Morality in the Martial Arts. The Ten Components of Conduct.

core values


It seems the only way this world is going to come out of this deep moral funk we are in is through the teachings of traditional martial arts.  People are at unrest.  We have defuncted all traditional ways of thinking and are searching for a compass to lead us out of this moral depravity.

What better way to teach morality and proper conduct than through the martial arts.  This article covers the ten components of conduct all martial artists should strive for.

Gichin Funakoshi, known as the “Father of Karate,” says it this way:

As a mirror’s polished surface reflects whatever stands before it,
and a quiet valley carries even small sounds,
so must the student of karate render of their mind empty of selfishness and wickedness
in an effort to react appropriately toward anything they might encounter. 
This is the meaning of the kara or “empty” of karate-do.”

It isn’t the technique as much as the attitude that makes a true practitioner of the martial arts.

Think back on all the great masters.  Do they exude arrogance and egotism?  Are they calm and wise?

This calmness and wisdom did not come about by boisterousness and conceit.  There is no room in the martial arts for an ego, however large or small.  The bully, the narcissist, the slouch, none of these types of personalities last long in a dojo.  Respect for oneself and others is the #1 requirement for exemplary conduct.  After all, the martial arts turns your body into one of fitness and strength, and the same happens to your mind.

When Da Mo came across the Buddhist monks that did nothing but sit around and meditate, he whipped them into shape because he believed the body and spirit were connected.  If you neglect one, you neglect the other.

With that in mind, read on about the importance of morality in the martial arts.

Respect.  One of the most important words in the martial arts.

Morality.  Why is it such an important component of the martial arts?


martial arts is good for kids

Respect, morality, and the martial arts go hand in hand.

The training of a child through martial arts in correct behavior and right-thinking forms lifelong good habits of mind and body.

However, the level of achievement of morality is directly dependent on how far a student advances in practice.

A boisterous and brazen person is limited in their achievement, narrow-minded and egotistical, thinks their style is the best and their main goal is to kick someone’s butt. This better-than, bullying mentality does not take one very far in life.

In this day and age, the lack of morality is readily apparent in societies across the world.  People seem to forget that it takes community to survive, and community means getting along.  Getting along means respecting one another’s property and person.  Respecting oneself is the ultimate sign of getting along, because if you do not like yourself, you do not like anyone else.

cartoon kids
Respect for oneself and each other

It is not a surprise that Da Mo went to live with the monks, since he was a monk himself.  Under his guidance, the practices of the monks in the Shao Lin temple became the basis for Zen Buddhism.  The moral precepts of Buddhism were originally integrated into the training of the monks by the emperor because after Da Mo’s death, some of them took to the countryside, marauding and pillaging the villagers.

But just because the martial arts and Buddhism carry the same moral precepts, read on, and you will see morality has nothing to do with religion, but with a state of mind and attitude.

Buddhism is a way of life, just like martial arts becomes a way of life.  The two are directly related in the most unlikely place – the practice of morality.  Both lead to a way of exemplary living, a way of life.


never depart from the way of the martial arts


The Way – the path to an enriched and fulfilling life.

The way of morality in the martial arts is not an easy road.  Only the dedicated will survive, but the benefits are great.

Morality is a living a life of acting and thinking, of living present in every second in both thought and deed.  Morality, as described here, is not what you normally would think. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines morality as 1) principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong, 2) a particular system of values and principles, 3) the extent in which an action is right or wrong.

For our purposes, a particular system of values and principles most easily describes the role morality plays in the martial arts.  If the monks had not learned to be humble with their art, it would not have survived for nearly 2000 years.  Violent acts eventually die down.  A true sign of an art is how it is preserved over the ages.

This “true art” is threatened.  Traditionalists keep the spirit going, but in today’s world, traditions of all kinds are fading fast, and the carrying on of traditional martial arts is no exception.

The rigid training of the Shao Lin monks, the life-and-death commitment of the samurai, and the struggles of the Okinawans to keep their fighting art alive; they all had moral principles to tame their weaponless defense.

The student learns ways to disable an attacker.  As the techniques increase in level, the ways of defense become more brutal.  Target points on the human body meant for disabling or killing are also target points that will heal.  The student must learn the difference between these two.  Within his two hands he holds the power to heal or kill.  With that comes a huge responsibility.  And that is why there is a system of values and principles that define the martial arts.

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming and Jeffery Bolt in their book on Shaolin Long Fist Kung Fu wrote about the dual development between deed and thought:  Morality of Action and Morality of Mind.


morality in the martial arts

Morality of action.  How one behaves in society, in the outside world.

Humility gains and pride loses

1. Humility.  Humble people admit there is something greater than themselves, something beyond their reach.  This promotes continuous learning, and humility is the foundation for learning.  One must admit they know next to nothing to absorb the gap that is filled in by learning and practice.

“Humility gains” by reminding the martial artist that his training can always be improved upon.  There is always someone better than you.  For every day you don’t train, your opponent gains a day.  No matter how much you know, how perfect your techniques are, there is always more to learn and perfect.

“Pride loses” by creating a feeling of satisfaction and adequacy.  Pride gives the practitioner a false sense of achievement.  Why practice?  This thinking halts your growth in a heartbeat.  Remember the adage, “Pride goeth before a fall!”

Humility is the building block for the other four levels of morality of action, because if one isn’t humble, they certainly won’t be respectful.

2. Respect is intimately related to humility.  Both recognize the goodness in everything.  There is no “bad” style of the martial arts, most are closely related.  There is no reason for dojo wars or cock-of-the-walk mentality.  Each is in this for their own reasons, and each reason is valid.  Who are we to judge whether another person’s reasoning is good or bad, or our style is better than theirs.

Respect gives the martial arts the pure spirit it deserves.  In the dojo we show respect in many different ways; to other students by treating them well, to the dojo by keeping it clean and in repair, to oneself by wearing a clean gi and having a clean body.  And especially, respect to the master of your art, for this is the person that can guide you to the higher levels of ability.  Bowing shows respect to the sensei, the dojo, the other students, and to yourself.  These gestures are important because they help us acquire correct behavior.

3.  Righteousness.  Steadfast and upright.  Doing the right thing.  

Just like the monks of old, fighting for the old reign, for the life they lost to the Manchus, you find yourself standing up for justice, compelled to fight the evils in the world.  It is not an easy torch to carry.  This is what it means to be righteous – morally good and virtuous.  Live a clean life because others are looking up to you and they trust you.

4. Trust – If you are respectful and humble, and stand up for what is right, then people learn to trust you.  They know your word is good and you do what you say.  To be dependable shows honesty and good character, and it shows you are loyal.

5. Loyal – to be faithful to the ideals that one believes in – ideals of family, culture, country, and the martial arts.  A student may be called on to teach, which he must honor.

If your master has taken the time to reach you to the level of achievement where he feels comfortable allowing you to teach, then he deserves your loyalty and respect by passing on what he has taught you.

This is the ultimate compliment to the masters before you.  Without you, your art dies.

Morality of thought.  If a man is a ship, then the will is the rudder.

Can you spend three hours a day training?  If the will is strong, if the desire is there, you can.  It takes long hours to become proficient at your art, it has been said after you throw 10,000 kicks and 10,000 punches you are well on your way to perfection.

That’s a lot of kicks and punches.  How many do you throw in an hour’s practice?  It all adds up.  Without the will to succeed, you quit before the 10,000 is close.

1. Will is the heart of the matter.  The will is the force that gets us through, not only the 10,000 punches and kicks, but through life’s challenges.  In times of personal trouble, sadness, grief, loss, laziness, self-doubt, it is your will to overcome, to survive, that gets you to the other side.

2. Endurance supports the will; it is the will’s physical fuel or energy source.  You may want to succeed, but not have the endurance.  Can you endure those 10,000 kicks over the course of many years?

3 & 4. Perseverance and patience are the will’s mental sources of energy.  Endurance is physical energy, perseverance and patience are the mental energy that gives you the right mindset.  Those long years of practice can only be endured with perseverance and patience.

5. Bravery is the principal action for the will; the spiritual courage to fight truth.  This is not an easy task, fighting truth.  People do not want to see it; they do not want to hear there is a better, more peaceful way to live.  It takes great strength and bravery to endure the onslaught that goes along with standing up for what is right.  Sometimes it means physically defending yourself or your family; sometimes it means speaking out when you see someone wronged; sometimes it means just getting through your day!

As you can see, the five components of morality in action: Humility, respect, righteousness, loyalty, and truthfulness are intimately tied to the five components of morality of mind: Will, endurance, perseverance, patience and bravery.  Perhaps you can also see how these ten components are necessary to advance in the martial arts.  As these qualities are practiced, they become a part of one’s character.  Just like learning respect in the dojo transfers to treating others with respect in the community.


Humility is indeed the building block, the foundation for moral character.



“Once humility becomes a living ideal the thought of showing off or boisterous disappears.”
Master Yang

Whether you are a practitioner or an instructor, it is important to carry these precepts with you.  These are not just for the dojo, but a way of conduct throughout your life.  Your training as a martial artist sets you off from the others.  People look to you to see if you are a bad-ass or if you are someone they can trust.  You are a reflection of your dojo and of your art.  Just like the mirror looking back, you are the mirror for your art.

Promote kindness and goodwill in your world.  It only takes one or two to start the momentum.  Advertise your dojo by putting your best foot forward and being helpful and kind.  Practice humility.  It is practice because understanding what it takes to be humble doesn’t happen overnight.  Perhaps that is why the old masters are calm and wise.  It took a lifetime to get there.


Sensei Carol