Buddhism has long been associated with the Chinese martial arts. There is an old legend (often wheeled out erroneously as a fact) that some of the first organised forms of Chinese martial arts were born when a buddhist bodhisattva (a person who has totally dedicated themselves towards seeking enlightenment and liberation) from India came to China and taught the monks of a temple called Shao Lin (Mountain-forest) the rudiments of buddhist breathing meditation.
This prototype “Chi Gung” or “Energy work” became the basis of the increasingly demanding physical workouts for the monks, which (so the legend says) evolved into martial forms of Shaolin Gung Fu, which then evolved into various southern and northern styles of Gung Fu, and were re-worked and exported to other nations such as Indonesia, the Phillipines and Japan.
While often the buddhist origin story has been forgotten and discarded from styles and arts, there has been a buddhist component to some derivatives of Chinese martial arts ever since. All direct derivatives of Shaolin styles up to the present day’s San Shou, Wing Chun and Hung Kuen can trace some line back to this buddhist origin story. In this article, I wish to explore one of the concepts from buddhism which is most applicable to the study of a practical topic like combat. This concept is: skilfulness versus unskilfulness.
The main goal for the Buddhist is to reach Nirvana. Perhaps the best translation of the word Nirvana is “liberation”, meaning the freedom from the cycle of desire and suffering, death and rebirth which- the buddhists believe- plagues all beings except the enlightened.
Buddhists believe that only one’s own mental and spiritual self-development will lead to freedom from this negative cycle; there is no external saviour. One saves oneself, or one is not saved at all. The counterpoint to this is that only you yourself are your own jailer as well as potentially your own saviour. Either you hasten and strive towards nirvana, or you keep yourself chained to the negative cycle of life and the death that inevitably follows life, desire and the pain that inevitably follows desire.
A second major goal for a buddhist is to embody loving kindness; to be compassionate to others and to foster peace and self-improvement among others.
In the buddhist tradition, when one does immoral and/or harmful things to others, the main focus is on the negative impact on oneself. By stealing from or hurting others, one tightens the chains of desire and pain that bind one to the wheel of suffering. In this fashion, in the Buddhist tradition, “evil” and “good” are de-emphasised as concepts when it comes to one’s actions in the world. They are replaced with the idea that one’s behaviour is either kusala (skilful) – that which leads towards one’s goals of being compassionate and attaining nirvana, or akusala (unskilful), that which does not lead towards one’s goals. In other words, as the Buddha’s teachings state, it is in one’s own self-interest to behave compassionately and ethically to others.
Now, having said all this, the usefulness of such a mindset based on the counterpoints “skilful” and “unskilful” should become obvious, even if one is not a buddhist. This is a mindset in which all behaviour is easily classified as being either useful or counterproductive, and a mindset in which one takes total responsibility for one’s actions- and their repercussions- in the world. If martial artists took this lesson on board and strove to attain this mindset, there would not be so many misinterpretations of what constitutes “Self-defence”, there would be fewer “martial” cults and frauds, and there would be less frustration amongst martial artists who desire physical skill but have chosen an obviously wrong method of attaining it (e.g: the majority of styles of Karate, effectively all Aikido, and most Gung Fu practice too).
As regards self-defence, a skilful/unskilful mindset would lead one to define self-defence as an action or set of actions that most efficiently and expediently ensures one’s safety from attack. The common (and erroneous) idea of what constitutes self-defence is… a fight. A fight like the fights in the movies, where the good guy stays around to put a beatdown on the bad guy. In the real world, the good guys should run away, in case the bad guy pulls a knife, a gun or his bad-guy mates arrive. Why? Because the goal in self defence is to defend your life, then your health, then your property, in that order of priority (and property is not important at all compared to the first two).
As regards martial frauds and cults, it seems to me that one of the defining character flaws that allows one to be hoodwinked by a cult leader is a desire to give up responsibility for one’s decisions. In order to be skilful however, one must take responsibility for determining what course of action will speed one towards one’s goals, oneself.
And lastly as regards the selection of training methods, the skilful/unskilful mindset promotes a dispassionate view of what is practical and what is not. If one keeps in mind that one’s goal is to become a better martial artist through the only means practically possible: By becoming a better fighter, one will not train with Sid Sofos, Steven Seagal, George Dillman, Ashida Kim or any other fraud, and one will not study Karate, Aikido or any of the other non-martial arts that litter the globe.
If one genuinely takes responsibility for one’s own destiny, one is forced to practically and dispassionately determine what is skilful and what is unskilful, and then to discard the latter in favour of the former.