This topic is something of a non-issue with many people, however, it was not until a friend of mine asked me to write something on this subject, that I realized the controversy there exists because of it. About 18 years ago, I actually stopped doing Karate in part because of not being sure of the spiritual aspects surrounding Karate. I was never taught anything spiritual though in my first four years when I practiced Kyukushin Kai Karate, but I stopped doing it anyway when I finished high school and started my tertiary education. My sensei (teacher/instructor) actually sat us down as students and explained to us that he was not busy with religion, and he promised us that he will only be teaching us Karate, meaning empty hand combat only. I never quite got to a proper understanding of the subject, if there is an inherent anti-Christian part to practicing Karate or any other form of eastern martial arts.
I have sorted this question out for myself in the mean time and never thought there was a real need to write something about it. However, because of the controversy and because I was asked; I decided to write this article. We will look at this subject as thoroughly as we can and I hope I can assist someone who have a problem with it or who was just curious about it.
What needs to be understood here first is that this article is intended to be a source of counsel and not an excuse for the Christian to indulge in eastern religious philosophy, or for someone who is seeking something that they can use against someone else who practices martial arts. This article is for those who are seeking an answer to something that could be controversial and want to have a proper understanding of the subject in relation to a Christian’s responsibility to his/her witness to the world and to the Church.
The issue here is not should I or should I not practice martial arts, because the Bible has nothing to say on the subject. However, because the Bible is our Law, we should refer to what it says on any issue. It has actually nothing to say concerning the training of martial arts. And since the training of punches and kicks cannot be considered spiritually dangerous, it should be obvious that the problem with martial arts lies elsewhere. The issue here relates more to what surrounds the eastern martial arts than the martial arts themselves, therefore we should approach this topic as we would any other, without blinkers on, which is our own preconceptions.
Will the practice of martial arts add good or evil to my Christian life?
It will all depend on what you are seeking when you engage in martial arts training. In other words, what is your motivation for training? Are you intrigued by the cultural-religious background that surround it or do you want to train in empty hand combat? Some do it because they want to be a tough guy or they seek a way to boost their confidence. Then some people do it because they had enough of being the victim of pranksters and bullies.
A Christian does not need martial arts to boost his/her confidence and they do not need to be curious about the cultural-religious background of eastern martial arts because they already know spiritual truth. Nevertheless, if you want to train in the eastern martial arts because you are more intrigued by what surround it, then I would counsel the believer and non-believer alike to stay away from martial arts. You are then obviously not sure of spiritual truth and are unsure of your spiritual status. Here are some questions that you need to consider, do you know that you should be born again spiritually? If you do, do you know what is true and pure and what to stay away from? Do you know what can be used to mislead you and take you on a path away from Jesus?
What if you get taught by a very ‘charismatic’ instructor who will tell you that all religions are the same and influences you into eastern meditation and then gradually into the religions, under the guise that it is all part of martial arts. Will you have the wisdom to discern when you are being misled? If you are weak in the faith and is not sure of the truth, it would be better for you to stay away from martial arts just in case you run into unscrupulous instructors who teach religion mixed with martial arts. Your everlasting life is more important than being exposed to things you might think are innocent when it is not.
The fact is that I like martial arts, but because you never know what the motivations are of those who teach it, I will not endorse you going to just anyone who says that they are martial arts instructors without you first checking them out to see what their spiritual views and training methods are. It is a shame that we need to be so careful of so many things in life because of the misleading that takes place, which spoils the enjoyment of things, which are not sinful to do. To answer the question asked as the heading; martial arts has the potential to add good and bad to your life. But then many things has that potential. Now, before you think you should avoid everything called martial arts, let us take a balanced look at it.
Martial Arts, the discussion:
It should be obvious to the reasonable person that someone is not looking for religion when he/she wants to start training in the martial arts because martial arts are about fighting and self-defense. In addition, it would also seem strange if someone were looking for religion, that they would knock on the doors of a Karate studio for instance. With these two statements, I would like to make it clear to the teacher of martial arts that it is improper in the west to teach religion and martial arts as if they are both sides of the same coin. It is not uncommon for people to put a spiritual spin on life experiences, however, we should not spiritualize everything and make a heavy discussion of it when all a person wanted was some exercise which is not boring.
Coming back to the Christian who actually just want to learn a martial art, you should not accept religion being taught in a martial arts class, just as much as you going to church will not think its proper for the pastor to first start with a boxing lesson before teaching the Word of God. If you as a prospective martial artist do get religion when you go for training, you should go somewhere else where you can get what you are looking for. In fact, and I would like to repeat this, it would be better to first enquire what the approach of the instructor is concerning this issue of martial arts and religion before you start training.
Martial arts training should not introduce you to eastern religion, however not all eastern thinking should be considered in a spiritual light because there are many good non-spiritual ideas, which we can benefit from in the west.
Contrary to what some believe, martial arts can be taught apart from eastern religion because its roots are certainly not in religion. In my research into this topic, I found a definite spiritual connotation to the eastern martial arts as practiced by some in the west. However, the spirituality does not come from the physical practice of punches and kicks, but from the person who practices the art and attributes to the art, the religion of the people of its origins. In that case, it will be either the practitioner or the instructor who put emphasis on the spirituality. If you as a Christian or non-Christian perceive eastern martial arts to be spiritual in nature, stay away. We will come to the Biblical reason for this in the next article.
Martial arts practitioners of the east are in no doubt that the practice of Shaolin Kung Fu or Tai Chi Chuan or Japanese Aikido are more than just the practice of a fighting style, but it is also about what they would consider their spiritual experience. Especially in the last two mentioned, however this may not be so to the western student. Martial arts are interesting in that way, it is undoubtedly about fighting and self-defense, and yet religion is attributed to the practicing of it. That said there are some Kung Fu styles like for instance Wing Chun especially the Wong Shun Leung lineage that has again quite the opposite view. It seems that spirituality do not have anything to do with their approach. Their approach is to get the attacker incapacitated as soon as possible , I quote “Ving Tsun (Wing Chun) is about real fighting, its not a sport or meditation art” and “Combat is combat, it’s about getting hit and hitting people” However I expect opinions to vary here.
Quotes from David Peterson an Australian student of the legendary Wong Shun Leung, in an interview with Combat magazine.
Therefore, a sport or art is what you make of it, in the west if we see sportsmen pray before and after a game, we can also conclude that the experience they had, to a degree can be called spiritual to them. In addition, they will many times thank God for giving them the strength to compete. An example will be the Brazilian football and South African rugby teams, who after winning their respective world cups, as one man bowed down to pray to say thank you to God.
If that had happened during a martial arts tournament, then I would expect it to be highlighted as proof of the inherent spirituality of the practice but we would never attribute spirituality to football or rugby if its participants prayed before or after a game. However, it seems that whatever people do if it is martial arts or regular sports, if they want to do it well or if they have done it well they will as a matter of course invoke what they feel was the spiritual force behind it and they will honor that deity.
The question remains, are martial arts in and of itself evil to practice? Well what are martial arts? Martial arts can be defined as soldier like or warlike skills, which would be a good description. Therefore, if you are trained in any fighting skill or system, then you know martial arts. That would include how to handle swords, knives, guns, your hands/fists, arms, feet, and legs. That would mean that to be a boxer or to be in an elite or standard police or army unit would make you a martial artist to some degree, because you know how to use fighting or war skills.
To the uninitiated or just on face value, there is also no difference between what we see as elite or normal military empty hand combat training and eastern martial arts training, because they look generally the same from the outside. It should also be noted that martial arts are war or fighting arts by definition and by definition not meditative or religious arts to those who think they are religious in nature. The question is why do we call martial arts, martial arts if we think they are religious in nature, should they not be called spiritual arts then?
A physical skill cannot be evil in and of itself like a Kung Fu skill, fencing, boxing, or shooting skill for that matter. It is true that it can be used to perpetrate evil, but a doctor can also use his skill for evil or a lawyer or financial expert. Therefore, to come back to the question posed before, the training of a martial art, meaning all the styles of offensive and defensive combat systems, cannot be considered evil.
However, I suppose it can be and was used as a vehicle to get people involved in the occult as it would be from a Christian perspective, but then it was only used as a vehicle, because you can get into the occult without it. The strange fact of the matter is that especially in North America, some evangelists use Karate as a medium to tell people about Jesus and there are various Christian Karate associations there, this method of evangelism is not really known here in South Africa. So therefore, you can get Karate being used as a tool for Christianity, and as a tool against Christianity. It must be noted that when I read up on what is called ‘Christian Karate’, that many disagree with using Karate to lure people especially children to Christian outreach events.
It is obvious that in the minds of some people, the feeling is that martial arts and the religions of the east cannot be separated from each other; however, there is an inherent fault with that reasoning even though I have read many articles of those who have that viewpoint. We as Christians separated from paganism the use of a tree at Christmas, the Easter egg and bunny at Easter and the December 25 date for Christmas and use it for Christian feasts, but then some say, you cannot do that with Karate for instance. If it is possible for people to separate Jesus Christ from Christianity as many do, then it is possible to separate Buddhism from Kung Fu or Karate from Shintoism.
Let us look at some of the martial arts.
Karate-do means essentially “the way of the empty hand” Kung Fu can be translated as “hard work” or “ability”. Karate was developed from Chinese Kung Fu in Okinawa when weapons was banned on that island in the 1800’s and was only introduced to the Japanese in the 1920’s.
Kung Fu according to some sources, were developed from 1122 to 255 BC and came from China itself and from India to China via a Buddhist monk who started to teach an Indian fighting style to his followers who seemed to need some physical training. “As the story goes, Bodhidharma - disturbed by the Shaolin monks' inability to remain awake during meditation - devised a set of callisthenic exercises (light exercises) that later formed the basis for their unique style of boxing. “Bodhidharma explained to the monks that body and soul are inseparable. This unity must be invigorated for enlightenment." Hence, "physical fitness became a part of Shaolin life with his introduction of systematized exercises to strengthen the body and mind. Not only was health perfected, but self-defense movements were devised later from Bodhidharma's knowledge of Indian fighting systems. These early calisthenics (in-place exercises only) marked the beginning of Shaolin Temple boxing.” According to Chow and Spangler: Kung Fu: History, Philosophy, and Technique
Therefore Shaolin boxing or Shaolin Kung Fu came about to invigorate monks, that means the fighting style was added to the religion and was just a means of empty hand defense before that time and had no religious implications at least where Buddhism was concerned. We can also conclude that in the case of Karate, which was introduced to the Japanese only in the 1920’s that they attached their religion to Karate as they did with Ninjutsu and Aikido, which came from Japan itself. We must remember that in the far east Christianity was never prevalent therefore they would never have attached the training of martial arts to a foreign religion.
There is also a story to this; it seems that the Chinese at first did not think much of the Shaolin fighting style since they saw it as foreign; they had their own fighting systems before the monk Bodhidharma started Shaolin boxing. The Chinese also had religious Taoism as one of their religions and Buddhism were also at first frowned upon.
However, Kung Fu became entrenched in the Shaolin Buddhist monk’s regimen of daily ritual. Karate as said before was derived from Kung Fu and although Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced his brand of Karate to the Japanese public in 1922, declared Karate to be “a medium for character building, and the final goal of training to be the perfection of the self”, we should realize that he was brought up in the east and that it would not be a strange thing for him to think that way. Here in the west a fighting system might be seen as to build character like with boxing, which is used in some schools and universities, but we will not think that a fighting system can get you to perfect yourself.
The quote from Carrie Wingate, "Exploring Our Roots: Historical and Cultural Foundations of the Ideology of Karate-do," Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 2, 3 (1993): 10-35.
I have read the writings of some westerners who adopted eastern martial arts with eastern religion, saying that the Christian should stay away from eastern fighting systems because they cannot be divorced from the eastern religion. Now that begs the question, which eastern religion would that be. Buddhism, Religious Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, or Confucianism?
Then which of those religion’s sects? Which of these religions holds the exclusive rights to the martial arts? Why would it be that a fighting system, which was developed in the east, can only be taught to those who practice eastern religions, whichever one it may be, but it cannot be taught to those who practice Christianity? That makes no sense especially if you consider that the systems was added to the eastern religions and was not derived from them. There are also western fighting systems like Savate from France and Capoeira from Brazil to name just two, which are being practiced by many including eastern students. The same goes for boxing.
However, it is nonsense to put things off limits to people because of what is called the “genetic fallacy”, that would be to be prejudiced towards something just because of its origins that might be undesirable. To me it is clear that the origins of eastern fighting styles has the same purpose as the western types had, which was for protection and was not derived from religion, I cannot see how it could be derived from religion anyway. You will find that Kung Fu, Savate, and Capoeira, which were divided by thousands of kilometers and with many years between each style’s development, had the same reputation before it became respectable to practice; and it was a bad one. The reputation was that only thugs or the poor common people practiced it. The “higher, richer classes, of people” in the society did not think it was respectable to practice.
Are their spiritual dangers to the practice of eastern fighting styles?
That would go with out saying. It would be wholly naïve to think that there would not be. As said before, when you go to train an eastern fighting style be prepared to hear some eastern philosophy also especially if the instructor is not a born again Christian. However you know what to do now, we already discussed it. We should never be ignorant though of things which Satan can use to trap us, if he can, he will use martial arts to bind you. I am not aware of anything that Satan will leave alone as a tool to make us fall, in other words, if it has the potential to draw you astray from God, Satan will use it.
We should just touch on one more thing here, it is alleged that people can gain supernatural ability through martial arts. An example will be to have the ability to hit someone without actually touching them. Now here I cannot give unbiased proof because it will be all hearsay and I never saw nor did anybody I know tell me that they saw martial artists with supernatural power. However, it is alleged that martial artists who allegedly had super natural ability say that with concentrating their “chi force” they will be able to do feats that will not be possible to the normal person.
Whether it is true or not, when we get to do things supernaturally, we are no longer busy with martial arts, but we will be busy with either God Almighty or the devil. The devil will give you with conscious or subconscious consent supernatural ability if you are intrigued by it and he will get a hold on you in that way. God on the other hand, does not release into the life of a Christian the power to do things supernaturally without there being a God given purpose and His will behind it.
However, it must be noted that Satanists who was high up in the ranks of the occult will also tell you that they gained supernatural power and that they could move things without touching them. This would mean that the supernatural ability does not come from practicing a martial art, but from starting to practice a supernatural power.
Nevertheless, let us get down to the basic problem, the person who practices the art, and the person who teaches the art gives the art a bad name. If the teacher wants to make his martial art religious, he will teach it as such to his students, if he does not make it religious, he will not teach it as a religion to the students. If the students are not satisfied with Karate or Kung Fu at face value, they will pursue the cultural-religious links to those arts and indulge in them. It all comes down to the personal choice the individual exercises.
We as humans tend to make the subject of debate the evil, like for instance alcohol. Some say it is a sin to drink alcohol, and then others say it is not, but truth be told alcohol has no choice in the matter. Alcohol never made anybody an alcoholic; it is in the excessive drinking that the person becomes an alcoholic. However to move blame away from people, we say that alcohol is a problem, when the problem lies actually with the people who do not want to control themselves. The same type of thing is the cause of the martial arts controversy. Some would like it to be religious and others do not make it religious, then some who are ignorant and lazy to investigate just say it is religious in nature. Debatable issues are all relative and personal unless the Bible has something to say on the subject.
The Bible says in Exodus 20:3 KJV “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, God speaking, that means it does not matter if it is martial arts, football, golf or whatever strikes your fancy, if you idolize anything and give it preeminence before the real God, it is evil. There is no other god than God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; you should not get involved with other religions if you are a Christian doing martial arts or anything else.
To the martial artist, you should watch out, although we saw that martial arts are not spiritual in nature, it can also become a master to someone who idolizes it and remember the Bible say, you cannot serve two masters.
We will probably conclude this topic with the next article, in which we will look at the aspect of “turning the other cheek” and other Biblical issues.