When we first begin training often all we can really see are the techniques. As we progress, we start to learn flow, and then tactics. Eventually we come to see how seemingly different systems are actually very similar, and we begin to understand that we are part of a vast history and tradition that began thousands of years ago and evolved into the systems we train today. Research and reading are great ways to supplement your training and add to your experience; below are two books that every martial artist should read at some point in his or her journey, and I’ve included three other favorites.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu- A military classic, written around 400 B.C. The discourse of tactics and strategy is as relevant to everyday life as to war and martial arts. Some central themes are to attack where the enemy is weak, deceive the enemy into attacking you on your terms (not his), and the use of espionage to confuse the enemy while gathering information for your own use. It is recommended reading for all United States Military Intelligence personnel and is required reading for all CIA officers.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi- Written in 1643, it’s one of the most insightful texts on self-knowledge, perseverance, and inward calm in the midst of chaos. It analyzes the process of confrontation and conflict and victory in a way that is applicable to every aspect of life and human interaction, not just within martial arts.
Incidentally, The Book of Five Rings and The Art of War were both assigned reading for business classes that I took in college, and they are frequently included in business school curriculums because the strategies and approaches to confrontation are very much relevant to the business world.
A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan recounts the author’s search for insight into violence, into the how and why we fight, and follows him as he travels the world to train with the best athletes and trainers in combat sports. What makes us fight? What makes us compete? What makes us willingly suffer? He also delves into the question of why humans are drawn to the spectacle of fighting and blood sport. A Fighter’s Heart is a fascinating look at the culture and motivation of fighters and the psychology behind the desire to test ourselves against one another. If you are a fan or practitioner of any competitive martial art this book is a must read.
Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman is a book about making the personal changes that we all need to make in order to be happier; it offers inspiration to change intention into action, challenges into strengths, and life experiences into wisdom…it’s the kind of book that means different things to you when you read it at different points in your life. Basic ideas: Accept reality, appreciate what you have, accept others as they are, make every moment count, and always do your best. Wonderful ideals for everyone, and especially for martial artists.
Mindhunter, Journey into Darkness, or anything else by John Douglas-A former FBI profiler, his books are considered to be some of the most insightful works written on the minds, motives, and operation of serial rapists and killers. It’s horrifying to read about the depths of depravity that humans are capable of, humans so depraved that we refer to them as ‘monsters’ to separate ourselves from the horror of the knowledge that these people actually are human. The fact that such evil exists and hunts the streets in mine and my children’s world motivates me to train like nothing else can. These books take a strong stomach to read, and I wouldn’t recommend picking them up right before trying to sleep! However, I’ve always believed it’s better to have knowledge (even if that knowledge is uncomfortable) than to be blissfully ignorant. If you feel the same then I strongly suggest picking up a book in this genre as a reminder of the core reasons we fight and train.
There are countless books on every aspect of martial arts and military history. Shihan and Guro and the other instructors undoubtedly have suggestions, and I have many more as well. If you have questions or would like some specific suggestions for reading, please ask! In the meantime the above are good places to start.
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