June 04, 2010

A flying kick at enlightenment

tony Jaa

Whenever we post about martial-arts movies (or when Phil posts about Kill Bill) we get a few kneejerk criticisms for being sympathetic to—or at least tolerant of—representations of violence on the screen. There's a pretty basic formula for these films—flying kicks and extraordinary violence cut with shots of meditative practice or scenic recapitulations of spiritual lessons from the protagonist's early years with the master (remember Kung Fu?). Video games, too: I posted about the Karmapa's use of violent video games as "emotional therapy" and plenty found that practice pretty distasteful. So when I heard that Thai martial-arts actor Tony Jaa of Ong Bak fame had shaved his head, hopped on an elephant and ridden off to the monastery to take his monk's vows, I thought skeptics might take heart. But it may be he's on the corporate lam: after Ong Bak 3's flop, some speculate Jaa will literally sit out the rest of his 10-year contract with the production company. I like to think, though, that he's taking a flying kick at enlightenment.

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tonny's picture


James Shaheen's picture

"I understand the surface tension between peace and violence, but below the surface there’s more to understand."


Jimmy B.'s picture

Buddhism and martial arts, although they enjoy a friendly history, often inspire heated arguments on American web sites. This troubles me. I'm a practicing martial artist, and I also follow Buddhist practices. I understand the surface tension between peace and violence, but below the surface there's more to understand.

Martial arts practice grounds you in your physical being. It forces you to pay very close attention to body movement, both gross and subtle motor movements, to the exclusion of all else. This type of practice, like yoga, is a beneficial method of calming the mind.

Martial arts practice, especially sparring, demands that you stay "in the moment" like nothing else. A quarter second lapse of attention and you are likely to be caught off guard with a blow or take-down. (And no, there is no negative intention on the part of your practice partner "opponent" who delivered the blow.) Again, there may be no better practice for full in-the-moment awareness than sparring.

Finally, and most importantly, martial arts is a means to protect life, both yours and your family. If you have the great misfortune of crossing paths with a human being intent on doing you serious physical harm, like any of the hundreds featured on news programming every day, martial arts gives you a fighting chance to survive. Gives you a chance to continue your life, to continue to be a father or mother. It gives your children a chance to carry on their lives without the heavy grief of losing a parent. And if the martial artist is a young person with living parents, it gives those parents a chance to live without the unbearable pain of losing a child.

The contemplation of such issues, the existence of people who will seriously harm or kill you, the fact that it could literally happen to anybody, no matter who you are or where you live, is also a good practice to cultivate a clear view of the world. If we want to see things as they are, we cannot turn our back to the unspeakable tragedy that befalls some people. There was a time when I wouldn't watch the news in the name of "spiritual practice." Now I realize that I was simply denying the way things are. The glass that is half full is also half empty. We need to recognize the whole glass.

Martial arts movies are a slightly different story. I understand why someone might think they glorify violence, but if the story presents the martial artist as an ethical being, and the story itself inspires young people to practice martial arts and therefore realize the benefits above, I have to give the movie two thumbs up.