New essay from Dota. Very nice!
The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts
The Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi acknowledged a number of influences on Japanese thought, chief among which were Confucianism and Buddhism. Yet not once does he directly mention the Old Master whose philosophy is so entrenched in the martial arts that the Samurai once pursued with inexhaustible zeal. Yet despite this seeming negligence, Mushashi’s epic martial arts treatise, “A Book of 5 Rings“, is laden with Taoist ideas and analogies. Indeed the very nature of the Japanese martial arts has been shaped and molded by Taoist thinking.
In the interest of brevity one can sum up Taoist thought as being primarily concerned with conforming to nature by finding “the way.” According to the very first verse of the Tao te Ching (the poem attributed to Lao Tzu): “The Tao (way) that can be described is not the real Tao.” Indeed, Lao Tzu devoted considerable energy into conveying the indescribable nature of the way. One could not describe the way, one merely walked it or one didn’t. Could one verbally instruct another on how to ride a bicycle? One either knew how to or didn’t.
Philosopher Arthur Danto astutely observed that the Taoists had a deep mistrust of prepositional knowledge, or what one would refer to as the discursive intellect. Taoism isn’t concerned with the knowledge of the scholar, but rather, with what we would refer to as “intuitive knowledge.” Those that knew the way were able to execute the perfect brush stroke or carve a pumpkin with exceptional ability.
To further illustrate this point, Chuang Tzu narrates the story of the old wheel maker. The latter approached a King and told him that reading his book was a waste of time. He explained to the King that true knowledge couldn’t be expressed in words but could only be grasped. He illustrated this point by describing his own trade as thus:
The other secret of my trade has to do with the roundness of the wheel. If I chisel away at the wheel too quickly, I may be able to complete the work in a short time, but the wheel won’t be perfectly round. Even though it may look quite acceptable upon casual inspection, in actual usage it will cause excessive shaking of the carriage…In order to create the best wheels possible in a timely manner, I must chisel at just the right speed – not too fast and not too slow. This speed is also guided by a feeling, which again can only be acquired through many years of experience.
He then concluded his lesson with the following observation:
Your Majesty, the ancient sages possessed the feelings that were at the heart of their mastery. Using words, they could set down the mechanics of their mastery in the form of books, but just as it is impossible for me to pass on my experience to anyone else, it is equally impossible for them to transmit their essence of wisdom to you. Their feelings died when they passed away. The only things they left behind were their words. This is why I said Your Majesty was reading the leftovers of a dead man.
Karate is taught via instruction and perfected through rigorous practice. Form, movement, and balance can be learned by executing a sequence of gestures and movements known as Kata. The master guides the student to the way but the student is tasked with walking on it and not deviating from it. In the first Karate Kid film Mr Miyagi scoffs at Daniel Larusso’s attempt to “learn Karate from book.” Musashi similarly stated in his treatise that “Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively,” (Water Book).
But what is the difference between those men that follow the way and those that don’t? Those that follow the way properly are able to execute actions with minimal effort. But while effort is minimized the outcome of their actions is maximized.
This is known as the principle of WuWei (literally non doing). WuWei is also often understood as carefully calibrated action. Consider for example, a perfectly executed Karate shoulder throw. By using a lunging opponents force against him, one can disable an opponent with a shoulder throw; a move that would ordinarily require considerable effort to execute. Actions become effortless for those that know the way.
Musashi’s duels typically lasted only a few seconds. Consider his duel with Kojiro for example. He charged at his opponent and provoked Kojiro into making the first attack. Musashi effortlessly dodged the attack and decisively struck his opponent on the head killing him in a single blow. Musashi almost echoes Lao Tzu when he urges martial artists to be like water which is gentle yet destructive. It is the principle of WuWei that gives the Japanese martial arts their characteristic finesse that many have come to admire. The ancient masters would be repulsed by the drawn out UFC slug fests and would dismiss these fighters as not truly knowing the way.
The Japanese word for way is michi, which literally refers to a path through the Cosmos. The Way has no destination, and simply finding the way is an end in itself. Since Taoism is primarily concerned with each pursuing his own way, it stands to reason that every one of us is (potentially) a wanderer. The wanderer is also a common motif in Taoist art – he who walks a path without apparent destination.
I must point out that many of Japan’s cherished heroes were wanderers too, such as Musashi and Yagyu Jubei. Both of these individuals refused to hang up their swords and become artisans during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period of Japanese history. They wandered the countryside (the Samurai had no restrictions on travel) and dueled several opponents that crossed their paths.
Musashi is said to have won 80 duels during his lifetime. So entrenched is the image of the wandering martial artist that it has left its imprint on contemporary Japanese pop culture as well. The characters Ryu and Akuma of the Street Fighter franchise are wanderers pursuing the way of the martial artist. In a statement saturated with Taoist overtones Akuma proclaims: “For some, it is the path, not the goal,” (Street Fighter Alpha 1).
Ultimately, while the spirit of the Japanese martial arts is obviously Japanese, their character is clearly Chinese.