by Myrna Boyer
Inasmuch as our culture is dependent upon defining every aspect of what it confronts in the course of its day-to-day experiences, the question of whether the martial arts are truly a sport, an art or a science arises with nagging consistency especially when the arts are displayed on a public forum, usually in the form of a sport, or when a professor of the arts addresses the subject of chi or ki, normally correlated to the subject of bioelectrical energy in the west, or when a student of the arts learns to maximize the delivery of a powerful strike or blow without the use of effort, often referred to as an art.
I believe that in order to address this question honestly, if not impartially, one must begin first with a review of the definitions of the words sport, art and science. One must avoid, too, the temptation of glossing over the matter entirely by doling out answers that are obscure, mysterious or meaningless, as is quite often the case when the question arises. And, in short, a practitioner must recognize that if the arts are to achieve any degree of conventional acceptance as a valid and—even more importantly—significant study, we as a guild must be willing to own up to the very principles upon which they are founded while being capable of placing them up for scrutiny against the backdrop of any one, or all three, of the preferred descriptions.
The word science comes to us from the Latin scientia and the Latin root scire which means "to know." There are a number of definitions for the word, but the most fitting definitions for our purposes are: a methodological activity, discipline or study; an activity that requires study and method1. Interestingly enough, it derives from an Indo-European root, skei- which means "to cut, to split," with the understanding that there is a separation of one thing from another in order to arrive at a discernible end – a comprehension, a knowledge2.
What makes this so interesting is that the study and practice, as well as the eventual perfection, of the martial arts are steeped in the systematic performance of procedures and routines that, when taught and applied correctly, achieve astounding results with a staggering degree of constancy. In order to fulfill the proper growth and development of the students in their care, the master teachers of the arts also rely heavily, or should, on the study of human anatomy and physiology and the interrelationship of these to human behavior and interactions. Therefore, not only are the arts embodied as a science but, too, they meticulously employ the knowledge inherent to other sciences in an almost faultless realization of the application of their own discipline.
This concept is easier to understand once the idea of the arts as being founded on strength-based principles and techniques is dispelled with. Although it is a common misconception, nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, since it is predominantly promoted and often taught this way, this false impression has not only been allowed to persist but, regrettably, it has become entirely too prevalent in our society. It is no wonder that few recognize the art's relationship to the sciences and fewer still see it as the science that it functionally is.
By contrast, the word art is defined as "a system of principles and methods employed in the performance of a set of activities; skill that is attained by study, practice or observation3." It derives from the Latin ars, art- and the Indo-European root ar- which means "to fit together" and, not surprisingly, is related at its root to words such as harmony, arm, army, and articulate4.
The martial arts are an applied compilation of universal principles, techniques and practices that are, in some cases, centuries old. They are the science of cognizant, knowing physical coordination and synchronization as it applies to movement and the maximization of physical strength and power, health and longevity. Their expression, in movement, is an art. And their stated purpose, if we are to refer to the Chinese or Japanese origin of the word martial, is "to stop or end the fight or conflict."
I can tell you with complete confidence that the achievement of this end is not a hit or miss proposition. In order to maximize power, there is a right way, and a multitude of wrong ways, to execute a technique, a movement or a set of movements, and where these can be modified slightly to accommodate individual size and structure, there must always be due attention given to the universal principles upon which they are based.
So, hence, insofar as particular methods have been handed down through the years by grandmasters of old, there is wisdom in the bringing of these together to make a complete whole that is the science of the martial arts.
That the martial arts are soaked in a self-generating mysticism is not an overstatement by any stretch of the imagination. The reason for this is, in my opinion, dual: the oriental culture from where they proliferated and which is their birthplace jealously and notoriously guards their innermost “secrets,” and consequently what has been exposed to the western world has been selectively reduced to what the western mind accepts most readily – force and a profusion of competitive muscle. So, hence, in the vast majority of the west there exists a prevalent designation of the arts as a sport.
Whereas the challenge of a true warrior is the overcoming of obstacles within, a competitor is captivated by prevailing on the outside—over others. Whereas the warrior understands that the only battle he ever fights is internal, and seeks irrevocably an end to conflict, a competitor is absorbed by the world outside of self with a desire to win. He thrives on conflict. Yet, the inescapable truth of the matter is that a true warrior does not require a competition as a measure of his competence. For him, there is no suggestion of win or lose. There is only mastery over self, and so the perspective is different.
Where a student of the arts is taught to fire off techniques one after the other for the purposes of acquiring points, there you will find a student who is being trained for competition in a sport. Not that there is anything truly wrong with this. Sports have a place in our society. In fact, a sport requires a physical conditioning that is, by and large, greater than the norm and that must be maintained for the balance of the practice of that sport, and honestly, there is a lot to be said for this.
However, if it is the martial arts as a whole that we speak of, then the best that can be said is that this student is partially trained. If that is the aim, then the goal has been achieved as long as you have a good fighter with the necessary size, speed and natural agility required to triumph over other competitors. However, it is imprudent to assume that this is the foremost expression of the arts because this application of them is not only limited in its potential for the development of the student, it is temporary in its life’s span, if only because the wear and tear upon the physical body will bring the practice to an early close. It is also very evidently absent of the exact principle upon which the martial arts are based—the principle of budo—the way of (how) to stop the fighting.
So, where is the line drawn? Well, I can tell you that there is really no need to draw one. A student should simply be aware of the fact that there are clear and discernible distinctions in the study and practice of the arts. The approaches are fairly straightforward: a student may gain an understanding of the martial sciences and practice them with dedicated proficiency or a student may opt to pursue his training as a competitive sport and do so at his discretion. Should the student elect to take up competitive sports karate, he should know he is doing so and should not confuse this with the study of the martial sciences or the practice of the martial arts.
Many numbers of “martial arts enthusiasts” are, in reality, sports buffs. In and of itself, this is not a crime. My intention here is not to bash the athletically inclined but, rather, to help correct the overall perception of the martial arts as sports related. It may escape many martial arts enthusiasts as well as many martial arts instructors that, prior to World War II, competitive sparring formed no part of karate training (or any other martial arts, for that matter). Even though perhaps it is contrary to popular belief, nonetheless the fact remains that in the early days of the development of the martial art of karate, kumite—which literally means "meeting of hands"—served as a training tool but certainly not a competitive sport.
Categorically, the same can be said about the developmental stages of most of the other disciplines. And while it appears that the origins of competitive sparring trace back to the early 1940s in Tokyo, it is well-known that in the west, a competitive ideology is very typical, and thus, very attractive. It is no surprise, then, that here, you are either a winner or a loser—a paradigm that is quick to advance the competitive mind-set as it relates to the arts. This does not, however, mean that this model is complete, correct or even appropriate.
In effect, the fundamental difference between an art and a sport is that a sport requires a physical adversary. Without this physical barrier, there is no contest and no reason to compete. In the martial arts, you face a true test of spirit, and this is articulated through the triumph over self. Indeed, the most formidable opponent an individual will ever encounter is within. So a central divergence between the warrior arts and the combative sports is in whom you designate as an opponent.
The end products are also poles apart. The ego, which forms a vital part of the win or lose dynamic of a sport, is a target of eradication in the martial arts. Even in the practice of kumite, a master instructor acknowledges that when a training or fighting partner becomes an adversary, the ego takes root. Caution is taken to discourage this in that, in allowing it, the focus becomes external and ceases to be internal. Motivations are changed, and the challenge ceases to be within.
In the arts, kata, for instance, trains the mind. It trains the you. And when you consider that the whole of the purpose of the martial arts is self-perfection, then a sense of morality turns out to be inbred, and true individual development takes root.
This sense of morality is a central component in the arts because it is this, precisely, which keeps a warrior in check. The dividing line between a true warrior and just another violent person is otherwise quite thin and significantly masked. Without a sense of morality, what is being practiced is not a martial art but, rather, something else entirely, whatsoever it may be. The spirit of the arts is lost in toto. But to seek self-perfection is to hold and conduct oneself to a higher standard altogether.
The learning and performance of kata requires a considerable amount of hard work and faith. Its training reminds us that no sense can be made of a preemptive attack. The student hones an awareness of movement, and learns to act decisively. The ego is minimized, and the concentration becomes one of self-development. The more the student sees how easy it is to hurt another, the far superior his respect for self and others becomes. In a word, the student seeks to heal, and not hurt, others.
When used as a training tool, the practice of kumite is far from what you find in its incarnation as a sport. The perspective diverges from being one of winning over others to being of one of control and perseverance. The student learns to endure, and he learns to recognize intent. He learns a multitude of things, perhaps even too many to mention, but among them are a sense of timing and the appropriate application of distance. Nonetheless, the upshot of this is that the spirit of the art is left intact. It is enhanced and notcompromised.
So, it is important to remember that a warrior who loses self-discipline has lost the battle. Once the concept of rei (courtesy) is disposed of, all you have left is violence. Clearly, there is no art to violence, and there is no science of it either. For that reason, the idea is not to train exclusively on the “outside,” or externally, but to train from within—from internal to external. When it comes right down to it, you will find that although you can train a sport for months and even years on end, the martial arts are a lifelong study. They are a pursuit of self-perfection.
So, when the question arises, then, as to whether the martial arts are a sport, an art or a science, know that the answer is less to be found in the public perception of them and more in the fundamental principles upon which they are founded. Notice that even though the definitions of the words science and art are rather similar, their root meanings are quite distinct. It is science that perfects an art, but ultimately it is an art that one seeks in studying a science.