do no harm," is compassion. However, we have martial arts that are descended from Buddhist temples and Buddhist thought, which would seem a paradox. How can one practice an art designed to harm others, sometimes grievously, in a Buddhist temple? The paradoxical nature of this is something the martial arts world tends to ignore.

While it's true that Buddhist thought and the martial arts can coexist, it's difficult to understand how. Compassion doesn't merely mean doing no harm. Let's look directly at the definition of the word:

A deep awareness of and sympathy for another's suffering; sharing the feelings of others (especially feelings of sorrow or anguish); the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.

To understand how compassion and the martial arts are not mutually exclusive, we must endeavor to comprehend the idea of suffering and the desire to end it. It doesn't always mean "do no harm" to show compassion for others. In fact, it does, at times, involve the opposite.

The idea of the Buddhist monk who can harmlessly disable an opponent with a touch pervades the martial arts world. While a pleasant idea, it has its problems. In the chaos of violent conflict, there are always far too many factors at play to rely on disabling without harming. Perhaps the opportunity to do little or no harm never arises. Maybe the opponent is too skilled, too tough or too fast. When we need to save ourselves from harm, where do we draw the line? Is it more compassionate to cause damage to the opponent now so he doesn't harm others in the future? How can we deal with having the power to make decisions such as these?

Power is the result of proper martial arts training, and that power comes in many forms. Physical power is the obvious one. It manifests in strength, speed and skill that can control others through violence. But the traditional martial arts also empower us mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This kind of power is what tempers our character through training and is a big part of why Buddhist ideas and philosophy are still a living part of traditional training.

Take-away: The power to remain in the present changes our ability to deal with chaos and its fluid nature. In combat, clinging to the past, even a mere second ago, can result in mental and emotional changes that drastically impact our physical ability. Residing in the present is not only a good idea for us but also a potentially lifesaving one.


A stable, calm mind that knows how different situations affect it is better-prepared to handle confrontation involving real enemies like fear and uncertainty. This steadfastness can be seen in the Four Noble Truths, as well. First, diagnose the problem of suffering and then steadfastly proclaim that there's a way to end the suffering of the self. Know, too, that Buddhism also engages heavily in one's ability to end suffering for others, and that's a powerful act of compassion for the person in training. It's here that the idea of compassion and the martial arts come together.

What is the most compassionate thing we can do to end a conflict? How can we be sure to save ourselves and others from a similar fate? Here, we see the truth of power and a way to wield it. Real power exists in both application and discretion, and there are times when either is the more appropriate choice for a given situation.

Take-away: Viewing such thoughts and scenarios through the lens of Buddhism enables us to question the when and why of our abilities. Is there a time when we just cannot do no harm? Is there a time and place where the most compassionate thing to do is cause damage to another? We must ask ourselves these questions because we are the only ones who can provide the answers.


Without examining the martial arts in this manner and engaging in this type of self-work, we are not only failing to take advantage of the full benefit of training in our art but also missing out on the cultural context the martial arts were born from in the first place. This can lead to misunderstandings that hamper training and impede us in life.

If the study of martial arts is undertaken out of context, we rob it of much of its richness and instead retain only a group of "fist methods" designed to harm others. In the end, that's a small treasure compared to the benefit we can gain from looking below the surface to understand why those fist methods need to exist.

As one of my teachers stated, we must "be like a tornado on the outside and rest quiet and calm in the storm's eye." Without balance in both aspects, we lose the magic of the martial arts, a study of self that goes far beyond what can be seen on the surface.

Neil Andrew Ripski has practiced the Chinese martial arts for more than 30 years. He holds lineage in both internal and external styles, including zuiquan (drunken fist), 18 lohan palm and xinyiliuhe.

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