Posted by: B Gourley | May 30, 2011

Wisdom in the Martial Arts

I have, perhaps owing to a dearth of it in my own nature, been thinking a lot about wisdom, and have even been toying with a book project on the subject. Wisdom is something that we all applaud, but few display it in such defining quantities that we would call them wise. I would argue that it’s not a subject that’s well understood. Dictionary definitions tend to equate wisdom with knowledge (or at least certain sorts of knowledge), experience, or good judgement. While some of these equations are better than others, I would argue that all are imperfect.

Knowledge and wisdom seem to me to be very different entities. I, by more than my own estimation, am a broadly knowledgable person, but am not wise. Knowledge is information, and if one intellectually understands that information one has its essence. Knowledge can be quite complex, and thus hard to understand, but understanding it equates to possessing it. That is,  if one understands the knowledge, one is knowledgable. The tenets of wisdom, regardless of their cultural origins, are often exceedingly simple to understand, but understanding them intellectually does not equate to being wise. One can think of many such tenets:

“Turn the other cheek.”  – Christianity

“Desire is the root of suffering.” – Buddhism

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  – Plato

A child can intellectually understand what is being said in each of these cases, but that does not make them wise. Displaying the tenets of wisdom in real life is what makes one wise, and that is far more difficult than understanding them. Wisdom must be lived not merely understood.

This is one reason that the modern academy, by and large, is not a bastion of wisdom in the manner we might attribute to precursors such as Socrates. Socrates was wise not because he was smart, but because he had the courage to walk the walk and the dispassionate nature to not have his method revert to angry name calling or fearful appeasement (on his part, at least). The Socratic method uses a series of questions to lead the opposition to the error of their ways, or, at least, to make such errors in reasoning apparent to others. In the modern academy there is much less comfort and willingness to engage those with differing viewpoints, and, when there is, it is often done hideously poorly. Take, for example, when Iranian President Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia University. Feeling political and economic pressures, the University President got up and gave a lambasting monologue against Ahmadinejad before he spoke. Ahmadinejad then got up and pointed how impolite this tactic was, and, low-and-behold, the tyrant was elevated to the position of being the reasonable one at the outset. An administration that was too cowardly to think that its students and faculty could show the man’s lack of reason in an effective way handed him moral high ground from which to begin (granted the wheels rolled off this high ground a few minutes into the speech.)

I will only briefly touch on the other concepts deemed synonymous with wisdom. The first is experience. It is true that some gain wisdom through their experiences, but it’s also true that some live long and petty lives. The second is good judgment. I think this is the best of the three by far. The wise, to be sure, do display good judgment, but I feel there may be more than that. At any rate, this definition does not give us insight into the mechanism by which better judgment is exercised.

This brings me the long way around to the point of this post that has to do with martial arts. What is the wisdom offered by martial arts? The first thing that springs to mind is a heightened capacity to avoid being ruled by one’s emotions. High level martial arts practice requires one set aside one of the most potent emotional states: fear (whether of physical harm  or of embarrassment.) A mind that is unburdened of fear or concern performs vastly better than one controlled by it. One is also taught to not be manipulated into action through anger. The tales of Miyamoto Musashi defeating opponents that he first insulted by showing up late are prime examples of this lesson.

A second lesson is the virtue of not forcing matters. In Daoism, this concept is called wu wei, “actionless action” or “effortless doing.” Wu wei is about knowing when not to act. Kukishin-ryu offers a couple of poems that touch on similar concepts:

“The soil washed away by a flood, by giving itself up, will float along.”

“The secret to the making use of the enemy’s strength is the heart of the willow in the wind.”

Martial arts teach us to let the opponent come to us and to use minimal effort rather than trying to manhandle them.


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