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.


Ørjan Nilsen said...

Thanks for posting this. I read it when it originally appeared in Totally Taekwondo Magazine and it is in my opinion one of the best articles describing the Paradox between "Do" and fighting. The rereading value was also great:-)

SooShimKwan said...

Thank you for the compliments Ørjan.

I hope to resolve the paradox for my PhD thesis. Hopefully by this time next year the puzzle will be solved. Haha.

Best wishes,