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Philosophical concepts: The “arts” in martial arts


Every martial art is an “art” and not a science. This is because of philosophical concepts that are imbibed in the martial art. There are innumerable philosophies from around the world, which have influenced martial arts over the years. For example, Korean martial arts are largely influenced by Shamanism, Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism; whereas, Japanese martial arts are suffused with Buddhist and Zen philosophies; while Chinese martial arts are generally based on Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

In every martial art of the world, the philosophical concepts are the same; nonetheless, the nomenclature is different. For example the concept of “stillness in motion” is normally named as “Do-Chu-Sei” in Japan, and “Wu-Ji” in China. There are many other concepts which are named differently like Shodo-O-Seisu, Zanshin, Mushin and many more. In this article, we will briefly touch upon few major philosophical concepts as applied in martial arts, without going into the individual naming conventions of different martial arts.

Few major philosophical concepts as applied in martial arts:

—Stillness in motion, motion in stillness
—An empty mind
—Immovable mind, unshakeable heart
—Know the sun, know the moon
—Move the entire body, not only the limbs
—Maximum effect with minimum effort
—Discipline achieves what ambition seeks
—Respect other martial artists
—Never give up
—There is always more to learn
—A teacher can teach in many ways
—The only constant is change

Stillness in motion, motion in stillness

The most popular explanation of this concept is the behavior of water. The legendary martial artist Bruce Lee was an avid follower of this concept and he is often quoted saying, “Be like water”. Water consists of waves that are always in motion, yet sometimes the waves are so imperceptible that water appears to be still and non-moving. It is so still that it can serve as a mirror. This mirror like still water is compared to the mind of the martial artist, which is so still that it mirrors all the movements of the opponent. Just like the waves in water are constantly in motion, similarly the body of the martial artist is constantly in motion. This stillness in motion and motion in stillness, increases concentration, which in turn enables a full range of peripheral vision. With peripheral vision, every move is executed with a definite purpose and no block, no punch, and no kick misses its mark. Such accurate striking enables to eliminate a single or multiple opponents with the least amount of movement. The following movie clip shows Bruce Lee demonstrating this concept.

FIGHTING CINEMA video “Bruce Lee vs Han’s guards at the Underground base / Enter the Dragon (1973)”:

Another popular explanation of this concept is that the spine is still like a mountain, yet it turns when the body is flowing like a river. It is important to understand that the mind and the body are not two separate entities, as together they form a single living organism. So, if a thought in the mind moves, then the body also moves and vice-versa. The mind and the body act and react upon each other in a symbiotic manner and this goes on constantly. Hence, if there is stillness in motion, then there is also motion in stillness. The following video shows a martial artist practicing this concept.

Brandon Sugiyama video “Stillness in Motion – The Art of Taijiquan”:

An empty mind

An empty mind is the most aware mind. Awareness is crucial in combat as only a split-second loss of awareness is enough to be killed in battle. An empty mind has no ego, so there is no sense of “I”. An empty mind is not preoccupied with strategies, techniques, or planned movements. It is just empty. Like still water, an empty mind mirrors the opponent’s movements and adapts to the changing circumstances, both spontaneously and naturally. It counters agonist forces with antagonist forces, like fire is countered with water, expansion with contraction, action with relaxation and so on. Due to this loss of ego, an emptiness is created, which enables the body to move effortlessly and on its own. The body can move on its own if the movements are already embedded in the subconscious. Therefore, from this subconscious, the techniques that are practiced over the years, comes automatically without any conscious thinking. One rises to victory by falling to the level of training. Hence, every training session should be taken so seriously as if it were a matter of life and death. The following video briefly explains this concept.

CHARACTER REVIEW video “Enter the Dragon – Bruce Lee Conversation with the teacher”:

Immovable mind, unshakeable heart

When entering a combative situation, the mind of the martial artist should be resolved firmly and should not be influenced by emotions of the heart like fear or doubt. This mental resolution then guides the body accordingly. The mind maintains composure even under extreme pressure, while the body is undeterred by any type of obstacles that it may face. The mind is immovable and the heart is unshakeable. The following video shows this concept, especially how the mind is immovable.

JohnnyFrickinRico video “The Last Samurai – The White Tiger scene – the Samurai subdue and capture Algren -Tom Cruise”:

A martial artist learns a martial art so that peace can prevail. A martial artist must always choose peace and not conflict. However, if conflict is inevitable, then the martial artist should firmly fight and the heart should not waver with emotions like mercy or compassion. When a combative situation presents itself, then the mind should be immovable and the heart should be unshakeable. The following video shows this concept, especially how the heart is unshakeable.

FilmStruck video “SEVEN SAMURAI, Akira Kurosawa, 1954 – Sparring Scene”:


Know the sun, know the moon

This concept comes from the workings of Nature, which works to maintain a balance in the dualities. A balance needs to be maintained between the opposing forces in order to sustain life. Fire is balanced with water, active with passive, expansion with contraction, tension with relaxation, yin with yang, and so on. In martial arts, this implies knowing when to attack and when to defend, knowing when to fight and when not to fight. The following video shows this concept.

Movieclips video “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (7/8) Movie CLIP – Bamboo Forest Fight (2000) HD”:

Move the entire body, not only the limbs

Every movement in any martial art of the world, involves the movement of the full body. A punch is struck by the fist, but behind the fist there are physical and psychological involvements also. Physically, behind the fist, there is a wrist, forearm, arm, shoulder, chest, spine, hips, legs, and breathing. Psychologically, there is a fixed intention, an unshakeable heart, and an immovable mind. Thus, when executing a punch, the entire body is utilized. Similarly, for any martial art technique, be it a punch, a kick, a block, or a stance, each and every part of the human body is involved. Moreover, if any one part is not correctly performed, then one will injure oneself only. For example, while punching, if the wrist bends then one will injure one’s own hand, or if the tongue is not correctly placed in the mouth, then one will bite off one’s own tongue when a blow is received on the face. Hence, all the body parts should move correctly, which makes the entire body move correctly. The following video shows the boxing legend Muhammad Ali delivering punches by moving his entire body, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

Sofiane Allou video “Muhammad Ali Top 20 Knockouts Greatest of All Time Tribute”:

Maximum effect with minimum effort

This concept is derived from the philosophy of correct breathing. If breathing is correct then the effort needed to breathe is minimum, but the oxygen supplied to the body is maximum. In martial arts, this philosophy is translated as using techniques that provide the maximum effect with minimum effort. The following video shows one such technique.

Maul565 video “Silat Suffian Bela Diri – Bruneian Kuntau (Minimum Effort, Maximum Effect)”:

Hitting, rubbing or applying pressure at pressure points of the body also provide a large effect with a small effort. The following video shows this concept.

Howcast video “Self-Defense Pressure Points | Self-Defense”:

Discipline achieves what ambition seeks

Discipline is a true friend, which helps every martial artist reach stupendous heights of achievement. The following video shows this concept.

GONNA NEED A MONTAGE video “Till I collapse: Kyokushin Karate Motivation, Fighter In the Wind (Movie in HD)”:

Respect other martial artists

A martial artist should respect every other martial artist. Being respectful to others, not only to other martial artists but to everyone else, is a fundamental tenet in all martial arts. The following video shows this concept of mutual respect.

This Moment video “Mike Tyson vs Donnie Yen (Ultimate Fight Scene)”:

Never give up

Whatever the circumstances may be, however insurmountable the odds may seem, however painful the journey may be, but a martial artist never gives up on following the path of the martial art. Perseverance guarantees success. The following video shows this concept.

Connie Lynne video “Powerful Inspirational true story…Never give up!”:

There is always more to learn

Knowledge is unending. A martial artist is forever a learner. Even a new born baby can teach a highly ranked martial artist. For example, a baby can breathe effortlessly by using the lungs and the abdomen simultaneously, which every martial artist tries to achieve. The following video shows that there is always more to learn.

Ash Cadiang video “Pilot Training Scene (Top Gun: Maverick 2022) Full uncut clip”:

A teacher can teach in many ways

A martial artist not only learns at the martial arts school, but also learns away from it. Martial arts is a way of life and every interaction of life is a learning experience for the martial artist. A teacher always has the end in view and always guides the student towards that end. The paths may be different, they may be conventional or unconventional, yet the end is the same, which is in making the student a true martial artist. The following video shows this concept.

Giovanni Zuccarino video “Karate Kid – The Jacket”:

The only constant is change

A martial artist needs to recognize that the only constant is change. Change is the law of Nature. A martial artist needs to continuously change and adapt to the changing circumstances of combat. The following video tells this concept.

WittyTweety Films video “Inspiring video — CHANGE is the only CONSTANT —“:


Due to the several philosophies embedded in various martial arts, the term “arts” is used. Art is flexible and adaptable; similarly, a martial artist also needs to be flexible and adaptable. The fundamental techniques in any martial art incorporate philosophies from literature, music, dance, painting, singing, and other arts. This is why seeing the movements of an accomplished martial artist is like seeing poetry in motion. Art maintains a balance and a martial artist maintains a balance in every aspect of life. With perfect balance, a martial artist achieves moderation, and moderation is a virtue. With moderation, peace is attained and maintaining peace is an art. The ultimate aim of any martial art is to maintain peace, both within and without, and thus, the term “arts” is used in martial arts.


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