What It Means To Be A Martial Artist

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Are martial arts all about fighting?

If you’re training in the martial arts, and not fighting, can you still consider yourself a martial artist?

In this article I will delve into this question and expand a bit further with additional points not included in the accompanying video from the live talk on the subject. The video also includes some things not expressed in this article.

The True Meaning of Being A “Martial Artist”

In a previous Thursday night Meditation Class talk, students were asked the question, “What is a martial artist?”

Some examples of the many interesting answers:

“One who is disciplined;”

“One who cultivates their mind and body so they can serve others in any way they can;”

“Someone who practices the connectivity of mind, body and spirit everyday and keeps a balance of all three; and gets as close to perfection as you can get. Respects things;”

“One who does everything they’re supposed to do, without thought;”

“One with the universe;”

“One who is always practicing, 24 hours a day;”

“Someone who doesn’t want to fight;”

Are you a martial artist?

Students were then asked, “Who sees themselves as a martial artist?”

And hardly a hand went up.

Are students seeing something that is beyond their ability to reach? Is it an ideal, unrealistic in their lives?

If so, this is a good reason why most just dabble in the martial arts, never really getting out of it what they had hoped for.

The truth is, anyone who sets their mind to it, has some patience and perseveres, can get everything martial arts training has the potential to provide, which is usually far more than was ever expected.

Exploring What it Means to Be a Martial Artist

Let’s take a closer look at the terms “martial art” and “martial artist”.

The word “martial” comes from the ancient Roman god of war: Mars. Therefore, it is easy to see that the word “martial” clearly means “war”, right?

Yes, of course.

However, what is the point of war?

Sure, historically and politically, war has been used for many things, righteous and not so much. In many cases, it has been to conquer and take anything and everything from land to resources.

And the ultimate goal, in the end, regardless?


Chinese character "Wu" meaning "martial"

The Chinese character that was translated to the word “martial” is wu. And if we break down the character it literally means, “to stop the use of weapons”, “to end the violence”, or “to stop the fighting”.

It is for this primary reason that we have the mightiest and most advanced military on the planet: to end conflict so we can enjoy peace.

Therefore, the primary need for the military is to defend, and sometimes that means war.

That brings us to the word “art”

At first glance, we likely consider things such as: beauty, creativity and expression. However, if we dig deeper and actually look at the definitions we see:

1.a. Creative or imaginative activity especially the expressive arrangements of elements within a medium. b. Works such as painting or poetry resulting from such activity.

2. A branch of artistic activity such as musical composition using a special medium and technique.

3. The aesthetic values of an artist.

4. Any of various disciplines, such as the humanities, that do not rely on the scientific method.

So far, it’s not so easy to see why the term martial was combined with the word art. Unless we are talking about some form of war-like performance – sort of for play or entertainment.

Is that what is meant? Let’s look further (italic emphasis is mine):

5. A craft or trade and its methods. 

6. Contrivance. Cunning.

7. A practical skill. Knack.

Synonyms are: craft, expertise, knack, know-how, technique

Well, these make a bit more sense in combination with something pertaining to war. In fact, in China the term wushu is used, which means literally, “martial techniques.”

Let’s see what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say about the word, artist:

1. One who practices any of the fine or performing arts such as painting or music.

2. One whose work shows skill.

If we focus on the beauty, creativity, and expression we get a very different interpretation or perspective. It seems more like making the tools of war look pretty.

Or, creatively expressing oneself in the ways of war.

Sure, we can look at martial arts training like that. And on some level, it would be the essence of the ability to spontaneously express one’s martial skills rather than only being able to repeat a prearranged pattern or sequence created by someone else.

Yes, the martial artist must get beyond that.

But I must add: the artist, of war, whose main goal is peace, develops the expertise, the skills, the techniques, and all the tools necessary to end conflict.

We must be careful when we try to stretch out or too loosely interpret the meaning of martial arts and what it means to be a martial artist.

We cannot leave out the physical aspect.

To be truly prepared to end the conflict it means that if it escalates to that point you are still prepared.

Can you say you’re a martial artist if you’re not sparring?

I’m not talking about sparring in a competitive way, where one wins and the other loses. Not with a focus on tournaments and trophies, where one plans and prepares for a match.

I mean sparring in a way where you practice the physical skills that can help you stop the fight. Because that’s the goal: not to win, not for tournaments, not for trophies, not to beat people up, not to compete but to end the conflict and ultimately live in peace.

What’s the difference from real self defense to competitive fighting or combat sports?

In a real self defense situation there is no scheduled encounter. There is surprise and many times shock.

Fighting competitions and combat sports like MMA have nothing to do with whether one is a martial artist – or isn’t. We just must see it for what it is: a competitive sport.

How’s this for a definition of a martial artist:

One who studies, practices, develops, and creatively expresses the tools, techniques, and skills to face adversity and end conflict – from the inner battle up to and including a physical confrontation.

We’re not all going to be Green Berets

There are many levels of preparedness. The more prepared you are the more likely it is that you can decide not to turn to violence and avoid or end conflict.

There are the specialists, such as the Green Berets or Special Forces, who are trained to face the most dangerous life-threatening situations.

And then there is the mother who maintains peace in the home by mediating and softening the atmosphere when there is conflict within the family. This mother has highly developed people skills, also known as diplomacy.

Yes, people skills are another significant tool in the martial artist’s arsenal. It is people skills that allow us to end conflict before it escalates.

An Old Master Of Karate Told Me…

In Okinawan Karate they have titles beyond the first three Dan of black belt.

At the 4th to 6th Dan, the title is Renshi.

At the 7th and 8th Dan, the title is Kyoshi.

And at the 9th and 10th Dan, the highest levels, the title is Hanshi.

Why the titles, and what do they say about the meaning of being a martial artist?

Renshi means, “polished.” Kyoshi means, “more polished.” And Hanshi, the highest level? Simply “even more polished.”

Polished what?


The true martial artist is always making efforts to better himself – striving for perfection – to be impeccable in all that he does.

She knows that before she can control anything, self control must come first. If we are conflicted within, how can we seriously expect to end conflict anywhere else?

How Our Motto Results In Less Conflict:

Wisdom: Accumulated knowledge and experience to consciously apply the tools, techniques and skills to end conflict – within and without; think before you act. The wise person makes better decisions.

Benevolence: Thinking of others; concern for others; respect. If you show others respect you’ll have less conflict. No one is better or more important than anyone else.

Sincerity: Truthful and honest with yourself and others – especially about your efforts or lack thereof. Living in accordance with who you really are results in less inner conflict.

Bravery: There is no bravery without fear. When uncomfortable, you do it anyway. Facing fear leads to confidence. A confident person has nothing to prove so allows others to be who they are and have their own perspectives and opinions. Therefore, there is more acceptance and less conflict.

The Confidence Of Knowing What To Do 

The gun in the back pocket – gives more confidence. When you really know you are prepared to handle the worst-case scenario – including escalation to a physical confrontation – you can better focus on diffusion.

You can have thoughts such as, “How can I throw water on this fire?” rather than being full of fear of where it may be going – and frozen, unable to do anything about the situation –– or having an emotional knee-jerk reaction that can easily make things worse.

Confidence allows for calmness and calmness allows for clarity. You can keep thinking – which is essential in life-threatening situations.

But this calm and centered demeanor is also contagious.

If you can stay calm while the other is losing it in anger, they are very likely to pick up on your lack of fear or emotional response and either lose confidence themselves (as they begin to realize you’re not an easy victim) or simply calm down as a result – all depending on the situation (criminal or domestic).

What is your attitude? Is it bringing water or more fire to the situation?

The Immovable Mind

Musashi, the famous Samurai, spoke of this concept of the “rock body” – or “immovable mind” of the martial artist – indifferent to the goings on around him. Regardless of the circumstances, mentally and emotionally, he is the same. Whether in a life or death situation or having tea with a friend, he is unattached and unaffected.

The Chinese "Five Elements"

In the Chinese “Five Elements”, the rock is Metal.

Metal creates Water. Water controls Fire.

Your calmness or immovable mind and indifference towards whether the situation escalates or resolves becomes the water that can put out the fire of aggression.

The martial artist does not want to fight. Therefore, he or she studies and develops the skills so that he or she does not have to.

The highest level of fighting is not to fight.

So when are you a martial artist? Is it only when you have mastered all of the above and more, skillfully and reflexively responding most appropriately in any given situation?

Remember this: mastery is a process.

Let’s say, at the very least, you are a martial artist if you are continually working towards acquiring and accumulating the knowledge and experience necessary to end conflict within yourself, in your life and ultimately the world, including the tools, techniques and skills to deal with people on all levels.

From raising happy, healthy, confident children…

to personal or work-related relationships…

to facing personal fears and overcoming limiting beliefs…

to that worst-case scenario wrong place wrong time physical encounter with the crack-addicted criminal where you are nothing more to him than a way to get his next hit…

the martial artist is always learning, training, and preparing… so he or she can live the most fulfilling, peaceful, and awakened life.

So… are you a martial artist?




Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.




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