Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Holy Grail of Martial Arts Part Two

When studying the laws of combat you’ll find that there are those that apply every time and then sub laws that apply in different scenarios. The skill is in separating the ‘wheat from the chaff,’ discerning what applies where, seeing through what is your styles philosophy or what you have taken as gospel from your own instructor. At the end of the day your instructor is not infallible and may, like you have taken everything at face value, not questioning his own learning because he didn’t feel he knew enough or you might come from a background of ‘don’t question your instructor’ or the ‘black belt is always right’ none of these mindsets have done anything to increase our understanding of our martial arts. Some instructors refuse to answers questions because they themselves don’t know the answer.

Let’s face it most of us involved in martial arts come from a working class background and part of being working class is having less education than the middle class. This means we struggle often to dig deeper in what we learn because our fundamental education has not prepared us for it. It is certainly the case for why martial arts remains a largely oral tradition, passed down through the centuries via word of mouth and consequently why we have lost so much of our understanding on the way. Every generation or two has had to relearn from scratch what their master’s master already knew. Learning martial arts is like having a memory problem where every time you learn something you have to learn it again the next time you train. It’s like a martial arts version of ‘Groundhog Day’ every generation having to start again from scratch!

Education issues account for why we know so much about Japanese martial arts, for one thing they were educated men who wrote down much of what they learned for future generations which is why we still have access to works such as ‘the book of 5 rings, ‘Hagakure’, ‘The Life Giving Sword’ and ‘The Art of War’ (which is Chinese) to name but a few. The authors of these books were learning and teaching with other higher caste martial artists keeping the knowledge for themselves, their families and their clan, fortunately we have benefitted from these writings. The road we are travelling has been travelled before, many times and because these earlier warriors had education they could transmit their message by more than just word of mouth, putting their ideas on paper for other educated generations to benefit from as well. The only issue with these ancient tomes is that they are written from a different perspective, philosophy and religion, they have to be translated into modern language and different languages which often make them difficult to understand. They we teaching to the converted, those who already understood the concepts they wrote of and for this reason some of the volumes are difficult to decipher. I have read the ‘Go Rin Sho’ (Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi) many times but my early attempts brought me little understanding as I had few references to connect me with his message, whereas now when I read it again I gain deeper understanding than I could have had before as I have travelled a path that is similar in many ways to Musashi’s journey as a martial artist and teacher.

I don’t want to have to study martial arts for decades to be able to make it work for me. I want what I teach to be easily understood and immediately applicable. If you come to one of my schools and practice for the first time ever, I want you to have new skills that you can use if you need them on the way home! Of course with deeper study you’ll reach a greater depth of understanding and longer term benefits, but I don’t want to study a martial art that is like deciphering hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt! I haven’t got time for that. Who would play football or tennis if you had to study it for years before it made any sense?  No one, football and tennis are simple and effective, deeper study can give deeper enjoyment certainly, but you don’t have to enter into a mysterious cabal and be initiated into a system like martial arts systems seem to have to do.

Even Gichin Funakoshi who was instrumental in bringing Karate to the world did not understand it completely. He practiced his kata through years of repetition gaining an understanding of the movements at an almost atomic level but he didn’t always know what the movements meant. If he did he certainly didn’t pass on his knowledge. Karate like most systems started out as a complete system and included locks, holds and throws but it is only recently that karate historians have deciphered that some of the movements were not double blocks or groin gouges but actually throws. My Karate instructor was a good practitioner but he didn’t know what the katas meant. This is not a good starting point for a system of combat that is sold as a method of self defence. It’s like being taught how to handle a gun without being taught that it will require bullets if you want it to work.

Check in tomorrow to read part three of the Holy Grail of Martial Arts

Best wishes

Tony Higo
Chief Instructor
National Martial Arts College
0800 0920948

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