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Arizona Hombu Karate & Kobudo Dojo

School of Traditional Martial Arts

What is Martial Art?

MARTIAL ARTS were uncommon in North America in the 1960s, but they peaked our interest from 1966 to 1967 as Kato fought a variety of villains on the Green Hornet TV series while espousing Zen philosophy. Martial arts took center stage again from 1972 to 1975 as Kwai Chang Caine preached harmony in the Kung Fu martial arts TV series. In 1975, a Shaolin monk named Lee fought a renegade martial arts monk who broke the code of ethics of the Shaolin Temple in the movie Enter the Dragon. And who could forget that likeable character Mr. Miyagi in the 1984 Movie, The Karate Kid. Miyagi preached Zen while teaching Daniel san pragmatic karate exercises to defend against a group of teenage thugs. Even though fictional, these programs espoused a code of ethics to live by while following the premise of "No First Attack" - a philosophy of traditional karate and 'traditional' martial arts.


Many have the erroneous impression MMA (mixed martial arts) is martial art. Ever hear MMA competitors espouse positive philosophy, harmony, a path to enlightenment, or even concern for another human being? This is one of several characteristics that separate traditional martial arts from street fighting & combat sport such as MMA, boxing, cage fighting and sport martial arts. Traditional karate is not sport, it is a way of life as well as a weapon of self-defense - it is about perfection of the practitioner!

Let's examine 'martial' and 'art'Martial is defined as 'military-like'; however art is more difficult to grasp as it is an 'esoteric expression' and means different things to different people. When researching martial arts dictionaries for a definition of martial arts, it is difficult to find one that provides meaning. The Overlook Dictionary of Martial Arts defines martial arts as "... an encompassing term usually reserved for the Asian fighting arts, although it can refer to any fighting discipline with or without weapons".  This definition for martial arts is incomplete at best. More enlightening is A Dictionary of the Martial Arts which didn't even try to define martial arts, the very basis of the dictionary! The authors likely felt it was too difficult of a task to summarize martial arts because of its esoteric aspect. In the Overlook Martial Arts Handbook the author writes, "The term 'martial arts' means those arts concerned with the waging of war".  


By separating the two words - 'martial' and 'arts', some insight occurs. Martial has several definitions. One that stands out is "characteristic of, or befitting a warrior". When discussing martial art we refer to bushido, the 'way of the warrior'. This is an important concept because 'way' used in this sense refers to 'path'.  But what is path? “A path is a course of action, conduct, or procedure: the path of righteousness”. This definition implies a path should lead to righteousness: a concept of traditional martial arts.

Dictionaries provide several meanings for 'art' including"... the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance".  Another definition: "Skill in conducting any human activity: a master at the art of conversation”. Also, “a branch of learning or university study, especially one of the fine arts or humanities, such as music, philosophy, or literature".


Based on these concepts and incorporating philosophy of Gichin Funakoshi and Shoshin Nagamine, two well-known and influential Okinawan Shorin-Ryu karate martial artists; martial art should lead to righteousness (this is why it is extremely rare to ever see politicians in traditional martial arts). Some might point out that the Russian Premier trains in judo. But there is traditional judo and there is sport Judo. Putin trains in sport judo. But still, it is an anomaly.


Martial arts should be beautiful, stir the spirit, and involve higher learning and should lead to a lifelong path of self-enlightenment – much like religion. It should complement religion and not contradict religion.


In a discussion of the martial art of karate, Nagamine (2000) wrote, "If there is no kata, there is no karate, just kicking and punching". He emphasized that since, "... kata is karate, one must then embrace 'do mu gen' proverb which asserts: There can be no end to learning". He concluded "karate begins and ends with the study of kata". So if we are to believe Nagamine (as well as other Okinawan masters) karate must contain kata and kata must be the primary curriculum, otherwise it is not karate and not martial art. And kata contains exercise, self-defense, interpretation, philosophy, and moving Zen. 

There is legend about the first martial art. In 500 to 550 AD, an Indian monk named Bodhidarma taught philosophy and Zen at the Shaolin Temple in China. According to legend, the Shaolin monks were inattentive and in poor physical condition such that they often fell asleep during meditation. To improve their spirit, Bodhidarma instituted a practice of 'shi po lohan sho' or what is known as the '18 hands of Lohan' reputed to be an archaic form of Chuan Fa (Kung Fu) that originated in India. This blending of Zen with empty hand and weapon's training resulted in Shaolin monks becoming formidable fighters - and resulted in the world's first martial art. So if one agrees this was the beginning of Chuan Fa or martial arts, it is apparent Zen, meditation, self-defense exercises and forms (kata) are necessary ingredients for martial art. 


Many martial arts attach the suffix 'do', such as aikidobudokendojudo and karate-do. By doing so, it translates as 'way' or 'path' suggesting that the martial art will lead to a path of enlightenment. There are also just as many martial arts that attach the suffix 'jutsu', such as bujutsukenjutsujujutsu and karatejutsu. These are considered martial combat and most lack kata. However, in every case, the "jutsu" systems have traditions and also provide ways for self-improvement, unlike MMA.


Peter Urban (1967) wrote that martial arts referred to fighting arts and suggested a more valid interpretation came from the word budo which translates as 'the way of the fighter'. Urban further wrote that the integration of techniques with the spirit are important. The way or path is intended to lead to the attainment of perfection or what is often known as self-realization, enlightenment, or simply maturity. Be it karatekendojudojujutsuiaidokobudoaikidokyudo, Urban (1967) wrote that "based on the idea of virtue, the followers of martial arts are in effect descendants of samurai of old. It is the aim of all martial arts instructors to work toward promulgating this spirit of ancient Zen warriors, a spirit which is more than mere knowledge of fighting techniques - it is the attainment of a virtuous way of life!"

Martial arts incorporate the term ryu. Ryu is a traditional system or style of martial arts that implies family. This means Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Kai members are a family of traditional martial artists with a soke (Head of Family). It is peace of mind we seek through martial arts training.  "There are many paths to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but only one peak"


Traditional karate and other Okinawan martial arts were kept secret on Okinawa until the 20th century when karate was introduced to mainland Japan in 1922. Within a short time, the Japanese modified the effective self-defense art into sport. To this day, traditional Okinawan karate is still considered a weapon rather than sport (unlike Japanese karate). Traditional karate focuses on (1) junbi undo (warm-up and strength exercises), (2) kihon (basics), (3) shitai kori (body hardening), (4) kata (forms), (5) health, and (6) bunkai (practical applications) - but it's most important aspect is the perfection of its participants! 

Martial Art (copyright sketches by Soke Hausel)

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