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By: Peter Payne

Payne, Peter--Martial Arts-The Spiritual Dimension-1.jpeg

Martial Arts

The Spiritual Dimension


By Peter Payne

(Crossroads, 1981, 8"x11", 96 pages)




Review by Christopher Dow




I can’t tell you much about Peter Payne, the author of Martial Arts The Spiritual Dimension. I only have his brief biography on the back cover:


Peter Payne began his interest in the martial arts at the age of ten, when he started studying Judo. He attended Harvard University, majoring in psychology. On graduation, he returned to England, where he continued his studies in psychology, meditation and various mind-body systems, and qualified as an Alexander teacher. His main interests in the martial arts are Aikido, T’ai Chi Chuan and Pa Kua.


So, he’s a Brit and primarily an internal stylist. He’s also intelligent, highly perceptive, and knowledgable—qualities delineated by his schooling, subject matter, and depth of inquiry. It’s not obvious from the reading that he’s English—aside from a few English spellings like “colour,” and words like “whereby”—but you can tell that he favors the internal/soft martial arts over the external/hard, though he in no way neglects or disparages the latter. He might generally believe in the superior qualities of the internal arts, but he is aware, foremost, that it is the martial artist’s own depth of skill and understanding that are important, not his or her style. As for the author’s intelligence, perception, and knowledge, those suffuse every aspect of this book, which apparently is his only published full-length work.

Martial arts are commonplace now, and Youtube videos combined with Wikipedia articles can give in-depth looks into a great number of specific martial arts. But there remains a place for broader text-based surveys that offer histories and delve into other macro aspects of the martial arts in ways that micro examinations or videos can’t. Fifty years ago, when martial arts were relatively new in the West and before movies and the Internet spread martial arts styles and lore worldwide, surveys of the general scope of the martial arts were one way to learn about their histories and overarching characteristics. Most such surveys concentrated on the historical development of the martial arts—usually said to have begun in India before moving into China and, from there, on to Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Thailand, and so forth. These surveys also often relate and concentrate on the development of various styles or types of styles and categorize and differentiate their techniques. The spiritual aspects of the martial arts are almost always touched on but are seldom given real play or depth.

In contrast, Martial Arts: The Spiritual Dimension is not about martial arts styles or techniques. It’s not really even about the history of the martial arts, though that is necessarily touched on. Instead, it’s about the philosophies, theories, and energies underlying the martial arts. In it, the author draws on threads from diverse martial and spiritual traditions to weave a tapestry of the philosophical and spiritual beliefs that give all the martial arts substance and upon which they all play.

This is a slender, large-format book that, if published in the size of a regular trade paperbound book would be twice as thick or more. But the publishers opted for the the large format in order to present a substantial canvas for the book’s many photos, some full page and in full color. In fact, slightly more than half of the book is almost nothing but photos with captions. Many of these are full-page, and a lot of those are in excellently reproduced color. Indeed, all the photos and illustrations, large or small, b&w or color, antique or modern, are excellent, whether showing a martial moment, a diagram, or a relevant piece of art.

The first part of the book is primarily text, though a few pages have simple drawings to help illustrate characteristics of various types of martial arts. Within its allotted space, it explores several aspects of the martial arts that are not well-explored in other books. I say “allotted space” because, while most books can be expanded at will to include more information and/or graphics, not so this one. It is part of a ten-book series titled The Illustrated Library of Sacred Imagination (Jill Purce, general editor), in which only one other book touches on a martial arts subject: Zen: Direct Pointing to Reality. So, as part of the series, it had to conform to that series’ parameters as, basically, a coffee table book.

But in this case, that doesn’t mean shallow, and I can’t stress enough how well written this text is. More deeply philosophical than most martial arts books, it displays broad perspectives and packs an incredible amount of solid, important information into its pages A lot of martial arts authors pay homage to the idea of spirituality within the martial arts, but few spend much verbiage or effort to do more than scratch the surface of this aspect. Payne does the job of digging deeper, unearthing and revealing the several hidden spiritual pillars undergirding the martial arts.

He begins with a short but broad anecdotal overview in the form of an introduction before moving on to the task at hand, which, first, is to discuss technical aspects. This is not to be confused with martial technique. Instead, it consists of a general examination of dualism as it undergirds many aspects of life and reality in the form of the dichotomous constructs of Body/Mind, Matter/Spirit, Yin/Yang. To explain the concepts he’s tackling, he employs concepts from fields as diverse as physics, psychology, myth, and religion to display the fundamental principles, functionings, and interplay of of yin and yang in its various guises. The conclusion and natural outcome of duality, he states, is “integration” of the opposites, a fusion that creates a new principle that simultaneously holds in its two hands both difference and balance. This leads to a synthesis of the extremes of Belly and Head into the central Heart principle whose gestalt is far more powerful than either of its constituent parts alone. Clearly, Payne is not a materialist but rather pays homage to spiritual consciousness.

The idea of dualism leads naturally to a look at the martial arts as they are divided into external styles and internal styles. Both aspects are well discussed, though the author spends a little more time on the internal because, as he writes, “The internal factors are hard to grasp without personal experience.”


What he’s talking about is internal energy/strength—chi, ki, prana, etc.—and he is careful to distinguish localized accumulations of chi, say in a limb, from systemic manifestations of chi. The latter, he says, is where true power lies. An important part of that power is the acquisition of internal stillness. Only from that source, he says, can true power arise.

There is much excellent material in this overview of internal/external, but the next, long, section gets into some real red meat. Here, Payne succinctly compares and contrasts various martial arts, but he doesn’t do so by classifying the many martial arts by historical development, by nationality, or even by style of technique. Instead, he does so by the way technique types are employed by specific styles. He doesn’t discuss, for example, how karate strikes are done, or Tai Chi strikes. Instead, he discusses hitting as a topic, and uses examples of different ways or styles of hitting as a means to illuminate what hitting means. Through this different sort of approach, he presents the reader with an excellent overview of the martial arts across the board, from hard to soft, external to internal, and nationality to nationality in a way that is easy to absorb.


In addition to the aforementioned hitting, this section also covers grappling, throwing, ground-work, joint locks, choke holds, kicking, blocking, evasion, vulnerable points, and others. Again, this isn’t a primer of techniques, although a few are demonstrated in word and picture. It is, rather, a brief but insightful survey of the how different martial arts deal with similar issues.

The next section is “Hard vs. Soft.”


The division of the martial arts into hard styles and soft styles somewhat overlaps with the external/internal division, in that external styles tend to be hard and internal ones to be soft. But this is by no means universally or necessarily true. What is meant by “hard’’ and “soft” is two different ways of using energy, whether this energy is internal (ki) or external (strength). In general, these two ways of using energy are, respectively, linear and circular, though some techniques combine elements of both. Linear energy is direct, piercing, angular, abrupt, like a bullet or a battering-ram; circular energy is tangential, sweeping, continuous, like a tidal wave or a whirlwind.


The text goes on to delve more thoroughly and insightfully into the topic of hard and soft before leading to a section titled, “Empty-hand vs. Weapons.” In it, the author is not an advocate for or against weapons practice, noting that some martial arts employ them, and some don’t. But he is careful to point out that if one chooses to use a weapon, that person should be able to control the weapon as if it were a living extension of his or her body.

The link between the martial arts and health practices is the subject of the next section, and here, Payne primarily is talking about chi kung-type exercises. This section concludes with a paragraph on the importance of the sinews to both martial abilities and health. In it, he mentions the fascia, which is only rarely touched on in martial arts literature, then or now. This is surprising considering the absolute importance of the fascia to the martial arts, particularly the internal arts. Sinews comprise ligaments, which hold bone to bone at joints; tendons, which connect muscle to bone; and fascia, which link and connect large muscle groups, allowing for whole-body movement.

Strategy and tactics are the subjects of the following section. Again, this is not a primer of specifics but a look at principles, though proper principles can be applied to a variety of specific instances. The first topic is distance, beginning with the idea of personal space. Just outside of that is interpersonal space, and beyond that is the awareness field. Payne looks into all three from a martial standpoint in being wary of aggression. But counter-aggression is not necessarily a proper response to violations of any of these spaces. In fact, Payne says, no action at all should be taken regarding violations of the awareness field, while at the other extreme, others often are permitted to enter one’s personal space for a variety of reasons.

The next chapter is, “The Martial Arts as Spiritual and Psychological Disciplines.” Remember, the author is a trained psychologist as well as an experienced martial artist speaking, so his words here carry some weight. He begins with:


The exigencies of combat place great demands on the capacities of the warrior. These demands can act as powerful learning situations for self-discovery and self-confrontation, and may be used to further the spiritual endeavour.” (There’s some of that English spelling.)


The primary confrontation is death. He writes:


All spiritual systems set up a confrontation with death; the basic preparatory practices of Buddhism involve the remembrance that one’s life is short and of uncertain duration.


Death can be confronted by the basic fighting aspect of the martial arts when one engages in self-defense against an attacker out to do bodily harm, but the deeper confrontations occur within the individual on the mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. And while one might confront physical attacks on rare occasions, most of us will never have to, but we all constantly have to confront our own mortality—and what that means—moment by moment.


The confrontation with death is perhaps the most important element of spirituality. First, death reveals the ego. That part of us which grasps and holds on, which attempts to crystalize the flow of life and box it into separate entities, is totally panicked by death. Fear is the basis of this holding and contraction, and death, or the thought of death, brings out this fear…. But freedom from this incapacitating fear releases great powers.


The next section discusses the issue of confrontation through the perspective of myth, though not specific myths, but more in the vein of C.G. Jung’s writings on archetypes. And, of course, the most prevalent mythic content of martial arts legends concern the archetypal figure of the Hero, in both his beneficent and maleficent disguises, usually accompanied, as is generally the case in the Hero  archetype, by some version of the wise old man or teacher.

Developing the will is the subject of the next section. He writes:


The will is the means whereby one channels and focuses one’s energies into the world and toward some specific action.


The will, Payne continues, is not teeth-gritting effort, as it is thought of in the West, but is more akin to intention. It is a real mental force, not simply an intellectual concept. Payne further divides the will into three types—the skillful will, the strong will, and the good will—and treats each to an examination.

The next chapter is “Body, Energy, Mind and Spirit.” I’m not going to try to characterize all the elements of this chapter. That’s the author’s job, and he covers a great deal of territory with the eye of a seasoned cartographer. But I will say that in it, he presents a rational for integration of all the disparate manifestations of the human being into a unified whole—not just because doing so makes one a better martial artist, but primarily because it makes one a more fully developed human being. Personal integration, he writes, is “vital to the pursuit of both spiritual unfoldment and the mastery of the martial arts.” He even, in a rare example of specific technique, gives detailed instructions on how to manifest Aikido’s “Unbendable Arm.”

There follows a fascinating section on postural alignments and body movement. Part of this is an interesting look at the Alexander Technique and other types of bodywork. The purpose is to aide the body in achieving “entrainment.” This is another name for the concept, for example, of whole-body movement as developed by Tai Chi, which consists of opening the body in a strictly sequential manner, from sole of the foot to the ultimate terminus, which might be a hand, elbow, shoulder, or other body part. It is such a prevalent notion in Tai Chi that it often is said of the art, “If one part moves everything moves.” Tai Chi also has the notion of the Nine Channel Pearl, with a thread (representing chi energy) running through all the channels. This becomes a metaphor for continuous, wave-like movement activating the nine joints from ankle to fingertip. Martial arts simply cannot function without entrainment, even if that entrainment is isolated to specific muscle groups, as the boxing punch, which develops from hip rotation to entrain the back, shoulder, and arm joints.

Rhythm is another part of this aspect. By rhythm, Payne doesn’t mean just that this given style or that particular martial artist might exhibit some sort of rhythm in attack and defense. The idea of rhythm might begin there, but the author moves it into more esoteric territory with a discussion of how rhythms, which are essentially vibratory systems, can be impeded or dissipated through means other than directly jamming the rhythm, say with a hard block or punch. Just as two complementary rhythms amplify themselves, two contradictory rhythms will cancel each other, and Payne points out ways that one can create rhythms that amplify or disrupt the rhythms of others, whatever the case might require, without direct jamming. He also writes about scientific examinations of the body’s micro-movements, which have been studied in those engaging in Kundalini meditation, with lessening instances of spinal movement obvious among more advanced meditators.

All these factors contribute to the total integration of the individual through energetic as well as physical linkages. Whole-body entrainment is principally a physical matter, while various other rhythms take up the slack on mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. Beyond that is the entrainment of Spirit → Intention (activation of the will) → Chi (motivated by Will) → Body. I suppose that true, thorough, and conscious integration of all these aspects might result in pure magic.

A section on chi, which the author refers to by its Japanese term, ki, follows. Rather than attempting to be encyclopedic, the author instead concentrates on a basic but probing overview of what ki is—or might be—and cites a few instances of research to back up his statements and conclusions. Which I wholly agree with, especially when he writes:


It is a peculiar fact that our [Western] culture is one of the few in the history of the world which has no everyday word or concept corresponding to ki. This might be argued as being due to the rise of science which has more “accurate” concepts than these “vague, vitalistic ideas.” But if this were so, one would expect science to be conversant with and capable of dealing effectively with those areas in which ki is usually invoked. These ares include basic vitality, mental and emotional health, intuition, body-mind relationships, paranormal powers, as well as the extraordinary capacity already described which can be attained by masters of ki. Clearly science has an almost total lack of competence in these, and related areas.


Notably, Payne is, to my knowledge, one of the first martial arts authors to link ki directly with bioelectrical phenomenon, though he stops short of claiming that ki is electrical, per se.

The final section concerns the ego structure and its relationship with the body. This valuable discussion liberally dips into the esoteric:


Both science and mysticism agree that this experience of things [as they exist in the world] is not absolute and true, but relative, arbitrary and illusory. Modern physics asserts that we are actually made up of curved, empty space, and that no absolute boundary can be detected between ‘self’ and ‘world’: our space is continuous with that of the world, like “water flowing into water.


Being a psychologist, the author brings in more support from neurophysiology for the contention that the true martial artist is as much “out there” as he is “in here.” And finally, he concludes with a long quote from Morihei Uyeshiba relating the story of the master’s own moment of enlightenment.

Strictly speaking, this is the end of the text, but it really isn’t. Although the second half of the book is primarily photographs with captions, toward the end are half a dozen vignettes that the author terms “Themes.” Going a little more pointedly into their subjects than does the main text, they are: Grounding, the Up (spinal alignment), Ki, Healing, Weapons, Spontaneity, and No Mind. Each is covered in a page or two of text and photos. The book closes with a bibliography but no index, though realistically, one isn’t really needed.

Super-good explanations and discussions, solidly backed up by pertinent information and valuable insights give this book real heft despite its apparent light weight. All along, Payne cites numerous sources to bolster his statements. Some are scientists and researchers, some social scientists, others mystics and highly regarded exponents of various religious traditions. Some are martial artists. And a couple now cause me to raise a humorous eyebrow because they betray the age of this book—or at least the milieu during which it was written, for a good martial arts book like this doesn’t age; it only mellows.

The first instance is the author citing John Gilbey. It was not well known at the time that Gilbey was a fiction spawned in the minds of Robert W. Smith, Donn Draeger, and a couple of their cronies, and that Smith wrote the books under the Gilbey pseudonym. I’ve discussed this in my reviews of the Gilbey books and of Smith’s memoirs, Martial Musings: A Portrayal of the Martial Arts in the 20th Century. I’ll just mention here that, though Gilbey was a fiction, Smith was not, and while some of the accounts in the Gilbey books are thinly veiled fiction, an equal number are truthful. And Smith was, himself, proficient in several of the internal arts. So Payne can be forgiven for citing Gilbey since he is, in essence, citing Smith, and the citations provide value.

The second author Payne cites is Carlos Castaneda. When the book under consideration was written, doubts about the veracity of Castaneda’s Don Juan books were stirring, though this was not well known at the time. Castaneda’s books were widely considered to be truthful accounts of an apprentice shaman’s training and were cited in various sorts of literature, from the martial arts to New Age to academic sociology and psychology. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, was required reading for an anthropology course I took in 1969. These days, we have a more complete—and complex—picture of Castaneda and his works, and it is not a complementary one.

But even so—even if Castaneda’s Don Juan and the events of the books are an amalgam of spiritual and folk traditions wrapped in the guise of genuine magical and spiritual occurrences—Castaneda learned some of his lessons well. Nuggets of insight and wisdom exist in his books, if one ignores the growing self-indulgence of the frame tale the longer the story goes on. This was, perhaps, a measure of Castaneda’s own life, which grew equally self-indulgent, ultimately resulting in tragedy.Despite this—and the fact that the Don Juan books are, mostly at least, a hoax—in delving into the character and wisdom of Don Juan, Castaneda seemed to have evoked—and invoked—the very archetype of the wise old man explored by C. G. Jung as mentioned above.

There’s lots to think about in this excellent, thorough overview of a great number of factors in the martial arts that don’t directly have to do with their training or fighting aspects. Meant as an introduction to spirituality within the martial arts, this is a book that ought to be read by anyone approaching the martial arts for the first time. It presents perspectives that most other martial arts books don’t for those seeking to understand not just the techniques and history of the martial arts, but the many other aspects they offer to the practitioner.

It might even help guide a newbie toward the type of art he or she desires—something to fit one’s temperament as well as goals. But it also could be profitably read by those with more experience, who will comprehend elements a newbie might not. And undoubtedly there are those. When I first read this book as a newbie Tai Chi player, I probably got a lot out of it. I don’t remember, since that was forty years ago, but reading it again, I can see it’s chock full of great, well-presented information with lots of anecdotes to help illustrate the concepts and enliven the text—some of which undoubtedly went right over my younger head.

Highly recommended.

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