July 17, 2016

A Tomato in Fruit Salad?

This piece is in regards to a Facebook post of mine that this gentleman responded to. His response is highlighted here, and mine below. The video we are touching on can be found here:

This is reenactment. I do not believe there are many, if not all bujinkan practioners, who wouldn't walk away from an actual warrior training session in the SCA, bruised and shaking their heads. European martial arts are alive and well, through the SCA, the difference is, these warriors put their martial skills to the test on a regular basis. There is also something wrong with them, they like to get hit with 1 1/4" rattan, once you get hit by it a couple of times, you become desensitized to confrontation. Its funny you posted this. I was just thinking, I need to take the martial skills I've learned in the bujinkan and put them to the test in the SCA. I can think of no better way to test the legitimacy of what I've learned in the bujinkan, but I'm scared to be truthful. Thes guys are savages, when it comes to trying to one up them with martial skills learned somewhere else! I have no doubt, I would leave bruised and bleeding, for some time. And, I'm gettin' old, I bruise and bleed to easy. Hope you are well James. Thanks for the article, if anything else, it provoked a lingering thought in me!

Hi Sean,

Thanks for your thoughts. 

I had actually meant to post this in a private group and must have hit one button over another and here we are - I was tired last night. I don't normally post my thoughts publicly – there’s too much that is lost in translation making it difficult to provide and gain clarity on social media. Most of the time, it seems to me, everybody simply winds up more confused and outraged because we’re too busy making sure we’re heard, instead of wondering if posts or responses are actually merited in the first place, and if they are, thoughtfully so. If everybody really cared about the nature of what they wrote, there’d be a lot less of it.

Take this post, for instance. I didn’t mean for it to be public. I normally have discussions only with people that I know and train with regularly. In doing so, it changes the manner and gravity of one’s thinking and responses for the better, because I never post anything I would not be willing to say face-to-face or stand up for after the fact. Since I don’t know you, train with you regularly, or have any understanding of your relative ability and experience, I’m simply going to post my thoughts and leave it at that.

Nowadays (my editor hates when I use this word, but I’ll use it anyway because it really is true), in our world, and our nation at the moment, but especially in martial arts, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify wisdom from knowledge. In other words, people confuse the one for the other – they confuse the knowing of something for the wisdom it may impart, as if mere existence is the only evidence necessary for its efficacy. This is to suggest that all knowledge is wise, but is actually a devaluation of wisdom. Why this is happening is certainly attributable to the connectivity and speed with with we can know stuff, all kinds of stuff, which can lead to a superficial understanding of it.

However, as anyone who knows the difference between the fact that a tomato is technically a fruit and its actual usage as a food, they avoid placing it into a fruit salad. In the devaluing of wisdom, today’s thinking would have us throw Heirloom tomatoes into a bowel with the various berries, pineapple, oranges, and slices of kiwi because of “knowing” it is a fruit. History and experience (and taste) notwithstanding.

We arrive at wisdom in the martial way when we can apply knowledge, whatever it may be, ethically. That’s how we know the difference. If you are really serious in training the martial way, and for the reasons I suspect you train it, you have to be honest about the answer to this question: are you training techniques to protect and defend life or are training a life to protect and defend techniques? In other words, are you training as a means to an end - the survival/sustainment of life - or as an end in itself - to be “good” at “martial arts”? Context matters. One is not the other. One is wise. The other is knowledgeable. And much like we might marvel at the size of the rising moon and its seeming proximity, the difference between these points is so vast it is often overlooked.

I watched this clip and thought it was interesting and funny. You seem to think it is a manner to best test martial skills. Which skills exactly, I can’t imagine. It’s a game. A roughhousing one played on a field that uses rattan with a crazy amount of flex, padded swords, and plastic armor. Under those conditions, none of that stuff moves or is used in any manner even remotely close to what it is intended to model. But it has to be that way because it’s a game – if any of those tools were even tenuously accurate, people would die.

If you buy into the notion that rough training here equals best training practices, then carry it to its logical conclusion. But crash-up derby does not provide the best training to test one’s defensive driving skills for everyday life any more than slicing open an artery best tests the dexterity of one’s medical and tourniquet skills under stress. There’s a martial arts group that dedicates a good portion of their training time to kicking each other in the nuts, to, you know, toughen them up, or something. Seems backward to me. Perhaps that time would be better spent habit-forming the avoidance of such an attack. And why? Because when you sack your sack, lump your junk, and Bronson your Johnson, it has nothing to do with best practices intended to acclimate and habituate one to viable and sustainable outcomes in life and death conflict. It’s just weird.

There are folks who think that BJJ is the best way to test groundfighting, Judo the best way to test throwing, and Kendo the best way to test swordfighting. But to what end? For viability in the martial way to protect and defend life (an imminently ethical concern), I disagree on all counts. Again, knowledge itself is not wisdom.

BJJ is best for tournament groundfighting, Judo best for tournament throwing, and Kendo best for tournament Kendo because the manner of their training habituates them to perceive and utilize their techniques under those ideal, tournament, conditions. That’s because Judoka don’t have to worry about getting stabbed by a used needle from a methhead in regular training, BJJitsuka don’t have to worry about multiple attackers beating their skull in with a bat in regular training, and Kendoka don’t have to worry about their sword bending or breaking when they clash in regular training. If they did, if every iteration of their training concerned these aspects, if the very notion of their training was embedded and infused with such possibilities, their training as we know it today could not be their training because the idealism with which it is carried out cannot exist in a world with methheads and their needles, multiple opponents and their bats, and swords that bend and break on impact.

None of their training would exist, because none if it could exist under the context of surviving and sustaining, protecting and defending life. It only ever exists under idyllic conditions - variable threats of the world be damned. Imagine a baseball player training to hit a fast pitch, and then trying to do the same while concerning himself with the potentiality that the umpire, or the catcher, or both will set upon him with stabbing weapons until he dies. If that possibility were an actual part of baseball proper, you wouldn’t see baseball anymore, as it would morph into a life-protecting endeavor completely different from the original.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking down any of these arts. I have great respect for them and the level of skill and athleticism they require. All these arts and even the gamesmanship above can be fun and exciting and provide worthwhile time spent with likeminded others for a plethora of good reasons. But one of those reasons is not reliance upon them for the betterment of warrior arts - the context is different. And when we assume the context is the same, because some of the techniques are, we wind up confused. We wind up with a bunch of shit. There’s a reason Michael Jordan didn’t cut it as a baseball player after he retired from basketball. As wise as he was in the one case, he was not equally wise in the other. Why not? Because the ball playing was from a completely different context.

If the touchstone of the folks in the clip was truly survival/sustainment, then the manner of usage would not be what it is. As it is, human crash-up derby is not more sound, or thorough, or rigorous for viable martial concerns, it is less so, because of the context: it’s an idealistic game, and the game dictates the manner of its usage, just like the arts above. It’s not about defending your life or the lives of others, it’s about playing the game. As such, it is not “more real,” or “realistic” because it is rougher. In fact, I would argue there is and can be no such training that is “realistic” at all. None. It does not exist, and for a simple reason: it’s contradictory.

For something to actually be of training use, it must be amenable to the human mind – it has to “make sense” or else no one can try or accomplish it. But the reality of the world and the capricious and variable means by which the violent bring violence has usually little to do with how understandable it is to us, with how much it “makes sense” to us. In fact, psychologically, interpersonal violence often confounds us, which is why most people want no part of it. If it did make sense, training would be a hell of a lot easier than it is. But in the world as it actually is, not the one we want or wish for, the only thing realistic is reality. Only real is real. Period. All our training, everyone’s training, is a well-crafted fiction, and must be for us to gain any understanding of extemporaneous viable change under variable conditions. That’s a lot to take in because training to be competent and ethically so, is really, really hard.

If you want to be better at what you do, try stripping your training down to its component parts: put a wooden knife in the hand of a partner and have them come after you. If you can resist and escape, or at higher levels confront and subdue them, you’re onto something. Techniques must then “fit” into the intervals necessary for any of these opportune moments to be viable. Better yet, have that partner go after someone else with the knife and intervene and defend them from the attack. There is no better means to understand and “test” martial ethics and its tactics than to provide for the safety and security of another.

Context matters. It calibrates, directs, and helps us navigate untenable waters and thus permeates martial endeavor. And it matters so much, it is such an enormous part of what we do and how we are able to do it, that we often overlook it without thinking twice. Like any necessary aspect of our daily existence, like stability before an earthquake, or breathable air, we only appreciate it after it’s become short in supply.

Best to you, and best to you in your training.


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