Faith and Belief in the Martial Arts

Faith – whether in a particular religion, art or teacher – in the martial arts is a problematic concept. I remember some years ago, one of my students asking me, “How can you train in so many different arts from different cultures without sharing their religions?” Though the question has its own kind of logic, it struck me at the time as an odd query.

Although personally I am a practicing Catholic, many of the teachers I have trained with have been either of another faith, or as is the case with most people I know, either agnostic or straightforwardly atheist. Just as I feel no need to impose my beliefs on anyone else, none of my teachers have required that I have converted to their religions, even those who have been extremely devout. Where other martial artists have wanted to discuss our respective religions – or even lack of them – I have been quite happy to engage.

What denomination is your style?

However, that isn’t what my student was getting at – he had read, at my urging, one of the very few credible martial arts historians in the English language, Donn. F. Draeger, and he was alluding to a passage where Mr. Draeger explained that some of the Indonesian and Malaysian teachers he knew would not teach their art to a non-Muslim.

Another factor underlying his question was that he knew I had trained across a wide range of arts, and had the opportunity to do so before most mainstream Western martial artists had even heard of many of them. He knew also that I personally held religious beliefs and considered martial arts to be composed of more than just their techniques and tactics, and their formation was heavily influenced by factors of social anthropology, such as a general cultural world-view, part of which would be the religion espoused by the people who created and practiced any given art.

It’s all in the Context

I explained that firstly that it was a misunderstanding to characterise any given martial art as being ‘of’ a particular religion. Though the founders of some arts may well have had religious motivations in the creation of an art form, or the revision of an existing one, it’s mostly the case that religion forms part of that ‘world-view’ – in effect a mental and emotional context or framework within which the art and the artist operates.

My original martial arts training was in a Renaissance battlefield fencing system – a family form of Sicilian Fencing – and obviously its moral and ethical context was essentially Catholic, even though Sicily has an extremely complex and varied set of cultural influences through a long history of being invaded by just about every power existing in the Mediterranean over the last 3,000 years or so.

Taking the specific issue that prompted the student to ask the question, I would stress two particular points. Mutual respect is crucial to the process of really learning a martial art, and even when working with a teacher from a radically different belief system to my own, I’ve always found that a willingness to understand, and however temporarily inhabit, their mind-set has purchased the required credibility to be accepted as a sincere student.

After all, I have no problem with most of the people I know, both inside and out of the martial arts world, who either don’t share my own beliefs or are atheists. We all struggle to understand the world we live in, the lives we lead, and I’ve found it generally more productive to accept that people are acting in good faith and doing their best to be a decent person and live a decent life.

For one thing, those of us who believe we have something to teach, would be completely devoid of students if we didn’t – at least initially – take people at face-value when first accepting them into training. I have done the classical thing of requiring a student show enormous patience and perserverance in persuading me to accept them. If we’re honest however,we know that it takes a great deal of time to develop any significant skills in martial art, which gives us the luxury of taking our time in coming to judgement, and it’s generally more useful to examine the student’s character during the teaching process. Creating the mutual trust that is necessary to an effective student/teacher relationship takes time – I’m not about to rush it, and I’m not giving you the most powerful material until it is established!

The second facet to the answer I gave my student all those years ago is this: there are a number of arts that are characterised as being of a particular religion, and with very few exceptions this is a complete misunderstanding. As I said earlier, a religion might have been a motivating factor in the creation of a martial art, or the world-view of which it would have been a major part, may well have had a big influence on the formation, if for no other reason that it would be the source of many underlying assumptions held by the person or people constructing that art.

The currents of Migration and Belief

Indonesian and Malaysian silat forms are a good example of this. Most the peoples of the hundreds of islands forming the world’s largest archipelago have undergone several large and many smaller waves of migration, with all the attending poly-cultural influences this entails over the last 3 – 4 thousand years.  The majority of the islands will have had Hinduism and/or Buddhism as their dominant religion for many hundreds of years prior to the genesis and rise of Islam.  Islam – and Islamic people – have since played a major role in the development of the cultures of the archipelago, particularly through two major waves of migration through the various island groups over the last 1500 years, but this is not the same thing as saying an art is ‘Islamic’ or belongs to any other religion.

Having made that distinction, if you are a teacher of silat in Malaysia, which is now predominantly Islamic (as are many parts of Indonesia) and you yourself are Muslim, a natural ‘cultural’, as well as religious, qualifier in looking to evaluate the relative morality of a prospective student is their faith. Islam is a particularly disciplined religion, evidenced by the need to pray five times a day, and so a prospective student from your local community known to be practicing and devout has already displayed some of the qualities you are seeking.

The pragmatism of the Warrior

In Malaysia, where the generic term for the art is Bersilat – rather than Pentjak Silat as it is referred to in Indonesia – the traditional versions of the art have retained the teaching and practice of sympathetic, animistic magic.  There are aspects of these practices also which survive in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country.  If you ask some of the older Filipino masters about these matters, they will mostly shrug then refer you to the practical nature of the fighter – if anything might give him an advantage in a life or death situation, and he can see no evil in it, why would he discard it? 

This could well be a problem for devotees of any of the world’s major religions, but having said that my wife tells me that when she stayed on Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba (which is a lake occupying the caldera of an extinct volcano on Sumatra) the exterior of the local Catholic church was covered in intricate carvings of lizards.  As a Catholic I know this is not that unusual – the Church has always assimilated many local beliefs by relating them to existing parts of doctrine – and if you don’t believe me, go take a look at Mexico City Cathedral richly adorned as it is with similar motifs.

On the island of Bali, as on many of the larger islands of Indonesia, there are a number of distinct styles of Pentjak Silat, some tend to be identified as Hindu, some as Islamic, some as Buddhist, and one, Bakti Negara, was founded by a Catholic priest.  This last has a requirement that anyone who wishes to teach the art must do so for free.

It is true that some arts do have especially clear influences – the three main ‘internal’ arts of China: Tai Ji; Ba Gua; and Hsing I show very clear signs of Taoist roots, both in the philosophy of application – redirecting the opponents’ force back at them, rather than opposing it with your own, or in the theoretical models they use – the Yin/Yang symbol of duality and integration and the trigrams of the I-Ching. Likewise, early Shaolin shows its underlying Buddhism in its primary use of the staff and the empty hand – pragmatic pacifism with limits allowing resistance towards aggression once certain conditions are met. There is less clarity as to the ‘Buddhist nature’ of later Shaolin, given the many influences of the various groups who sheltered within the temples during the periods of political unrest in Chinese history.

The student who asked that question so long ago made an understandable, though erroneous, assumption: that one must share the assumptions about people, society, morals and the cosmos of the originators or current curators of an art. What is necessary is to make the effort to understand and empathise, to take the trouble not to challenge or scandalise their sensibilities, to honour and respect those you train under and with. If you make this effort and succeed, just as when attempting, however haltingly, to speak a local language when abroad, you will be surprised at the generosity and trust you may be gifted by people from a very different culture and world view.

Certainty and Separation

It’s really not that hard to do – I am a very opinionated man, but hopefully I am also intelligent enough to know that, no matter how carefully formed and well researched a view I may hold is, there is always the real possibility that I’ve simply gotten it all wrong! Keeping that in mind makes it a great deal easier to share martial arts experiences with others of significantly different backgrounds and viewpoints – I recommend it.

Defining ‘faith’ more broadly, it is necessary at the very least to believe in the art you are trying to learn, and to trust the teacher you have chosen to absorb the art from, even if both you and they are completely non-religious. In a secular sense, it is still an ‘act of faith’ to place yourself in the hands of any teacher of the martial arts, given the inherent physical danger of training, let alone applying the art in defence of your life outside of the training hall. Where what you learn may ultimately mean the difference between life and death, the motivation, morality, technical knowledge and ability and general trustworthiness you assign to your teacher is crucial to how well you learn, and how to much confidence with which you will feel able to apply the art you acquire when the chips are down.

Atheist, agnostic or true believer – faith of one kind or another remains an issue of significance for the martial artist.

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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