Religion and The Martial Arts


When studying the history of the martial arts we discover that the ancients could not separate their art form from their religious beliefs, the two were inseparable. The most popular and widely known were the Shaolin Priests of China. In Japan, The Samurai Sword held special meaning and became an item of worship. All sorts of symbols and artifacts were bowed to, candles were lit, incense was burned, mantras were chanted and deep meditation was an integral part of martial arts training.


In much of the world today these customs and rituals still occur on a daily bases. In fact the ceremonies and rituals performed sometimes were more important than the actual physical training sessions. This can be easily observed when watching a modern day Sumo match where ceremonies are performed before each contest begins. The question to be asked is not should religion have a place in martial arts training, but how does the various belief systems pertain to the arts, and do they have any part to play in the 21st century martial arts?



I.          First, let us begin with China and Kung Fu. Kung Fu is not merely a form of self-defense. It also immerses itself in Chinese medicine, acupuncture, alchemy, weaponry, education and philosophy. Kung Fu is a folk culture, a spirit and a way of living. Its practical philosophy began with Taoism and Buddhism. Many masters were priests, monks, and even nuns. The Kung Fu person was the protector of the weak and oppressed, and yet he was expected to be a person of peace.  As he traveled the path to spiritual enlightenment and knowledge, his chief goal was to attain a peaceful, calm nature by gaining total control of his body and his mind. The voyage into the Kung Fu mind, his religion and mysticism, is best described by reading the words and thoughts that have lasted over many long centuries.


            1.         God is within you, have no doubts in your heart.

            2.         Be not like those who are ruled by their passions and desires.

            3.         Our bodies are the creation of our minds.

            4.         What truly is within will be manifested without.

5.         The wise not thinking become foolish and the foolish not thinking become wise.

            6.         As soon as the mouth is open, evils spring forth.

7.         Thus it is said that there is the great awakening, after which we shall know that this life was a great dream, while all the while the stupid think that they are awake.

8.         That which fills the universe I regard as my body, and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature.

9.         To mistake material surroundings for true reality is to mistake a thief for your son.

10.       Nirvana is a deep sea of wisdom; the material universe is but a whirling chaos.

11.       When aroused become awake, when awake reach understanding.

12.       A man who does little more than eat and drink is counted as common by others - because he nourishes what is little to neglect of what is great.

13.       To preserve one’s mental and physical constitution and nourish one’s nature is the way to serve heaven.

14.       He who works for eternity counts not time.

15.       A sage speaks for the universe.

16.       The great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart.

17.       In God’s eyes, there is no rejected person.

18.       One without a pitying heart is not a man.

19.       To see through fame and wealth is to gain a little rest; to see through life and death is to gain a big rest.

20.       The door to heaven is non-existence; all things come from non-existence.

21.       All things come from somewhere, but you cannot see their root, all things appear from somewhere, but you cannot see the door.

22.       He who knows other men is intelligent, while he who knows himself is wise.

23.       He who overcomes others is strong, while he who overcomes himself knows true power.

24.       He who accumulates wealth for its own sake is a poor man, while he who is satisfied with his lot has a life of riches.

25.       The further one goes from himself, the less he knows.

26.       The superior man wishes to be slow in his words and earnest in his conduct.

27.       A vulgar man always looks for favors and forgets them when he has got what he wants.

28.       The superior man loves his soul; the inferior man loves his property.

29.       The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.

30.       The superior man prizes three things. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility.

31.       The superior man is firm but does not fight; he mixes easily with others but does not form cliques.

32.       Words said in anger settle no dispute.

33.       The perfect man is spirit-like.

34.       Riches adorn a house and virtue adorns the person.

35.       Do not consider any vice as trivial and therefore practice it.

36.       Do not consider any virtue as unimportant and therefore neglect it.

37.       What I do not wish men to do to me I also wish not to do to men.

38.       To see what is right and not do it is to want of courage.

39.       When you do a favor, do not expect a reward: should you expect a reward, it is not a favor.

40.       It is impossible to please men in all things; our only care should be to satisfy our own consciences.

41.       Deal with evil as if it were a sickness in your person.

42.       To associate with evil men is like sleeping in the midst of knives and swords; although you have not been wounded, you are constantly afraid.

43.       Accumulate learning as you would accumulate wealth.

44.       Love your parents as you would your wife and children.

45.       He who injures others injures himself.

46.       There is no greater lie than the lie that becomes necessary to defend another lie.

47.       A gentleman blames himself, while a common man blames others.

48.       Show reverence for the weak.

49.       Lust is a wicked knife that cuts clear into the bones.

50.       The standard of conduct lies with one’s own self; the testing of it lies with other men.

51.       If the one in authority is not enlightened, one can know that those beneath him are in the dark.

52.       If a man does not walk in the right path, it will not be walked in even by his wife and children.

53.       Kindness is greater than law.

54.       By nature, men are born nearly alike; by practice they get to be far apart.

55.       I have lived fifty years to know the mistakes of forty nine.

56.       It is not heaven that does not deal impartially with men, but men who bring ruin upon themselves.

57.       Disaster comes out of the mouth, not into it.

58.       Fear not when men speak evil of you; fear lest you should do evil.

59.       He who can suppress a moment’s anger may prevent many days sorrow.

60.       Do not forget little kindnesses, and do not remember small faults.

61.       Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

62.       A bright future often depends on clearing up a shady past.

63.       Talent and worth will manifest themselves without resorting to trickery.

64.       It is easy to convince a wise man, but to reason with a fool is a difficult undertaking.

65.       Keep your mind busy to accomplish things; keep your mind open to understand things.

66.       The cautious seldom err.

67.       The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

68.       Procrastination is the thief of time.



II.         The Japanese wrap their martial arts around a belief system that they call “Zen”, better known as the Zen way. Deshimaru Roshi stated “That the true kinship between Zen and the martial arts lies in the fact that both can lead us toward the spirit of the way, because any conflict, whether it takes place within the body and mind, or outside of them, is always a battle against the self.” Zen covers concepts as Ki (energy source), state of consciousness, spiritual awakening, meditation, and life and death. It has been stated “You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day as though a fire was raging in your hair.” The ancient Samurai followed the religion of “Shinto”, in which all of nature is imbued with spirit. The Samurai embraced Zen because it taught simplicity and self-control, always being aware of your surroundings, and peace when facing death. Zen became known as “The religion of the Samurai”. It was their way of life. Budo (the way of the warrior) has a direct relationship between ethics, religion and philosophy. Bushido (the way of the Samurai) emerged by combining Buddhism and Shintoism. Bushido is based on basic principals.


            1.            The right attitude.

            2.            Living the way.

            3.            Bravery and heroism.

            4.            Devotion and loyalty.

            5.            Glory and honor.

            6.            Sincerity.

            7.            Courtesy.

            8.            Compassion and love.


Buddhism has influenced Bushido by infusing its beliefs and principals upon the warrior.


            1.            Intuition and action must occur at the same time.

            2.            There is no time for thinking.


When a person acts, it must be simultaneous with action and intention “Do” (the way) of martial arts and Zen “have flowed together as one.” Most of the great Zen masters speak of “Do” and never use the word Zen.


            “Literature, philosophy, poetry and culture are feminine, while the military arts have a masculine side. The two must always be in harmony, for they form the way of wisdom itself.” This is the reason the warrior was required to study both and become proficient in the feminine and masculine sides.


“Zen represents human effort to reach through meditation zones of thought beyond the range of verbal expression.”  Zazen (meditation) is a mental attitude. It is composed of posture, correct breathing and attitude of mind. It is beyond thought and in harmony with the consciousness of the universe. Bushido is the unwritten code of conduct, or laws, governing the lives and moral conduct of the noble class of Japan. It was also the code of conduct of the Samurai, which made him out of necessity “The aristocratic warrior”. Bu-shi-do literally means military-knight-ways.



III.       The Shinto theology believes in the goodness and God like purity of the human soul. “Righteousness is a straight and narrow path which man ought to take to regain the lost paradise.”


            Confucius (a great Chinese philosopher who lived about 550-478 B.C.) said, “Perceiving what is right, and doing it not, argues lack of courage.” He also stated “Let but a prince cultivate virtue, people will flock to him; with people will come to him lands; lands will bring forth for him wealth; wealth will give him the benefit of right uses. Virtue is the root, and wealth an outcome.” It is difficult to imagine but there was a tender side to the warrior class, as put forth in these sayings:


            1.         “The bravest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring.”

2.         “The feeling of distress is the root of benevolence.” (In other words, a benevolent man is always mindful of those who are suffering.)


            The Samurai exhibited a high sense of honor and believed that “shame is the soil of all virtue, of good manner and good morals.” (A very strong sense of shame was developed among the warrior class.) Ogawa (Chinese philosopher) stated “When others speak all manner of evil things against thee, return not evil for evil, but rather reflect that thou was not more faithful in the discharge of thy duties.”


Another philosopher, Kumazawa said “When others blame thee, blame them not; when others are angry at thee, return not anger.” The Samurai also showed no emotion on his face. It was said “He shows no sign of joy or anger.” Death involving a question of honor was accepted in Bushido as the solution to solving many complex problems “When honor is lost, it is a relief to die.” Seppuku (Hara-kiri) was not a mere suicidal process, but it was an honored institution, totally legal with much ceremony. It was an accepted process by which a warrior could atone for his crimes, escape disgrace, or to prove his absolute sincerity to a cause.


Bushido made the sword its emblem of power and strength. The sword smith was looked upon as an inspired artist, while his workshop became a sanctuary. Before the sword smith began work in his shop “he committed his soul and spirit into the forging and tempering of the steel.” In fact, every process in producing a sword was a religious act.


It has been said, “The Samurai was not only the flower of Japan, but they were the very roots. All the gracious gifts of heaven flowed through them.” The Samurai set the moral standards for the general populace to look up to. “As among flowering cherry is queen, so among men the Samurai is lord.”



IV.       T’ai Chi Ch’Uan and I-Ching are known as “a choreography of body and mind.” Together they are the keys by which the philosophy of Taoism can be converted to a practical way of knowledge. The I-Ching is one of the first attempts of the human mind to find its place in the universe. It is a collection and interpretation (translation) of a series of sixty-four, six line figures called hexagrams. The Chinese character for the “I” in I-Ching signifies both “change and changelessness.” The I-Ching gives advice on divination, philosophy, government, numerology, astrology, cosmology, meditation and military strategy. There is also the concept of the Yin-Yang symbol. To the Taoist, Yang is heaven and Yin is earth, the sun is Yang, the moon is Yin, man is Yang, women is Yin, hardness is Yang, softness is Yin. Yin and Yang exist everywhere, in everything, in every time.


V.        Moving into more present times, Edmund Parker, The Father of American Kenpo, in his book “The Zen of Kenpo”, wrote many meaningful quotes that not only are motivational, but which also has a religious content to it, just as Taoism espoused its beliefs through the use of its sayings. Here is a sampling of Parker’s beliefs (For the record, Ed Parker was a Mormon).



1.         The intelligent man is one who has successfully fulfilled many accomplishments, and is yet willing to learn more.

2.         Whatever the attitude, so is the response.

3.         What you earn, you get.

4.         Often to become a champion you must believe in yourself when no one else will.

5.         It is hard to hold a two way conversation when only one is doing all the talking.

6.         The eyes are the windows of the mind.

7.         It is better to die on your feet than to be a coward and live on your knees.

8.         A loss can be worth the experience if you gain something more valuable from it.

9.         An ounce of logic can be worth more than a ton of tradition that has become obsolete through the weathering of time.

10.       Progress is a necessity that is part of nature.

11.       The worth of a name is often measured by how far it extends beyond the grave.



VI.            Another modern warrior, philosopher and innovator, Bruce Lee, also set forth his beliefs with a dogmatic viewpoint that permeates throughout his teachings, training and life.


1.         Take what is useful and develop from there.

2.         The way to transcend Karma lies in the proper use of the mind and the will.

3.         Nothingness cannot be defined; the softest thing cannot be snapped.

4.         The point is the doing of them rather than the accomplishments.

5.         Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.

6.         To express yourself in freedom, you must die to everything of yesterday.

7.         When one is not expressing himself, he is not free.

8.         Understanding one self happens through a process of relationship, and not through isolation.

9.         The mind is originally without activity, the way is always without thought.

10.       To be of no mind means to assume the everyday mind.

11.       It is compassion rather than principle of justice which can guard us against being unjust to our fellow man.

12.       In every passionate pursuit, the pursuit counts more than the object pursued.

13.       In Buddhism, there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special.

14.       An assertion is Zen only when it is itself an act and does not refer to anything that is asserted in it.



Into a soul absolutely free

From thoughts and emotion,

Even the tiger finds no room

To insert its fierce claws.


One and the same breeze passes

Over the pines on the mountain

And the oak trees in the valley;

And why do they give different notes?

No thinking, no reflecting,

Perfect emptiness;

Yet therein something moves,

Following its own course.


The eye sees it,

But no hands can take hold of it–

The moon in the stream.


Clouds and mists,

They are midair transformations;

Above them eternally shine the sun and the moon.


Victory is for the one,

Even before the combat,

Who has no thought for himself,

Abiding in the no-mind-ness of Great Origin.


From the    TAO of JEET KUNE DO


VII.      Many martial artists worldwide infuse their training philosophy based on Old Testament scripture. We will explore the Book of Proverbs (which could be called the wisdom book) and discover what relationships there are to other martial arts religions, and also the uniqueness of these verses and how they differ from other belief systems.


1.         Wisdom cries out in the streets, she raises her voice in the markets. Take what is useful and develop from there.

2.         Lean on, trust and be confident in the Lord with all your heart and mind and do not rely on your own insight or understanding.

3.         Skillful and godly wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you can wish for is to be compared to her.

4.         Do not contrive or dig up or cultivate evil against your neighbor.

5.         Contend not with a man for no reason, when he has done you no wrong.

6.         Forsake not wisdom and she will keep, defend and protect you; love her and she will guard you.

7.         Take fast hold of instruction, do not let go, guard her, for she is your life.

8.         A worthless person, a wicked man is he who goes about with a perverse mouth.

9.         The reverent fear and worshipful awe of the Lord includes the hatred of evil. Pride, arrogance, the evil way, and perverted and twisted speech I hate.

10.       Treasures of wickedness profit nothing, but righteousness delivers from death.

11.       Hatred stirs up contentions, but love covers all transgressions.

12.       He who belittles and despises his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding keeps quiet.

13.       A fool’s wrath is quickly and openly known; but a prudent man ignores insults.

14.       He who diligently seeks good, seeks God’s favor, but he who searches after evil, it shall come upon him.

15.       Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but to the counselors of peace is joy.

16.       Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down, but an encouraging word makes it glad.

17.       By pride and insolence comes only contention.

18.       The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life.

19.       In all labor there is profit, but idle talk leads to poverty.

20.       He who oppresses the poor reproaches, mocks, and insults his maker, but he who is kind and merciful to the needy honors him.

21.       He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is hasty of spirit exposes and exalts his folly.

22.       A soft answer turns away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.

23.       A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.

24.       A wise son makes a glad father.

25.       Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.

26.       He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding has a cool spirit.

27.       Many plans are in a man’s mind, but it is the Lords purpose for him that will stand.

28.       Even a child is known by his acts, whether or not what he does is pure and right.

29.       Whoever curses his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in complete darkness.

30.       There is no wisdom or understanding, or counsel that can prevail against the Lord.

31.       A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.

32.       Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.

33.       Rob not the poor, neither oppress the afflicted.

34.       Apply your mind to instruction and correction, and your ears to the words of knowledge.

35.       Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them.

36.       If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.

37.       Be not a witness against your neighbor without cause, and deceive not with your lips.

38.       If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat, if he be thirsty, give him water to drink.

39.       Do not boast of tomorrow, for you know not what a day may bring forth.

40.       Whoever leads the upright astray into an evil way, he shall fall himself into his own pit.

41.       Blessed, happy, fortunate is the man who reverently and worshipfully fears the Lord at all times.

42.       A man of wrath stirs up strife, and a man given to anger commits and causes much transgression.

43.       A man’s pride will bring him low, but he who is of a humble spirit shall obtain honor.

44.       Every word of God is tried and purified; he is a shield to those who trust and take refuge in him.




VIII.     In the western world many Christians are enrolling in and teaching martial arts classes, and yet still find a basis to retain and profess their faith. They are willing to physically protect themselves and their loved ones, and still believe in the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” How can this be, are not the two in conflict with each other? Can a person be a man/women of peace and a man/women of war at the same time? Just how can a Christian martial artist defend against an attacker throwing a punch to the face when he is supposed to turn the other cheek?


There are two true stories that I want to relate to you to illustrate how a man of peace can become a warrior when necessity calls. Story one comes from the New Testament in the Bible.


 Now a centurion (an officer in the Roman Army) had a bond servant who was held in honor and highly valued by him, who was sick and at the point of death. And when the centurion heard of Jesus, he sent some Jewish Elders to him, requesting him to come and make his bond servant well. And when they reached Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, he is worthy that you should do this for him. For he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue at his own expense. And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent some friends to him saying, Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not sufficiently worthy to have you come under my roof. Neither did I consider myself worthy, to come to you, but just speak a word, and my servant boy will be healed. For I also am a man daily subject to authority, with soldiers under me; I say to one, go, and he goes; and to another, come and he comes; and to my bond servant, do this, and he does it. Now when Jesus heard this he marveled at him and he turned and said to the crowd that followed him, I tell you, not even in all Israel have I found such faith as this. And when the messengers who had been sent returned to the house, they found the bond servant who had been ill quite well again. “Luke 7:2-10”. Now Jesus did not say to the centurion that he must first resign from the army and fight no more. He simply recognized that the military way was the life that this person has chosen. He simply healed the warrior’s bond servant, because of his faith. Jesus went his way, the servant was healed, and the centurion remained in the Roman Army to fight again.





The second illustration occurred in World War I.


Alvin Cullum York (1887–1964) came out of the hills of the deep south when he was drafted into the United States Army. York was a man of religious conviction who believed that killing was wrong. He was not a coward, as he went into battle and did whatever was necessary to help the wounded and assist in other duties. He just would not carry a weapon. At one particular battle the U.S. troops were being slaughtered by German machine guns located on the upper hills. It was pure sacrifice as U.S. soldiers tried to charge the hill time and time again. Finally, Alvin York could not stand by and do nothing. He picked up a rifle and circled around the enemy and single handedly wiped out machine gun nest after machine gun nest. York ended up killing dozens of the enemy, thus allowing his fellows soldiers to move forward. After the battle was over his officers asked him what changed his mind to fight. Alvin said that killing was still wrong, but by eliminating the machine gun nests he was actually saving many lives and doing his part to bring the war to an end. Alvin C. York ended up being one of the most decorated men of World War One.


The Bible states that the greatest gift a man can give is to lay down his life for another. Alvin York was willing to do that.


By controlling a volatile situation or by eliminating a violent attacker, the Christian martial artist is actually preventing harm to himself, or a loved one, someone in need, and possibly even save a life.


There are a number of Christian Martial Arts Schools springing up which are infusing the Christian belief system into their martial arts training. Christianity is based solely on its teacher, Jesus Christ. What did he have to say about life?


1.         Happy are those who long to be just and good, for they shall be completely satisfied.

2.         Happy are the kind and merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.

3.         Happy are those whose hearts are pure, for they shall see God.

4.         Happy are those who strive for peace, they shall be called the sons of God.

5.         Happy are those who are persecuted because they are good, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

6.         When you are reviled and persecuted and lied about because you are my followers -  wonderful.

7.         Take care! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired.

8.         When you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets will reward you.

9.         Don’t recite the same prayer over and over as the heathen do. Remember, your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him.

10.       Don’t store up treasures here on earth where they can erode away or may be stolen. Store them in heaven where they will never lose their value, and are safe from thieves.

11.       If your profits are in heaven your heart will be there too.

12.       If your eye is pure, there will be sunshine in your soul, but if your eye is clouded with evil thoughts and desires, you are in deep spiritual darkness.

13.       You cannot serve two masters, God and money. For you will hate one and love the other.

14.       So my counsel is; don’t worry about things - food, drink and clothes, for you already have life and a body and they are more important than what to eat and wear. Look at the birds! They don’t worry about what to eat - they don’t need to sow or reap or store up food - for your Heavenly Father feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than they are. Will all your worries add a single moment to your life?

15.       So don’t be anxious about tomorrow God will take care of you tomorrow too. Live one day at a time.

16.       Don’t criticize, and you won’t be criticized.

17.       For others will treat you as you treat them.

18.       Ask and you will be given what you ask for. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives, anyone who seeks, finds. If only you will knock, the door will open.

19.       Do unto others as you want them to do for you.

20.       Heaven can be entered only through the narrow gate! The highway to Hell is broad, and its gate is wide enough for all the multitudes who choose its easy way.

21.       Beware of false teachers who come as disguised as harmless sheep, but are wolves and will tear you apart.

22.       Not all who sound religious are really Godly people. For the decisive question is whether they obey my Father in heaven.


The Christian New Testament is filled with hundreds of works and words of Jesus Christ. The Bible states that if everything Jesus said and if every miracle and healing act he performed was recorded, the world itself could not contain all the books.


The one glaring difference between Christianity and all the other belief system is stated simply, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” John 3:16.


The Christian believes that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, The Son Of God. “Not by works or deeds, but by faith in the Son of God.”


We have just completed a short study (volumes could and have been written) of some of the major belief system that have been infused in the martial arts since its beginning to the present. There is no escaping this fact, it is a part of man’s very fiber.


Even those martial artists who don’t believe in any religion still follow some moral code of conduct. Suffice it to say, that when all parts of the human body are trained and honed into deadly weapons with the power to destroy another person and take his life with but a single blow, mankind cannot arbitrarily go about and kill or harm others. There must be some rules of conduct established. Since the world is composed of many types of humans, with varying customs and far distances separating one from another, the religion of each area that is practiced seems to supply the Yin, or softer side of the martial arts that is needed to compliment the Yang, the physical, harder side.


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