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.