One of the early founders of modern martial arts, Gichin Funakoshi, said, “The mind and technique become one in true karate.” Development of martial arts such as judo, kung fu, hapkido, and aikido were steeped in the spiritual traditions of their native countries. This makes sense, given that many of those martial arts sought to merge spiritual and physical exercises with the goal of strengthening both. Also, systems meant to develop combat skill naturally sought a means to govern when to use violence. As a result, the initial practice of those martial arts often included training in Buddhism or Zen philosophy.
However, that is not how most martial arts are taught or practiced today. At least in the Western world, martial arts such as tae kwon do, jujitsu, capoeira, or judo are defined as systems of physical technique. Training in martial arts, as practiced by most schools, is entirely focused on refining athletic skills. Spiritual training beyond generic ideas such as discipline and respect is all but absent from most modern dojos. Still, schools and instructors will vary. The spiritual components, if any, offered in a martial arts training program ought to be carefully understood before a Christian becomes involved.
The Bible says the mind and heart are “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). In the Scriptures, the heart and mind are often considered to be the same thing. Since our hearts and our minds are wicked, we are not able to think clearly about our spiritual situation. Any martial arts instructor who claims a person can “polish” one’s own spirit through his program is teaching falsehood. We are in need of a Savior to clean our hearts and develop within us a new spirit. Titus 1:15 gives us insight into the mind of the unbeliever: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.”
Martial arts schools that are spiritually “neutral”—that is, most of them—probably don’t present any particular threat to a Christian’s faith. The same cannot be said of the rare martial arts school that openly incorporates non-Christian spirituality into its training regimen. We are not to conform our thinking to the world’s way of thinking but “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2; cf. Ephesians 4:23). We should train our minds in how to serve the Lord and then please Him in all that we do.
The philosophies contained in Buddhism, as well as most religions of the world, were developed by flawed men with defiled minds. They do not offer advice suitable for anyone to follow. Therefore, it’s important for Christians to ensure that whatever physical training they receive is not tied to spiritual error.
The physical side of martial arts is a good form of exercise, and it can be extremely useful for self-defense. Many Christians participate in martial arts, and some instructors even incorporate Christian spiritual ideas into their training. A spiritually neutral or Christian-flavored martial arts experience is most likely something a believer can participate in with a clear conscience.
It is dangerous to allow the mind to be influenced by the philosophies associated with the origins of karate and other forms of martial arts. Training that carries overtones of a false religion should be avoided. Some martial arts, such as jujitsu or kenpo, are effectively neutral in terms of spiritual content. Others, such as aikido, can be more difficult to separate from non-biblical spiritual practices. Therefore, it is wise for the Christian to use caution before participating in this kind of activity.