Archives for posts with tag: tradition

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.


What makes a martial art traditional? I suspect that the answer could fill a book and still be unsatisfactory. But it is worth exploring the idea of “tradition” as a concept. For every martial art, we can ask a series of questions to help determine whether it can be considered traditional.

1. How old is the martial art?

The first and most obvious component of a traditional martial art is age. It’s hard to say what the minimum age would be, but it’s safe to say that a 5 year-old martial art is not traditional. The age of a martial art matters because if it was not developed under strict, unforgiving circumstances, we have reason to doubt it. These strict, unforgiving circumstances are much harder to find in the modern world. With age also comes the endorsement of many generations of practitioners. Therefore there is arguably a (weak) correlation between age and quality. That’s why no one trusts a martial art that some guy developed in his backyard last week. I call this factor “historical legitimacy.” I don’t think that a style necessarily needs historical legitimacy to be traditional, but a non-traditional style is unlikely to have historical legitimacy.

Some would say that it’s not about age per se, but rather the era which the martial art came from. Maybe age is less important than the fact that the martial art was developed before gunpowder was invented. Or maybe the dividing line is at the industrial age, or the 20th century, etc. Some people would argue that “tradition” cannot exist in the modern world in the same way that chivalry or old-fashioned artisanship cannot. This would be a pretty cynical view of the present.

However, it can be difficult to determine the founding date of a martial art. Martial arts are full of legends, spurious claims, and misconceptions passed down from generation to generation. Not all teachers have a clear sense of history or the tendency to think critically, and not all students are willing to risk disrespecting their teachers by asking skeptical questions. In a lot of cases, we simply don’t know. History hates a vacuum, and when we don’t know something, there is always someone willing to guess.

2.Is the martial art consistent with its predecessors?

Age isn’t enough; consistency is the other important component of tradition. In order to be traditional, a martial art must be consistent with its predecessors. If a martial art changed so much that it is unrecognizable, then how can it be part of the same tradition? And if a martial art is not representative of its original form, how can it claim legitimacy from its age or era of origin?

But not all kinds of consistency are equal. In order to know whether a martial art is consistent with the past, there are three more questions we can ask:

2a.   How much has it changed?

2b.   How quickly did that change take place?

2c.   How important were the elements which changed?

The first question has to do with the quantity of change. The second deals with the rate of change. The third concerns itself with the subject of change. Sometimes the answers to these questions make our job easy. For example, if the most important elements of a martial art changed a large amount over a short period of time, then it’s obvious that the martial art has broken from tradition. In other cases, it’s not nearly so clean-cut. Here are a few cases where a judgment call is necessary:

Kendo is an example of a large quantity of change but a slow rate of change. Kendo has slowly evolved from classical Japanese swordsmanship to the point where it is nearly unrecognizable, yet there was no point at which Kendo suddenly broke from tradition. Those who argue that Kendo is traditional probably do so by claiming that the core principles remained the same throughout Kendo’s evolution. In other words, that the subject of change was relatively unimportant. Others might argue Kendo’s most important elements changed enough that Kendo is fundamentally different from its predecessors and therefore no longer part of the same tradition.

Judo is an example of a fast rate of change with a relatively small quantity of change. Judo made a sharp break with earlier traditions by changing many aspects of the art all at once. However, the changes were relatively small compared to Kendo. I don’t know whether Judo changed critical elements of its predecessor arts, but I suspect that it did. If that is true, then Judo would have broken from previous traditions.

I would say that neither Judo nor Kendo is consistent with its predecessors, but both arts succeeded in forming new traditions. In a sense, Judo could still be considered a traditional martial art, but one which dates no further back than 1882. Is that too young to be a real tradition? That’s a matter of opinion.

Now we have identified a series of questions whose answers can help us determine whether a martial art is traditional. But when we talk about consistency, another kind of question arises: Why do we assume that change is bad? In other words, what about progress? Certainly it’s possible for a martial art to become better over time. In fact, as a martial art ages, it is ever more likely to be refined and perfected. Progress is the strongest argument against traditionalism because progress means change, and change is always at odds with tradition. A traditional martial art is one which tends to assume that change is bad, that it is better to defer to the wisdom of prior generations. Bruce Lee became the standard-bearer for progressive martial artists because he trusted his own judgment more than he trusted the doctrines of traditional martial arts. He changed these martial arts freely, and many people called that progress. Others were skeptical. Everyone agrees that progress is good, but not everyone agrees that change is progress.

And now for the million-dollar question: How do we know whether a change is good or bad?

The short answer is that we don’t. Not with any real degree of certainty, at any rate. I imagine that you will be dissatisfied with that answer. You will want to trust your own judgment. But I’m not convinced that you can do that, at least not before achieving a certain level of expertise. To make your own judgment would be to assume that you already have all the information you need in order to make a decision. That is quite an assumption, and contrary to the spirit of humility. On the other hand, it’s important to think independently, rather than relying on a teacher to spoonfeed you ideas. I don’t know how to solve this dilemma. For now, I believe that we can safely say that change is non-traditional, and that a non-traditional art is one which lacks historical legitimacy.