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Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture
Bad MA Philosophy?

At one of my regular karate dojo, which is shared by another eastern martial arts group. There are numerous quotes on the wall, one of them put there by other group is by Abraham Lincoln - "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

I think that this is very wrong. Surely there is a time and place for asking questions, but some of those times and places should be inside the dojo. I think the quote above implies obedience to a degree that is unacceptable and will create "monodrone martial artists" that never think twice of asking questions or disagreeing with the instructor on anything. 

Anybody elses thought on this quote in particular, should create some good discussion. Also other quotes and maybe experiences anyone else has had with bad philosophy would be interesting to hear about!


michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture


Being an American and a Civil War buff, I can assure you that Lincoln wasn't implying blind obedience. HE was probably directing the quote moreso towards some of the members of  his cabinet, incompetent generals and politicans of the day who had little or no idea of the problems facing the president and our nation at that time. I can assure you that he wasn't refering to the martial arts, karate or eastern philosophy. And your post is a good example of when people (not you) apply quotes in to general of a manner and to subjects for which they were never intended.

Have a good day!

Mike R

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

It can go both ways, there's valid quesitoning that goes on in the dojo, and probably a pretty important part of things. But then again there is always "that guy", who finds some silly argument to disprove everything, and disrupts training with weird, unprovable rhetorical objections and nonsense ideas out of left field. Maybe that's why they put the quote up. Or, maybe they didn't mean anything like we think in the first place.

I agree in spirit, but there are *definitely* also times where we all need to just shut the )(*& up and do stuff. *Too much* skepticism in training can be as bad as too little sometimes.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

I can’t recall who said this, but I would suggest the following would be a better quote for a dojo wall:

“To ask a question may bring a moment's shame, but not to ask and remain ignorant is a lifetime’s shame”

The Abraham Lincoln quote, as Mike pointed out, would seem to be out of context in the dojo environment and would infer that whoever put it there felt asking questions was the mark of a fool; or the instructor preferred it if people don’t ask questions. Appropriate questioning (i.e. when it’s not been used as an alternative to actually training) is something that should be encouraged in my view.

As regards the wider issue of bad martial arts philosophy there just so much of it it’s hard to know where to begin. I think the thing that gets to me the most is the “pseudo-spiritual fortune cookie style wisdom” that gets spouted in an attempt to make the spouter look “deep”, or like poor version of the master on the old TV show “Kung Fu” :-)

All the best,


PS Having wrote that I had to watch a little! Great stuff that reminds me of Saturday afternoon meals at my grandmother's ... because this was on TV not because we had simular philosophical discussions!

Kaspermoritz's picture

I agree with the above views on Dojo philosophy, that you should encourage the students to seek to understand not just blindly follow. The way i interpret the quote however, is that "if you have no clue about the matter being discussed, you shouldn't try to sound wise by voicing out an opinion on the matter". In the context of the dojo though, i can see how student can easily interpret it the other way.

Stuart121's picture

The question of questions (!!?) in a dojo setting is an interesting one. The 'old' way of learning was 'Master tell, student do' and no dialogue passed between the two. However, it is now recognised that learning ishould be an inter-active thing to make it efficient. We all process information in different ways - visual, kineasthetic, aural learners and we are all also to be found on various continua - global/sequential, visual/verbal, intuitive/sensing and active/reflector (you can see which you are by doing a simple test at http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/ILSpage.html (it's a proper scientific test and not a 'Cosmopolitan magazine' bit of nonsense !) Questioning is an important part of learning - and asking questions in an elegant way is an 'art' in itself - as it allows the students to process information, to make sense of it, to help other students do the same, to share opinions/ideas and to cement concepts taught. Not to build this into your sessions would make the learning less efficient and productive - it also allows you to be held to account, to encourage your continued learning and to foster an open/honest dojo spirit. Questions and questionning should be built into each session's plan and then students will know ehen it is appropriate to do it and not ask at the wrong time. Just a few thoughts from a life long questioner, listener and someone fumbling to understand !

Harry Mord
Harry Mord's picture
The Lincoln quote has nothing to do with asking questions. It is about thinking before speaking, and about knowing when it is more prudent to just not say anything at all.
michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture

There are valid philosophical realms within karate, Tai Chi, Kobudo, and many other martial arts. I mean let's face it you can't engage in hand to hand combat and not have some sort of philosophical or spiritual backup to steady your nerves. Well I guess you can, but many fighters have relied on something more profound than "Okay, take this club and bash his head in and if you get killed then tough."  There's also the Do, or  Budo elements (general use of the term here) found within all fighting arts that stress self-development and looking more at our inner realms than those exterior distractions we all get caught up in.

However, with the above in mind I find that much of the philosophy associated with the martial arts comes from mainstream views made popular by TV and or missinterpretation, missunderstanding, or overall lack of knowledge where Zen, Chi, (whatever that is) Tao is concerned. I mean to put it bluntly if you stepped in a pile of dog poop and asked a Zen master what it meant they'd probably say, "Look where you're stepping," or, "it means dummy that you just stepped in dog poop, so savor the feeling and clean off your shoe before stepping into my house." That's in comparsion to the mainsteam televison/ movie version where Bruce Lee, David Carridine or who ever would say "Ah grass hopper, I see a dark omen in your future."  Fighting is fighting, and if you're training to fight the best philosphy I've found is: " The more sweat spilled in the dojo means the less blood spilt on the street." Hopefully that is, and then comes  philosophy to help you deal with the unknown.

Mike R

JWT's picture

I like the Lincoln quotation, but I'm not convinced it has a place on a Dojo wall.

I've recently taken a load of different quotations and posted them up around the walls of the mess where my (military) cadets hang out.  I can post them here if wanted.  

The one I have in my office is above my door so that I see it when you leave.  A simple statement that I posted to make me think about how I deal with other people:  “You reap what you sow.”