Mindless killers – that’s a phrase that has been used by more than a few historians to describe medieval knights, those supposed practitioners of the code of chivalry. But the fact is, while “killers” maybe mindless, real soldiers (that is, those devoted to mastering any sort of martial art) need to be very mindful of what they’re doing. Remember, medieval knights were encouraged to spend many hours in quiet, reflective prayer (a practice that many took very seriously), just as samurai and other warriors of Oriental cultures practiced forms of “mind focusing” meditation.
The fact is, studying a martial sport – whether it’s karate or kendo, collegiate fencing or the new trend in “Western martial arts” – requires a more serious and different kind of focus than other sports. This isn’t to say football, tennis or rugby don’t require mental discipline, but in recreational sports like those, you aren’t working with equipment and techniques that are actually intended to cause physical harm. (At least, no tennis player I’ve ever spoken to has been taught to parry and riposte with a racquet.)
Martial arts, on the other hand, demand a unique sense of control on both a physical and mental level. If you’re practicing joint locks or sword thrusts, you must be in control of both body and mind in order to avoid doing harm to a friendly sparring partner – while at the same time understanding how to employ those techniques to full effect if necessary.
This is why so many martial arts philosophies – including the code of chivalry – place such emphasis on anger control, and mental tranquility as a response to pain, fear or aggression. Viewed through the lens of philosophy, martial arts become not a test of skill with fists and swords, but a mental sparring match with an inner opponent – the out-of-control mind. If you can “keep your cool” while someone is trying to punch, throw or stab you … then you can face just about any adversity life can throw at you with ease.
Of course, there’s much more to the combination of fighting and philosophy than this – as demonstrated in the recently published book Martial Arts And Philosophy from Open Court Books. The book is a marvelous exploration of the age-old, culturally transcendent struggle to meld combative arts with systems of philosophy and morality ranging from Plato and Descartes to Zen Buddhism and the code of chivalry. (The book includes my own chapter Sir Aristotle And The Code Of Chivalry.)
Martial Arts And Philosophy reminds us that, despite appearances, martial arts are solitary activities – they allow us to confront our own foibles and shortcomings, if we have the courage to do so. It reminds us that the reason we bow to, or salute an opponent before a training or sparring session is not out of some misplaced sense of sportsmanship – it’s because the person across the arena, the one who’s about to attack you with everything they’ve got, is giving you a chance to become a better person.
And that’s the ultimate goal of any philosophy, no matter how many bumps and bruises it takes to get there.
Check this out: Recently the United States Marine Corps has implemented a meditation program for its soldiers. The Corps says that studies have shown that even just a few minutes of quiet mindfulness each day can help soldiers improve “mental clarity, problem-solving skills and emotional control.” The techniques of martial arts and philosophy are still benefiting these modern-day knights in shining armor.
You can join the Chivalry Today “Knight School” Western Martial Arts Workshop (for youth and adults) being held at San Diego’s acclaimed Team Touche Fencing Center. These workshops are held regularly, based on student interest and registration, so contact Team Touche if you’re interested in discovering the ideals and values of chivalry through the techniques of medieval sword combat.
The next series of Knight School Western Martial Arts Workshops begins mid-November, 2010 — sign up now to reserve your place!