In my attempts to speak philosophically about martial arts, I have failed in one colossal way: I haven’t properly defined what a “martial art” is. I’ve tried, of course, but it seems to be a fool’s errand. A martial art is a big idea, filled with lots of tiny moving parts. Any definition broad enough to encapsulate every martial art would be as near to meaningless as makes no difference. Instead, I’m going to address the thing that all martial arts have in common.

A martial art is, among other things, a method of fighting. But exactly is a fighting method? There are two possible answers. A fighting method is a collection of either

a. physical responses for hypothetical confrontations

b. abstract martial principles to be followed in combat or in training

Both types of fighting methods may exist, but the latter idea interests me more. I’m not at all sure that it’s true, or that any value of truth or falsehood can be assigned to the idea. But it strikes me as a useful way of looking at things, and for that reason I like to keep it handy.

The Nucleus

For a fighting method to be more than a collection of physical techniques, it must have a set of principles at its core. Those principles should be coherent, internally consistent, and based on the laws of physics. Physical techniques are simply expressions of those principles, but those principles can be expressed in infinite ways.

In martial arts, people tend to get caught up in the particular teaching methods that have been passed down over generations. Every technique or sequence is a tool for teaching, not a set response to be recited in the event of a fight. Every technique contains the core principles, but the techniques themselves are secondary.

Fight by Numbers

It’s like algebra. Algebra is an abstract concept with a simple premise: You can solve for any single unknown value by using variables to represent them in an equation. If there are multiple unknown values, you can manipulate the equation to discover their mathematical relationship to one another. This is the fundamental idea behind algebra, and we all learn a system of axioms and theorems which teach us how to accomplish that goal. When we learn algebra, we learn a series of specific lessons. However, no single lesson is algebra in itself. The lessons are merely examples.

Once you understand the concepts – how to manipulate variables in an equation – you can forget about the examples. You can make your own examples, expressing the principles of algebra in an infinite number of equations. You can even pass on exactly the same core principles without ever repeating the specific lessons that you were taught.

But on the other hand, if you don’t understand the core principles, then you’re stuck with those lessons. How could you discard them? What if you had missed some critical detail? It would be like a math teacher who doesn’t understand long division, so he memorizes his teacher’s entire long division lesson. He thinks: Maybe if I pass on the whole lesson to my students, they’ll figure it out on their own. But of course, this is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Yet another reason why a good teacher is so important.

A Finger Pointing at the Moon

If we could learn the core principles of a martial art directly, then most of us would elect to do so. Sometimes that’s possible. But for the rest of the time, we have to settle for an oblique approach, learning the rules by example like a yankee at a cricket match. For the student, particular techniques and sequences are very important; they are the vehicles of the core principles, the proverbial fingers pointing at the moon. But the teacher doesn’t need a vehicle anymore. He already knows where the moon is, presumably, so his job is to provide students with the vehicles that they need by expressing the principles in ways which demonstrate their value.

Yet again, I find myself undermining traditionalists. But fear not, gentle antiquarians, for I shall not defeat myself so easily. Certainly a free-thinking teacher could dispose of all pre-made techniques and sequences and, according to my logic, his art would be no worse for it. I acknowledge that possibility, but I equally acknowledge its improbability. How do we know when we’re finished learning? How do we know that the “moon” is where we think it is? When does a teacher know enough that he can apply his own judgment over that of his teacher’s? In the broad sense, I have no answer for this question. But for the great unwashed masses which constitute the rest of us, the answer is quite simple: Not yet.