Reconciling Martial Arts with Christianity
Martial arts, originating from the East, are grounded in Eastern religions. Engagement in training will inevitably expose each practitioner to concepts taken directly taken from these religions, especially Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Given these ties, can martial arts be compatible with those deeply committed to Christianity? Although issues of contention may arise, training should not result in a compromise of faith. Undeniably, Christianity contrasts sharply with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Although not devoid of spiritual dimensions, martial arts are separate from religion and have distinct goals that can be beneficial to all practitioners, including Christians.
Christians may be wary of martial arts because of their religious affiliation, especially to Buddhism. There are many different schools, styles, and sects of Buddhism, but all of them are ultimately concerned with reaching nirvana, defined as the following:
The departure from the cycle of rebirths (samsara) and entry into an entirely different mode of existence. It requires completely overcoming the three unwholeseome roots--desire, hatred, and delusion--and ending active volition. It means freedom from the determining effect of karma.1
The basic teaching of Buddhism declares that all humans are born into a life of suffering. Suffering is caused by craving and desire which defile the mind and engender malice and evil in the world. The right and wrong deeds committed by each individual are summed up in one's karma and bind all humans to samsara, the cycle of rebirths. Detachment from all cravings and material things is the key to freedom from samsara. The more detached one becomes and the more adherent to Buddhist principles, the more favorable the karma, which will determine one's reincarnation into a higher level of existence. Nirvana is the state that supersedes and finally ends the cycle.
Nirvana is also known as "enlightenment", defined as the "awakening of selfhood to selfhood itself."2 One reaches enlightenment when one discovers the true Self. Buddhists describe the Self as "emptiness", "openness", and "space". In other words, there is no Self. The Self is "emptiness", "openness", and "space", which are all One. No one is separated from the Whole. Those that are ignorant of the true Self are in "confusion". They see themselves as separate from the Whole, as tangible solid. Their wrong perceptions magnify the appeal of the material; hence, they get consumed by craving and desire, while their minds become defiled and cluttered with distorted ideas. In order to clear the mind, one must meditate. When practitioners realize the empty essence of the Self, they are fully "awakened" from confusion. They have reached the "different mode of existence" and have attained enlightenment through the vehicle of meditation.
Ultimately, enlightenment is discovered through the deep, unlimited mind. Once people discover this passageway within themselves, they become buddhas, or enlightened deities who have been merged into the Whole, the One.
Confucianism is another religion that permeated through the Far East. It is based on teachings accredited to a scholar named Confucius who lived in ancient China (circa 522-479 BC). He did not intend for his teachings to become a religion, but there are religious overtones that cannot be ignored. Generally, Confucianism strives for wisdom and moral perfection in each individual. It also aims for an ordered society that follows rules of behavior, social codes, and rituals to establish utopia on earth and create harmony with heaven.
In Confucianism, human perfection is personified in the sage gentleman. This state is achieved by all who attain and exercise wisdom and humaneness. It is not bestowed by a higher power, but reached in oneself. Confucians believe that humans are naturally good, but individuals must cultivate their hearts and minds to become perfect. Hence, a Confucian's life is consumed by studying and acquiring intellect and knowledge, as well as learning to exercise moderation in all aspects of life. However, moral perfection and ethical wisdom is achieved through jen. Jen is translated as "humaneness", but can also connote "goodness", "benevolence", "virtue", "charity", and "love". It comes from within, but is learned and discovered mostly through interaction with and behavior towards others in relationships. Confucius presents the following five relationships: ruler-minister, father-son, husband-wife, elder brother-younger brother, and friend-friend. Each person in a given relationship has assigned duties. The latter is to submit to and obey the former, but the former must provide and care for the latter. This established social hierarchy is the proper societal order for harmonious existence.
A major duty given to every individual is to perform li, which is codified in the Book of Rites. Li is translated as "rites" or "ritual". Performing rituals correctly instills virtues. For example, when a parent passes away, the children must perform the proper funerary rites, such as observing the required mourning period and conducting the proper memorial service. Hence, the children acquire the virtue of filial piety, or reverence towards parental figures. Performing li is associated with worship. After the mourning period is over, the children are expected to observe the anniversary of death, during which wine and food are set out for the spirit of the deceased to partake. In addition, the children are to maintain an ancestral temple and silently prostrate themselves before ancestral tablets. Thus, Confucianism promotes ancestral worship and preserves the ancestral cult.
Performing li instills virtues and teaches proper behavior, which maintains harmonious relationships on earth and with the divine. All these aspects are crucial to cultivating jen, the material of the perfect sage gentleman who achieves "transcendence in immanence."3 Striving for perfection is far reaching since it also creates a peaceful world order.
Taoism is another important Eastern religion. The Tao is a vague term translated as the "Way", indicating "anything and everything."4 It stresses the importance and usefulness of nothing since all things come from nothing. Space or air pervades through all, giving energy to life. Life and the universe are integrated through the yin and yang, which are opposite, yet complementary cosmic forces that move with harmony, yet create energy. In order to be unified with the Tao, individuals must be purified through wu-wei. Although its literal translation is non-action, "it does not signify the absence of action, but rather, acting without artificiality, also without overaction, without attachment to action itself."5 One can find freedom in non-action, particularly from social convention, politics, and the limits of the mind and body. Transcendence is the state at which individuals are not affected by the patterns of life, but have risen above them. They are no longer distinct from the universe and are not corrupted by the decadence of knowledge. In fact, the Taoist utopia is a small, pacifist village where the people live without technology or advances in civilization. They are kept in an ignorant state of bliss and obtain no selfish ambitions. However, they can reach sagehood by returning to nature. A perfect man, a sage, is described in the following:
There is a Holy Man living on the distant...mountain, with skin like ice or snow...He does not eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, mounts the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful.6
Unlike the Confucian sage, he is not concerned with self-refinement through civilization, knowledge, and ritual. He reached sagehood by embracing and becoming one with nature. He transcended above humanly concerns of food, clothing, and sickness. He is an immortal, magical figure, able to cure sicknes and cause the earth to produce. Some Taoists believe that true immortality comes in life after death, but others pursue the preservation of the body as a whole for an everlasting earthly existence; hence, they have engaged in alchemy to find the elixir of life. They have also discovered and developed medicines, medical practices, and exercises to remedy sickness and promote physical health, including herbal medicines, acupuncture, and certain martial arts.
Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism may have variant philosophies, but all three declare that humans can reach self-transcendence within themselves. Humans can reach perfection and become venerated deities. These concepts run in opposition to the fundamental basics of Christianity.
The story of Christianity begins with God who created humans because he longed for a relationship with them. However, sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, causing every consequent human to be born with a sinful human nature. Since God is holy and perfect, he cannot tolerate sin. In fact, anything sinful would not be able to stand the power of his holiness. Thus, humans had to be separated from God's presence and their relationship with God was broken. The "price" that humans have to pay for sin is death. All face death because they are born with the "debt" of sin and are unable to pay it back on their own. In the ultimate display of love, God sent his son Jesus Christ to earth as a man to die, bearing the sin of the world. Although he was perfect and sinless, Jesus died everyone's death, freeing all people and all future generations of their debt. After three days, Jesus resurrected overcoming death and leaving the sin buried in death.
Jesus, God the Son, would take upon himself human flesh. By his own choice he lived a sinless life, wholly obeying the Father. The Biblical declaration that 'the wages of sin is death' did not apply to him. Because he was not only finite man but infinite God, he had the infinite capacity to take upon himself the sins of the world. When he went to the cross,...a holy, just, righteous God poured out his wrath upon his Son. And when Jesus said, 'It is finished', the just, righteous nature of God was satisfied. You could say that at that point God was 'set free' to deal with humanity in love without having to destroy a sinful individual, because through Jesus' death on the cross, God's righteous nature was satisfied.7
Through Jesus, all sins have been forgiven, restoring humanity's relationship with God. Jesus became the bridge that reconciled humans back to God after sin separated them from him.
Unlike the three Eastern religions, Christianity expounds an originally evil human nature. "There is no one who is righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). All humans are are sinners and degrees of sin does not cause one to rise above or fall below another. As finite beings, they cannot find transcendence within themselves, but will ultimately face death. There is nothing they can do to detach themselves from sinful desires or to cultivate themselves to perfection. They are caught and bound in sin and cannot rise above it. They can only rely on God's mercy to give them freedom and salvation. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [Jesus Christ], so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Christians believe that God gave them salvation as a gracious gift only because God loved the world so much, even when it was helpless under sin. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of [your good] works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2: 8,9). Therefore, righteousness and salvation come through faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done for humanity, rather than the good humans do themselves.
The christian belief in heaven and eternal life differ from the three Eastern religions. Heaven is the place where humans can live with God without the barrier of sin. Those that choose to believe in Jesus and accept his forgiveness are given new life as children of God. After death, their physical bodies will remain buried, but their souls will resurrect to heaven where they will reside with God for eternity. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). He disclosed that heaven, eternal life, and salvation are given to those that believe in him and know him personally. They are gifts of grace, unattainable without Jesus Christ. Also, heaven is heaven because God is present there. To be able to reside with God is what makes heaven.
It is important to clarify that Jesus is God. Within the Godhead, there is a Trinity made up of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). When he ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he promised that his presence will be replaced by the Holy Spirit who would fill the believers: [Jesus said],"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:8). Therefore, there is only one God and Christians are to worship only him. "You shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (Exodus 34: 14). Even the angels are not deified and certainly no human can be.
Overall, Christians find the meaning of life through a restored relationship with God. Jesus said, "Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (John 4: 14). Rather than finding emptiness, they are filled and satisfied.
After examining the three Eastern religions, one can easily identify how martial arts correspond to Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Martial arts' attention to meditation and concentration have roots in the Buddhist philosophy of finding the true Self through the sharpening and awakening of the mind. The mind is sharpened as one learns to strategize against an opponent, while meditative practices provide self-reflection and focus. Martial arts training is an important part of the Confucian's self-cultivating process toward perfection since it promises self-improvement. Training also enforces the discipline necessary for the cultivation process. The hierarchical structure within a training studio is taken directly from the Confucian regard of relationships. The instructors having the highest positions indicates that they have the most wisdom and experience to responsibly train their pupils. In return, the pupils are to give them respect and obedience. The Taoist quest for preserving and improving health has led to the development of various martial arts. The physical training strengthens the body while attention to breathing and meditation provides relaxation and peace of mind. The audible yell comes from the Taoist idea of releasing and directing the energy of the ch'i, the air and space that pervades through all, even the body.
In comparing the three Eastern religions with Christianity, one can immediately observe that they do not agree. Does that mean Christianity and martial arts cannot agree? Despite their roots, martial arts do not have to be translated as Buddhist, Confucianist, and Taoist practices. The purpose of training is not to lead practitioners to certain religions, but to improve their physical, mental, and spiritual health by providing a way for people bring out the best in themselves through self-discovery.
"The real secret to becoming an expert in martial arts is realizing that training is a process of self-discovery...Once you start making progress along the martial arts path, you will find that the things you learn allow you to prosper in your work, hobbies, and in relationships. You will find that your ability to handle crisis improves, and that your satisfaction with the life you are living increases."8
Physical health improves as a result of the physical work-outs. The mind improves because training involves full concentration and understanding of each technique and movement for successful execution. Martial arts are about the development of discipline to train and practice regularly, the will to address weaknesses and limitations, and engagement in hard-work. Consequently, practitioners gain stamina, discipline, character, courage, loyalty, self-confidence, and other virtues which will positively influence all aspects of their lives. They are beneficial to everyone regardless of religious background. In fact, Christians are instructed by the Bible to take care of their bodies:
"Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?...For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple" (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
As scrupulously as one would take care of and maintain a temple, Christians are to care for their bodies.
In terms of spiritual health, martial arts can provide "a sense of well-being, of place in society, and of purpose in life".9 This will relate to each practitioner in a different manner. For some it will mean a step closer to enlightenment, perfection, or harmony. For Christians, it can mean acquiring a deeper understanding of God's glory. Christians believe that all things were created by God, including humans. As they improve themselves, they appreciate the excellence of God's creations. King David said, "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139: 14). Although Christians recognize that they are limited, finite beings who have been given grace, they are still amazing works of God with wonderful given abilities. As a painting reveals the greatness of the painter, Christians can display the greatness of God through their well-being. As they enjoy and learn positive things from martial arts, they can recognize and thank God as the giver of all good things. Apostle Paul said, "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Christians can participate in martial arts training with the purpose of giving glory to God through and by achieving better physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Nevertheless, Christians must be careful not to be led into skeptical practices. For example, some training studios have been known to require their participants to bow to a religious symbol. Although bowing can indicate a greeting, thanks, sorry, respect, etc., bowing before a religious symbol would be an act of worship before an idol. If serious issues of contention do arise, then Christians should look into other training studios rather than giving up martial arts altogether. Ultimately, it is up to the Christian to evaluate whether a certain practice will lead to a compromise of faith.
Martial arts are distinct from religion and will not lead to engagement in dubious religious practices. Citing their ties to Eastern religions is not a suitable reason to abstain from training or to view it with skepticism. If the purpose of self-enhancement is adhered to, martial arts will be beneficial for all those who participate, including Christians.
9 Ibid., 33.
Bercholz, Samuel and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, eds. Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings. Boston: Shambhala, 1993.
Ching, Julia. Chinese Religions. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993.
Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism and the Twentieth Century. New York: Weatherhill, 1992.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1989.
McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. Wheaton: Living Books, 1977.
Suino, Nicklaus. Arts of Strength, Arts of Serenity. New York: Weatherhill, 1996.
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