Sacred Imagery and the Sacralisation of Violence in the Martial Arts

David Hugh Kendall Brown, George Jennings, David Sebastian Contreras Islas, Jungjoo Yun, Simon Dodd


Engaging in martial combat, whether for military, self-defence or cultivation purposes, is taken to sensitise practitioners towards existential issues which in turn enliven potential religio-spiritual experiences and awakenings. In this paper, we 

draw on Girard’s (1977) Violence and the Sacred, and in particular his proposition that, “religion shelters us from violence just as violence seeks shelter in religion” (Girard, [1977] 2005: 25) to examine sacralisation processes in the traditional martial arts with a particular focus on highlighting how violence, sacralised through sacred imagery, is used as a structuring force to instill dispositions that counter ubiquitous human tendencies towards unfettered violence and violent vengeance. We highlight the phenomenon and function of sacred imagery used in martial arts with very different cultural, ethnic, and spiritual influences, specifically: Japanese Karate, Korean Taekwondo, Brazilian Capoeira and Mexican Xilam. For authenticity, each section is written by an experienced scholar-practitioner of the art and combines literary, empirical, and biographical reflection. Despite these variations, we identify two modalities of sacred imagery use. The first is representational imagery used as sacred signifiers which embed the art in a tradition of sacred attachment. The second form of sacred imagery is metaphorical discourse which is designed to invoke creative visualisations aligning practitioners with idealised experiential states taken to have sacred (as well as practical) value in relation to combat. We conclude that the use of sacred imagery in these ways becomes part of an affective body pedagogy used by the traditionalist martial arts to transfer valued knowledge through the corporeal medium to offset and sacralise violent tendencies. It is qualified that in practice, this sacralisation process involves complex entanglements of the cultural origins, practitioner interpretation and the contemporary context of the martial art in question. The outcome is an evolving sacralisation process which rests in constant tension with the underlying problems initiated by the ubiquitous body-in-conflict problem and the propensity for violence and violent vengeance that the learning of combative skills might otherwise unleash in the body and onto society.


Martial Arts; Spirituality; Religion; Imagery; Sacred

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