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miket's picture
Thoughts on Tradition & Innovation in the Martial Arts

A piece I wrote for my students...

I sometimes get tired of ‘traditional’ martial artists close-mindedly taking pot shots at any kind of ‘change’ in martial arts simply on the basis that something is ‘different’ or because it threatens established orthodoxies. You see this attitude in a lot of self-proclaimed “traditional” martial arts schools. Likewise, I get JUST AS tired of self-proclaimed ‘visionaries’ and ’fighters’ bad-mouthing traditional martial arts as “ineffective”, “obsolete”, and what not. Especially with the current prevalency of sporting MMA, you see this attitude a lot in self-proclaimed “fight” or sport-oriented gyms where the emphasis is placed primarily on (rules-based) athletic fighting. ‘Who needs technique? We just get in the ring and bang, man.’ Holding either attitude too tightly will severely limit your training and ability to progress at a study of human interpersonal combatives. Like a lot of things, to be fully understood, the question of "tradition VS. innovation" needs to be reframed from its ‘either/or’ context to a ‘both/and’ context. The fact is, if nothing ever changed, we would still be living without electricity, smart phones, combustion engines, the internet, Gortex, artificial hearts, shoes, clothing, packaged food, or whatever other human innovation you might be able to think of off the top of your head. These ‘developments’ occurred because someone first correctly identified a need and then had the subsequent 'nerve’ to question what was simply ‘accepted’ by most as ‘the way things are’. This quest to IMPROVE our condition is perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of our species, and it is frequently hamstrung when the notion of 'tradition' is used to beat down critical thought. Likewise, I have seen just as many people go the other direction, and claim that simply because something ‘came before’ or wasn’t somehow ‘personally invented’ it is AUTOMATICALLY inferior to anything that might be ‘original’ derived in nature. You see this a lot with ‘artistic’ personality types. To do so is to deny the logic of the idea that ‘nothing comes from nowhere’. We achieve as a species mostly BECAUSE we are able to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, see a little further (or maybe in a different direction) than they might have, and ask intelligent questions. Without the prior knowledge or achievements of our ancestors, which we frequently take for granted simply on the basis of their familiarity to us, we would not be able to progress at all. We would literally be left with a process of ‘inventive’ trial and error. That is the last thing we want in self-protection. The trouble with BOTH lines of thinking is that they are inherently judgmental. The ‘problem’ with them emerges with the ADDITION of the value-judgment that things either “should not” change because they are ‘not traditional’, or that they somehow “should” change simply because they are ‘original’, or on the basis that they are ‘new’, ‘trendy’, ‘modern’ or ‘different’. Frequently, in my experience, this flawed and artificial judgmental dichotomy results from the failure to have a complete historical perspective. In the martial arts, the very idea of what IS “traditional” and what is “modern” is frequently at odds and totally contradictory. For instance, Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, called his art “modern” when he founded it--- more than 100 years ago. Kano’s idea was to fuse multiple systems of “traditional” Japanese jujutsu into a single system, simultaneously preserving AND altering the fundamental nature of different techniques. Kano did not choose tradition OR innovation, he chose BOTH, and he is widely credited with making sure that “traditional” feudal-era Japanese jujutsu didn’t simply just ‘disappear’ at the end of the Meiji-era as Japan modernized itself.  At the same time, however, Kano is also credited with having ‘invented’ the combat art/sport of judo. In its first years, “judo” was even frequently referred to in the literature of that period (e.g. Herrigel) as “the jujutsu of Dr. Kano”. Why? Because no one back THEN had a clue what “judo” was. ‘Jujutsu’ on the other hand was more widely known—Theodore Roosevelt even practiced it at the White House in the early 1900’s. Kano’s combative system was later imported to Brazil, taught to indigenous Brazilian’s in the 1920’s and later evolved into ‘Brazilian Jiu-jitsu’. The Brazilian’s, and the Gracie family in particular, took ‘textbook’ Kano-line jujutsu (aka “judo” :-)) and delved heavily into the ‘ne-waza’, or ground-wrestling ‘submission’ aspects of the system, in their own time ‘evolving’ and changing what they had learned to be used and taught in a new way. In a word—the Gracies ‘innovated’ and 'emphasized' or 'priveleged' the ground aspects of the art, and the teaching methods in particular. And eventually— Gracie jiu-jitsu went on to birth Machado jiu-jitsu, Caique jiu-jitsu, and a host of other splinter systems as descendants of the Gracie’s have gone on to ‘do their own thing’, morphing, changing, adding, to, and taking away from what they had learned.  In fact, it's not really a stretch to say that Gracie jiu-jitsu, itself descended from judo, birthed 'Brazillian' jiu-jitsu. Another example of the personal subjectivity (and ultimate futility) of judgmentally contrasting “traditional” and “modern” martial arts can be seen when one compares the art of karate with Brazillian jiu-jitsu. Ironically or not, karate, which historically dates from as early as the 1300’s, and which itself was originally a fusion of imported Chinese fighting styles with indigenous Ryukyuan (and probably, Japanese) fighting tactics, is typically considered by many today to be a “traditional” martial art. Likewise, Brazillian jiu-jitsu is frequently identified by people today as being a “modern” martial art, due primarily to its own efforts at self-promotion and its TELEVISED success in the early UFC (Ultimate Fighting Challenge) bouts during the 1990’s. “Karate” however is not a homogenous system, and multiple families or ‘ryu-ha’ of karate exist, all of which were formed at different times. Like the aforementioned ‘evolution’ and inevitable fracturing of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu into multiple systems, what was originally probably the teachings of just a few individuals concentrated within about a ten mile area in the central Ryukyu islands eventually bifurcated and split over time into a plethora of ‘systems’ and sub-systems such as Isshin-ryu, Goju-ryu, Shorin-ryu, Wado-Ryu, Shotokan, Shorinji Kenpo, Ashihara, etc. Many of these, for instance Wado Ryu, were even ‘evolutions of evolutions’. Wado-ryu, founded by Hironori Otsuka in the late 1930’s, was itself a combination of Shotokan and Shindo-Yoshin-ryu Japanese ju-jutsu; and ironically or not, Shotokan even evolved from an earlier branch of Shorin-ryu! So here is the ironic part: you can ask a student of for instance, Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu, (founded by Chosin Chibana c. 1910), if their art is “traditional” or “modern”, and very likely (at least in my experience) you will get the answer that it is very much a “traditional” art 9.9 times out of 10.

Likewise, you can ask a practitioner of Goju-ryu karate, founded by Chojun Miyagi in the early 1930’s and again, in my experience, you will likely get the same answer. Next, you can ask the same question of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, and you will likely get the answer that THEIR art is undeniably “modern”. The irony of course being that the self-identified “modern” art is historically BOOK-ENDED by the two self-identified “traditional” arts.

Again, my belief is that mostly, this results from the failure to understand the full historical context that gave birth to these arts, as well the tendency for students within a particular system to focus on ONLY the history of that system. It is also distinctly tied up in which ‘side’ of the argument people want to self-identify THEMSELVES with, even subconsciously so, i.e. with whether they see themselves as ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ and/or personally VALUE one perspective over the other.

A combative system is an INANIMATE thing--- a body of ideas.  It is OUR PERSPECTVIE that identifies it as modern/ traditional, effective/ ineffective, artistic / pragmatic, limited / comprehensive and complete/ incomplete.  It all depends on our outlook and what we are trying to accomplish... for instance, karate is pretty bad at teaching you to swim or fly an airplane; and jiu-jitsu does not teach you how to read or cook.  The INDIVIDUAL objective of the practitioner heavily influences the value judgments we place on our experience.  Because of this, such definitions can only ever be personal, somehwat arbitrary, and COMPLETELY subjective. They are fun to talk about, argue about, and hash out the various wrinkles of. They are good angles to think about in one's own PERSONAL study of human combatives. But in the end, that is about all these personal boundariy zones are good for—either mind-expanding discussions, or religiously zealous argument, depending on who you might be talking to at the time. None of that improves the quality or ultimate effectiveness of your training. Working simply from plain-English language definitions, a “tradition” is simply a continent body of knowledge that has been handed down a couple of times. That’s it. You ‘know’ something, you teach it to someone else, they teach it to someone else— lo and behold, you have established a 'tradition', especially as this 'handing down' process occurs cross-generationally. I would assert that most people accept the notions that ‘nothing stays the same forever’, and ‘change is the only reliable constant of the human condition’. When knowledge is put in a box, ‘never to be changed or questioned’, unfortunately, what  frequently results is the dry rot of a museum piece, not the effectiveness of an ‘alive’ combatively effective martial system. The first UFC’s also pretty much proved that, back when they were still being conceptualized as ‘style vs. style’ type contests focused on proving which style was 'best'.   The irony there is that what they 'proved' was that the PARTICULAR combative context of 'the Octagon' did not expressly suit any one extant style, but rather, a 'NEW' (old) style emerged in response to 'what worked' for that environment, and... a 'new' style of fighting was born.  A new style that was in reality a new COMPOSITE of a lot of different extant styles to fit a new context.  Change a variable in that controlled environment-- for instance throw a knife in the ring--  and see what happens.  The 'style'  would change in response to altered combative context.

It’s my opinion that you simply can’t hand something down—especially across years and years--- without a certain degree of ‘evaporation’ affecting that body of knowledge. And the more time passes, the more ‘arcane’ a tradition becomes, until eventually, it has the potential to lose the ability to even understand itself. Ultimately, traditions NEED to be periodically renewed. And on the other hand, for several thousand years now, people have generally had the same anatomical body weapons and body weaknesses. There are only ‘just so many’ ways to strike a person with your fist, hit them with a stick, or make them ‘fall hard’ against the earth. All cultures on the planet, and all combative ‘systems’ make use of these SAME body weapons to exploit generally the SAME body weaknesses. The difference between combative systems is therefore simply a question of ‘focus’, and degree. This in turn is typically determined by the ‘combative context’ they are ultimately training for—i.e. the rules, constraints and opportunities placed on an anticipated eventual encounter. When one looks at the cross-cultural ‘family tree’ of human combatives, one sees a virtual ‘steady state’ of recycling, reinvention, decay, rebirth, renaming, rediscovering, loss, obsolescence and renewal. In the end, as a student of human combatives, all a person is ever getting is the ‘water’ that is ‘flowing out of the end of the pipe’— the personal experience, opinions, theories, and TEACHING abilities of your IMMEDIATE instructor. This is true in any human endeavor, and it’s certainly true in the study of combatives and self-protection. In the 'core combatives' curriculum of Unified MArtial Arts, we teach a blend of simple tactics drawn from different arts: JKD, judo, karate, suikendo, police defensive tactics, boxing/kickboxing, Greco Roman wrestling, and Thai boxing. Some of these arts I am ‘instructor certified’ in. Some arts I have merely studied for a short time.  Some I have only seminar-level experience with, or have trained with other experienced martial artists (many of whom ARE certified instructors in the systems I mention), or are even my takes on tactics learned from instructional DVD video lessons because I see something in these arts that bridges a gap, improves what we already do, or offers something we DON'T have for which I recognize a systemic NEED.

A lot of martial arts instructors are afraid to acknowledge the reality of their knowledges limits, even though most of us do exactly that.  And why do we do so? Because ‘nothing comes from nowhere’, and we have instructors, too. And in the end, where something came from, or whether it is “traditional” or “modern” doesn’t matter much anyway... If you have the misfortune to be attacked in a violent encounter, your ‘belt’, ‘rank’ or ‘certification’ in a particular system, no matter how famous, will not defend or fight for you. The ‘traditionalism’ or ‘modernity’ of that system, or who ‘founded’ it, or when, or which country it originated in probably won’t matter much at that precise moment. The prestigious (or ignominious) paternal ‘lineage’ of your ‘system’ will not fight for or protect you. The combative abilities of your instructor, coach, teacher, sensei, guru, shaman, cleric or grand poohbah will not defend you.  Only ***YOU*** can protect you, and you will ONLY be able to do so through either sheer luck, or through adapting PRIOR situational experience earned through hard, diligent, and intelligent training in combative tactics that are grounded in the reality of PERSONALLY AFFIRMED pragmatism. If YOUR life might depend on something someday, the ***LAST*** thing I want students doing is to take someone ELSE'S word for it, especially mine… Accordingly:  TEST EVERYTHING you learn for yourself; take every single assertion you hear with a grain of salt; ask as many questions as you can think of; walk away from those instructors who discourage or refuse to answer those questions, or who ultimately can’t answer them to your satisfaction; and ultimately, after a dozen or so years of diligent study, testing, and personal experience, don’t be afraid to ‘morph’ tactics you learn to fit your own critically identifed need; or to beg, borrow or steal from other systems to plug holes that your own experience reveals in what you have learned or are learning. Above all, trust your own common-sense judgment. And ultimately, don’t be afraid to creatively ‘innovate’ something which you find simply doesn’t work for you--- that is how human beings crawled out of the mud in the first place.

Bruce Brousseau
Bruce Brousseau's picture

Excellent article. 

Would you mind if i posted it in our essay section of our website. www.pdma.ca?


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

I agree! A really good piece. I like it lots!

BRITON55's picture

There are many martial art instructors and clients that hold many of your observations and concepts.

Bruce Lee summed it up not sure of the exact quote it may be on Youtube:- something like " dont be the tea pot be like the water in the teapot take its shape and fill it up"

I suppose when youve absorbed all the tea pot its time to leave and find another vessel to occupy? martial art styles can be like tea pots. Clients like water?

miket's picture

Hi Bruce, feel free to repost, sorry, I didn't see your question until today. Thanks for the kudos, guys, I appreciate it. 

Briton, I think I can agree with that.  smiley   One thing Lee said I liked that it took me a long tim,e to understand was (paraphrasing) that if you understand the 'root' of the 'tree' of martial arts, you 'understand all of its flowering' or something to that effect.  Dan Inosanto has another great analogy in which he likens learning a martial art to having a suit coat tailored to fit you-- everybody wears a different size, just like there is no 'one-size fits all' martial art.  Everyting you learn ultimately needs to be 'tailored' to fit you in a similar way.

Also, credit where credit is due:  a lot of my notions about the 'universality' of combative systems have been heavily influenced by stuff I've read or seen of Guru Inosanto's... I don't train with him personally, but I have friends who do.   He has some great interviews on Youtube which are worth checking out.

Tez's picture

Good article but can I just make a comment about the perception given of MMA? I know most of the gyms and fighters in the UK and there's not one of them that has the attitude that techniques don't matter and that we just 'get into the ring and bang', I feel this gives the wrong idea about MMA. I do see however the point being made about training etc.

For us, it is technique, technique and then more technique, if that's not enough, opponents after a fight will sit and swap techniques with each other. We go to seminars, we train with as many people as we can who have experience in traditional arts as well as MMA. You get into a ring/cage without techniques then you will be KO'd or subbed so fast the timekeeper will barely have had time to click his stopwatch on. 

miket's picture

Yeah, Tez, valid point, and noted.  I am certainly not trying to bash MMA (or any art).  Relative to the point you raised, my issue is more that some (not all)  of today's MMA schools are yesterday's ninja academies.... seems like they are on every street corner now.   It also seems like every guy I talk to who has a year or so of highschool wrestling now "does MMA", although  I'm not exactly sure what that means.  The specific individuals I am thinking of, I think it means that they have about two weeks of boxing on top of their mediocre highschool wrestling career. and that they "do" MMA like they go bowling with their buddies on the weekends.  And, these individuals (mostly younger guys), seem to have in common the idea that 'technical nuance is for babies'... at least until you teach them how an understanding of physiological nuance, angulation, forward pressure, etc. can improve their game.

You are absolutely correct, however, that "all" MMA is not like this, quite the contrary; and I hope I didn't give the impression that I beleieve  otherwise.  To the point of the article, what I am saying is that, if anything is 'bad' (personal value judgement), it's not whole styles, systems, arts, or even, necessarily, whole instructors.  It's 'going to extremes' and dismissing stuff outright based on your own paradigm / (in) experience / value judgments.  It's also (in my view) 'bad' to think that because you have a 'famous' coach/ sensei/genie in a bottle, that you necessarily can DO what they do simply by virtue of having trained with them.

What inspired the article was some comments someone posted (not here) criticising an art that I know personally they have never studied.  I just thought:  Really?  Have you ever even DONE that?  How do you KNOW with such certainty how flawed it is if you've never even experienced how they approach the problem of human combatives?

So, I hope I didn't offend with the article,  I know lots of sport-oriented fighters who do exactly what you are describing and who are very focused on achieving excellence in thier art.  But... I know just as many knuckleheads too... just like I know just as many people in karate who believe with ferverence that their solo kata dance is teaching them 'to fight', and just as many judoka who will tell you with religious certainty how they have 'the answer'...  "There is no zealot like a convert".

Tez's picture

I've had this discussion with American martial artists before and there seems to be a big difference in the way MMA is practised in the States to here. In the UK it is very much a minority activity. I can count the fighters who make a living from MMA on one hand and the gyms here that do MMA are few and far between which is why we all know each other. We don't have the same jumping on the bandwagon effect there is in the States there's no money yet in MMA in this country. MMA is also trained a bit differently in the States with it being mostly wrestling and boxing, here it's still the traditional styles used with most fighters and coaches coming from a tradtional background, with many staying with their tradtional styles as well as MMA. I can say hand on my heart I don't know any 'knuckleheads' who train and fight, some so called fans who spout rubbish yes but not the fighters.

I would suggest too that  because the martial arts community is far smaller here than it is in America that we don't have so much of the criticising of other styles that I've come across on the American forums. Of course there are some who criticise but not to a large extent, I've been to seminars where there's a range of stylists but all get on well and being keen to swap techniques and experiences.

miket's picture

Yeah, that is definitely different from here, then, Tez, at least quantity wise...    I can count (guessing) about six (maybe more) MMA programs that have opened up in my region alone in the last 5-7 years or so...  Mostly guys with a boxing background and / or a little jujutsu.  (And of course, there are several 'real' programs out there now, too.)   There have also been a raft of 'amateur' level fight circuits (using the term 'circuit' loosely as these seem to be very sporadically promoted and disorganized... as far as I can tell, mostly the old carnival 'tough man' contests recast as MMA.)  I went to one last year and the fight content was mostly awful, with the women exhibiting the best technical skill by far, and I don't say that to be comparitively sexist.  By contrast I have been to the (long sestablished) amateur Golden Gloves boxing events where the skill level was high enough I wouldn't want to be in the ring with some of them.   Optomistically, maybe its just a case of the MMA sport being in its infancy.   But you also sais the M word...  'money'.  I think there is a fad-ism to MMA here stateside that is definitely being ridden hard by some.

Also, here, my experience has been that there is a definitely an unfortunate tendency amongs many of these programs to at least sneer at traditional arts or kind of laugh up their sleeves about the relative "ineffectiveness" of the former.  Thus my comments that it's my perception that it's frequently totally misunderstood where "MMA" came from in the first place.

swmirsky's picture

This article and the one titled Traditional Karate make important points. All the styles began somewhere with someone (or some "ones") and no style that we have today is really "pure." They all arose as a result of some practitioner taking what he or she learned from others and synthesizing his or her own approach and then passing it on. Students of these founders try in many cases to preserve precisely what they saw, what they believe they had learned but they can't help changing because bodies and experiences are different from person to person. So a style that openly acknowledges its borrowings and remains open to new situations, new possibilities is not only the most honest sort of style but the best sort. Too often people, in trying to "fix" a style in time, end up turning it into a stylized caricature of what it was meant to be. Fighting is always unpredictable, chaotic, and different each time; any style will only be as good as the potential it gives its practitioners to function in that kind of environment! All of this said, there is something to be gained from a commitment to style because, if the style is any good, it will have within its core the seeds of development that will enable its practitioner to really fight when the time comes. Not everyone's a natural fighter or shares the "killer instinct" but everyone who trains in a decent style of combat ought to be able to apply it in the chaos of real conflict if and when the time comes.

My own teacher, years ago, taught us that every body is different and that the only way to practice was to abandon the cookie cutter approach and open ourselves to all possibilities. Meet whatever comes our way, find the natural capabilities within our own bodies through the methods of practice he taught. As a result his students often looked very different, sometimes almost sloppy compared to some of the more traditional styles, but he taught us to handle ourselves against a wide range of challengers, from kung fu, and Wing Chun practitioners especially, to the hard stylists of the classic Okinawan/Japanese/Korean fighters. His own system began life as a pre-Tae Kwon Do generic Korean karate founded on Shotokan but evolved, as he did, toward a softer, more fluid approach because of his contacts with Chinese martial artists in our local Chinatown community. Most important was his study of tai chi ch'uan under the late Taiwanese expatriate and Yang style tai chi master Cheng Man-Ching. As my teacher slowly re-worked his once hard style approach he gradually ovehauled the principles of movement of the system to conform to those of tai chi. The result was a karate that had ceased to look anything like classical karate -- and yet there was something indelibly classical about it because he had aimed to take it back to what he felt were the roots of hand to hand martial arts in the East.

The article on the role of traditional karate struck a chord with me because I have great respect for lineage and tradition and yet I share my teacher's view that nothing finally matters more than effectiveness and that no style has a lock on that.