ompared to Asia's martial art legacy, American experience in the arts is undeniably short. However, our short duration in the arts is offset by the unprecedented breadth of knowledge that is available to us. For scores of years now, Americans have had access to the widest possible range of Asian martial arts: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Indonesian and many others. This access, coupled with our freedom to choose and study one or more arts, reduces considerably any disparity between Eastern and Western martial art knowledge and experience. We know enough now to question the status quo.
Despite our breadth of experience in Eastern arts, only a handful of American practitioners have seriously challenged the classical practices addressed here. Those who tried often found themselves ostracized by the rest of the established martial art community. (Bruce Lee is an excellent example of this.) Even some of the more "progressive" martial artists today still cling to some very classical but outdated customs.
What is advocated here is not the elimination of all cultural, classical, or traditional practices from the martial arts. Exploring a rich cultural treasure is very rewarding and, for some, the strongest motivator to study and train. And who can argue against teaching self-discipline, courtesy, respect for others, and how to focus your energies on a given task or goal? All of these are part of classical martial arts. However, other changes are still warranted, and some of them are long overdue. Training in shoes, updating punching and blocking methods, and using the national or common tongue are just three examples of the kind of change that is needed.
Obviously, there are exceptions. Where the common or national tongue cannot provide an accurate translation of a term or technique, then use the language that will. The word chi is a good example. Synergy is the closest English word that fully and concisely captures the indescribable essence of chi. Still, within our community, synergy may be too obscure a term to catch on quickly. It makes sense then, to use Eastern terms in cases like this, until better ones are found and become commonly recognized and accepted substitutes.
Other exceptions are just common sense. Where a single strong-arm classical block is the best move for a particular technique or a situation, use it. If some ancient herbal liniment relieves the pain and promotes healing of a training injury, then by all means apply it. If a school has invested thousands of dollars to provide a mat for the students' safety, then don't ruin it by wearing shoes on it. But also use common sense in avoiding training methods and practices that are counterproductive.
Sharing Cultural TraditionsAmerica is a cultural melting pot. If your heritage is Asian, African, or European, and the art you study is from your ancestral homeland, great. Cultural pursuits bring purpose, pride, and fulfillment to our lives. If you are an instructor, just do a favor for those who do not share your cultural roots: tell them that cultural preservation is one of your training goals. Let them decide if your goals are compatible with theirs. If it turns out that they are, great. But if it happens that your students are not particularly interested in preserving another heritage, but you accept them as students nonetheless, then make sure that you do not penalize them – either by holding them back or by advancing only those who share your feelings – simply because they do not share your purpose. I know a very knowledgeable and highly skilled Filipino instructor who tells everyone up front that his purpose is to preserve the memory of his teacher and his cultural heritage through his sharing of the art. I respect that. I disagree with what he seeks to preserve and some of his reasons supporting his position; however I respect his honesty.
Some Problems of Our OwnFor our part, honesty demands the admission that not all of the problems plaguing martial arts in America are Asian in origin. As discount karate schools pump out more and more "cardboard" black belts – black belts on paper only, possessing nothing near "black belt" skill – respect for the coveted belt erodes. Is it any wonder that instructors (Asian and American) inflate their credentials with such predictable regularity? The American martial art garden is, indeed, overgrown, and in desperate need of weeding. Martially speaking, we inherited a slough of Asian weeds. However, instead of pulling those weeds, we planted plenty of our own. I think the imported ones will be a good deal easier to remove than our own home-grown variety.
A Personal NoteMany fine martial artists have influenced my attitudes and the path my study has taken. A number of them I know only from their writings. Although I quote Ed Parker frequently, my knowledge of him and his insights comes largely from his published works. I was, however, fortunate enough to have personal contact with him on two occasions: the first was at a black belt seminar he was presenting, and the second was a personal long-distance telephone conversation. Allow me to conclude by sharing these experiences.
A few years before he passed away, I was invited to an Ed Parker seminar by one of his black belts. I was a few minutes late arriving, and the seminar had already begun. On entering the training area, I was promptly and politely asked to leave because the seminar was open only to Parker black belts. Before the gentleman who invited me could speak up, Mr. Parker said, "No, let him stay." I have never been a student of Ed Parker, but rarely have I felt more welcome at any martial art event than I did that day.
During the seminar Mr. Parker asked if anyone knew the technique where someone grabs your wrist and you bring your assailant to his knees by pinning his fingers to your wrist and rotating your hand over his wrist. No one answered, so I raised my hand. Mr. Parker was only about three feet from me, and, as quick as a flash, he grabbed my wrist and said, "Good. Do it." Without a second's hesitation I clamped on to his hand and brought him convincingly to his knees. (I was not about to insult this man by treating him as anything less than what he really was – a martial art master.) Every black belt in the place (we were all in a line) leaned forward with a look of shock. On seeing their faces I just knew I was dead. I could see it: death at the hands of twenty black belts. Instead, the ever-gracious Ed Parker looked up and with an approving grin said, "Good job. Now, let's see . . ." I can't remember what he said after that; I was too busy thanking God for sparing my miserable life.
About three months later I received a phone call. To my surprise, it was Ed Parker! He remembered me and he said something that I will never forget. After making a couple of historical corrections, he said that it was good to see someone else travel a similar but different path and come to many of the same conclusions that he had. We spoke for only fifteen minutes or so, but I was greatly encouraged by his words. Since then I've read everything he has published. Parker's logical approach to martial arts and his true humility are a constant inspiration to me. It seems fitting then, that I close with the following quotation from him (Parker 1982, 121):
Seek martial arts knowledge with utmost scrutiny. Do not become entranced by impractical or useless movements. Above all, do not be categorized as one who "Learns more and more about less and less until he ends up learning everything there is to know about nothing" [emphasis added].
If William Shakespeare were alive in our day, he would, doubtless, use a personal computer with a modern word processor to write his plays. His genius would still produce classical works, but his material would be contemporary, his language would be modern English, and his methods suited to the day. Shouldn't we do likewise?
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©Copyright Bob Orlando, 1993-2016
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Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando