28 January 2014

Tao / 'Do' and War

This year I'll be starting my dissertation in martial arts philosophy as part of my doctoral program requirements. I'm planning to write on some of the paradoxes in martial arts and the Oriental philosophies they borrow from. Hence I'm starting to reread some of my notes. This reminded me of an article I wrote for the March 2012 issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue #34). The article was loosely based on some notes I made while traveling in Hong Kong in January of that year, but I never posted the whole article here, so I decided to do so now.


'Do' and War

By Sanko Lewis

Taoism, sometimes also written in English as Daoism, is one of the chief Oriental philosophies. The Tao or 'Do', as it is referred to in Korean, is the essence or natural order of things. 'Do' is often translated as “Way” (i.e. the Way of Nature and Heaven), or “Principle” (i.e. the Law of the Universe). Adherents of Taoism attempt to live in harmony with Nature and Heaven; in other words, according to the correct 'Way'.

The Chinese pictogram denoting the Tao / Do.

Principles of Taoism are also found in the Oriental martial arts. Consider how many martial arts actually contain “Do” as part of their name: Aikido, Hapkido, Jeet Kune Do, Judo, Tang Soo Do, and of course Taekwon-Do, to name just the obvious ones. This “Do”-suffix is a rather recent phenomenon in the names of martial arts. Although a recent practise, it does not take away from the fact that principles of the 'Do' are central to Oriental martial arts. Interestingly, while many martial arts, i.e. the study of war arts, are philosophically based on Taoism, Taoism looks with disfavour on war, and by implication looks with disfavour upon fighting. It is therefore well worth it to look into the Taoist view of fighting, battle and warfare and thereby consider if current views of fighting in styles like Taekwon-Do is in harmony with its underlying 'Do'-philosophy.

A painting of the Chinese philosopher
Laozi / Lao Tzu riding an ox,
who according to legend is the
author of the Tao Te Ching.
(Image Source)
The chief Taoist text is the Tao Te Ching, also known as the Laozi. According to the Laozi, war is brought on by human desire. Chapter 46 of the Laozi teaches:

There is no crime greater than having too many desires; There is no disaster greater than not being content; There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.

It is desire—not being satisfied—that causes war. Such desire is equated by the Laozi as cause for disasters and calamities. Hans-Goerg Moeller, in his introduction to the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching explains: “The Laozi does not make any rhetorical attempts to adorn warfare at all . . . war is primarily seen as a social disaster and, consequently, there are two very simple and practical attitudes that it advises. First: Avoid it. Second, if you cannot avoid it, win it with the least possible damage to yourself” (84).

War, and even victory in war, is not viewed favourably in Taoist thinking. If one were to follow the 'Do', one would avoid war at all cost, for war is a sign of failure to stay within the 'Do'. When a society has moved from a state of harmony, tranquility, and being in the will of “Nature and Heaven”, to a state of war, turmoil, and against “Nature and Heaven,” it has already failed to practise 'Do'. Within Taoist thought war is equated with disharmony—things being out of control, the orderly becoming disorderly, messy. War then, is a reactive attempt to clean up the mess. The ideal is not winning the war; the ideal is not having the situation get out of control—“messy”—in the first place. In Chapter 31 the Laozi says:

When victorious in war, one should observe the rites of mourning. 

Unlike other world views that may see war as a conflict between the righteous and unrighteous, the good guys versus the bad guys, the Laozi makes no such distinction. War is something to be mourned.  War is a disaster: “As a social disaster, war in the Laozi is also not a matter of collective pride,” (Moeller, 84) as is often the case in Western or Modern views of war. War, and by association fighting—even if you win, is nothing to be proud of. There is therefore no “heroism” in the 'Do'. Chapter 31 of the Laozi says:

There is no glory in victory, and to glorify it despite this is to exult the killing of men. One who exults in the killing of men will never have his way in the empire.

However, Taoist thought is not pacifistic. The legendary text on war strategy, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, is after all considered to be based on Taoist strategies. War, like other disasters, do occur, so the Laozi states in Chapter 80:

Let there be militia and weapons, but people do not use them. 

Taoist thought thus allows for the preparation for war, for having a defence force, but will try at all cost not to use them. The Laozi explains in Chapter 31:

Arms [weapons] are the instruments of ill omen, not of gentlemen. When one is compelled to use them, it is best to do so without relish.

When war is unavoidable the Taoist will engage in defensive, and level-headed, warfare. Chapter 68 says:

One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable; One who excels in fighting is never roused in anger; One who excels in defeating his enemy does not join issue [do not engage the enemies].

Traditional martial arts often highlight the importance of avoiding conflict, of not getting into a fight; i.e. they “do not engage the enemies.” Chapter 69 teaches:

The strategists have a saying: “I dare not play the host but play the guest; I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead.” . . . There is no disaster greater than taking on an enemy to easily. 

This may seem paradoxical as the thing practised, namely the art of fighting (martial arts), is avoided. A professional musician would not practise a musical instrument with the aim of never doing a musical recital; similarly, an artist would not practise painting with no ambition of one day having an art exhibit. Yet the traditional martial arts seem to suggest just this—the martial artist is told to practise, practise diligently, but to try and avoid fighting at all cost, to avoid the thing practised for. From a Western world view this is quite nonsensical. Not so, when viewed from a Taoist world view. The way of the 'Do' is the way of harmony. Going to war is viewed as something that occurs when things have gone wrong. For the 'Do', disharmony is a flaw in the system, a mistake in what ought to be a harmonious system.

"Paramedics do not train in their discipline with the
hope that people will get injured"
(Image Source)
Practise in the martial arts, is therefore, similar to practise in paramedics. Paramedics do not train in their discipline with the hope that people will get injured, but when an injury occurs they try to return the injured person to a state of healing. Studying paramedics is not a wish for injury, but a preparedness for when an injury occurs. In a similar way, the traditional martial artist do not practise martial arts with the hope of fighting, but when violent disharmony occurs, the martial artist attempts a form of rapid “damage control.” War, and by implication fighting, is always viewed as “social disaster,” as something that needs to be urgently remedied, cleaned up; the aim is not winning, but fixing the problem—returning society to a state of harmony with each other and with “Nature and Heaven.” Fighting is therefore avoided where possible. The Taoist martial artist “wins by mastering the 'efficacy of not fighting'” (Moeller, 80).

This does not mean that the Taoist view is against winning in battle. While fighting is to be avoided, the 'Do' has little praise for failure. To be in the 'Do', means to be effective. Efficacy is achieved when one acts in harmony with the 'Do', which is at the core of Taoist thought. Fighting and even winning a fight is not praised in Taoist thinking, but if you are going to fight, win, since winning is efficient and efficacy is part of the 'Do'.

Now compare the negative view of Taoist thought regarding war and fighting with the current prevalent view espoused by sport combat, be it Taekwon-Do tournaments, MMA competitions and UFC, or the wars going on in the world at present. Although sport, and by implication tournaments, may have some benefits, they more often than not cultivate desire [to have victory and win over someone else]; such desire is contrary to the Taoist aim for harmony, rather than disharmony. Martial arts that claim to be based on principles of the 'Do' may need to take inventory from time to time, to see if what they are teaching are still principles of ultimately achieving harmony; in order to, as the Taekwon-Do Oath proclaims, “build a more peaceful world.” Undoubtedly, world leaders that promulgate war may also benefit from a study in ancient philosophies. As for strategy, the 'Do' is all about achieving harmony—engaging the enemy is avoided as far as possible; however, when conflict cannot be avoided, swift and effective victory is advocated. This, too, is something that ought to be studied by students of martial arts based on the 'Do'.


Hans-George Moeller, 2006. The Philosophy of the Daodejing. Columbia University Press.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching.

21 January 2014

Twenty Years Later

This photo dates from about 15 years ago.
Me (right) and Boosabeom Yolandi Müller.
(Besides me, Bsbnim Yolandi was the first person in the
Soo Shim Kwan group to get a black belt and even though she
doesn't formally practice anymore, every time we speak on the
phone she still tells me how she does patterns by herself.
Once a martial artist, always a martial artist.)

This year is my 20th year of doing Taekwon-Do. That is more than half my life that I have devoted to Taekwon-Do and the martial arts. During this time hardly a week has gone by that I have not trained two or three times per week, and hardly a day has gone by that I have not thought about martial arts. Calling myself a martial artist, a moodo-in, a Taekwondo-in, feels very fitting. It is a core part of my identity, of how I see myself.

Contemplating these thoughts made me think back about a conversation I had with one of my friends and students last year. He had spent some time in the States training at another ITF gym where the instructor made some demeaning remarks. While such remarks were humiliating to my friend, it was also rather insulting to me. Among other things the instructed insinuated that my student was not worthy of his black belt and not truly a martial artist, he also suggested that my friend's self-defence was not on par. The instructor also admitted to seeing little use for pattern training. This caused my friend to go through lots of self-doubt and re-evaluation—he was seriously thinking about quitting the martial arts, something he had only taken up later in life and had now done for about five years. We had some long talks. Below are some of my comments with regards to what that other instructor said, which I also think ties in with us long term martial artists.

One thing the instructor said was that if you are not a full time martial artist, you are fooling yourself and wasting your time. I thought this quite narrow-minded. Very few people have the luxury of being full time martial artists. The only people that can do it are people who have made it their career. In other words, only he and other career martial arts instructors—who teach martial arts for a living—are authentic martial artists. It only follows that all other people who practice martial arts but who have other careers are just pretending—of course this includes his own students. That's a little hypocritical if you ask me. If he really feels so strongly about it, he should stop teaching Taekwon-Do to anybody that has not made it their career choice also, rather than accusing them of not being true martial artists. According to his mindset, only people living the lifestyle of Shaolin monks can honestly be called full time martial artists. Ironically, those Shaolin monks are not full time martial artists. That is not the core of who they are. Rather they are full time Shaolin Buddhists, for who the primary goal is spiritual enlightenment.

With regards to self-defence. Taekwon-Do is not the best way to defend yourself against an attacker. The best, fastest way to defend against someone trying to take your life is to kill them first, preferably with a gun. And since most serious violent crimes occur with the attacker wielding a weapon, probably a gun, as an unarmed person you are at a terrible disadvantage even with all your martial art skills. No amount of martial art training can save you from a maniac with a gun standing a proper distance from you. To put it simply, martial arts cannot defend against guns from a distance. If anything, the film The Last Samurai had this point. Even the best samurai who trained most of their life could not overcome the rifle. This means that martial art training for self-defence purposes prepares one for only a small margin of possible self-defence situations—that area where someone is actually trying to attack you without the use of a gun (or they are standing so close to you that you can actually reach the gun). The idea that Taekwon-Do is preparing you for self-defence is only valid for this small margin in possible attacks. Claiming therefore that we are all pretending, applies to him too. He is just as much pretending as the rest of us, because he is only seriously training for that small margin of self-defence situation where actual close-quarter-combat is of any use. (Unless, of course, he is also spending much of his day at the shooting range, in which case we must ask if he is really a full time martial artist—according to his understanding of the term—or rather a full time marksman instead.)

Secondly, he is utterly limiting the value and function of the martial arts as a discipline. For him, it is all about combat. While combat is a function of martial arts training, it is not the only function. If it is just about combat, then one can train in those systems that do not claim to be martial arts, for instance Krav Maga or kickboxing—the former being a purely military close quarter combat system and the latter a sport. Neither of these claim to be martial arts. What differentiates a martial art from mere fighting is that it is based on certain ideals, certain philosophies (that transcend mere fighting), certain ascetics, and aesthetics. It also contributes to your general well-being: body and mind (and possibly spirit, according to some martial art proponents).

Yes, if your only reason for training is to practise combat, then I would say that you are just pretending and that you are wasting your time doing a martial art that is concerned with more than just hurting people. Rather go buy a gun and enrol at a shooting range for target practise and join a military combat focussed system.

However, the martial arts are much more diverse. For some people it is just a recreation and there is nothing wrong with that. There is no reason to look down on martial arts hobbyists. Many people's great passions are their hobbies, the things they get excited about; they only do their “day jobs” to pay the bills. There was a time that teaching martial arts was a major means of my income. Currently my job is as a university lecturer, teaching literature. Does that mean that I'm any less a martial artist now that I get money for teaching at a university? I don't think so.

The martial arts is a passion for me, something I have done for 20 years. I can imagine myself not teaching at a university, but I can never imagine myself not doing martial arts. This hasn't changed even though I have changed “careers”, even though other hobbies and interests have come and gone.

A photo from 2010
I think it is for the very reason that martial arts is more than just how to hurt people, that I've been able to enjoy it for so long. During this 20 years, my focus in the martial arts has shifted many times. Sometimes it was a focus on self-defence (I was a self-defence instructor for quite sometime); sometimes it was on understanding the underlying physical and mechanical principles and how it allows a human being to transfer immense amounts of power into a target; sometimes it was the sport, competing or seeing my students bring back medals from tournaments; sometimes it was the philosophy that underlies Taekwon-Do and the martial arts (still a primary focus); sometimes it was the mental focus, the ability the martial arts have to push your boundaries, or to help you to focus—Zen-like—on the thing at hand, to be in the moment; sometimes it was the health benefits of martial arts which is quite evident when we see many old people that have practised martial arts for decades still being healthy and active into old age; sometimes it is the aesthetics of the human body in motion, the patterns and perfecting them, agility and graceful movements; sometimes it is the discipline, of pushing yourself towards the ideal of perfection and once you mastered one thing you find there is something else waiting for you, another part of you that can improve; sometimes it is the camaraderie and friendship—I have made some of my best friends through the martial arts; sometimes it is the space to work through your issues, a place to unwind, to put every ounce of your stress and anger into every technique you do and getting it all out in a physical manner; sometimes it is just the pure sweat; sometimes it is the Oriental culture from which Taekwon-Do was born, and I can go on and on. Of course, many of these things you can get through other disciplines as well, but the martial arts provides a unique package for all of these. The fact that that instructor neglects patterns is telling me that he has a one sided approach to the martial arts and is missing much of what it can provide and also depriving his students of the grand spectrum that is Taekwon-Do. In my opinion he would be better off just teaching MMA, if he just have a sport fighting interesting, or just teach something like Krav Maga, without any competition, if he has a primary self-defence focus.

My suggestion to my friend was, that if after he had thought about all of this, and came to the conclusion that these things that Taekwon-Do and the martial arts have to offer are really not that appealing to him, or that he could get it from doing other things that he finds more interesting instead (such as playing soccer [fitness, camaraderie] and playing video games [being in the moment and working through your stress by killing fictional enemies]) and that he is not interested in the rest of what martial arts have to offer, then the best might be to quit the martial arts after all. He should rather spend his time on those other things that he has an interest in, rather than do martial arts that provide such a broad spectrum of things—things that can keep one busy for a life time.

A photo from 2012
I've been doing martial arts for 20 years and there is so much more for me to learn and improve in and it stays exciting to me. It's a commitment. Often difficult. But it is part of me. I love it. I don't have illusions. I don't think I am a superman, I don't pretend to have the ability to take on a gang of weapon-wielding thugs by myself, I don't pretend to be able to catch bullets with my teeth or know pressure point strikes that will turn my opponents into statues. I don't think I'll win in the octagon against a UFC athlete that trains six hours a day, while I only train six hours a week. I don't think that my training will one day cause me to levitate or shoot Ki-lazer beams from my finger tips. My view of the martial arts are not fanciful or fantastical. After 20 years I can say that I've witness some amazing, sometimes mind-boggling feats, and that I've also done some things that had caused my students to stand in awe. But it is not magic. It is just diligent, year in and year out, commitment. My accomplishments never happened because of an innate talent—far from it. I'm not a natural athlete, and while my students often tell me that I make it looks so easy, it is not because it came easy to me. It is quite simply that I've been doing this for so long—commit 20 years of your life to something and you'll make it look easy too.

A photo from 2013
(Core-muscles balance training)

Here is what it means to be a Taekwondo-in, a martial artist, for me . . . indomitable spirit. It is okay to fail. It doesn't matter if you don't succeed. Just get back up and get back at it. And if you don't get it right today, try again tomorrow, and again next week, and again next year, and 20 years later I'm still doing Chon-Ji Teul and still learning about movement and relaxation and how to apply the Theory of Power. That's what it means to be a martial artist.