FMAT: Bastardization and Style Purity

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Sep 11, 2006
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Bastardization and Style Purity
By Bobbe - 07-14-2009 04:27 PM
Originally Posted at: FMATalk


From "Teaching Advanced Martial Arts" by Bobbe Edmonds

It's another Bobbe article, so get yer reading glasses out.

There is a popular discussion being held on various internet forums that rehashes an old argument about the aspects of lineage in the martial arts. The argument contends that one style is legitimate and another is not. Now, the bloody ironic thing in the discussion is that both sides trained primarily with the same teacher. So what&#8217;s the argument, how much more kool-aid one child got in favor of another? At the end of the day I can&#8217;t see any more reason than that, the arguments (and more than a few accusations) are based on who got the &#8220;Real&#8221; information, and the damn thing just snowballs from there.

I can't imagine a teacher who cared about his students and the quality of the art he taught would allow his martial children to reach that stage, or even get near it. I would never allow mine to backstab each other, or wander around in the dark wondering if they got the real thing. There is only one captain of the ship, and to allow the people you taught to live out their lives bickering amongst each other does you no credit and paints a distasteful image of what your art must be like, regardless of how good it really might be. So, we have this lineage fight taking place. (I copied snippets of the original argument for illustration purposes here)

Now at one point, one of the antagonists brings up what I call a &#8220;romantic interpretation&#8221; of martial arts lineage:

&#8220;The lineage keeps the body of knowledge intact. In my understanding, the lineage is passed on to the person who has the best teaching skill combined with the deepest understanding of the complete training. This person must also understand (and live) the psychology and philosophy that goes hand in hand with the martial science. Pretty soon people have all kinds of wrong ideas about what this art is and isn't. They spread these lies and incomplete training on to others. You end up with a little bag of tricks, which may or may not be effective, and not the complete training. If you have the real thing, lineage is very important.&#8221;

Also this:
&#8220;The lineage is about preserving the real thing. The lineage keeps it proper. The lineage keeps people who just have part of the picture from messing up a good thing.&#8221;

And later, goes on to say that, : &#8221;It's not that I don't feel I can't defend my line of thought, it's just that I don't care too. I really don't want to say something against my oaths.&#8221;

There is nothing, absolutely nothing about a pedigree that guarantees authenticity, or validity, or especially superiority in the martial arts. It&#8217;s like saying holding the office of president of the United States of America guarantees quality leadership. The Martial Arts are made up of too many variables per individual to allow a piece of paper to determine what is real and what is not. But what the paper does do, in almost every example I have seen, is promote this fairy-tale existence that you now are spiritually connected to the very founder himself, and the burden is upon you to keep the system pure.

It also paints the teacher as one step under God himself, whether the student knows it or not, and supports the martial arts &#8220;Holy Man&#8221; mythos.

So here it is, in living color: There is no pure system. At least, not in my opinion.

When you speak of martial styles, or ANYTHING man-made on the face of this planet, you must take that very point into consideration: It was created by a human, and thusly has human failings and strengths no matter how much of a "Genius" the founder was. My father was a thief for most of his life, and although I went an entirely different path in life than he did, he said something to me when I was a boy that has remained with me into adulthood: "Bobbe, if a man made it, then there is a way around it". I have found this saying applicable to almost everything in my life.

Everything that exists is here because somebody saw the usefulness of both chocolate AND peanut butter, and eventually arrived a Reese&#8217;s Peanut Butter Cups. Martial Arts are no different than anything else in this respect, and just as worthy of closer examination. Somebody in Indonesia saw how great oblique angles were and threw them in with joint locks and minute footwork. Now we have a Silat system called Syahbandar, and it is respected as a formidable, PURE system. But it's a blend! What makes that any different than what we are doing here in America today? The fact that we aren't Indonesians? The fact that the art wasn't invented in America? The fact that we aren't Muslim (or primarily a Muslim country)?

Doce Pares combined several different aspects at it's inception in 1932, and to this day I still hear people arguing over which is "more" pure, San Miguel, Cacoy or Diony.

There are TWO versions (at minimum) of Pekiti Tersia right now, possibly more. (Pekiti practitioners, please be so kind as to keep your arbitrary screaming to yourselves at the moment, I'm only stating facts here, not choosing sides.) And, by all accounts, Gaje learned a few different arts in correlation with his family system to present what is now recognized as Pekiti Tersia.

I'm not saying just the combining of any little thing arbitrarily makes the system legit, but what about somebody with a minimum of 20 years training various arts, has an accepted level of skill, and is knowledgeable in body mechanics and physical application? Would what this person came up with be considered valid? Could you conceivably call it pure? If the answer is no because it's a new art, or a recently invented one, could his fifth-generation students call it pure? Why? Or why not?

Think of it this way: Can you really divine every existing possibility and outcome from a single resource? Can you trust your life on one sole point of view? Nothing explains everything, nothing is perfect, and many of the martial arts today have the deck stacked against them when faced with traditionalism in the modern world.

Whatever martial art you study will often be hindered by several things:

1: The national or regional origin of the founder of the system (whatever country he is from will reflect the approach to training)

Take a look at the various Asian cultures, and you will see what I mean: Depending on country of origin, different teaching methods are often joined inseparably with the style:

The dictatorial drill-instructor method of the Japanese and Korean styles.
(This evolves from living in a militaristic society. Korea adopted much of their martial behavior from Japan)

The "Endure pain until you get it right" method of Thailand
(I actually believe this method is the result of a harsh, poverty-sunk society as opposed to any "tradition".)

The mystical and religious based methods of the PI and Malaysia-Indonesia
(Again, this seems to be societal, as opposed to traditional. Indonesia is primarily Muslim, and religious training is 90&#37; of their education. In this case, you are actually dealing with the law of probability.)

The secretive "Disciple-for-life" guarding method of the Chinese styles.

(One would think the Chinese are HORRIBLE carpenters, considering how many style-mythos begin with "He learned the system from peeking through a hole in the wall, door, fence, etc"!)

2: The level of education (martial, philosophical, scholastic) the founder had.

A simple village farmer who has never seen the other side of the coin will be much more likely to dismiss anything that is alien to him, as opposed to someone with a more worldly view. If all you are exposed to in life are warm, sunny days in Cebu, feeling snow for the first time at the age of 52 will probably give you a coronary. At minimum, you will have difficulty believing what your eyes & other senses tell you is the truth. Many martial Arts styles are exactly like that. This is what leads to the "This technique cannot be defeated" or "My style is the best in the world" attitude. It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond. An analytical mind will have the capacity to recognize truth and efficiency quickly, and adapt new ideas faster than one that has limited mental facilities and resources.

This isn't always the case, I have had stellar instructors, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia, who couldn't read or write, and they have brought me to new heights of awareness and understanding. However, it does help preserve the method & intention better when you have a clear understanding of the art and can translate it well to others in an intelligent manner. Also, you can more efficiently guide your students as individual practitioners.

3: Whatever religious influences the founder had.

When Karate first came to America, many of the early American Sensei became Buddhists, because they were taught that way from their teachers, who were Buddhists. Americans at that time simply didn't understand the cultural influence religion has on martial arts. Nowadays we see that what is really needed is a moralistic governor to go with the physical art we are training. Any religious influence will usually do, or at least a moralistic approach to teaching fighting skills, particularly weapons-based arts. Lately, many Americans have discovered Islam through the study of Silat, another martial art steeped deeply in religion and mysticism. Most of my teachers in Indonesia cannot separate the religion from the martial. This is a combination of the traditional Islamic teaching and the superstitious country beliefs that all rural cultures have (America included).

Personally, out of respect I have learned how to overlook it as opposed to try to tell them not to push it on me.

4: Whatever knowledge of other fighting styles the founder had, as well as ACTUAL COMBAT EXPERIENCE (with his native people, as well as other styles and nationalities.)

This last point is probably the most important, because it will reflect any foresight the founder had. For example, if the creator of the style had never seen a proficient knife fighting style before, his approach to the subject will be minimalist and unrealistic (something I am encountering every time I give a seminar to a style other than my own). They will probably "invent" some knife techniques out of their empty hand motions that are similar in application, or maybe "borrow" some techniques from whatever style they can find that has some, even if the motion base for this is radically different and conflicts with everything else they know/teach. The grappling explosion of the 90's was due largely to the ignorance of it's existence before. If more styles were exposed to different training methods and techniques back in the 60's, the martial art styles and attitudes towards self-defense of today would be RADICALLY different.

It was easier to be a martial arts instructor in the 70's and 80's. There was a mystique about black belts spawned by kung fu movies and Karate dojos that promoted a "No one questions the master" kind of attitude. Bluntly put, the instructor could successfully run a martial arts school with absolutely NO talent for teaching martial arts. Cross training was forbidden, as was developing yourself to be better than your teacher. To this end, many teachers imposed ridiculous strictures on their students, and held back information vital to the growth of their students martially, for their gratification of their own egos or to keep a steady paycheck coming in for life.

Two events in the early 1990's were cataclysmic in ending this:

1: The first UFC
2: The Internet

The UFC was instrumental in breaking down barriers between martial styles, as it showed from the first "No style has everything". Indeed, it further proved many styles were lacking quite a few things! It also demonstrated how a little education goes a long way, as the champions of earlier UFC's were unhorsed later on by others who had not studied the reigning style (i.e. Gracie Jiu Jitsu) simply a few techniques on how to counter it.

An art that maintains fighting efficiency for many generations isn&#8217;t &#8220;pure&#8221;, in my opinion, it would HAVE to be blended with other things. &#8220;Blend&#8221; isn&#8217;t a bad thing. ANY art that survives from the 1600&#8217;s to today would have to evolve to reflect the current approach to combat. People don&#8217;t attack & defend the way they did when the style is formed, usually the same circumstances don&#8217;t exist, i.e. 1600&#8217;s West Javanese jungle vs. 2006 America/Pacific Northwest.

Which brings me back to my initial point: If the founder of the style (whatever style) has never seen knife fighting, the style won&#8217;t reflect an in-depth knowledge of knife fighting. Or, take circumstances today: If you have never really SEEN Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it would be difficult to train for counters to such, wouldn&#8217;t it? People today are much more exposed & familiar with Martial Arts in general than they were 20 years ago. We are much more capable of rationalization WITHOUT bias, although we may not practice it much, and we can see the usefulness, or lack of, in ANY MA system.

The internet was the final nail in the coffin, as information became more readily available to those willing to spend some time researching web sites. Suddenly, you didn't have to take your instructor at face value, if his claims or rank seemed a little suspicious, you could usually verify it in one evening without leaving your house. Later, more and more people began to post curriculum & techniques from different styles, students of different instructors began to compare notes, and eventually entire styles were posted on web pages, in an effort to upstage everyone else. This was the kiss of death for the old-style instructor, because the potential student was armed with information he or she would normally not have, and much less susceptible to the mythos of the "Sensei". The instructor's word was now just one ingredient, whereas it used to be the whole pie.

And that thing about "taking oaths"...There is no reason for that. NONE. I train a martial art. You are my teacher. You have, to SOME degree, control over me in your school. In deference to that, I will listen to what you say and apply it to the best of my abilities. But once I walk out that door, what I do, where I go & what I think & say ARE MY G**DAMN BUSINESS, not yours. So many Americans just throw their common sense out the window and adopt this "romantic" view of the martial arts, we are so in love with the mystique of the Samurai we forget common sense. Do you want that kind of control over my life? Does ANY person deserve that kind of say-so over what you do with yourself? Then let's see some evidence of your involvement and investment in it aside from "punch-kick-swear an oath". PAY MY MORTGAGE. My phone bill could use some help. Buy me a new car. I'll swear to Mars and back if you do that. But no, the cult of the martial arts &#8220;SENSEI&#8221; persona demands a one-sided argument, that the respect flows in only one direction: To the teacher.

Allow me to quote here from Oscar Ratti & Adele Westbrook&#8217;s excellent &#8220;Secrets of the Samurai&#8221;:

&#8220;A pupil was taught to walk seven feet behind the Sensei, lest he tread on the master&#8217;s shadow. The teacher showed the way & the pupil had only to follow it. Hence, the pupil was not allowed to depart a step from the teacher&#8217;s instructions: he was permitted to reproduce but forbidden to improve. It is not surprising, therefore, that the teacher should have become more sparing of his teaching as the pupil advanced, or that he should have tried to sanctify his art by surrounding it with all manner of mythical traditions. If the pupil happened to be of a free and ungovernable mind, and attempted to add his own devices to what knowledge was imparted to him, he was certain to provoke his instructor&#8217;s wrath&#8221;

Now although the above scenario depicts a common feudal-era Japan ideal, it is very likely to see most, if not all of the above traits demonstrated in a modern training facility. Ironically, rational adults who would scoff at this in any other setting (work, family, church) will accept it under the circumstances of &#8220;culture&#8221; in a Dojo. When you relinquish your control over reality & freewill so easily to someone else it&#8217;s difficult to regain any kind of footing in your training. You have just signed over control of yourself to someone who usually cares nothing for you in the first place. And getting out usually isn&#8217;t as easy as getting in was&#8230;

A common malady in martial arts is the point of view of the founder becomes dogma after a few generations. The fanatical wide-eyed followers of the holy man of legend, and the mystical madness the fall willingly, LEAP JOYOUSLY into. Soon this gives rise to the "Our style has everything" mythos that is so prevalent in martial arts today, and the arrogance the prohibits any real growth. There is nothing you can say to these people that will not inspire argument & outright attacks for any perceived "insult" they have suffered from you. They look narrowly down the hallway of their specialty, and despise deviation from what they are familiar with. They are the source of endless nit-picking, the ongoing quibbling over a comma.

Let me go back to the idea of "Artist" and not "Art". A skilled practitioner can usually make anything (art/system/style) work within a given set of boundaries. If they are particularly adept, they can probably use it successfully under extreme conditions as well. This gives the impression that the art is what allowed the artist to excel, when really someone who DIDN'T have such coordination and skill could fall flat on their face. But you never hear "The art is incomplete", what you hear is "He's not good enough at his art". I truly think it is the other way around, some people start off in the wrong thing and continually try to force the fit, no matter how uncomfortable it is. There are martial arts that simply cannot be done by everyone, and a careful investigation of how this training will affect you & your body structure in 20 years must be done before you jump right in. But my point here is that a SKILLED practitioner can make even the most nonviolent actions (Yoga?) seem like the worlds deadliest style. A competent baker can give you a delicious cake every time, no matter what kind of flour he uses.

If the said MA adept can convey a measure of his skill to others through teaching, this is even more rare and worthy of note, particularly if he can do it to people other than "perfect" students (i.e. shorter, weaker, physically handicapped). This is usually a sign that the teacher can think beyond himself and project what would be the best course of action for ALL his students, not just one or two.

However...These people again are just human beings with human failings. They don't know everything.

For example; Dan Inosanto. This man has not only seen the elephant but rode that bastard down Broadway, and has forgotten more about martial arts than I'll EVER learn (and what he doesn't know would fit in a shot glass)...But he doesn't know everything. He continually sends his students elsewhere for training outside of himself. And his students usually come back and say "Guru Dan, this guy had an unusual approach...!" And the expansion of knowledge starts from there.

Now, you will also encounter those who blend arts together for the sake of ego, trying to become the Grand Poo-Bah of their own martial art system, but blending what you have learned from various different systems and teachers together in a thoughtful manner with a focus on combat and reality and arriving at a new conclusion isn&#8217;t a bad thing.

Everything has combat efficiency, given the right set of circumstances. But a system with an adaptable approach to varying combat conditions would have to include the capacity for split second directional changes in the middle of technique, and encourage the practitioner to think outside the box. Such a system cannot maintain "purity" and "combat effectiveness" at the same time. What I am saying is that there is a difference between &#8220;Education&#8221; and &#8220;Indoctrination&#8221;. To believe that a style is pure is to be convinced that there is no room for improvement on said style. This is the exact moment you will stop adapting & start trying to &#8220;force the fit&#8221; of your current knowledge base to any other art you encounter that has a fluid, evolving system behind it. If the other art continues to grow, and you remain stagnant in your education, there can only be one outcome. It&#8217;s only a matter of time.

Many martial artists are just as handicapped by their style as they are enhanced by it. Again, this is due to lack of foresight, the inflexible attitude of "We (insert style here) always do it THIS way". Often I have seen practitioners sacrifice a sensible, logical and effective technique, concept or theory, in favor of what his style dictates. Think about it: You never hear water saying "In my style, we flow around the LEFT side of the rock". Water just hits it and goes, it doesn&#8217;t care what &#8220;style&#8221; of flow it uses! But the higher in rank you go, the more bound you seem to become to whatever rigid, nonsensical barrier the "founder" put in place, probably as a result of the living conditions of whatever time he actually existed in. This mental rigidity will lead a style into stagnation, and become nothing more than a haven for clones, practitioners who are in absolutely no danger of growing in the art and eventually thinking for themselves. Students who do discover the truth are often &#8220;corrected&#8221; when they present their findings, and excommunicated if they fail to comply. I have heard &#8220;Sensei is always right&#8221; on more than 20 occasions, and it has always proven to be wrong.

Speaking of arts never growing, some arts are more complete than others, and some are only one-trick ponies. Because a particular style of martial art offers a unique approach to combat, or a specialized tactic in a predetermined condition or scenario (i.e. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) doesn&#8217;t make it all-encompassing or in any sense profound just because nobody has thought of a counter to it yet. Don&#8217;t make the mistake of thinking the answer to one problem is the solution for everything.

Wing Chun, for example. It does one thing and one thing only. However, in this narrow skill set, THEY DO THAT ONE THING WELL. Now, if I was thinking that I needed to understand a close range infighting system with minimum footwork and body English, Wing Chun is what I would look into. Or take BJJ as another example. Again, one concept with very little fru-fru. But they execute it with superior skill and ability. To say "We work counters against them" or "We train to avoid going to the ground" is well and all, but they are MASTERS of their application. Are you a master of the counter? Against a skilled (insert artist here)? Most "style based" artists are not. They cannot see beyond their own narrow field of specialization, no matter how complete it is. Again, an art, system or style is merely one person's interpretation of reality and truth in combat. And, as I pointed out earlier, the individual skill of that person will dictate how "complete" the art is. But if I view whatever art I am training in as nothing more than one tool in my Kung Fu toolchest, I can view other arts with an equally undogmatic approach, and train them without prejudice or pre conceived notions and hindrances.

Arts that try to be all-inclusive often fall into the other end of the spectrum: So convoluted and bloated that the real principles that they started with are lost in a jungle of "Well, we took a little of this from Thai, and a little of that from Silat". This is no better than the fanatical purist, and indeed gives way to the martial arts gadflies who drop round a seminar and want to cherry-pick. These are often the cloned-zombie followers of Bruce praise-be-unto-his-name Lee, chanting his holy mantra of "Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless".

So, back to my initial point: Every martial art under the sun was created by a human, and this is why I say there is no pure system. This is why I say at least consider everything. I absolutely don't mean that you could MASTER everything, that would be a foolish statement. But getting in there and getting your hands dirty will teach you in a way that supposition and aversion to change will not. So that's why I say that you SHOULD find the devil you don't know, if for no other reason than to get his outlook on things that your teacher doesn't have. The insight alone is invaluable, and the opposing point of view may give you a clue as to how you should tweak your technique when faced with another style.

And speaking of that, you can train another style with no other purpose than to better understand your own. I firmly believe that it is difficult, if not impossible to learn everything about your martial art through training in nothing but that martial art alone. You cannot learn another language without learning another culture. You cannot understand science without a grasp of math. Often mastery of a thing requires knowledge of a different thing, and martial arts are no different in this aspect. To really see what it is you are doing, do something else. If you really want a well-rounded education, do a few different arts. Train them with the same fervor you trained your original art.

You will be surprised at what you discover about both your art and yourself.


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