Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Martial arts & religion

Chewing the fat the other night at one of those all-important having-a-beer-after-training sessions, the conversation turned to why a couple of students had recently left – in both cases it was a question of religion.

The first was one of our very few female students – a hippy / New Age type. She left because she thought we weren’t spiritual enough: She had asked why we didn’t have anything to say about chi. We said that we just don’t go there – it’s not necessary to explain how Wing Chun works. We only talk about perfecting body mechanics not releasing inner energy.

It’s not that we have anything against chi – we still know so little about how the nervous system works that it is quite conceivable that the concept of chi is just an ancient expression for some sort of energy impulse that medicine is yet to articulate.  It’s just that we don’t need to promote it in the teaching of what we do. As for the student who left because of this omission - we have heard since that she has converted to Islam, so presumably she is not too keen on chi herself now.

The other student was a senior with many years of mileage on him – and experience working as a doorman. Then he became a born-again Christian. His pastor told him that he was practicing a ‘pagan art’. The evidence cited for this was a couple of things found on the internet about techniques known as ‘the half prayer to Buddha’ or ‘the five prayers to Buddha’. These are not the technical names of the techniques – they are effectively Chinese slang that maybe made sense in a society with a Buddhist culture. We don’t even use them in our kwoon – and we don’t use the traditional Chinese yin-yang salute either, believing that a handshake or a bear-hug are more meaningful Western-equivalent gestures of respect and brotherhood.

It’s sad to lose  students for such stupid reasons. It’s also kind of amusing to see how religious belief systems are so mutually-repellent. (Although I should add that we do have some students who are devout Muslims or Christians and manage to reconcile this with their training). Personally as an atheist/Humanist/freethinker/whatever I find martial arts not only compatible but absolutely complementary with my own worldview:

Martial arts training is so essentially ‘promethean’ with much of the training counter-intuitive and aimed to condition new reflexes. It takes short, tall, skinny, fat, timid, aggressive, uncoordinated people, or more rarely natural athletes and scientifically allows them to make themselves into something else. It is about rational enquiry – looking behind the seemingly amazing feats of strength, speed or endurance and breaking them down into perfected physical techniques. And in the long run, more than the physical it provides psychological benefits like stress management and the cultivation of calm. You can call that spirituality if you must but I think that’s just shorthand for mental well-being.

No comments: