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Martial Arts: Karate

The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Ancient Wisdom For Martial Artists - Part 2

By By Gary Music

Sun Tzu on training:

Sun Tzu said: "In the past, the skilled first made themselves invincible to await the enemy's vincibility. Invincibility lies in oneself. Vincibility lies in the enemy" (Chapter 4 Form).

In addition, Sun Tzu said:  "The ultimate in giving form to the military is to arrive at formlessness. When one is formless, deep spies cannot catch a glimpse and the wise cannot strategize. Rely on form to bring about victory over the multitude, and the multitude cannot understand. The elite all know the form by which I am victorious, but no one knows how I determine form. Do not repeat the means of victory, but respond to form from the inexhaustible"  (Chapter 6 The Solid and the Empty).

So what does Sun Tzu recommend?  He tells us to train properly and use progressions.  To evaluate our skill and the skill of others and eventually, although form is of utmost importance, Sun Tzu tells us to become formless.

This is important because of the trend over the last 30 years led many karate-ka to formulate practical kata applications (bunkai). Too often these defensive applications try to exactly mimic the exact movements and postures found in the kata. Sun Tzu warns against this type of method for training.

Why? Because too often people will try to back in a defensive technique against a specific attack into a specific kata sequence. One can look at a karate kata posture and envision all sorts of technique; I have even seen judo throws backed into karate kata.  Does this mean the original creator of the kata had this technique in mind? Probably not. Kata are not so limiting.

Fit-in applications (to kata) can be helpful for (trying to understand) beginning kata progressions of technique and movement, but this method should go no further than that.  Practice kata to perfect form that then become formless that rises above the orthodox, something that can respond in many ways.

Sun Tzu on Appraisal and knowledge of self and attacker:

Sun Tzu said: "And so base it in the five.  Compare by means of the appraisals.  Thus seek out its nature.  The first is Tao, the second is heaven, the third is Earth, the fourth is the general, the fifth is method"  (Chapter 1 Appraisals).

In addition Sun Tzu said: "Knowing the other and knowing oneself, in one hundred battles no danger. Not knowing the other and knowing oneself, one victory for one loss. Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself. In every battle certain defeat" (Chapter 3 Strategy of Attack).

The Sun Tzu text is a short document, but its meaning and wisdom go very deep.-- too deep to capture well in one article so in this first article I will examine how one can evaluate skill, skill of oneself and skill of others.  This is done using the five elements of appraisal and is covered in Chapter one of the Sun Tzu.  This part of the Sun Tzu is addressed to the Ruler.  For an individual martial artist the Ruler is your ego or emotional self.

Let us examine how the five elements apply to a single person. Tao means way, path, or ones way of life.

Heaven refers to elements we are unable to change, something we go with or against.

Earth refers to ground and/or the physical situations one is in.

General refers to an individual's logical self our tactical mind.

Method refers to proper training, application for defense and controlling the advantages (shih).

In the second excerpt above, Sun Tzu talks about knowledge of oneself and the attacker.  This is done using the 5 elements and 7 appraisals.  So knowing our self we simply need to do, as Sun Tzu would say, take an appraisal of our self.  But if we do not know who is going to attack us how can we know the attacker's capabilities?  We cannot, so we assume the worst.  He is bigger, faster, meaner and more vicious and tenacious then we are.  Remember he picked us we did not pick him.

This means we must not engage him in a fight directly, but instead use defense to escape the attack.  But if we leave our defensive method we will lose our only advantage.

How to apply this knowledge in your personal training:

Let us discuss method and some concrete training advice for hard style martial artists.  How does one avoid the pitfalls Sun Tzu warns about when he talks about attempting to transmit victorious behavior in advance?  For one, do not practice specific technique against specific attacks. Instead set up your two-man kata self defense applications or self protection practice with a progressive resistance relationship between the attacker and the defender.  This may sound obvious but in my experience it is somewhat rare.

So you may begin simply with the defender knowing that a high left hand is the attack and show the person how to properly cover the body and use defense.  When he or she is accomplished at this add a high right, now the defender does not know which attack is coming high right or left.  Then a low right, then low left, then push, then wrist grab.  Get it?  As you add in more variables defender becomes more difficult and thus more formless.

Now simply varying the attack is not enough.  The level of the intensity of the attack must also have a progression.  So when a person, for example, is escaping from certain grab, now it is time for the attacker to hold the lock harder or throw the punch faster.

Some of this progression may be done with kumite (free fighting practice), but many dangerous movements have been removed from most hard style kumite practice methods, so two-man kata self-defense applications practice using a much wider variety of technique is necessary.

So when do you know you are in the method.  Remember me talking about the perfect fit-ins we see many martial artists practicing.  When you can have the attacker throw any attack, punch, push, grab, or kick at close range at any level or target and you are hitting movements that resemble fit-ins you are beginning to understand formlessness.  Oh and by the way this is not a one step. By that I mean the attacker throws the attack from close range without requiring a step toward you. Good luck. This it is not easy.   So what is next for the attacker?  Defending against combinations of course.

In Summary:

This article is intended to be a brief overview of some of Sun Tzu central strategies and principlas of tactics.  In following articles we will dive deeper into the ideas of defense being superior to offense.  How one can identify defense from offense? This is more difficult than you might think.  And more on the Okinawan philosophy of life, protection as it relates to Sun Tzu's concept of taking whole.  Eventually using the information in the articles, reading Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." and practicing the training progressions will begin to shape your mind to respond without hesitation in a defensive manner.


1- The information and Sun Tzu excerpts are taken from the Demna Translation of the bamboo text of the Sun Tzu.  This is a publication of the Shambhala Publication Company.


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About The Author:

Sensei Gary Music began training in Sang Moo Kwan Taekwondo in 1973 at the age of 13. Sang Moo Kwan Taekwondo is an offshoot of Shotokan Karate-do. Sensei Music attained a rank of first Dan in 1976 at the Gary Harris Taekwondo Institute in Mansfield Ohio. Gary began weight training at this time with his father, James Commodore Music, (101’st Airborne WWII and Korean war Vet) who also taught Mr. Music boxing, shooting and survival skills. These skills were later honed in the military as a USAF aviator and parachute rigger specialist, Officer Music retired from the military in 2002.  During Sensei Music's 22 years in the military he traveled worldwide searching out instructors in Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Philippines and Thailand honing his hard style striking skills and becoming one of the countries leading authorities on old style kata training and advanced bunkai. Sensei Music also holds a black belt in Ju-jitsu, training with notable instructors such as Dr. Don Smith (taught by Donn Dreager at the Kodokan) and John Saylor founder of Shin Gi Tai Ju-jitsu (seminar based). Sensei Music’s primary instructors are the noted Aikido and Karate Master Vic Louis, Kempo Master, the late Stan Hart and kicking master and fighter the legendary Bill Wallace.  Sensei Music continues his study of Karate-Do to this day attaining 6th Dan ranking in Shotokan Karate-Do and Taekwondo. He also is ranked at 6th Dan in Shuri-te Kempo, and is the Chief Instructor for the Shuri-te Kempo Technique Association and the Ohio Kettlebell Club in Shiloh, Ohio. Sensei Music began studying Shuri-te Kempo with the late Sensei Stan Hart in 1980.   All of Sensei Music’s rank is certified through the AIKA. Mr. Music’s kettlebell training began 6 years ago in his basement as a self training hobby. In 2009 Sensei Music decided to search out the leading authority on kettlebells and receive formal training from Pavel Tsatsouline and the RKC staff. He is now a cert I RKC instructor and member of the RKC Advisory Board, and training for a RKC cert II level. Sensei Music is available for seminars at .

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Sun Tzu, military tactics,self-defense, defensive tactics

Read more articles by Gary Music

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