The Martial Arts and Eastern Philosophy

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
The martial arts are ancient methods of self-defense that are traditionally based upon Eastern philosophies or religions, especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

The Martial Arts and Eastern Philosophy

Introduction and Influence

In the award-winning, nationally televised 1993 PBS series Healing and the Mind, host Bill Moyers discussed the popularity of the martial arts and the amazing powers they offer. In one segment, both Moyers and the martial arts students were astounded as a 90-year-old Tai Chi master used the mystical energy called chi to send an entire line of adepts tumbling to the ground by merely “throwing” chi at them from a distance of some 20 feet. Interviews with the students afterward revealed they felt forced down by a mysterious and irresistible power. This was the power they themselves were seeking, although they were warned it would take many years of austere discipline to acquire.

Perhaps few Oriental systems have become as widely accepted in the West as the martial arts, which are now part of the American mainstream. Most U.S. cities have at least one gym, or dojo, where people can learn judo, aikido, karate, Kenpo, Ninjutsu, Tai Chi Chuan, Hwarang-Do, Tae Kwon Do, Kyudo, Kuk Sool, Pa-Kua, Shaolin, Kendo, Eskrima, or any of the 60 other forms of the martial arts currently practiced in America. A discussion of the martial arts is important today for several reasons: 1) their relation to the renewed emphasis in our culture upon physical fitness and health; 2) their claim to utilize the same mystical energies so frequently encountered in New Age occult practices; 3) their stress upon meditation and enlightenment; 4) their potential relationship to other areas of the occult; 5) their increasing influence in mainstream America, especially among children and teenagers.

The rising interest in the martial arts in recent years may be attributed to several reasons. First, the martial arts have been widely advertised to tens of millions of people through cinema. The immense popularity of motion pictures stressing martial arts adventures includes the Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee movies, and the many Ninja films. Aikido advocate Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme have wide appeal through their martial arts films, which have earned well over $100 million. The Karate Kid movies have grossed over $100 million. The original was even remade in 2010 with Jackie Chan.

Second, there has been the popularity of television programs emphasizing the martial arts, such as the Kung Fu series with David Carradine back in the 1970s. Now there are even cartoons about the martial arts, such as Kung Fu Panda.[1]

Third, the martial arts are often advertised as physical fitness and health programs, able to improve everything from blood pressure to length of life. The martial arts have taken advantage of the increasing American participation in physical fitness and exploration of alternate health methods.

Fourth, the dramatic rise of crime has sparked people’s interest in the martial arts as a respected means of self-defense. Both law-enforcement agencies and the military are increasingly incorporating such practices into their regimen, as are college and university campuses.

Fifth, revival of interest in Eastern ways in general (e.g., Taoism, Buddhism) has caused a corresponding interest in the martial arts, which are usually associated with Eastern religions.

All this led Herman Kauz,[2] a teacher of the martial arts for over 50 years, to say in the 1990s, “In the last 20 years, the United States—and the entire Western world, for that matter—has seen a tremendous growth in the Asian martial art.”[3] From 1987-92, the number of martial arts schools in the United States rose from 4,650 to over 7,000, providing an average income of $60,000-$70,000 a year for each school. With two to three million practitioners in the United States (almost 40 percent are children aged 7-14), one can see how the American martial arts industry is now a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise.[4] Worldwide, of course, interest runs even higher. Tae Kwon Do alone claims an international membership of over 250 million in some 140 countries.[5]

Health and Fitness Concerns

As noted, in health-conscious America, the martial arts are often advertised as an excellent means to overall physical fitness and vitality.[6] And they are increasingly promoted by the health arm of the New Age Movement, which is the multi-billion-dollar industry of holistic or New Age medicine. The connections to health concerns are evident, For example: 1) the martial arts are said to stress “natural” methods; 2) traditionally, they claim to regulate mystical energies of health in the body; 3) New Age health practices, such as meditation, yoga-like breathing exercises, and visualization may be offered; 4) they may offer mystical “enlightenment” as a means to physical wellbeing. Thus, in America today, a principal means of exposing people to the martial arts is through health concerns.

Tai Chi, for example, is usually promoted as a “health secret” from ancient China One alternate health guide comments, “Tai Chi has come to be prescribed by some cardiologists for patients who have had, or are threatened with heart disease—patients with palpitations, angina or hypertension—because it is a form of exercise which imposes no strain.”[7] The guide also claims that Tai Chi “tones” the mind and body in such a way that most people will “remain immune to everyday disorders.”[8]

And in tandem with New Age medicine is the claim that the martial arts awakens, regulates, or directs the same mystical energies which are found in numerous holistic health methods. Many of the energies (chi, ki, prana) of New Age medicine were derived from the traditions in which the martial arts developed, or by which they were influenced: Taoism, Buddhism, Shinto, and so on. When this energy is blocked, disease is said to result, Proper manipulation of this energy will unblock it and allegedly cure illness and bring health.[9]

An article by Tai Chi practitioner Jerry Mogul states that the essence of Tai Chi is manipulation of the psychic energy within: “… The essence of Tai Chi is… [in] controlling and sensing the energy within us…. Just by touch the teacher can diagnose [energy] imbalances and [physical] tensions….”[10]

The martial arts discipline of aikido also claims to produce health benefits. Proponents assert that it improves blood circulation and generally, the nervous system. “General overall fitness is often claimed to be a by-product….”[11] Leading aikido master, Koichi Tohei, in Aikido in Daily Life, teaches that “… we can overcome an illness if we learn the Aikido rules of spirit and body unification and if we manifest the ultimate [reality] in our life power by practicing so that all physical motion is correctly done.”[12]

And personal health benefits may be emphasized indirectly as well. For example, Ninjutsu master Harunaka Hoshino, the founder of the San Francisco Ninja Society comments, “… Indirectly, I will be emphasizing health care. This will involve primarily diet (nutrition through traditional ninja recipes) and physical fitness (through exercise and shiatsu).”[13]

Many martial artists also use this alleged mystical energy for more than health concerns. The energy may also play an important role in martial arts combat, meditation, occult aspects of the practice, and in the cultivation of so-called enlightenment. As one article observes, “Tai Chi has flourished in the increasing health conscious American environment” because “by maintaining a balance of energy in the body, and by moving [chi] energy through [alleged meridian] blocks, Tai Chi is a way of both preventing and healing disease.”[14] And Tai Chi meditation supposedly allows one to become spiritually “enlightened” and move in harmony with the Tao, which is the Way, or mystical Path of the Universe.

Eastern Philosophy and American Martial Arts

The martial arts are ancient methods of self-defense that are traditionally based upon Eastern philosophies or religions, especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism.[15]

Jujitsu, karate, kyudo, and kenpo are strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Tai Chi is influenced by Taoism and to a degree also by Buddhism. Aikido is related to Japanese Buddhism and is influenced by Shinto. One writer exploring the history of Ninjutsu ties its development to various Mahayana Buddhist religions.[16]

There are also many Western offshoots of martial arts that carry an eclectic or novel approach and incorporate other religious traditions or practices. As Dr. J. Gordon Melton,[17] one of the preeminent chroniclers of religious movements in America, points out, traditional martial arts practices are religious: “…It is presently difficult to find a traditional martial art that is not somehow associated with a religious vision of the world.”[18]

On the other hand, they have continued to evolve to the present day, and many nontraditional martial arts practices may not be religious at all. In large measure, the religious or nonreligious nature of martial arts instruction depends more on the instructor than on any other factor:

It has been our finding that the degree to which any form of Eastern religion finds its way into regular training regimens of the martial arts has more to do with the approach of the individual instructors themselves, whose opinions are as varied as the arts they teach…. Yozan Dirk Mosig, 8th-degree black belt and chairman of the regional directors for the United States Karate Association (USKA), makes no qualms that Eastern philosophy should be the focal point of all martial arts curricula: “Karatedo, aikido, kyudo… and many others are ways of… extending the meditative experience of zazen [Zen meditation] to daily life.” Indeed, Mosig says, “he who practices martial arts without the mental discipline of zazen is… like a fool who comes to eat without a chopstick.” Yet, many disagree with Mosig. Louis Casamassa, head of the Red Dragon Karate System, is representative in saying that today “the martial arts and religion are as far apart in ideology as Albert Schweitzer is from Adolph Hitler.” Likewise, keichudo karate founder Karl Marx, a 50-year veteran of the martial arts and an avowed Christian, [claims] that “the average American [martial arts] instructor doesn’t even bother with the mental/spiritual aspect of his art.”[19]

Nevertheless, we must remember the increasing influence of Eastern philosophy and religion in our culture, and how quickly and easily the martial arts can be adapted to them by an instructor. The complexity of the situation is illustrated in the following attempt to sort out a “rule of thumb” method for discerning religious aspects of a given martial arts program:

Christians considering participation in the martial arts must be extremely discerning and select an art located only on the purely physical/ sportive side of the spectrum. Here is a good rule of thumb: generally speaking, the “internal” or “soft” martial—such as t’ai-chi ch’uan and aikido—tend to emphasize Eastern philosophical and religious concepts more so than the “external” or “hard” martial arts, such as kung fu and judo. Put another way, most “internal/soft” martial arts fall on the mystical side of the spectrum while most “external/hard” arts fall on the physical/sportive side of the spectrum…. Having said this, however, we must make a few important qualifications. On the one hand, while “internal/soft” martial arts generally involve Eastern philosophical/religious elements, in some cases the physical aspect of the art may be isolated from the philosophical/religious context. This is the case with the so-called Koga method employed by several law enforcement agencies…. [C]ommon aikido concerns—such as learning to utilize the chi force, and attuning one’s spirit and body with the universe—are not part of Koga, which focuses strictly on physical techniques and their proper application.

On the other hand, while most “external/hard” martial arts avoid or minimize Eastern religious elements, in some cases an “external/hard” art retains some religious trappings. The Indonesian-based style pentjaksilat, for example, is oftentimes colored by an eclectic blend of animism, shamanism, occultism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism.

What, then, can we conclude? The “internal/ soft” and “external/hard” designations can be helpful in choosing an art as a general rule, but in select cases the designations may prove problematic, especially since elements of one occasionally overlap into the other. More often than not, the chief instructor of a given school—whether “external/hard” or “internal/soft”—becomes the deciding factor.[20]

Choosing a proper instructor is crucial for those who wish to avoid the religious aspect of the martial arts.


  3. Herman Kauz, The Martial Spirit: An Introduction to the Origin, Philosophy and Psychology of the Martial Arts (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1977), p. 13.
  4. cf. Erwin de Castro, B. J. Oropeza, Ron Rhodes, “Enter the Dragon?”, Part One, Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, p. 27.
  5. Ibid., p. 32.
  6. Ed Parker, Ed Parker’s Infinite Insights into Kenpo, Volume 1: Mental Stimulation (Los Angeles, CA: Delsby Publication, 1984), p. 111.
  7. Brian Inglis, Ruth West, The Alternative Health Guide (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 146.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jerry Mogul, “Tai Chi Chuan: A Taoist Art of Healing, Part One,” Somatics: The Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Spring, 1980, p. 38.
  10. Jerry Mogul, “Tai Chi Chuan: A Taoist Art of Healing, Part Two,” Somatics: The Magazine-Journal of the Bodily Arts and Sciences, Autumn, 1980, pp. 43-44.
  11. Inglis and West, Alternative Health Guide, p. 149.
  12. Koichi Tohei, Aikido in Daily Life (Tokyo, Japan: Rikugei Publishing, 1973), p. 23.
  13. Interview, “Humble Teacher, Deadly Master: The Thoughts and Techniques of Harunaka Hoshino,” Ninja Masters, Winter, 1986, p. 56.
  14. Marsha Newman, “Tai Chi in America,” New Realities, January/February, 1985, pp. 25-26.
  15. cf. de Castro, et al, “Enter the Dragon?,” Part One, pp. 27-30.
  16. Kirtland C. Peterson, “History: In Search of the Real Ninja: Exploring the Past to Better Understand the Present,” Ninja, December, 1986, pp. 34-42.
  18. J. Gordon Melton, Jerome Clark and Aidan A. Kelly, New Age Almanac (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1991), p. 335.
  19. Erwin de Castro, et al, “Enter the Dragon?”, Part Two, prepublication copy, Christian Research Journal, 1994.
  20. Ibid.


  1. Frank White on August 24, 2018 at 4:00 am

    Great post! Very informative!

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