I have recently been working on a book in martial arts and philosophy, and part of my interest arose from a consideration of the martial arts as practical philosophy.  I am increasingly coming to see the expression of the body through martial arts (and much, but not all, physical culture in general) as itself a philosophical act, and part of my intention is to try to explain this act.  Not in order to generate a theory of martial arts as philosophy, but instead to aid martial artists in expressing themselves and giving voice to their own inner life.  If we read the great texts of martial arts philosophy from the past, I think we can find hints as to how to navigate the difficult road toward attaining self-expression in the martial arts.

Bruce Lee, the most famous martial artist who ever lived, spoke in an interview once about the difficulty and importance of self-expression in martial arts.  It is among my favorite quotes in all of martial arts history:

“To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself. Now, it is very difficult to do. It has always been very easy for me to put on a show and be cocky, and be flooded with a cocky feeling and feel pretty cool and all that. I can make all kinds of phoney things. Blinded by it. Or I can show some really fancy movement. But to experience oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that, my friend, is very hard to do.”

I feel that this attitude is being lost, not only in martial arts, but in society in general.  Putting on a show, or winning a competition, has eclipsed honest self-expression in the eyes of most.  In the martial arts especially, we have a unique point of reference from which to understand Bruce Lee’s quote.  Although the art of honest self-expression is difficult, it is a natural pursuit for the martial artist, moreso than for many others.  When one begins to engage in the kinds of purposeful and combative movements cultivated in the martial arts, the issue of honest self-expression arises naturally.

As Bruce Lee said, it is not so straightforward to simply do it, to simply express oneself honestly.  We need to train in order to do this, to develop the mental and physical skills, just as we need to train in order to execute a proper side kick, for example.  If we neglect this training, then it will be impossible for us to honestly express ourselves through the martial arts, just as it will be impossible for a person who never trains side kicks to pull off a halfway decent kick.

Part of this training, if we aim to attain the ability to express ourselves honestly through martial arts, involves the ability to understand how the human body can express the self, and to train ourselves to develop the ability to perform the necessary movements in the spirit proper to them.  This is a matter of philosophical understanding, technical skill, and artistic ability.  If we neglect any of these, we will simply be unable to honestly express ourselves in the way Bruce Lee described, and will ultimately miss out on one of the greatest possible accomplishments for a martial artist.

I approach my own martial arts training as training in the art of honest self-expression, and I teach my children the martial arts in this way as well.  We do not have to walk this road toward the goal alone, however.  Great martial artists and philosophers of the past can help to guide us (although they can never completely show us the way, which we must find on our own).  In order for them to help, though, we have to listen to their words, when possible watch their actions, and reflect on the meanings behind these words and actions.

As part of my own training, I have been reading through and reflecting on a number of important works in martial arts and philosophy.  Here at This Year in Martial Arts, I intend to keep track of some of my thoughts as I go through these readings, in order to both document my own training, as well as to encourage others to engage in this kind of training themselves–a kind of training that, in my opinion, is ultimately the most significant kind of training for the martial artist.