By James Nathan Post

These days we hear a great deal about students of the martial arts discovering the wisdom and philosophy which underlies the forms and techniques. But when an attempt is made to explain to the layman the essence of this philosophy, the result is most often some kind of "Confucius-says" example of Oriental wisdom and wit. Like the Old Testament proverbs, such sayings are intuitively satisfying, but do little to reveal the fundamentals of thought behind them. Some, like the Zen koan, are intended to jar the mind loose from the limitation of perceiving the reality only through the distorting lenses and filters of word associations. Here is an American example: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

If anything is to be learned from the I Ching, it is that it is not only natural, but most beneficial that the world and all in it should be made up of those things which manifest Yang, and also those things which manifest Yin. Likewise, a student of the martial arts should let his studies encompass both the Yang forms and the Yin forms - the so-called hard and soft forms.

Though it is a gross oversimplification of Karate and of Tai Chi Chuan and the practitioners thereof to do so, I will take the liberty of using them to characterize two opposing viewpoints concerning style and purpose of the forms.

Tai Chi Chuan is an esoteric form included in the range of forms called Ch'uan-fa, or Kung Fu. It is selected for its being a very soft form, the best-known of the Nei Chia, or intrinsic inner/soft school of Oriental forms. It is also the one which is most clearly concerned with teaching the conscious control of the interplay of Yin and Yang, so as to manipulate the energy known as chi.

Karate is a relatively modern synthesis based on the use of the hardest forms, the hard horse and the hard fist of Kung Fu. These have their roots in the same Chinese thought - I Ching - as the Tai Chi, but modified by the Koreans, Okinawans, and Japanese. Today it is being further modified by the most-yang form yet, kick-boxing karate.

In its overt actions, America is a high-yang nation, creative, aggressive, and forceful. Detractors say that our yang exterior is matched by our interior high-yin notions of morality. For the most part these detractors seem to be people who mistakenly assume one must be weak to be meek, and poor to be humble. In the reality it is the strongest who can best afford to be gentle and the richest who can best afford to be charitable. America would be wise to remember, however, that when the strongest are the most violent, and the richest the most greedy, then as Darth Vader might put it, "The power of the Dark Side has triumphed."

Karate, which is principally a combat form, is more a specialty than Tai Chi, even though it is the popular form in the Occident. Tai Chi is directed at developing a healthy and well-coordinated mind and body, and peripherally could presumably be used to defend oneself. Karate is primarily directed at enabling its practitioners to succeed in the rarified environment of maximum-effort hand-to-hand combat against other people. It is unquestioned that the strength, health, and refined control of the body are a natural result of becoming proficient. The underlying principles, in particular the philosophical, social, and ethical, are not overtly manifest, and are getting less and less attention in American schools as the generations of instructors are growing farther and farther from the Oriental masters who introduced the various forms of Karate to America. It is not that the American instructors are any less technically proficient in the form - but they do not live the philosophy nor the lifestyle of their Oriental teachers. Karateka who are well-adjusted in American culture are not likely to feel the need to become deeply committed to some esoteric alternate lifestyle. In fact, most martial arts enthusiasts over the last twenty years have been supporters of the established political and religious establishments, rather than the dissatisfied seekers of alternatives.

On the other hand, most of the students of Tai Chi Chuan have been from exactly the opposite group, those seeking more earth-centered philosophies and lifestyles than the traditional values of twentieth-century America offered them. Many of these found satisfaction in the harmony with the natural way expressed in Chinese philosophical works.

Both groups are encouraged to recognize that in terms of the philosophy which is the root of both their forms, they are each seeing only one side of the same coin. For the Karateka, learning Tai Chi will first of all improve his Karate techniques by making him more aware of the subtle factors of balance - weight, motion, and power - and he will become more aware of the use of the same yin-yang balance by nature in all her activities. This will open the mind to the most basic directive of Tao: perceive the natural flow, and direct your affairs to harmonize with it.

The end product of making this directive the focus of life is readily seen in the warrior-sage-patriarch of the mature Kung Fu man of China. He is not just a warrior like the Samurai, not just a saintly hermit like the Buddhist sage, but the center of strength and order for his family, and an active participant in the affairs of the community and country.

Those people who study Tai Chi because they are committed to the way of non-violence and who therefore judge the Karateka harshly are exhorted to take responsibility for all of life, not just the times of peace. This is not just implied, but is the main point of the lesson of the I Ching. To my way of thinking, a harder lesson is here for the compulsively non-violent than for the skull-bashing Karateka. For the Karateka a change in the form (that is, learning to do Tai Chi) will bring about a philosophical change gradually, enabling him or her to become a more tolerant and serene person. For the peacenik Tai Chi practicer, a change in philosophical orientation is called for to enable the use of the forms. If the gentle, loving, and peaceful people are worth preserving, then to willfully refuse to become capable of protecting them is a betrayal. That is to say, when wolves come - and Tao assures us they will come in their own time - it is better, if you love the sheep, to be a shepherd with a staff. In this way, the gentle-hearted person who abhors the violence of Karate is able to see that to become an expert warrior is not the vanity of bullies he suspects it to be, but a responsibility he owes to those he loves.

The Tai Chi adept sees that it is not moral, but irresponsible to stand about singing hymns and waving hands like clouds all the time; the Karateka sees that it is not necessary, and likely is provoking, to be on-post barking at passers-by all the time.

They both share a responsiblilty to be productive. Of what use is a soldier or a monk when the people are hungry? The monk will tell them to fast, and the soldier will raid the neighbor's storehouse. Both are wrong - the former costs the people their lives, the latter their righteousness. The Superior man is thus called upon to become proficient in providing as well as defending.

In times of peace, it is a good thing to be a monk with a song on his lips and a begging bowl in his hands. When enemies come to destroy, is a good thing to be a knight with a sword at his side and a vow in his heart to protect the righteous. When famine comes, it is a good thing to possess a storehouse full of seed, and the knowledge to farm the land.

When the monk has broken his begging bowl and turned his hand to the backbreaking labor of a lifetime at the plow...
When the gentle farmer has broken his crown of pride and offered to sacrifice his life or accept the debt of taking life to protect the lives of the righteous...
When the man, now grown mature, stands in his fruited field with lute at one side and sword at the other, of what use then is the monk?

The monk is the key to the sage, which is the fulfillment of a man. For if the man had never possessed the heart of the monk, his skills would have been of no true service to the people. This is the pitfall of believing in the virtue of winning for its own sake. As a warrior, he could not distinguish the righteous, and so would have used his power only to defend those who would pay him, or serve him. As a provider, he would see the poor as people who had failed in their moral obligation to be providers. It would then seem a charitable act for the wealthy landowner to feed the poor man's family by permitting him to labor his life away in the rich man's field.

When the man stands in his fields a wealthy landowner and a great warrior with a family who have grown up around him, if he still possesses the heart of a monk, then he becomes a sage. The purpose of the sage is to preserve the forms, and to pass them along to the young.

  • To teach them the forms of art and music...
  • To teach them the forms of the family...
  • To teach them the forms of body health...
  • To teach them the forms of combat...
  • To teach them the forms of work...
...and through these forms to subtly encourage the delicate unfolding of the sensitive heart. These forms, which make up a complete way of life, are collectively called Kung Fu, the work upon man, and the superior man, according to the ancient I Ching, is the one who has mastered the forms so as to complete the work upon himself. By immersing oneself in the wisdom of the I Ching, one may grow to deeply appreciate this great culture, and to begin to appreciate what is meant by the statement, "Martial Arts is not just fighting lessons, it is a way of life."