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What Is Martial Arts?

What do you think Martial Arts is for? Some people might say it is for Self Defence. Some people might think it is for fitness and health. There are a large variety of reasons that a person might give. I always feel sad when people say Martial Arts is about fighting. Because that really is the last thing that Martial Arts is about. It is just the most obvious thing that you see when you look at someone practicing Martial Arts. 

Martial Arts is different from fighting. Fighting has been around for a long time. Fighting systems began ever since there were two people who both wanted the same thing. Then one of them used force to get what they wanted. This does not make it Martial Arts, however.

Fighting developed simultaneously all over the world. There was no one who invented it, it just happened that there were some things that were more effective than others. This is where the development of Martial Arts is different. Martial Arts were developed by one man, Tamo Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from India. There is some debate about when he started teaching and developed Martial Arts, however many people put the time at around the 6th century AD.

Bodhidharma was a member of the nobility, perhaps even royalty in India and he threw that aside to become a monastic. He lived in a monastery, living a life of simplicity and devotion. He also followed the Buddhist monastic practice of traveling. Many monks would travel from monastery to monastery and spread the teachings of Buddhism with them to the new temples they visited. Many of them also hoped to achieve enlightenment along the way. When he traveled from monastery to monastery, he did not take with him any food or anything else, just his begging bowl. You see, for a monk to beg for food, he is practicing humility and he is also giving the people an opportunity to be generous.

Bodhidharma was a prolific traveler. There are stories that say he was the first person to cross the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world. There are some very fanciful stories that he levitated himself across the mountains. While that is unlikely, it is accepted that he was among the first to travel through the Himalayan Mountains. Along the way, he would have traveled for extended times in very wild areas where he would have had to learn how to defend himself against wild animals and sometimes even wilder men. He had these skills from learning a form of Indian wrestling as a young man and through his experiences on the road.

He traveled very widely through Asia and ended up in China, in the Hunan province in the north. There is a very famous temple there, the Shaolin Temple, which many of you will have heard about. However it was not famous back then, and when Bodhidharma arrived, he found a temple full of overweight, unfit monks who were unable to hold themselves still in meditation for very long. They were lazy in their care of the temple and slow in performing their tasks. They had none of the Martial Arts skills and attention to their practice and their temple which they are famous for today. Bodhidharma left the temple in disgust.

He left the temple and went to the cave in the hills above the mountain. The cave is still there and you can go and visit it. He spent a certain amount of time there, some say it was nine years and others say differently. However, he was, after a certain period of time, invited back to the temple to teach the monks there.

Bodhidharma agreed to return to the temple and to teach, but he refused to teach them meditative or study based techniques. Instead, he had the monks rise early in the day and perform a range of physical exercises in the courtyards of the temple. He taught them the combat techniques he had learned and practiced on the road. He taught them physical skills to strengthen their bodies. They practiced in silence and they worked on breathing techniques at the same time as their physical techniques.

As they learned the physical skills and their bodies became tougher, an interesting thing started to happen. They started to be able to hold themselves still for longer in their meditation. They started to be able to focus for longer on their studies. They started to become more careful and mindful in their duties around the temple.

This is where Martial Arts really started. Right there in the Shaolin temple. It happened not when Bodhidharma brought new fighting skills to the monks. They were old techniques that had been around for a long time. It was not when the temple was attacked and monks rose up to defend their temple. It was when the physical skills of personal defense were combined with mindfulness, with a determination to increase mental growth through physical health that Martial Arts really started.

It was the bringing together of physical skills and mental skills that created Martial Arts. This is what makes it special. This is why people practice it for way longer than any other activity. It is a journey of discovery not only of physical skills, which decrease as we get older. It is a journey of discovery of our mental skills, which only increase with age and application.

This is why we say in Martial Arts that it is not the number of people that you can knock down that is important. It is the number of people that you can lift up that count. We lift people up by our example, by our attitudes, and by living by the tenets of the Martial Arts – Humility, Self Discipline, Courage, and Loyalty. We lift people up when we refuse to allow bullying or taunting. We lift people up when we do the right thing, even though it is hard and it might get us in trouble. We lift people up by becoming a part of a brighter and stronger future.

As we practice our Martial Art, it is worth remembering that it is not through fighting people and learning to win competitions that we become stronger and better people. The battle is within. It is when we win the internal battles to focus on our higher purpose, to concentrate on worthwhile projects, and to spend our time in improving activities that we become mighty people.

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