Why I practice Kungfu, part 3: Spiritual Cultivation

(Continued from part 2.)

 

Spiritual Cultivation

A wood print of Miyamoto Musashi by Utagawa KuniyoshiI like the English term "martial art". In my native Finnish, the corresponding term which translates to "fighting skill" is, in my view, not complete; it only refers to competence in fighting, whereas in English - as well as in Chinese - combat is only one part of the concept. The other part indicates artistry; culture, sophistication and depth, which, as in all great arts, can demand much, but offer even more.

As a young boy, the book Musashi written by Eiji Yoshikawa left a great impression on me. It is a fictional story of the real-life Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. Although the book revolves around martial arts and their practice, they are presented as much more than just a means for fighting; as an approach for Zen training in the pursuit for personal and spiritual cultivation, through the process of meditative action. This instilled into me the ideal what martial arts could be at their best, which has stayed with me throughout my life.

 

This idea has also been a part of Chinese Shaolin arts from their very beginning, a thousand years before the time of Miyamoto Mushashi. The first Shaolin Kungfu -practitioners were Buddhist monks, former warriors and army generals who had retreated to the Shaolin monastery, and combined the internal arts taught in the monastery to their fighting techniques, thus creating the first, early version of Shaolin Kungfu. All subsequent kungfu-styles are greatly indebted to this progenitor of Chinese martial arts. But why were Buddhist monks, whose highest aim was to attain enlightenment, interested in fighting?

Because Shaolin Kungfu was created as a vessel for spiritual cultivation. The connection between fighting and spirituality might seem like a strange concept, but if you've ever dedicatedly practiced martial arts, you may be able to confirm from your own experience that their training can also offer an effective way to becoming a better person - that is, if one wishes to follow it. For example, in high-level kungfu, every part of training promotes this aim, were it health, meditation, or cultivating the mind and the body through practical combat training. The demands of a combat situation are high and immediate, so any training meant to prepare for them keeps the bar high for practitioners striving to reach their potential.

Although my own ideals for martial arts developed early, my own training found its way only after many missteps. I know from experience how a certain kind of martial training can feed aggressive or violent impulses. On the other hand, I also know how another can help you become the best version of yourself. For some reason, spiritual cultivation is often considered intrinsically religious, which I consider an oversimplification. Its results should be first and foremost down-to-earth and practical. Would you rather be calm or nervous? Focused or confused? Confident or worried? Brave or fearful? Grateful or bitter? The former are benefits specifically for an internal martial arts practitioner.

The world has seen fighting and combat training probably as long as humans have existed. Similarly, there are endless reasons for it. Through its long history and unique position, kungfu had the opportunity to evolve way beyond mere fighting. Of course, most martial arts would never even strive for anything else than combat; after all, effectively conquering or defending is the crux of any fighting. However, sometimes it is worthwhile to judge an art by what it can be at its best. For myself, kungfu is an art that puts everything into perspective. Oftentimes, it is so insanely difficult, that I find myself wondering whether I should call myself a practitioner in the first place. Contrarily, I also find it so rewarding that I have yet to discover any aspect in life where I couldn't benefit from it.

 

Considering this, it doesn't feel like a stretch to see myself practicing daily also for the next 20 years.

 


 

The first Shaolin Kungfu -practitioners were Buddhist monks, former warriors and army generals who had retreated to the Shaolin monastery