"The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts," by Dota

New essay from Dota. Very nice!

The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts

By Dota

The Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi acknowledged a number of influences on Japanese thought, chief among which were Confucianism and Buddhism. Yet not once does he directly mention the Old Master whose philosophy is so entrenched in the martial arts that the Samurai once pursued with inexhaustible zeal. Yet despite this seeming negligence, Mushashi’s epic martial arts treatise, “A Book of 5 Rings“, is laden with Taoist ideas and analogies. Indeed the very nature of the Japanese martial arts has been shaped and molded by Taoist thinking.
In the interest of brevity one can sum up Taoist thought as being primarily concerned with conforming to nature by finding “the way.” According to the very first verse of the Tao te Ching (the poem attributed to Lao Tzu): “The Tao (way) that can be described is not the real Tao.” Indeed, Lao Tzu devoted considerable energy into conveying the indescribable nature of the way. One could not describe the way, one merely walked it or one didn’t. Could one verbally instruct another on how to ride a bicycle? One either knew how to or didn’t.
Philosopher Arthur Danto astutely observed that the Taoists had a deep mistrust of prepositional knowledge, or what one would refer to as the discursive intellect. Taoism isn’t concerned with the knowledge of the scholar, but rather, with what we would refer to as “intuitive knowledge.” Those that knew the way were able to execute the perfect brush stroke or carve a pumpkin with exceptional ability.
To further illustrate this point, Chuang Tzu narrates the story of the old wheel maker. The latter approached a King and told him that reading his book was a waste of time. He explained to the King that true knowledge couldn’t be expressed in words but could only be grasped. He illustrated this point by describing his own trade as thus:

The other secret of my trade has to do with the roundness of the wheel. If I chisel away at the wheel too quickly, I may be able to complete the work in a short time, but the wheel won’t be perfectly round. Even though it may look quite acceptable upon casual inspection, in actual usage it will cause excessive shaking of the carriage…In order to create the best wheels possible in a timely manner, I must chisel at just the right speed – not too fast and not too slow. This speed is also guided by a feeling, which again can only be acquired through many years of experience.

He then concluded his lesson with the following observation:

Your Majesty, the ancient sages possessed the feelings that were at the heart of their mastery. Using words, they could set down the mechanics of their mastery in the form of books, but just as it is impossible for me to pass on my experience to anyone else, it is equally impossible for them to transmit their essence of wisdom to you. Their feelings died when they passed away. The only things they left behind were their words. This is why I said Your Majesty was reading the leftovers of a dead man.

Karate is taught via instruction and perfected through rigorous practice. Form, movement, and balance can be learned by executing a sequence of gestures and movements known as Kata. The master guides the student to the way but the student is tasked with walking on it and not deviating from it. In the first Karate Kid film Mr Miyagi scoffs at Daniel Larusso’s attempt to “learn Karate from book.” Musashi similarly stated in his treatise that “Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively,” (Water Book).
But what is the difference between those men that follow the way and those that don’t? Those that follow the way properly are able to execute actions with minimal effort. But while effort is minimized the outcome of their actions is maximized.
This is known as the principle of WuWei (literally non doing). WuWei is also often understood as carefully calibrated action. Consider for example, a perfectly executed Karate shoulder throw. By using a lunging opponents force against him, one can disable an opponent with a shoulder throw; a move that would ordinarily require considerable effort to execute. Actions become effortless for those that know the way.
Musashi’s duels typically lasted only a few seconds. Consider his duel with Kojiro for example. He charged at his opponent and provoked Kojiro into making the first attack. Musashi effortlessly dodged the attack and decisively struck his opponent on the head killing him in a single blow. Musashi almost echoes Lao Tzu when he urges martial artists to be like water which is gentle yet destructive. It is the principle of WuWei that gives the Japanese martial arts their characteristic finesse that many have come to admire. The ancient masters would be repulsed by the drawn out UFC slug fests and would dismiss these fighters as not truly knowing the way.
The Japanese word for way is michi, which literally refers to a path through the Cosmos. The Way has no destination, and simply finding the way is an end in itself. Since Taoism is primarily concerned with each pursuing his own way, it stands to reason that every one of us is (potentially) a wanderer. The wanderer is also a common motif in Taoist art – he who walks a path without apparent destination.
I must point out that many of Japan’s cherished heroes were wanderers too, such as Musashi and Yagyu Jubei. Both of these individuals refused to hang up their swords and become artisans during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period of Japanese history. They wandered the countryside (the Samurai had no restrictions on travel) and dueled several opponents that crossed their paths.
Musashi is said to have won 80 duels during his lifetime. So entrenched is the image of the wandering martial artist that it has left its imprint on contemporary Japanese pop culture as well. The characters Ryu and Akuma of the Street Fighter franchise are wanderers pursuing the way of the martial artist. In a statement saturated with Taoist overtones Akuma proclaims: “For some, it is the path, not the goal,” (Street Fighter Alpha 1).
Ultimately, while the spirit of the Japanese martial arts is obviously Japanese, their character is clearly Chinese.

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19 thoughts on “"The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts," by Dota”

    1. Glad you liked it. I initially hesitated to submit this to Robert since I had never written about East Asian philosophy before, but I have a soft spot for Chinese philosophy.

      1. All my great “leaps” in knowledge have happened abruptly and without compulsive application of the sort practiced in school. One knows, and education should aim to unveil awareness, not transfer it.

        1. There is something undoubtedly very appealing about the knowledge that Taoism holds in such high regard. I think the word “awareness” (as you put it) describes it very well. When one becomes aware of the way, one sees the way everywhere.
          In the book of 5 rings, Musashi said that when one truly understands the way of the warrior, one will see the way in everything. He proved this point by producing outstanding works of art such as ink paintings, calligraphy, and wood carvings. These are not even related to the martial arts yet he was able to produce them with ease.

        2. The martial arts are a physical manifestation of the “path.” I believe this, anyhow. It sounds awfully trite, but the “trigger” that awakened my curiousity was the old 70’s show, “Kung Fu,” with David Carradine.

  1. Many have said that Zen Buddhism or Chan Buddhism and Taoism have heavily inspired Eastern martial arts. I believe the techniques and fighting styles come from China, through Taoism as you have said and breathing and meditative techniques (yoga) may have come from the Indian subcontinent, through Buddhism.

      1. Historia
        We can see a harmonious synchronization between two great Eastern philosophies.
        That is essentially correct. The Japanese martial arts blend Taoism with Buddhism in an interesting way.

    1. I think both the philosophy and the martial arts were not created by these Eastern people at all, both of these were either created by Indians or Greeks; or teachers that had origins from these places. Eastern peoples really aren’t that original or creative and this can be attested by anyone who has had contact with them or lived for some time in these regions.
      It’s fake phony bullshit spirituality, I don’t believe in Zen, which I see as just simplistic faulty redundant parochial human cognitive narrow construct view of the unpredictable and vast complicated waves of the warp nature pertaining to reality. Zen eastern philosophy, I believe is the ultimate form of mental masturbation and liberal whackery “trendiness”, like “oh cool man you meditate and do yoga and shit? You must be hip and deep!”, while emphasizing the mysticism of anything “eastern” like it’s special and really “different” with grass is greener on the other side undertones.
      This article is garbage and sucks plainly while reeking of faux liberal tones of attempting to be “unique” and “philosophical” while failing to do that by pretentiously writing about the subject in an “enlightening” way to all us dumb peasants as if we are too small to understand such great deep things and ah!! The great Eastern wisdom of the world and it’s philosophy which us dumb arises must understand since our knowledge is so limited! This author is also extrapolating his views and making points that simply do not exist in the reality of this Eastern mysticism crap making the typical liberal pretentious mistake of making this subject seem more special and comprehensive then it actually really is!
      Getting interested in and exoticisizing/fetishizing Eastern philosophy is such cliché a-typical liberal jackassery that it’s a sure sign the person getting into it is a great ignoramus of the actual source and setting of this philosophy and the workings plus origins of it; or just a pretentious dumbshit liberal shit OR just a idiotic wannabe intellectual jackass who hasn’t done all the hard challenging readings of the philosophies of the Western world and wants a watered down simplistic dumb philosophy to feel special in understanding and somehow dubiously applying it.
      Here is a great quote on the false shallow simplistic backwards nature of the people that created all this Zen mental masturbation junk:
      “I have a simple metaphor. The Chinese are fond of telling everyone about their 5,000 years of culture. Yet no one in the world outside of China actually gives a shit about Chinese culture. As fucked up as the West is, it still has attractive qualities that cut through the parochial noise and appeal to people in a universal sense.
      What, exactly, has China given the world? Aside from perhaps Sun Tzu or Confucius, name a Chinese writer. Now name one you’ve actually read. Name a Chinese composer or artist or scientist. For all of its billions of people who have lived over the past 5,000 years (which is a somewhat bogus and exaggerated claim anyway), what has it bequeathed to the world? A handful of inventions and scientific discoveries. How can that be? Then you go to Taiwan (which is supposed to be the civilised and developed version of China) and on a daily basis you realise that any progress these people have made has largely been accomplished by countries such as the U.S. dragging them kicking and screaming into real civilisation.
      Daily interactions with people are so unbelievably frustrating, illogical and perverse that you wonder how anything works here. You haven’t seen disorganisation, buck passing and incompetence until you’ve lived here. It’s like the entire country was trained by the main DMV branch in Detroit some times, and this all stems from the basest philosophical level — Confucianism.
      If the West can be characterised as a puritan sticky beak, the East can best be summed up by a guy who doesn’t give a shit, alternately brown noses his superiors and keeps his head down and mouth shut, and ultimately just wants an iron rice bowl. This place largely exists in an amoral vacuum. These people are at once the most materialistic and most superstitious and irrational people I have ever met. Usually you get one or the other. Here they often manage to combine the worst of both. Or this. Or I could just keep throwing these out all day.
      By all accounts, China is far worse. It’s sheer weight of numbers alone that gets anything done, and they eat their own here. This comes from someone who is pretty down on the West.
      The analogy I use is that the West is like that kid who fucks around in class, does his assignment the night before, and gets a B.
      China is that kid who obediently does everything the teacher asks, starts his assignment three weeks before it is due, and still can’t break anything more than a D.
      The list of stupid things that Chinese people do because “5000 years culture” is long, even longer than the list of stupid things people do in North America.
      Off the top of my head:
      1) Insisting that everyone wear slippers in doors, even in their own home.
      2) Women refusing to drink or eat anything cold when on their period, because they think it’ll cause their period blood in their uterus to congeal.
      3) 95% of Chinese Traditional Medicine.
      4) The complete incompetence among managers at virtually any Chinese company.
      5) The entire education system.
      6) If you drink coconut milk, eat papaya or eat carrots you’ll miscarriage.
      7) No showering for a month after giving birth.
      8) If you eat chocolate or coffee while pregnant, you’ll make the baby’s skin dark.
      9) Drinking steaming hot water, even on days 40 degrees calcium or higher.
      10) Drinking carrot juice when angry to allow you to “fart” the anger out your ass.
      11) A complete denial in the existence of bacteria, choosing to instead believe that you get colds from breathing cold air, especially if you do so immediately after breathing hot air.
      12) Hanging bed sheets in the sun to “purify” them.
      13) Belief that running counter clockwise will damage your heart.
      14) Driving their cars 50 meters from their parking garage to the restaurant parking lot.
      15) Buying cars in a city with 3 hour commutes each way.
      16) Living three hours from where they work.
      My experience with cultures the world over is that they cause people to do things because they’ve just always done them that way.
      However, as you say, there are going to be exceptions. I’ve definitely met Chinese families that think for themselves. They are very rare, however.”
      And also here is a video on the shaky and faulty foundations behind all this “Eastern philosophy immersion” crap that idiot liberals like to do to pretend they are snowflakes above the dumb exotisizing liberal herd.

      1. Chinese cinema is booming, duh. Jackie Chan is already 1 of the most liked actors on facebook, and Chinese films such as Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle were popular worldwide. In music while Korea is ahead, they know their tiny country while be surpassed, so they created boy bands with Chinese me vers, or Koreans but who sing in Mandarin ( Exo M or Super Junior M ) and it proved to be a success.

        1. QUOTE”Daily interactions with people are so unbelievably frustrating, illogical and perverse that you wonder how anything works here. You haven’t seen disorganisation, buck passing and incompetence until you’ve lived here. It’s like the entire country was trained by the main DMV branch in Detroit some times, and this all stems from the basest philosophical level — Confucianism. ”
          You see foreign teachers complain about this stuff all the time on DavesESLCafe forum. Oh this is bad, Oh that is bad!! They sound like a bunch of little wussies, LOL Come on. It’s a different culture. If you don’t like it, then leave. Not to mention, the fact they’re paid 2000 a month, get a free apartment, and all kinds of white worship.
          Now there are some serious things wrong with Asia, like the Nazi type stuff I mentioned, but besides that, it’s a really cool place.
          If a foreigner wants everything to go your way in another country, then put on a white wig, and tell the natives your King George, or Queen Anne, LOL

      2. The reason Asian culture never conquered the world, is cause Asia never conquered the world, LOL. Western imperialism spread western culture. Whether western culture is better, is in the eye of the beholder. I like it, but all my life that’s been the main culture, I don’t know other ones.

        1. I like a lot of Asian culture and love Asian food. Nonetheless, based on my experience in South Korea, I think a dark side exists among them. In many ways it resembles the Nazi culture, where the racially impure, foreigners, and handicapped are persecuted.

        2. Saying the Northeast Asians didn’t invent martial arts and eastern philosophy is quite arrogant. These hard core white nationalists have an arrogant view that everything whites do is good, and everything, I mean period, non-whites do is shit.

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