(When I was in the White Tiger Black Belt Academy, I studied Shorniji Goju Karatedo under Hanshi James Perkins. One of the requirements for a student testing for black belt was to write an essay on what the martial arts are, and how has the art helped him or her.
I gave the matter a great deal of thought. With this coming semester, I will be taking karate again as a college course, and so I have been thinking about it further. Below is the very rough beginning of what would have been my Shodan essay had my dojo not closed down, left over from ages past.)
Any tool can be used in ways other than its literal form – as it follows function – might suggest.
A screwdriver, for example, is ultimately intended by its form and design for inserting screws, for the purpose of holding things together, or for removing screws for the purpose of giving them greater liberty. However, it can still be used to hammer in nails, peel paint, or attempt injury against would-be assailants aboard New York subways.
Likewise, fighting is a tool. A fight is designed for one purpose: to end life. If a person fights and continues fighting until there is no fight left, then it is because the fighter has run out of opponents. By definition, that happens when death occurs. Fighting is, if followed through without interruption, a means towards the elimination of life.
However, fighting is a tool, and thus can be used for other purposes. It is often used for communication, establishing social status, demonstration of skills, release of aggression, and so forth. It can be used, even, for the preservation of life rather than the extinction of it.
But in order to use a fight to defend life and freedom, rather than to destroy it, one must have both the awareness and the control to know both when and how to stop fighting in order to accomplish that goal.
Awareness, especially awareness of self, lies at the core of self-control. Self-control and awareness lie at the heart of self-mastery. And self-mastery is the heart of martial arts.
Any brute can bash another brute’s brains out with a femur. A good fighter can control himself in a fight such that he will not be injured. One who has mastered the martial art can control himself and the fight itself such that even injuring another will be rare, and only when needed due to duress.
“Avoid, rather than check. Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim. Maim, rather than kill. For all life is precious, nor can any be replaced.” --Master Po, from the Pilot episode of Kung Fu.
I always remember that quote ending with the phrase, “Kill, rather than be killed.” But regardless: the martial art is a means by which a tool for destruction is ideally transformed into something beautiful, a tool for the preservation of life and those things which give it meaning. A tool for self-expression, self-awareness, and self-mastery.
It is in this way that it is truly an art, and it is in this way that the martial artist, so called, is indeed an artist. For the martial artist becomes more of who he or she truly can be, and honestly expresses that illumination through motion, thought, and life.
(That's all I have on it for now. When I test for my first black belt no doubt I will get to write more. And you will likely be able to read it here.)