Courage, just like in other warrior cultures of the world is the cornerstone of Filipino martial tradition. The Filipino term for courage is “tapang.”
In the traditional practice of escrima-arnis-kali collectively known as Filipino martial arts (FMA), only the bravest of the brave thrives and remains in practice. The reason for this is because challenges were part and parcel of FMA practice in the Philippines of yore. Fought with real sticks, those challenge matches often lead to permanent injuries or death of the participants. “Challenges are a common practice in the islands when a man gains a reputation with his sticks,” Dan Inosanto wrote of the Philippines of the 1930s in his book The Filipino martial Arts.
While dueling with sticks is an accepted sport among Filipinos during the early part of the 20th century, foreigners who have witnessed the brutal matches considered the practice barbaric.
The concept of courage within the context of FMA practice can better be understood by examining the pre-colonial dynamics of Philippine society. To say that the pre-colonial Filipinos were in a state of perpetual war is not an overstatement. On the causes of tribal skirmishes, William Henry Scott in his book Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society, wrote, “Wars were therefore fought to control people, not territory. They were waged by raids intended to seize slaves outright, to initiate or enforce alliances for trading networks, and to take booty to cover costs in any case. They were fought not by standing armies or navies loyal to some superordinate political authority, but by citizen warriors owing personal allegiance to leaders who were physically present.” Note the words “citizen warriors.” In the old Philippines, each citizen is a warrior ready to take up arms to defend his family or his tribe, not depending on an established army for protection.
Other early writers offered the same observation of the Moros of Mindanao, the most volatile part of the archipelago, “They are very long-suffering in adversity, hesitating in attack, and the bravest of the brave in defense. They disdain work as degrading and only a fit occupation for slaves, whilst warfare is, to their minds, an honorable calling. Every male over 16 years of age has to carry at least one fighting-weapon at all times, and consider himself enrolled in military service,” wrote John Foreman in The Philippine Islands: A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago Embracing the Whole Period of Spanish Rule.
In such a culture of violence and bloodshed, to be tame is to invite more troubles, on this, Scott explains, “Retaliation for injuries received was not only a matter of revenge, but a punitive measure intended to discourage repetition of the offense. Failure to take revenge not only suggested timidity which invited further enemy action, but ran the risk of supernatural punishment by the spirits of unavenged relatives.”
The special connection between personal courage and nobility of early Filipinos was noted by early foreign scholars studying the country. A part of The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Volume XXI, 1624 (edited and annotated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson with historical introduction and additional notes by Edward Gaylord Bourne), reads, “The nobility of those Indians was personal. It consisted in one’s own deeds, without reference to those of others. Accordingly, he who was more valiant and killed most men in war was the more noble. The sign of that nobility consisted in wearing the cloth wrapped about the head (of which we have spoken above), of a more or less red color. Those nobles were exempt from rowing in the public fleets (and that although they were slaves), and ate with their masters at the table when they were at sea—a privilege which they gained by their exploits. In that custom of killing they reared their children and taught them from an early age, so that beginning early to kill men, they might become proud and wear the red cloth, the insignia of their nobility.”
This tradition of placing paramount importance on personal abilities was carried on in the practice of classical arnis. The late FMA scholar Pedro Reyes, in his article titled Filipino Martial Tradition (Rapid Journal Vo.4 No.1), wrote, “For the classical arnis master stands on his own abilities. He is not a master because he has received a certificate from a school, or because he has been appointed successor by a grandmaster. He is sui generis.”
But beyond personal pride, the highest expression of courage in FMA is spiritual in nature. The Filipino philosophical-spiritual concept of “Bahala na,” (originally “Bathala na” meaning “Let God”) applied to combat, implies that the outcome of a fight has already been decided by a higher being. With this kind of mindset, a warrior goes into battle with the intention of going all-out, free from the psychological baggage of self-preservation.