What do you mean “Know Yourself?”

Serious practitioners use ideas – our own and from our traditions – to deepen our understanding and improve our practice. Some ideas work. Some get in the way.

You want to know an idea that has confused people for generations? “Know yourself.”

It is an important idea. Everyone talks about it. But by drawing on diverse sources that use the same words, martial artists have gotten into trouble, and wasted great opportunities.

Now we can resolve this and use it for insight and mastery.

Here are the main sources where modern martial artists have encountered this advice. They are not talking about the same thing at all. No wonder people got confused…

  1. The Oracle at Delphi

If you studied philosophy you heard about Socrates following the principle posted at the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi:

“Know Thyself.”

The great Greeks took this seriously, contemplated the meaning of it, advocated it as a practice, and wrote about it. Aeschylus, Plato and others cited it. The Romans did too.

Socrates, as quoted by Plato:

“To know yourself is the beginning of wisdom…” and “The unexamined life is not worth living…”

expresses an understanding of it: life is to be examined by looking within, using the tools of philosophy, we consider how things work, what matters, and what is best to do.

But this seems a metaphor for the concerns at Delphi, not an expression of them.The Oracle at Delphi was a priestess who answered questions about all sorts of life-concerns. Kings for example, asked them about the time to go to war, and whether they would win.

People would line up and wait for hours to ask about their worries – about marriage, business, farming, loyalty and illness. The answers were often obscure, open to interpretation. But these were about practical, worldly matters, not deep religious or philosophical ones, according to the records.

“Know Thyself” was on a plaque on the wall at the entrance to the temple. In those days most temples dedicated to the gods were there for ritual purposes: for communion, worship, propitiation, to ask for help or protection.

To enter the temple was to enter into the presence of the god. Delphi was different. People were coming face to face with themselves. Maybe that was what the sign at the door indicated. “Learn about yourself.” Your life, your fate, your concerns, your questions are what you will face here.

However murky the meaning of the stories we have heard about this oracle and this temple, we seem to take it for granted that we understand the dictum, and that it is a good idea.

  1. Dogen

Dogen was a Japanese Tendai Buddhist monk who went to China in the 13th century in quest of deeper understanding. He encountered Zen and after a few years he came home and planted the seeds of a new religious movement. His great collection of essays is called the Shobogenzo. The essential essay in the Shobogenzo is the “Genjokoan.”

The essential line in the Genjokoan is this:

“To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by everything…”

The form sounds syllogistic, and familiar. But the meaning of “self” here is not obvious. The fundamental proposition in Buddhism – known to Dogen but unfamiliar today – is that the self does not exist as a separate entity but is contingent on everything, connected to everything, and continually in flux. The objective of self-study is to seek the self we presume we have and discover that it is not there. That we exist not as a bounded and bound individuality but as a thoroughly integrated node of reality. This is not what Dogen’s statement sounds like when you first hear it. It is not what the supplicants at Delphi meant by self, not what Plato meant by self, and not what Zen devotees untrained in classical Buddhism mean by it either.

But it sounds familiar. To many students of Asian traditions, martial and otherwise, it expresses a lofty, appealing ideal. Its premise, obscure as it may be, seems to be accepted as true.

  1. Sun Tzu

Very familiar to martial artists and most everyone else is Sun Tzu’s quote – from the Art of War, Chapter 3 “Attack by Stratagem”, section 18 –

“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

First note that Sun Tzu acknowledges that he is citing a familiar idea – he is pointing it out, not suddenly inventing it. It is common knowledge and it represents a critical concern among all competitors and fighters. This is not spiritual advice. It is a practical matter about worldly goals and concerns and it uses the reflexive with the assumption that you and your adversaries exist, have qualities, inclinations, and capacities that can be known, and that this knowledge must be used to one’s advantage, and that it will result in the adversary’s disadvantage.

This is not the self as understood by Dogen, and it is not the self of Delphi either. Where Sun Tzu is considering the significance of the qualities of one’s self as deriving meaning chiefly in relation to the adversary, Delphi and its philosophic descendants, consider the self as a holder of independent qualities.

  1. Freud

Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams,says this:

…“the psychical mechanism employed by neuroses is not created by the impact of a pathological disturbance upon the mind but is already present in the normal structure of the mental apparatus”…

Freud references the Delphic “Know Thyself” but applies it to the therapeutic process of inward examination of the presumed seething emotions, hidden motives, the shifting, shadowy, undiscovered world lurking beneath the surface of our subjective experience and our self-deception.

Modern people seem to accept this view as true: this is the structure of our mind and experience, there is a self inside us which is the real us, which has qualities and powers of its own, which can be explored and mapped and changed if change is what is needed.

Where that process leads and whether its premises are accurate is rarely addressed. But these premises are accepted, and the therapeutic model of social life, religious life, eastern and western, are evident – in books, in retreats, in dialogues with teachers. These values can enter dojo life as well.

Whatever this viewpoint is it’s not Delphic, it’s not Dogen and it is not Sun Tzu.


The words these sources use are the same. The meanings are vastly different.  And so is the result of putting their prescriptions into action.

As martial artists we are learn who we are as we train.

We learn to use our bodies, our minds, our will, our relationships. We modify them all as we go. We get feedback from our bodies (and our teachers, and our training partners) and where we discover flaws we fix them. We get strong, supple, skillful. We examine our minds. We build focus, purpose, and courage. We examine our relationships. We choose good friends, good teachers, we take care of our families.

We protect people, avoid some, stop some from doing harm. We examine our world, what we value, how we adapt and what we cultivate. We can discover how thing work, make sense out of confusion, purpose out of drift, and skillful service out of childish impulse. That is good use of training, good use of ideas, good use of self-knowledge.

But we cannot afford to assume that all the bits of advice, words of wisdom, fragments of philosophy or religion agree. That all the great thinkers were on the trail of the same perennial philosophy, or that all paths lead to the same summit.

They were not all saying the same thing. Their ideas do not address the same issues. Following their advice does not lead to the same outcome.

Choose wisely. Know who you are following. And along the way, you get to know yourself.

Post by Jeff Brooks, Copyright © 2019

Photo by Sharath Babu 


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