Meaning vs. Essence of Martial Arts

By Master Steve Seo, WKF/HHA International Director

One of my favorite authors and lecturers is Michael Sandel.  He is a Harvard professor and author of the book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do. (  His thought provoking book and lecture series is something I recommend to everyone, especially martial artists.

One topic that he lectures and writes about that sparked a connection in my mind to martial arts is the concept of Telo’s (purpose of something) and Honor.   In his 10th lecture in his lecture series, Professor Sandel talks about the Casey Martin Golf case that the Supreme Court ruled on a few years ago.  (  In this lecture, he focuses on two concepts that have direct relevance to martial artists and masters.  They are:

  1. Telos: the of purpose of something
  2. Honor:  what is it that we want to be known for or what should we aspire to be

In the golf context, the purpose of the game may simply be to hit a stationary ball off the ground and place it in a hole.  However, the essence of the game can be argued as more involving walking the course, strategy, using different clubs, assessing wind and course conditions, etc.  At the end of the day, what is it that golf represents to its players?  Do you want to be perceived as athletes and honored in that regard?

Similarly, I believe martial artists, especially masters, need to consider not only the basic purpose of what we do, but what do we hold up as important, honorable and at the essence of our art, and hence what should we aspire to be as martial artists and masters.

So how do we reconcile these concepts?  Let me give a perspective.

Basic purpose of martial arts:

  • Mastering techniques that are effective in offensive and defensive self defense applications

Essence of martial arts:

  • Maximizing one’s potential in effectively executing offensive and defensive self defense applications
  • Striving for health and unifying mind/body for healthy living
  • Striving to be a better person and positively impacting those around us

My strong belief is that simply learning and executing a technique well is a very basic and rudimentary part of martial art.  If that was it, we would be same as any other activity, sport or hobby. On the contrary, martial arts are about not only learning a series of complex movements and techniques, but also how we can also focus on maximizing our own potential through these experiences.  Moreover, as instructors and master, we consciously work to help those around us maximize their potential and leverage martial arts to positively impact their lives.  Of course the technical proficiency and effectiveness is critical, but it is only the starting point for a true martial artist. By focusing on these concepts and guiding principles, I believe we can all strive to represent what it really means to be a martial artist.

Please feel free to share with me your stories and experiences that exemplify what it means to be a true martial artist!


Steve Seo – WKF/HHA International Director