The Genesis of Martial Arts
Since the first fur-clad, foul smelling, thick-skulled human picked up a big stick and whacked a bear, we have been working on combat. I can see it so clearly:
Caveman 1:“Ugh, how not die to bear?”
Caveman 2: “Me hit with big stick!”
Caveman 1: “Show Caveman 2!”
Caveman 2: “Yuh!”
As Caveman 2 swings his stick in demonstration, the first martial arts form is born.
Every lasting people has had to systematize the study of combat. This is where the “martial” in martial arts originates. Dictionary.com gives us the meaning of martial as “inclined or disposed to war; warlike”. If we called it “martial study” instead of “martial art” it would be much easier to trace the lineage of the first martial artists. But the addition of the word “art” after “martial” makes things complicated. Dictionary.com gives us the definition of “art” as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”. Every culture has had to systematize combat to survive, but no culture has had to systematize art. Who were the first people to establish this link and system? Perhaps more importantly, why did they do it?
Historians have credited everyone from ancient Korean peninsula warriors, to Native Americans as being the first to link warriorhood with art. One such story claims that a Buddhist temple was constantly under assault from bandits. The monks of this temple began to incorporate punching, kicking, blocking and movement into their meditation in order to be able to better defend their temple. They did it not with the intention of creating martial art, but rather as a way to remain peaceful in the heart while being violent with the body. A visiting monk from China witnessed their practice, thought highly of it, and brought it back to his temple. Such, as the story goes, is the birth of Kung-Fu, which many consider to be the oldest martial art in practice.
What is important to understand about the birth of martial arts is not the who, what, when and where – but rather the why. Picture this: The year is 551 A.D, and you are a new recruit in the military of the Silla dynasty of what will eventually become Korea. You are one of the legendary Hwarang warriors, though you are yet untested in real combat. You stand in your armor, grip your spear, and fill the ranks of the front line, but you are not a warrior yet.
You were born a farmer, the loving son of a doting father and mother. In your youth you were known as a compassionate, friendly young person. Perhaps you enjoyed simple, peaceful hobbies like fishing and calligraphy. The Silla dynasty was introduced to the peaceful ways of Buddhism in the 300s, and adopted them fully in 527, so it is likely that you are a Buddhist.
Now you stand on a mountain side overlooking the city of Seoul. Without the benefit of hindsight, you are unaware that capturing this city is a pivotal moment in the history of your country. You are a member of it's most famous warrior culture, it's proudest dynasty, and on the eve of capturing the capital city that will endure even until the 21st century.
As you and your fellow Hwarang swarm the city you experience bloodshed like you have never thought possible. You are cut several times, though your life is never threatened. You see skulls crushed, limbs torn from their bodies, and hear the screams of men dying in anguish. For you this is not an isolated occurrence, it will become a regular part of your life.
You are faced with two choices – lose the person you were in youth, and become a cursing, aggressive, angry marauder, or find a path to inner peace despite your external circumstance. If you choose the former you become just more battlefield fodder, choose the latter and you become a martial artist.
If you are reading this book, I suspect you would join me in the ranks of the martial artists. The unifying trait of all martial artists is combat. Without combat there is nowhere to begin, no cause to develop the mental and spiritual strengths under discussion in this book. The challenge for the martial artist of today's world is find where his “battle” is. For instance, Japanese businesspeople of the 1980s read Sun Tzu's Art of War as though it were a religious text, and a manual for corporate management – and treated the boardroom like the battlefield.
The true origin of martial arts is impossible to identify, but to my mind it was the first time a warrior tried to make sense of war. He found a way to not lose himself to the blood and gore, but also to return to peace a stronger and more balanced person for having been at war. He found a way to pass on his physical combat skills, and in so doing the mental strength associated with the ability to apply them. The origin of martial arts is the first time a warrior took the things that were “inclined or disposed to war; warlike” and turned them into “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”.