Achieving The Artless Art



By Shihan Dean Pickard

Originally published in Black Belt Magazine, June 1979

Levels I, II & III

The view of martial arts as merely combative or competitive is highly misleading. There are various interrelated aspects or levels of experience in martial arts. Unfortunately, many practitioners explore only a few of these levels and may even reach a high level of skill without using this process of discipline and development of skill to explore and experience more fully the potential of this medium. There are many paths to self-awareness. Martial arts are only one and in themselves are not enough. That is why traditionally many masters have encouraged the ideal of the martial artist as a man of learning and culture as well as martial skills.

There are seven aspects or levels of the martial arts experience. However, they cannot be considered as isolated levels, one reached successively after another. Each person develops somewhat differently, and some or all of these aspects may develop simultaneously or successively, depending on the person and on the instructor. The most significant factors are attitudes and motives on the one hand, and openness to change and new ideas and experiences on the other. These factors determine which aspects will be experienced most and whether eventually all levels will be reached.

The first and most obvious level in martial arts is the physical. It involves the discipline of mastering the control and coordination of the body to perform effectively and provide health through physical fitness. This is the foundation for the subsequent levels.

The second level is the combative level. The physical skills of control and coordination learned are now applied to self-defense. Equally important is the mental focus and control required to be strong and effective in self-defense.

The third level is the competitive. The physical skills and self-defense capabilities learned are now tested under limited conditions of rules and regulations. On the one hand, it is easier than self-defense because it is usually much safer than actual combat. On the other hand, it is far more difficult to score to a limited target area skillfully with proper form than it is to stop an opponent in an actual fight where the target area is unlimited and a blow to almost any part of the body, if strong enough, can be effective.

Levels IV & V

The fourth level is the aesthetic or artistic. All prior skills are now used for the purpose of self-expression, through the discipline of balanced and coordinated movement, much as a painter, dancer or other artist must perfect his requisite artistic skills. The martial artist performs not only to stay in shape or compete or to practice defense but for an enjoyable and creative expression of the emotion and feeling we each need to express in some form or other. If he does not practice with this motive, he is a martial practitioner but not a martial artist. It is rather like the difference between technology and true art or science.

Kata, the prearranged symbolic battles used to develop mental focus and physical coordination and agility, can be an excellent vehicle for artistic self-expression as well as for a form of meditation through movement. The difference between kata and kumite (free fighting) can well be compared to the difference between classical and jazz music, both excellent forms of art.

The fifth level is that of meditative discipline, the exercise of mental focusing. In order to do each of the previous levels well, one must have learned great mental discipline in mind/body control through physical discipline, which requires concentration and focus. This is the aspect most related to other meditative disciplines as techniques of focusing, regardless of the goal.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the meditative character of martial arts is tai chi chuan, with its slow, flowing, rhythmic movements emphasizing balance and breathing, which result in a mind/body stability and focus or centeredness. This meditative character can be equally present in other martial arts, which stress balance, coordination and proper breathing, or in any activity where the mind/body must be focused together to achieve some end. The proper motives and ends which make a crucial difference will be discussed below in levels six and seven.

Skilled movement and artistic excellence are achieved through discipline in which the skills are most often learned analytically or by mental imagery, i.e., one must think about and visualize what is correct form, balance, etc.. By long practice and observation, one gradually develops an intuition of correct and effective technique which is then translated into movement. Later, all the training culminates in a free and flowing spontaneous execution of technique. This is true of all sports and physical skills.

Martial arts are meditative because focus is necessary to learn them and focus is produced by performing them. This is the initial relation to meditation. As stated above, meditation is not a disengagement from responsibility and practical involvement but rather a discipline that can produce a state of mind in which responsibility and activity are more effectively engaged in due to a greater alertness.

To do anything well usually takes concentration, that is, total attention to what is at hand. If I am distracted by thoughts of injury while I am sparring or of death while in a real combat, I am not totally concentrated in my activity. This is why the samurai warriors of old sought out the wisdom of the Zen masters, who had learned to be alert. This concentration in turn provides a clarity of thought from which wisdom more readily arises.

Alertness and concentration are not achieved exclusively by just sitting and meditating, but such techniques are a common starting point. Once the practitioner has mastered the basic, alert attitude in privacy, he can carry it anywhere. He need not sit in a corner chanting to achieve this.

Once we have reached some level of proficiency in each of the levels, must we stop there? Is that all there is? Any human enterprise is largely determined by the limitations we imagine it to have.

We are the creators of our own horizons within the vague limits of our humanity, of which there seems to be no exhaustive or completely adequate account. If a martial art is to be a means to greater development of the individual rather than just an end in itself, further levels are to be reached.

Levels VI & VII

The sixth level of martial arts is the philosophic. A person must decide what is most important about his art and how he, as a member of the human community, should use it to improve his own life and the lives of those around him. He also must consider how the practice of his art relates him not just to other persons but to being. He must consider that mind/body is an expression of the universe, that all the slow energy that we call matter is the stuff of the universe of which he is made and that his consciousness is part of the process of the evolution or unfolding of being.

The rational attempt at questioning and expanding our horizons yet maintaining a structure which most adequately expresses our personal and group commitments, given the limitations of thought and language, is the philosophic level. Every human activity has both philosophic implications and philosophic presuppositions, e.g., suppositions about what is valuable and what is real. And these suppositions have direct implications for daily activity.

If martial arts are not pursued on a philosophical level as well as on the other levels, one's use of the arts may very well be misguided and counterproductive with regard to important values and reality commitments. Important insights may be arrived at by questioning our motives and attitudes as they pertain to martial arts.

The final level encompasses all the others. It represents the highest level to which any human enterprise proceeds. This may generally be referred to as the spiritual level. Here the term spiritual does not refer to any literal or dogmatic assertions about man's "true" nature nor to some ethereal substance or entities (e.g., soul, etc.) but rather to that in man which is both actual and potential, i.e., what is and what can be realized and the indomitable spirit or drive or tendency which makes the potential become actual.

In his expansion toward this potential, man is always on the way. His enterprises, such as martial arts or any art, science, feeling, or thought are never just ends in themselves with which he identifies and fortifies his personal needs, but rather are stepping-stones or vehicles. One does not seek new techniques to fortify old habits, but rather for genuine personality evolution. There comes a point at which technique is transcended and it is seen as a stepping-stone or preparation for becoming more fully human and alive. If we stop with the perfection of technique, that wholeness is lost.

At this spiritual level the artist does not just contemplate the philosophic dimensions, but puts these insights into living practice and feels himself as an expression of or creation of the universe, cosmic consciousness, basic energy, being, etc.. This is the most significant level for any human activity. It is not necessarily religious in any dogmatic way. That is, this kind of experience requires no set of given beliefs, but rather a feeling for and an acknowledgement of the obvious interconnectedness and holism that both science and religion have discovered and attempted to express in various ways.


Eugene Herrigel, in his classic, Zen in the Art of Archery, expressed the significant relation between all arts and the state of receptive awareness of being more fully alive expressed in Zen:

A swordmaster who had been approached by one of the Emperor's guards for lessons felt that in some way this stranger was already a master and remarked, "Do you fool me? I know my judging eye never fails."

The stranger replied that he was not attempting to fool him. "But still I am sure you are a master of something," the swordmaster said.

The stranger replied, "There is one thing of which I can say I am a complete master. When I was a boy, it occurred to me that as a samurai I ought in no circumstances to be afraid of death, and I have grappled with the problem of death now for some years, and finally the problem of death ceased to worry me."

""Exactly," replied the swordmaster. "The ultimate secrets of swordsmanship also lie in being released from the thought of death. I have trained over so many hundreds of pupils along this line, but so far none of them really deserves the final certificate for swordsmanship. You need no technical training; you are already a master." 

D.T. Suzuki said in his introduction to Herrigel's book, "If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an artless art growing out of the unconscious."

To become a master is to become a master through some given art or science of the energies in the universe. There are slow forms of energy (what we call matter) and faster forms (light, cosmic rays and other high-energy particles, etc.). One masters one's life through mental alertness on both the sensing level, being more sensitive to the process of change (in martial arts, sensing the opponent's attack before it is obvious) and on the level of mind aware of but unaffected by sensed process and change.

The highest form of mastery is beyond technique. It is the mastery of one's own self. Mastery of one's own mind and body, through centering and focusing mental and physical energies, precedes and is prerequisite to this self-mastery. It was this kind of mastery the Zen masters of old exuded and which so attracted the famous samurai to follow them and seek their guidance.


The relation between meditation and martial arts is little realized due to the misunderstanding of both. Meditation is not merely passive navel contemplation, and martial arts are not merely methodological systems of violence or merely sport. They are only reduced to this when practiced improperly and incompletely.

Meditative disciplines, regardless of whatever other effects they may have, are methods of producing a focus and a unity in thought, activity and purpose, in most cases for improving perspective and all aspects of living. This simply means that some stimulus, thought or activity is made the center of attention either to the exclusion of an awareness of distinction or differences in thought or sensation or for focusing in order t merely observe but be unattached to surroundings.

The practitioner becomes totally engrossed in or becomes one with the object or activity of attention and usually does this through some pre-established technique and discipline.

A few examples of meditative activities or disciplines are concentration on a visual object or an imaginary object, on a sound or a mental sound, concentrated movement, breath counting or breath concentration or even reading.

These activities or disciplines have a variety of effects, but all initially produce one common result; focus or centeredness.

What does the focusing allow? What is significant about it? Such concentration and focus allows the normal mental activities to subside or cease (if the meditation is done well) and allows for "just being here now." This in itself has certain more well-known benefits (e.g. reduction of stress, tension and anxiety; regulation of body functions: lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, to mention a few). But more important is the rest we get from our habits of mind.

What is perhaps most misleading about meditative disciplines are the metaphysical doctrines associated with them. Metaphysical doctrines are beliefs about what is ultimately real and what we ought to do in light of that reality. We find some traditions that use meditative disciplines that say all we see around us is illusion and all involvement in the world of perception and pleasure and pain should be avoided. Others encourage activity and participation in life from a more enlightened point of view than our typical state of mind. 

The problem with some of the metaphysical doctrines based on the experience of mystics is that they take mystical language too literally; e.g., reality as void or the sensed world as illusion is taken literally instead of as an expression of the relation of consciousness to the object of consciousness.

One aim of meditation is to experience things directly instead of through our beliefs, to become unattached to our concepts of the world. This does not mean, of course, to give up concepts or activity. To the contrary, it is to use concepts and beliefs for the world.

There is an old Zen saying that we should not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. In other words, we should not mistake our concepts of the world for the world. When we meditate diligently, we gain new perspectives by "going inward" or by "becoming one with an object or activity." It is something we may do anyway in the normal course of things but not long or deeply enough or with the right motives to get the break of continuity in the normal habits of mind; i.e., we do not break with our normal preoccupation with what captures or plagues our attention. By meditating we can see with new eyes, with a kind of fresh outlook, like waking up in the morning refreshed, but more alert, because we never went to sleep. We were observing ourselves all the while, yet not with the normal habits of mind which are dependent on our preconceived notions and beliefs about the world. This kind of alertness and perspective can also occur following intense intellectual questioning or concentration.

Imbalance leads to greater imbalance unless it is checked with some stabilizing, focusing experience like meditation. But many things can be stabilizing and focusing, like music or reading or physical activity. Yet it is our attitudes and motive which make them more stabilizing and deeper experiences. This attitude usually requires searching, discipline, and guidance to foster and maintain it.

Each of the techniques of meditation cannot simply be put into practice by a novice with proper and immediate results. Although it is possible to be one's own guide at a later stage, as in most other things, it is usually necessary to receive guidance and preparation from one who is already familiar with such discipline and the variety of possible experiences arising from it.

The guide is one who sees the meditative discipline as only a technique for and a stage in the process of self-awareness and growth and that the end result, if any can be characterized, is not an escape from the world of pain and pleasure, but an overcoming of or release from the narrow ways of living and thinking to which we are usually committed. Proper meditation results in more enlightened, focused, and effective activity, not passivity.

Of those who try meditation, many accept too quickly the dogma which may accompany it and idolize the guide or instructor. Equally to be avoided is the rejection of the technique because of the dogma and teacher. The technique can be considered independently and one's own conclusions reached at a later, more appropriate time. To accept the dogma too quickly or to reject the technique can be a great mistake. The first experiences are apt to be rather undisciplined and lacking in focus, as are most first attempts at such things. This is true of martial arts. The student can only encounter his own habits of thought until he begins to progress and change. In the sustained practice of meditation, he reaches the point where intermittently he begins to have quiet moments when he is not thinking, yet neither sleeping nor dreaming, and this state of mind increases with diligent practice just as one's martial art skill deepens with effort and practice. Although one can lose much of the perspective and insight gained by means of meditating (or just being alive), there is usually a residual effect.

Martial arts can be meditative because focus is necessary to learn them and focus is produced by performing them. Any discipline that is meditative can have the effect, if we follow it through well and far enough, of waking us up to life by stopping the normal assumptions and habits of mind long enough to allow a genuine and permanent growth in perspective and sensitivity. Motives and attitudes, however, make a critical difference. If a technique is practiced merely from some motive of personal aggrandizement, the deeper benefits that focus and concentration can bring are jeopardized. Ultimately, technique can be transcended and life itself is meditation. But here meditation now means living with a fresh, alert, and receptive attitude.

To sum up, there is a focusing and concentration which occurs in meditation that results in a centering and alertness which can lead to greater sensitivity and awareness in our normal activities, provided the attitude and motivation are right. This can ultimately lead to a mastery of self. It does not eliminate all life's problems, but it drastically affects how we deal with them.

A master of meditation is a master of life (and the thought of death). Life itself is his technique of meditation; i.e., he has transcended technique. All of his experience becomes harmonious and supportive to his centeredness, not disruptive, as it can be for those not well focused. Meditation can be the starting point for this kind of mastery.

Legend has it that Buddha was asked, 

"Are you a saint?" He answered, "No."
"Are you god?" Buddha answered, "No."
"What are you?" "I am awake."

— Dean Pickard  1979