Courtesy in the Martial Arts

To paraphrase Saint Basil (b.330 AD), a man is known by his deeds – he who sows seeds of courtesy reaps friendship.

Courtesy is the act of behaving kindly, it also demonstrates politeness, respect and civility towards others, it is an act of humility. Courteous behaviour is also a sign of mindfulness, the awareness of another’s’ situation and a thoughtful response to that situation.

If courteous behaviour is about making friends and being mindful of others, why did traditional martial artists – men who were trained how to fight and injure or possibly kill others – place so much emphasis on the character trait of courtesy?

Traditional Asian theology is steeped heavily in Buddhism, particularly in China and Korea and later in Japan (though originating in India many hundreds of years before the birth of Christ). Buddhist’s believe in moral precepts which includes the concept of Zen – rigorous self control through meditation seeking the insight of Buddha through daily life for the benefit of others.

Buddhists also believe in karma, the sum of the good and bad deeds of an individual at the end of their life will determine how their next life will be. Buddhists strive to attract ‘good’ karma through acts of kindness and courtesy and go to lengths to avoid ‘bad’ karma brought about by acts of selfishness or carelessness.

The Chinese in particular also believe in the philosophy of yin and yang – this essentially is the combination of light and dark, negative and positive or the sun and the moon. This philosophy deals with the concept of the inescapability of duality and unity within nature and therefore within people – there cannot be the darkness of shadows without the brightness of light.

Despite the relatively peaceful nature of these peoples, there was an inherent understanding that nations, states or even tribes would need to defend themselves and protect their property at some stage. The nature of the culture in China, Korea and Japan at this time was so ingrained with these theological and philosophical ideals that the development of martial arts styles from these parts of Asia were done with an adamancy that martial education would not be a barbaric pursuit. With the idea that along with martial education, there would also be moral and character building education.

The Shaolin monks began there martial arts training as a series of exercises to keep there bodies in shape after long hours of meditation. Bodhidharma, a Buddhist Monk from around the 5th Century, most likely Indian, spend many years meditating in the Shaolin province of China. On seeing how ill of health the Shaolin monks were, he taught them specific movements and exercises from which Shaolin kung fu was eventually derived. In this case the martial artists were practicing courtesy before any type of physical training.

In the beginning of The Three Kingdoms Period in Korea, the Silla Kingdom was growing and strengthening quickly. King Samguk Yusa acted to secure the future of the kingdom by selecting the youth of noble and moral families to be educated in the ways of successfully administrating a powerful state. Named the Hwarang, or Flowering Knights, these young men were taught philosophy, politics, theology and martial arts.

The martial arts consisted of horsemanship, swordsmanship, archery, javelin, stone throwing, ladder climbing and fighting in water. They also learnt hand to hand self defence, self confidence and self control. The Hwarang received religious instruction from Buddhist monks and often sought the monks guidance when dealing with moral issues. In return, the Hwarang taught the monks self defence and fitness techniques so that they were able to defend themselves against burglary etc.

Character traits to be adhered to by the Hwarang consisted Humanity, Justice, Courtesy, Wisdom, Trust, Goodness, Virtue, Loyalty and Courage – if these traits were followed, it was perceived by the noblemen and hierarchy that Silla would live long and prosper.

Japanese Warriors too had a martial code that was steeped in theology and philosophy. For the Samurai, Bushido was their code of conduct and it too stemmed from the Buddhist beliefs in Zen – a combination of meditation and mindfulness juxtaposed with deadly martial skill. The Samurai were not only martial artists, they also held respected positions in society. They were the protectors of the law makers and the shoguns (Lords), which in turn made them the protectors of the stability of Japanese aristocracy and therefore the stability of Japan itself.

The Samurai studied politics and the Buddhist religion, they were also highly literate and were involved in many cultural pursuits such as the Japanese tea ceremony, ink painting and rock gardens. Part of a Samurai’s code of conduct was to behave in a way that was to set an example of those below them, this included many social graces including courtesy.

The Shaolin monks of China, the Hwarang of Korea and the Samurai of Japan all demonstrated exceptional martial arts skills. Their skills were practiced and honed over many years training and all were renown for their particular set of fighting techniques.

The monks, the Hwarang and the Samurai were also respected members of their societies and they all had a role to play in that society other than martial artists. All three groups were respected in their communities and acted in ways that displayed good manners and a polite and civil interaction with others. It was important that the population were able to look up to these martial artists and see not only warriors, but also a considerate and courteous group of people they could trust and respect.


Contributed by KYU BYU NIM Paul – STAR Activity October 2017

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