by Sam Michael
Suffering is the origin of consciousness. – Dostoyevsky
The future is war. According to scientists, think-tank predictions, and the 2003 Pentagon Report , abrupt climate changes and a severely depleted world will cause ever fiercer global resource wars over oil, water, timber, and arable land in the coming decades. This may either be a grim reality or a dangerous military legitimization by the U.S. army, but whether or not these wars are inevitable, if viewed optimistically they may be a key factor towards catalyzing the next phase of human consciousness and birthing a new global society.
This article will attempt to trace the history of Kung Fu from our hunter-gatherer past to the coming Space Wars and suggest how the martial art sciences could be an important antidote to the secular materialist traps of our age that in turn fuel the scarcities of the future. At the same time that modern artillery has rendered traditional hand-to-hand combat seemingly obsolete, martial arts and yoga attendance worldwide is skyrocketing. Perhaps by embracing, and not shunning, the warrior archetype we can ultimately reduce the need for mass armed conflict and survive this coming age where — as the conclusion of the above mentioned Pentagon report states — “disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.”
Kung Fu, which, by definition is any skill or technique perfected to its highest level, is a slang or colloquialism that encompasses the prowess of soldier and chef, doctor and painter alike. Kung Fu is by itself an interesting phrase, paradoxically combining idealistic values, supreme skills, and invincible technique with pragmatic, back-breaking, and tireless hard work.
Although Kung Fu is a Chinese term in China its use extends comprehensively to Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and the indigenous martial arts of any country or culture. Kung Fu is a powerful philosophy and psychophysical technology forged in the crucible of humankind’s struggle for survival. Kung Fu is by its very nature an antidote to materialistic misconceptions about the nature of reality.
Let’s take a moment to clear up some of the differences between three popular spiritual techniques- Shamanism, Yoga, and Kung fu. According to legend, Kung Fu was founded by the famous Yogi Bodhidharma, who stopped by Shaolin Temple after spreading Buddhism from India into China. He noticed the monks there were too weak to meditate and practice his teachings. After many years of solitary meditation in a cave Bodhidharma returned to teach the monks his Yoga or Qi Gung, which became foundational in Shaolin Kung Fu. Kung Fu, Yoga, or Qi Gung are a part of a system in which martial arts and dance all share similar animistic, zoomorphic, and magical-scientific ontologies. Through complex physical and verbal languages Shamanism, Yoga, and Kung Fu all express and substantiate their results through trial- proof of a physical universe wholly different than the one which our language claims exists.
Kung fu has a history of fortifying the underdogs against imperial powers out to enslave them. For centuries the Han people of China were unified by Kung Fu in their resistance against foreign invaders. Revolutionaries hid on boats in opera troops and in temples secretly honing their forbidden fighting skills. In the history of African slavery it was Batuque, a family of African martial arts, which gave the slaves strength in their plight and revolts and gave birth to the martial art of Capoeira and other similar new world fighting arts. These are not merely systems of combat but the concretization of all the higher ideals of a people such as freedom, bravery, maturity, wisdom, discipline and self-rule. As it is sometime said, “Without Zen there would be no Kung Fu, and without Kung Fu, Zen could not be seen.”
The most extensive surviving variety of styles and forms arrive to us from China, including a bewildering assortment of long and short range tactics, soft and hard energetic principles, and panoply of weapons from hidden sleeve darts to cavalry weapons for battlefield decapitation. Thanks to a turbulent history and such infamous epochs as the warring states period (5th century B.C. to 221 B.C.), wherein Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, China’s legacy of martial arts and sciences is unparalleled and has given rise to the false sinocentric view that all martial arts originated in China.
On the contrary, the whole world seems to have been rich in martial arts. We are only now discovering the diverse traditions of Africa, India, Indonesia, Russia, Mongolia and elsewhere. From prehistoric hunting and tribal conflicts to the ancient Olympic games where the best Greek fighters boxed, wrestled, and sparred in the nude in an effort to be awarded the coveted olive branch and a permanent front row seat at the theater, the natural defensive and offensive movements of humans made long strides early on towards codification and study.
Unfortunately much of the world’s martial arts were lost since the development of the gun, especially in the West (although efforts are underway to recreate them), so much so that they still possess an aura of exoticism and the mystique of something foreign, although nothing could be farther than the truth. Since the U.S. military occupations in China, Japan, and Korea, and popularized by movie stars like Bruce Lee, a more complete vision of the martial arts were reintroduced to the West. Currently martial arts are growing more popular every day, with Afro-Brazilian arts like Capoeira challenging the notion of the Asiatic origins of martial arts, and syncretic martial arts Jeet Kune Do and MMA attempting to blend the best of all styles. In Hollywood, Hong Kong veteran Yuen Woo Ping has become the gold standard for post-Matrix action sequences, and this summer’s releases are buzzing with Kung fu: Kung Fu Panda, Forbidden Kingdom, Mummy 3, and many more are filling box offices with Kung Fu fever.
As a science, Kung Fu is the product of a long line of human warrior traditions. Warrior traditions usually are founded in religious rites or visionary experiences, and include medicinal as well as fighting knowledge and dances. In India and China it is recorded how the greatest warriors became doctors and charted the points of the body that allowed entry to harm or heal the body’s energy. The martial arts in their most enlightened form have the capacity to channel the aggressive, violent impulses of humans into a sublime and beautiful spiritual aesthetic that can maintain health and mobility well into old age.
When a traditional kung fu master or yogi works out, most likely it will involve several hours of prayer, meditation, and intense exercises and purifications that challenge the mind as intensely as the body, and tune the practitioner in to the vibrations of the spirit world, making he or she whole again. As in dance and Yoga, Kung Fu is rooted in animal and elemental mimicry. A skilled martial artist moves with the grace and relaxed power of the animals and there are styles devoted to every kind from praying mantis to monkey and elephant. The martial artist trains themselves day and night to embody the explosiveness of fire or fluidity and water. Martial artists even incorporate and emulate the different states of intoxication and enlightenment as in Drunken Kung Fu, or Kung Fu which imitates the way arhats, bodhisattvas, and immortals would fight. In order to shuffle off our Cartesian dualism we must realize that the mind is as instrumental in shaping the body as is the body in shaping the mind.
In its ability to make the spirit world palpable and judging by its popularity, Kung fu is here to stay. We should not be fooled into thinking that firearms have rendered martial arts obsolete forever. A new equilibrium may arrive in a post-technological state or when technologies such as advanced armor, anti-projectile defenses, new weaponry or augmented human physical abilities—such as those showcased in the movie, The Iron Man, will level the playing field between man and machine-based projectiles and promote a new practical martial arts applicable to the coming global conflicts, some of which may take place in urban environments where guerilla tactics and a lack of clear sight lines upsets the benefits of firearms in favor of the hand-to-hand close combat skills of the individual warrior. In other words, one person with technology and skill could come to equal an army in might.
A revaluation and re-envisioning of war to take into account the positive potentials would benefit us. Enabling a whole range of extreme experiences, war cascades the brain with adrenalin and other powerful mind altering substances and produces long lasting psychic changes. War is a close cultural relative of the hunt–many cultures envision the afterlife as a Great Hunt. Everyday in the Norse heaven Valhalla, one wages the apocalyptic Ragnarok against the Jotuns giants and monsters. Every night the shaman Odin, and Freya the shamaness, and their valkyries resurrect the souls of the slain in the hall of Odin where they drink the mead of the gods.
There are some profound philosophical questions that need to be answered in this time of detested military and corporate warfare: on the one hand most people seem to envision an enlightened being pacifistic like the Christ in the Gospels, with a spirituality like that of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. On the other hand people persistently pursue warlike measures, and aristeia, the virtue of the agon or conflict, is extolled in songs and epic traditions immortalizing the violent and heroic labors of humans and gods. During the civil rights movement in America Malcolm X came to realize that even though his rhetoric of self-defense by “any means necessary” was diametrically opposed to the ahimsa gospel of Martin Luther King, Jr., their ideals were still aligned and their activist strategies worked complementarily.
As we enter a pan or trans-cultural era, the re-proliferation of yoga and martial arts across nations and cultures is a powerful liberating and defensive force against oppression and disempowerment. The global martial arts and yoga phenomenon is a movement of tremendous potential for human advancement, cultural restoration, and an important anti-totalitarian institution. With improvement in social networking and virtual reality there is no limit for the inception of virtual training halls, where like the ancient kalaris and mo gwoons of yore, warriors, teachers, and healers can exchange techniques, philosophies, and train some Kung Fu.