Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Most Effective Martial Art

I have to say this.  I believe that the effectiveness of a martial art should be judged not by what the most gifted practitioner of the art can do with it, but by what the least gifted practitioner can do with it.

When people talk about how great a martial art is, the reference point used is almost always what the very greatest of practitioners of the art can do.  These are inevitably fabulous and gifted martial artists. In general they can do incredible things I will never be able to dream of doing.  I’ve felt this level of skill first hand.  Judo is one of the arts I study, and it because it is an Olympic sport, who is the very best of the best among the competitors is not open to argument.  I’ve had the good fortune to train with Olympians and world champions.  I know what their skills and arts feel like (they are almost undetectable, they are generally so subtle you only realize you’ve been thrown when your back hits the floor).

The vast majority of us don’t have their gifts of speed, dexterity and sensitivity.  I’ve seen that the very finest of martial artists, whether the art in question has a competitive sport or not, exhibit these same gifts of speed, dexterity and sensitivity, whether the art is unarmed or armed.  What this gets to is, if we compare martial arts by comparing what the most gifted practitioners can do, we may well only be comparing who is the most gifted, and not which art has the most to give.

A lot of people talk about which martial art can beat another in a head-to-head match up.  To me, that’s rather pointless, because such head-to-head match ups never happen.  What I want to know, what really interests and excites me, is what can a martial art do for an average to below-average practitioner?  You know, someone like me.  This is where things get interesting, because now the foe isn’t some other highly trained martial artists, it’s our own clumsiness.

What will studying the martial art do for me? I already know it won’t make me an unbeatable fighter.  No amount of training is going to do that for me.  I don’t have the gifts.  But training will do other things for me.  Will it increase my sensitivity?  Will it improve my timing?  Will I gain a mastery of spacing?  Am I likely to collect a lot of injuries while training in this particular art?  WIll I enjoy the time I spend training and feel like it is benefiting me, not just on physical level, but also on a mental level?  Will I learn coherent principles that can be applied across the spectrum of encounters, and not just a bunch of discrete techniques that can only be used in situations very similar to the ones they are taught in?

Considering these questions one at a time, here is what I get.  “Will it improve my timing?”  This is a good one that people don’t give enough consideration to, in my opinion.  “Timing is everything” goes the old line, and that is certainly true in the martial arts.  I’ve seen over the years that the most accomplished, most effective artists, whether in a sportive art such as kendo or judo, or in kata art such as kenjutsu or jojutsu, are the ones with the best timing.  They attack when the conditions are optimum.  They don’t waste energy, when the opening occurs, they are there.  They move with their opponents and hit their targets with timing rather than speed.  I’ve seen octogenarians completely dominate people in their teens and twenties because they understood timing.  They matched their movements with their partner’s movements and timed them so they slipped naturally into place.  

This brings up the next question.  “Will it improve my sensitivity?”  Sensitivity includes awareness of a broad range of things.  From the closest, feeling and understanding your partner through their touch where they are holding you or your clothes, to your awareness of the world around you and the people in it.  At the closest level, I teach students to be aware of their partners even when their eyes are closed, so they can understand and affect their partner through touch without looking at them or the point they are targeting.  From there sensitivity stretches out to being aware of how someone is going to move and what they are going to do based on understanding the clues in their posture and movement.  This requires a visual sensitivity first focused on your partner, and later, as you improve, extending to everything in your awareness.  If all you learn to focus on it how to strike or how to see one opponent after they are declared, you aren’t learning very much.  If you are becoming sensitive to the world around you, you are really learning something worthwhile.

“Will I gain a mastery of spacing?”  This is a great one, because if you can control the spacing between you and a partner, you control the entire encounter.  By controlling the spacing, you can limit a partner’s options and even choose what options to give them.  It’s tough to learn about controlling spacing at a range of distances from just one art though.   Most arts are very strong at one or two distances.  I study Kodokan Judo, which is great at the most intimate distances, the range where you can reach out and hold someone.  If you practice some of the kata you can learn about slightly longer distances, the range of hand strikes.  It’s starts to fall down at kicking ranges and is really bad at weapons ranges.  Shinto Muso Ryu Jo is great at a variety of armed ranges, but it has little to offer at the range of touch.  You can’t learn everything at once, and I wouldn’t expect one art to teach you everything.  But whatever you are studying, it should spend a lot of time in partner practice so you can learn about spacing.  I’m not talking just about sparring, but partner practice, which includes a lot of slow, careful, thoughtful practice so you can internalize lessons about spacing without developing bad habits.

“Am I likely to collect a lot of injuries while training in this particular art?”  This should be a no brainer, but we forget about it quite often.  Is the training atmosphere a safe one?  Are these people that I want to be around?  Every physical activity has risks (know any basketball players who’ve had knee surgery?)  but the risks should not be excessive.  I have friends who have left dojo because of the way training was run.  Usually the problem is not with the art but with the way training is done.  Be aware of this.  The people you train with have a huge impact on the value you will get from your training and how much you learn.  If they don’t respect you physically, you could end up badly damaged with injuries that cause lifelong problems.  If people don’t respect you as a person, you have to deal with not just physical risks, but with the emotional wear and tear of being treated badly as an individual.  Not all injuries are physical.  Make sure the particular art in the particular place you are training is safe for you and those around you.  

“WIll I enjoy the time I spend training and feel like it is benefiting me, not just on physical level, but also on a mental level?”  Training takes effort and motivation.  If you don’t feel like you are benefiting, you’re not going to want to do it.  Good training should leave you tired, and honestly, exhilarated. The effects should enrich your body through the exercise, your skills through the technical training, and your mind through the broader application of what you are learning.  If you aren’t getting all three, you might want to rethink what you are doing.  I know that when I leave a good training session, I may be so exhausted I can hardly walk, but mentally I am much more alive and aware, and emotionally I am, exhilarated.  The training stretches my physical skills and mental awareness so that everything functions at a higher level.  This extends to my emotions as well.  This is one of the big reasons I love training.  It just feels so good at every level.

This is the difference between a coherent art and just a random collection of stuff.  “Will I learn coherent principles that can be applied across the spectrum of encounters, and not just a bunch of discrete techniques that can only be used in situations very similar to the ones they are taught in?”   A lot of people argue over whether something is a “jutsu 術” or a “Do 道”.  That’s not really a useful question, but I’ve already written about it here.  The question to ask should be, “Is this based on coherent principles that can be applied beyond the discrete techniques being taught, or it just a collection of techniques?  The best arts and teachers use techniques as pointers towards principles rather than as an end in themselves.  If you are studying throws, do you learn how off-balancing and over-extending contributes to instability in a partner and how this makes powerful throws effortless and effective?  If you are studying striking, do you learn how to move your hips and lower body to develop power that can be applied to not only strikes but other movements as well?  If you are studying joint locks, are you learning the principles behind locking the joints to prevent movement, or are you just learning to twist the wrist *this way* so it hurts?  The art should teach principles that cross all of these areas and can be applied strategically and tactically as well.  Lessons from throwing will apply to striking, while striking lessons apply to joint locks and lessons about locking the body apply to throwing.  The system should be coherent and the principles effective across the range of activity.

All of these things are essential to making a worthwhile art in my eyes.  If what you are training isn’t giving you all of these, you aren’t getting the most possible out of your art, and the art doesn’t do very much for the people studying it.  Which art is most effective is the one that does the best job of teaching you the above.  Not every art is ideally suited for every person. We each bring our own strengths and weaknesses to our training.  The best art will reinforce your strengths and help you overcome weaknesses.  It will develop your sensitivity, timing and mastery of spacing.  Your body will be strengthened and energized by your training, and your mind will be polished.  You will feel better physically, mentally and emotionally after training.  You will gain skills and understanding that apply far beyond mere physical confrontations.

If you’re not getting all of these from your training, you’re not studying the most effective martial art.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do vs Jutsu. Again.

It seems like this issue comes up a lot.  I'm involved in a discussion about it on a LinkedIn discussion board right now, so I thought I would share some of what is going on over there.

The whole Do vs. Jutsu discussion only gets a lot of play outside Japan. It's something that Donn Draeger came up with. It was an interesting idea, but, frankly, he was wrong. There is no opposition between the two concepts. To have a way (Do 道) you must have skill (Jutsu 術) to build it from. In order for skills to be coherent, they must be organized in a way. 道 is founded on 術、while 道makes sense of 術。  

It not either or. It is both and. Either or is something Westerners insist on. It used to make my teachers in Japan smile at my ignorance when I pressed the conversation on them.

Both together. One without the other just doesn't make sense.

When we start, we tend to focus on the skills, because we need them as a foundation to understanding what the way is.  Beginners can talk about the big picture and the fundamental principles, but these have to be explored and experienced through the practice of discrete skills and techniques.  These provide the map to understanding the way and the principles of the way.

The "Do" idea is a really old one in Japan.  Sado 茶道 or tea ceremony has been called Sado since at least the time of Sen No Rikyu (16th century), and there are martial arts being called "Do" 道 that I have seen going back to at least the 17th century.  Even the Kano Jigoro shihan recognized that the term Judo had been used by some groups long before he started using it.

Most arts though were known simply by their name (Hayashizaki Ryu, Kashima Shinryu, Shinto Muso Ryu) without adding an adjective such as jutsu or  do prior to and during the Tokugawa era.  Names and descriptions changed often, but the organizing principles did not.  Separating a technique from the principles that make it work is, to my mind, impossible.  Having a principle without any applications or techniques that express the principle is difficult to imagine.

Ideally, the principles give rise to the techniques, and the techniques point the way to the principles.  Some great master had a deep insight into the principles of their art and developed techniques that express this principle.  It’s a great circle with the master having an insight into principle  and developing techniques based on that principle, that Way 道。  Students then study the techniques as way of learning to understand the principle behind them.  The techniques serve as road markers pointing the way to the principle Way that underlies the art.  The students master the techniques and come to embody the principles and express them spontaneously.  They then being teaching these techniques to a new generation of students.  The circle continues.

In Japanese there are a lot of terms that express the concept of Way: michi 道、houhou 方法、
kata 方 (different from the “kata” meaning form 型、形).  The goal of any art, whether it is described as jutsu or do, skill or way, 術 or 道、is that the practitioner can spontaneously express the principles of the art/school/style/system spontaneously in accordance with the situation.  If you only learn a collection of techniques, but don’t understand the principles that underly the techniques, you will only be able to use them in the exact situations in which you learned them.  If you use the techniques as tools for learning the underlying principles, the Way, then once you begin to understand the principles, you will be able to apply them to all sorts of situations, not just the specific one covered in the technique you learned.

In a fully developed martial art/martial science, the principles and the techniques cannot be separated from each other.  The techniques work because of the underlying principles, and the principles are expressed through the techniques.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Who do we train for?

When you train, do you train just for yourself?
Do you train just for the moment?
Do you remember those who brought the skills you practice down through time?
Do you consider those who may inherit the skills you are practicing?

We live in a world of fast food where everything is disposable.  But somethings aren't meant to be fast food, they aren't disposable, and they aren't meant to be on a menu with "Pick any 3" written above them.

When we train budo, we are training ourselves, but we are also contributing to a tradition, even if we are training a newly created style.  That style's creator had teachers, and hopeful he didn't create the style completely from his imagination.  Over the centuries a lot of people have contributed to the arts we train in.  Some of us are fortunate enough to train in living arts that have been around for many centuries, and we can easily look up the names of past teachers and master students.  Some of the people we owe our gratitude to are easy to identify.  Others, students and teachers whose names were not recorded, we will never know about.  We can, and should, appreciate them all the same.

I am amazed and humbled to think of all the great teachers whose lessons I am receiving when I train in my chosen budo.  And I am humbled by the thought that my teachers have decided to lavish their experience and wisdom on me.  They are some of the finest people I know.   One of the reasons I believe they have become such fine human beings is that their training is not just about themselves.  They train, they learn, and then they share what they have learned without jealousy or greed.  Their budo is much more than just a method for fighting or self-defense or to boost their ego through their own strength and power.

Budo, when practiced fully, weaves together the past and the future with the present.  I have inherited a great debt from my teachers.  In budo we should always be aware of just how much we have received from our teachers, and their teachers before them.  And it is not a debt we can repay.  It is one that can only be paid forward.  Budo lessons are not something to be learned for ourselves alone.  Budo cannot be practiced alone, and once we have learned lessons from budo, it is our responsibility to pass those lessons on to others.

This doesn't mean that everyone who studies budo has to go out and start their own dojo, or even that they have to teach classes.   But it does mean that we have to share what we have learned with those around us in the dojo without being jealous about the lady with more talent who picks it so quickly, or the boy who has lots of free time and advances rapidly because he trains a lot more than we can.  It means training with people, and sharing with them.

By training with people, and sharing what we know, we knit the next row of stitches in the fabric that is our budo.  We become some of those teachers and students who created, learned and passed on what they had learned.  If an art form can continue for hundreds of years to get to us, there is no reason not to expect it to continue for hundreds more.  We are part of it, and we owe it to those who gave the art to us, to give it to future students.  We train and learn and train with others and teach and give our art on to future students, not just those we know by name, but those who will come to the art after we have died and likely been forgotten.  Very few of us will be remembered as a master teacher or a soke.  But we are still a part of the art, and it is our duty as a part of the art to pass it on.

That's more than a little humbling, and I think that is why my teachers are so humble. They know that what they are doing is not just for themselves and their direct students.  It is for all those who will come after, their descendants in the art.  Kiyama Sensei has been doing budo for over 80 years, he can see a long way back, and I believe he can envision his budo traveling far into the future.  He would never call it "his" though.  It came to him from his teachers and he cannot keep it.  He passes it along to his students, and we cannot keep it either.  We can only ever be caretakers.  We may get to polish it a little, and perhaps, if we are something astounding, we might even be able to add a nugget to the budo treasure we have been blessed enough to receive.

Always keep in mind that "your" budo doesn't really belong to you.  It would be more accurate to say that you belong to the budo you practice.  It is a great treasure that past teachers have given you to care for so that future generations can benefit from this budo as well.  By practicing, you become a part of the fabric of the budo.