Traditionally, within the context of modern times, martial arts have served as a way for the everyday person to participate in what’s considered an ethnically and culture-based – even stylized – form or system of self-empowerment. The benefits have always included a level of better fitness, health, and well-being to physically and mentally live fuller lives. Additionally, involvement in martial arts have always provided a sense of community that starts at the local levels and expands, to some degree, worldwide, as individuals find connection to something greater than themselves. Moreover, the spiritual awareness and growth that is often said to occur by such participation range from better self awareness to a greater sense of daily calm and even a universal collective that brings one closer to some level of personal enlightenment.
The benefits of martial arts can run the gamut and are as unique as the individuals who take them up. However, such gains are not exclusive to martial arts alone. Any activity of any kind, with the right focus and intent, can create similar effects with just as powerful results. Sports, art, literature, and meditation – any positive form of physical, mental, or spiritual exertion can provide its own array of self-enhancements. Some have even claimed to find similar levels of benefits while dealing with not so positive situations. This type of involvement opens the mind to new ideas and new perspectives. Life often takes on a new or different meaning and how we choose to live could, in some cases, intensify.
Although, for many, much of the “big taboo” surrounding martial arts usually seems to primarily hinge upon the physical aspects and feats, most notably the “self-defense” facets as to its true usefulness, effectiveness, and purpose in one’s life. The question is always, “Does it really work?”
However, my question is, “Does it really matter?“
If one is looking to learn to fight, then martial arts aren’t what are needed. Everything that needs to be learned can be found right outside one’s front door and most often for free. However, the legal and medical costs associated as one is learning “the ropes” might be a serious point of consideration and contention. But nonetheless, one doesn’t need a dojo or a sensei to learn to fight; just the desire and the will to give it a go and not give up, which is often the case with any endeavor.
It would then stand to reason that if within what martial art one chooses to do gives back to them in any of the aforementioned ways, large or small, then the validity of the art, style, or system would be predicated as a worthy pursuit, regardless if that form can function as a “real world” means of physical self-defense. In a matter of speaking, if the art form or style that is chosen provides any level of awareness, self-discipline, self-confidence, personal purpose, and/or mental and physical challenge or balance, then such an endeavor is valid. The betterment of the one is essential for the betterment of the many.
Modern martial arts, or budo for that matter, are a way to self-improvement, self-betterment, and self-empowerment, as mentioned at the start of this writing. Self-defense is a byproduct of what these forms could offer. Self-defense alone is an assumption and misunderstanding of a now “by-gone” era and way of thinking. However, in modern times, when the betterment of individual is so solely needed, the selling point for martial arts has always been the “be the bigger man,” “win the fight,” or “never be defeated again” approach to attract students and look to turn a profit, giving a bad bill of goods in return to an unsuspecting and often uneducated public.
There is nothing at all wrong with making money from teaching martial arts. Nothing in this world is free and everyone deserves to make a living and be paid for their time and efforts. Where the lines often get crossed is when martial arts, which is a bit of a conundrum of wording in itself, are advertised or touted for what they aren’t or what they weren’t meant to be. This scenario is unfortunate because at the end, legitimate art forms are then given a bad rap and viewed negatively due to misrepresentation. Granted, some forms and styles are more conducive to combatives, but many are not. To compete or hold their own, many of these styles have knowingly and unknowingly distorted the view of their art.
When choosing an art form to study and pursue today, much of the burden has unnecessarily fallen upon the would-be practitioner themselves to discern whether or not the form is worth committing to. Sure, potential students should research to determine where their interests lie and what would best suit them and their goals. But this is often difficult to do,even with the best intentions. In reality, it should be more of the art form’s responsibility to properly represent themselves and their program in an accurate and truthful light, which is not always the case and begs to question as to whether or not such sentiments of proper representation were ever really the case.
Have martial arts as a whole been misrepresented? Possibly. There have always been those who look to take advantage of an unsuspecting and unknowing public – intentionally misleading for gain alone.
For this author, the answer simply is yes. Even with the best intentions, many of us have unintentionally misrepresented our arts and styles in an effort to demonstrate their physical validity and effectiveness. With the rise of MMA and the like over the last twenty-five years, traditional martial arts forms have struggle to find, keep, or maintain their place in the modern world. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, training halls across the globe have been drastically affected, many closing its doors forever.
In a time when personal development is in high need, maybe it’s time to call it for what it is; character development, inner growth, and personal enlightenment.