Bodywork, Enlightenment and Meditation in the Martial Arts – Part 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2012
We briefly examine the premise of mind-body unity and the goal of spiritual transformation, or enlightenment as they relate to the martial arts.

Bodywork, Enlightenment and Meditation in the Martial Arts – Part 1

In this article we will briefly examine three important aspects related to traditional martial arts practice: 1) the premise of mind-body unity; 2) the goal of spiritual transformation, or enlightenment; 3) the accompanying practices of meditation, visualization, and yogic breathing methods. It should also be noted that because of the large variety of forms and methods and their continuing evolution, we are merely giving a general analysis of the martial arts; not everything stated will hold true for every method.

Mind-body Unity

The martial arts along with yoga, constitute perhaps the most original forms of what are now frequently termed “bodywork” methods, such as Rolfing,[1] Orgonomy,[2] the Alexander Method,[3] and Traeger work.[4] A fundamental premise of most bodywork is to bring about the unity of the mind-spirit with the body. The goal is to work on the body to influence the ‘mind-spirit,’ or vice versa.

In contrast to much Western thinking, and also to biblical teaching, the martial arts usually assume that the “mind-spirit” and physical body are one with a super-mundane or divine consciousness, or complementary aspects of universal consciousness.

Koichi Tohei[5] was the author of the Book of Chi: Coordinating Mind and Body in Daily Life.[6] He was a Zen Buddhist and an aikido teacher, and he has established aikido training halls in more than 20 different states. He was also the founder and president of the Chi Society International and has a black belt in Judo. He stated that, “Ultimately, mind and body are one—no borders exist between them. The mind is a refined body, the body unrefined mind. It is foolish to consider them two separate things. I have attempted for many years to introduce Mind Body Unification into academic circles…. In America, the University of Hawaii and Lewis & Clark College have paid attention….”[7]

Peter Payne is an instructor in the Alexander Method whose main interests are aikido, Tai Chi Chuan, and Pa Kua (a martial arts style). In his Martial Arts: The Spiritual Dimensionhe writes, “[W]e may acknowledge the body as the external manifestation of spirit or consciousness….”[8] In essence, for many martial arts practitioners, what other people normally think of as mind, body, and spirit are really just different manifestations or facets of a higher, unitary spiritual consciousness.

Understanding this belief in the unity of mind, spirit, and body is usually fundamental to understanding the true purpose of those martial arts that have religious goals. For example, potentially, the body contains great power because it is the external manifestation of the mind-spirit, and thus the visible revelation of spiritual consciousness. The inherent “divine” power, or energy underlying the universe (ki or chi) flows through the mind and body, waiting to be unleashed by proper instruction. It is this mystical power that many of the practitioners of the martial arts seek to develop. And if the spiritual consciousness and essence of man are defied, as they are in many martial arts programs, then potentially both mind and body are capable of manifesting divine, supernatural power.

Furthermore, because the body is only one part of the mind-spirit, it is impossible by the very nature of things that martial arts programs having this assumption could only be concerned with the physical body. This exposes the false conclusion made by thousands of Westerners who think that the martial arts are necessarily merely programs of physical discipline and development.

Thus, by recognizing that mind and body are one with, or merely different aspects of, the same spiritual and divine consciousness, we can see that the purpose of the martial arts may proceed far beyond physical disciplines alone. To regulate the mind-spirit, as in meditation, is to help transform and empower the body. In a similar manner, to regulate the body, as in the physical disciplines of the martial arts, is to also help transform and influence the mind-spirit. Indeed, martial arts practice is frequently about spiritual transformation, as we will document following. The goal common to many modern bodywork methods, such as Reiki,[9] Lomi-work,[10] or Arica[11] is also the goal of many martial arts: transformation and enlightenment of the mind-spirit by manipulation of the body, or transformation of the body by the spiritual disciplines of the mind.

Herman Kauz has been an instructor in the martial arts for over 40 years. He has a fourth degree black belt in judo, a second degree black belt in karate, and is author of the bestselling, Tai Chi Handbook. In his The Martial Spirit: An Introduction to the Origin, Philosophy and Psychology of the Martial Arts, he discussed the influence of martial arts practice on the mind. “As we practice martial arts, we find that our training has a strong effect upon our mind as well as on our body…. Acceptance of the concept of body-mind unity makes us more concerned than previously with ways the body effects the mind and vice versa,”[12] and “the various aspects of training designed specifically to work upon the mind have their effect.”[13]

Spiritual Transformation and Enlightenment

As we have said, the purpose of the martial arts may not be merely physical discipline. Traditionally, the martial arts are forms of spiritual education[14] that function as a means toward self-realization or spiritual enlightenment. It is true that the spiritual dimension of the martial arts can be downplayed or ignored, but this is not consistent with their ultimate purpose historically. This should not be forgotten. One standard text makes the following important comment:

The martial arts all have their origin as part of a total system of training, the ultimate aim of which was a radical transformation of the very being of the practitioner. Often these roots have been neglected, underemphasized or totally abandoned; nevertheless their spiritual dimension is the heart of the martial arts…. To understand the martial arts properly, it is necessary to take account of the psychological and metaphysical as well as the technical aspects. Above all, it is vital to understand how a physical activity, seemingly closely related to the fields of pure sport such as prize fighting or wrestling, can come to deal with such matters as psycho-spiritual [e.g., occult] transformation and the nature of reality.[15]

Richard J. Schmidt is assistant professor of health, physical education, and recreation at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska. In an article in Somatics magazine, “Japanese Martial Arts as Spiritual Education,” he observes two facts. First, that the Japanese martial arts are traditionally vehicles for spiritual education and enlightenment. Second, as to underlying ethos, their spirit and beliefs remain fundamentally the same, regardless of particular approach. Thus, Dr. Schmidt argues that the traditional martial arts, i.e., practices employed for military combat, are connected to what is termed the martial ways; that is, modern cognate forms practiced as methods of sport, self-defense, physical education, aesthetics, and meditation:

The purpose of this paper is to describe how Japanese martial arts [kobujutsu; military combat] and ways [budo] serve as vehicles for spiritual education [seishin, kyoiku] or self-realization [jitsugen] for practitioners of both East and West…. While the martial arts and ways differ widely with respect to purpose, technique, and method, the underlying intrinsic martial ethos [character, guiding beliefs] of both remain essentially the same.[16]

Consider the following description of the fourth stage (the “do”) of Japanese martial arts practice: “… This level is the final and ultimate stage of self-realization, the ‘do,’ the equivalent of Zen enlightenment or satori.”[17] Writing in the Yoga Journal, Buddhist scholar and aikido instructor John Stevens, now living in Sendi, Japan, states that “martial ways are spiritual disciplines to be practiced for the sake of enlightenment.”[18] But anyone familiar with Zen Buddhism and other Eastern disciplines will recognize that the purpose of such “enlightenment” is ultimately to destroy the individual, and that their methods and end goals are fundamentally occult.[19]

The problem faced by uninformed Western practitioners, especially children and teenagers, is that when they enter the martial arts primarily or exclusively for physical discipline and development, they may still be converted to Eastern religions or occult practices. In this regard, the martial arts function as a subtle form of proselytism for the occult religions of Taoism, Buddhism (such as Zen), or Shinto. The eclectic system of Jeet Kune Do, developed by the late Bruce Lee, is one example. Based on Taoism, and described by Lee as “a way of life” and “a means to enlightenment,”[20] many of Lee’s students converted to mystical religion as a result of his martial arts program.

Herman Kauz, the martial arts authority cited earlier, has been a student of the martial arts for over 50 years and an instructor for 40. He has studied or taught judo, karate, aikido, Zen, Tai Chi Chuan, and others. In this regard, he observes how easily students can get more than they bargained for:

Most students come to the martial arts for self-defense training or for exercise…. But as their training progresses they may find that their teacher considers of primary importance such intangibles as self-knowledge and, ultimately, self-realization….

Western students of Asian martial arts are usually unaware that the Eastern view of man differs from their own…. Therefore when a Western student begins to notice that his teacher seems to be concerned with more than his physical development, he should not be surprised…. Students in the West sometimes… feel the study of martial arts should be concerned only with its practical application…. Such thinking seems to view martial arts too narrowly and is usually held by beginners and by students whose teachers themselves think this way. However, those who have practiced some years and are still unaware of anything beyond the physical miss the vast potential in their training that can contribute to self-knowledge.[21]

Kauz later observes that “relevant ideas from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism were incorporated into the philosophy of the martial arts as they developed through the centuries,” and that the teachers of various martial arts disciplines “usually attempted to originate training methods that would enable their students to directly apprehend the content or spirit of these philosophical concepts. Their intention was to help students understand important truths intuitively, to develop their insight, rather than to have contact with these ideas only intellectually.”[22] In other words, the purpose of a martial arts program may be the direct apprehension or experience of ultimate spiritual reality as defined by the pagan Eastern religion with which it is associated.

George Leonard, a former president-elect of the Association for Humanistic Psychology and author of the bestselling, The Ultimate Athlete, which was inspired by his practice of aikido, testifies that his teacher was concerned with much more than physical discipline. The instructor was an accomplished martial artist with experience in judo, karate, Tai Chi, and aikido:

Yet he told us that he considered himself primarily a meditation teacher, and he spent about half his time leading us in various forms of meditation, centering, and “energy awareness” exercises. Nadeau taught us to think of ourselves and of our fellow students as fields of “energy.”… One day we spent a half hour imbuing our “energy bodies” with the quality of slabs of granite.[23]


  6. Koichi Tohei, Book of Ki: Coordinating Mind and Body in Daily Life (Tokyo, Japan: Publications, Inc., 1978).
  7. Ibid., p. 10.
  8. Peter Payne, Martial Arts: The Spiritual Dimension (NY: Crossroad, 1981), p. 9.
  11. Herman Kauz, The Martial Spirit: An Introduction to the Origin, Philosophy and Psychology of the Martial Arts (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1977), p. 25.
  12. Ibid., p. 113.
  13. Richard J. Schmidt, “Japanese Martial Arts As Spiritual Education,” Somatics, Volume 4, Number 3 (1983-1984), pp. 46-47.
  14. Payne, Martial Arts, p. 5, emphasis added.
  15. Schmidt, “Japanese Martial Arts,” p. 46.
  16. Ibid., p. 48.
  17. John Stevens, “Japan’s Traditional Martial Ways,” Yoga Journal, September/October, 1985, p. 62, emphasis added.
  18. John Weldon, Zen Chapter in A Critical Encyclopedia of Modern American Sects and Cults, unpublished. (This ms. covers 70 groups and is 8,000 pages in length.)
  19. Erwin de Castro, B. J. Oropeza, Ron Rhodes, “Enter the Dragon?”, Part One, Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, p. 34.
  20. Kauz, The Martial Spirit, pp. 28-29.
  21. Ibid., p. 94, emphasis added.
  22. George Leonard, “Mastering Aikido: On Getting a Black Belt at Age 52,” New Age Journal, April, 1979, p. 54.

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