Resilient Arts & Resilient People
By Jeff Brooks
Travelers who have visited our dojo from overseas recently have remarked
that there is no one else is doing karate the way we do at our dojo. The
way we move is of interest to people from all over, so they do come to
visit. We can easily show them what we do, and we can explain the rationale
for it too. Our discoveries are no secret – neither the result nor
the means we have used to achieve them are concealed.
The approach we have used is open to everyone who is seriously practicing
martial arts. However there are some cultural rigidities in the way martial
arts is often practiced that inhibit the progress of the students and
produce spiritual and technical rigidity.
This can be overcome. Here is how:
The presumption that there is a fixed curriculum of technique which is
known completely by the advanced teachers and which has been transmitted
to them as a complete, fully formed system from past teachers, and which
is now in the process of being presented to a new generation of practitioners,
is a fiction.
It is a useful fiction in that it does give coherence to the way material
is introduced to students in their first few years of practice. It gives
them faith that the curriculum they are learning is something genuine,
with value, as judged by people with the knowledge and experience to judge
Beginners, after all, cannot judge the quality of a martial arts curriculum.
They may have biases and prejudices. They may have read a book or seen
some TV shows about it and as a result have some opinions about what they
are seeing in their local dojo. That is why mixed martial arts, or kickboxing,
or tae bo, (or Okinanwan karate before that) all had popular booms in
their day. But presumptions aside, no beginner can adequately judge the
quality of a martial arts curriculum. So they rely on claims of legitimacy
based on lineage and on the confidence of the teacher they are seeing
first hand. That’s about all they have to work with in making a
decision as to what art to pursue.
Because they start that way, and then invest their time and energy in
that art, they become ardent partisans of that school, that master, that
lineage. After all, if that master is great, they are smart to follow
him, if he isn’t, it casts doubt on their own achievements. As a
result some martial arts people become fanatical advocates of their style
and lose the ability to judge it honestly, on a practical level. If all
their information comes from within that school’s small stream of
knowledge, they never get a broader view by means of which they can evaluate
This is the opposite of the scientific method of information sharing.
Scientists are trained under masters (their professors) and (as part of
the process of getting a PhD) they are asked to master an existing body
But there the parallels with martial arts education cease. In science
there are peer-reviewed journals. Scientists doing research in their area
of expertise submit their discoveries in the form of papers to a panel
of experts in their field. The experts vet the material. If it is legitimate
they approve it for publication, so all the scientists who might make
use of it have access to it. Cranks and dilettantes are kept out of the
journals and the advance of scientific knowledge progresses.
Certainly there are disputes and egos and opposing parties. But as a whole
the system works because there is a fluid access to information, and although
individuals are credited with their discoveries, and their rights to their
ideas may be protected with patents, the spirit of the scientific community
is collaborative. Knowledge is tested and it is shared.
The democratization of access and the sharing of ideas are being felt
in every sector of our culture now, due in large part to the internet.
Ask your local music industry magnate or movie mogul about the democratization
of access – for creative people to reach an audience, and for an
audience to freely sample a range of creative experience they would never
had access to before, when artificial barriers more severely restricted
(Movie companies once made 30 features a year. Indies make tens of thousands.
Publishing companies placed a de facto restriction on the ideas that were
disseminated in books and newspapers because a small oligarchy, with shared
views and life experiences, dominated those channels of access. Now a
million blogs, self published books, films and recordings are flooding
into existence with fresh perspectives, some brilliant some lame, but
all testable in the heat of broad public scrutiny.)
Martial arts is somewhat retarded in its cultural development. This is
not a necessary function of martial arts. In fact there is a lively martial
arts culture that has departed from this historical rigidity.
We have to be both cautious and bold as we proceed in creating a truly
useful contemporary martial art. Because in moving away from the inwardness
and self-promotion of the style-centric version of martial arts, we have
to make sure that we are not throwing away the structure and coherence
that allow new martial artists a chance to develop a firm foundation in
the mind, movement and values of a truly cultivated martial artist. Those
abilities are encapsulated in styles and have to be retained if we are
to move forward.
What are the elements required to create this genuine approach to martial
arts? Here are the elements we are using:
1.Learned fundamentals in a genuine style. Master the katas,
even if you only understand them superficially, repeat them thousands
and thousands of times. Sometimes people think this only reinforces
bad habits. If you just repeat kata as a robot then it would. So don’t
repeat as a robot. Allow the kata to teach you. As you move your body
will find ways to become more efficient, faster, more effective.
2.Get advanced information from a wide variety of sources – in
striking and kicking, body shifting and mechanics, energy transfer,
vulnerable points, seizing and grappling, in groundfighting, in tactical
thinking, in developing an intense will to win, in conditioning the
body and mind to develop toughness, resilience and intelligence.
3.Apply those lessons to every move of your kata. Use the kata as a
template for discovery and work every move in as many ways as you can
think of. Allow your broad knowledge to illuminate your kata and use
the kata to bring your knowledge and ability into a coherent, usable
system of practice.
4.Partner practice. Get your hands on your training partners and challenge
each other. Test everything. See what works. What fails. Find out why.
Don’t dismiss what is difficult just because it is difficult.
Set it aside if you can’t use it, but check it again and again
until it’s secrets open up. They will. I remember very well when
I first started people giving nonsensical interpretations of moves,
saying that some katas have no interpretations, saying that stances
like kosa dachi or nekkoashi dachi were useless in practical application,
or teaching naihanchi in a way that was totally useless for practical
application. All of those assertions I once heard presented with great
confidence have now been proven false. Those very same stances and katas
are now experienced by all of us here at our dojo, and elsewhere, as
powerful tools for defense. But it takes a willingness to persist, to
accept not-knowing for a while, to make your discoveries, and to build
the mountain stone by stone.
5.Street experience. The reciprocation between police experience on
the one hand, including the knowledge collected and refined in various
defensive tactics systems, and street experience both technical and
tactical – and dojo experience on the other, is indispensable.
You cannot do genuine modern martial arts practice without the objective
test of street experience. And you cannot get really good at your skills
without daily dojo practice. All the students in a dojo can benefit
from the practical experience of a few cops in the group. But any dojo
that lacks this dimension runs the risk of becoming self-referential
– of relying on imagination rather than real experience. I once
heard a person say in all sincerity and with real confidence “At
my level I feel comfortable handling three unarmed or two armed attackers.”
No one with street experience would ever presume such a thing. That
attitude is a result of training only in the hot-house environment of
the dojo and never working on the street. This gross misunderstanding
is a danger to anyone influenced by it. The opposite error also arises:
there are people who do work on the street who think they have seen
it all and somehow believe that under pressure they will spontaneously
perform like a natural born Bruce Lee. They won’t. Without consistent
training the most talented athlete or the baddest whatever will perform
under pressure at a level far below what they could do with training.
That may be enough sometimes. But sometimes it won’t.
6.Synthesize all that and continue to question and explore, even as
you remain consistent in the practice of the katas you learned, however
superficially, years ago.
7.Train hard. Most people who consider themselves modern martial artists
train two or three hours a week. That is good enough to get a workout,
and to get some decent skills. If that is all the time you have, enjoy
it. But if you want to be a professional, if you want to achieve your
potential, if you want to change your body and mind profoundly and attain
a level that most people will never even conceive of, then you will
need to practice a few hours a day. No musician, no surgeon, no pilot
would call themselves a professional if they practiced two hours a week,
and then took a few weeks off a few times a year. Never. People feel
discouraged to hear how much work it takes. And they will never get
a rock star’s or surgeon’s or pilot’s salary in compensation
for it. The rewards, as I have seen, are far greater. But you have to
make the investment. There is no alternative.
Practice diligently for a few hours every day. Keep your mind receptive
to fresh knowledge and perspectives. Dedicate time every day to deepening
your art. Give it a decade or two. You’ll be the real thing. You
won’t have to invent a story about some old master from somewhere
else to give credibility to what you do. You will be that master. You
will be the example of a genuine practitioner, in a world that needs to
understand the value of a cultivated life.
About The Author:
Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, US Shorin Ryu
Karate, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton,
Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993.
He is a police officer and police instructor, and the author of “Rhinoceros
Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column
Zen Mirror and other articles appear on FightingArts.com.
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)