The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Optimization and Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an interesting article by Toby Threadgill, who is a senior instructor of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu, a koryu bujutsu; that is, an ancient Japanese martial art as opposed to a gendai budo which is a modern martial art like judo, aikido, karate do, etc. The aims and means of koryu and gendai are different. To read the whole article, click on the title of this post.

Recently I was introduced to a gentleman interested in martial arts training. He was not really aware of what I teach or of what constitutes Nihon Koryu Jujutsu. He just assumed that because I taught it, that I must believe it to be “the best”. When I told him I did not believe the art I taught to be “the best”, an uncomfortable silence ensued. I finally broke this taciturn moment by explaining that there is actually no such thing as a “best” martial art. Despite a noble effort to grasp what I was talking about, the gentleman in question eventually regressed, unable to shake the impression that if I was not convinced that what I taught was superior to all other forms of martial arts, that I was somehow unworthy of teaching him. I politely encouraged him to look around, consider what I had said and contact me again if he had any further questions. A few days later I received an e-mail from this gentleman in which he explained that he had indeed found someone convinced that they taught the ultimate style of martial arts. It was called “mixed martial arts” because it embodied only best of all the styles. I just smiled to myself as I politely responded, congratulating him on his fortuitous discovery.

An ultimate martial art, huh? Now there’s an oxymoron for you. Every martial art is ultimately based on assumptions. In fact any training program formulated to address conflict is based on assumptions. It’s kinda like the old joke about bringing a knife to a gun fight. No matter how good you are, your assumptions define your training paradigm. Narrow your assumptions and you specialize, gaining the opportunity to excel at one task. Broaden your assumptions and you might be able address many different situations but at what level of expertise? It’s an intriguing dilemma isn’t it? Specialize, and be defeated by someone outside your strengths. Be a generalist and some specialist will hand you your head on a platter. What’s a martial artist to do?

Years ago my teacher Yukio Takamura taught a seminar which touched upon this topic. The seminar subject was a comparison between sport budo and classical budo. During the lunch break a young karateka & wrestler, I’ll call Donny, loudly dismissed Takamura Sensei’s teachings as antiquated nonsense. In response to this pronouncement Takamura shook his head and chuckled while fiddling with his shoes. Donny, rather brash and full of bravado turned to Takamura Sensei and said, “Now don’t get me wrong old man, your stuff is fun to watch and all but your jujutsu is no match for my karate and wrestling. Takamura flashed a devilish smile at Donny and said, “Okay, show me”. Donny backed off a bit at this unexpected challenge and said “Well, I’m not going to fight you, you’re too old. How about him” pointing at Dave Maynard. Takamura responded “No, you were talking about my jujutsu, not his. I want you to show me.” Rather pensively Donny strolled out onto the dojo mat with Takamura Sensei as a hushed silence overtook the room. At first Donny appeared reluctant to do anything but when he noticed that all eyes were on him he revved up his courage and proceeded to execute a very nice double leg takedown, climbing up on what at first appeared to be a rather startled Takamura Sensei. As Donny attempted to continue his seemingly successful offense we noticed something flick around Donny’s neck. Suddenly, Donny’s tried to pull away, his head turning as red as a ripe tomato. In a few seconds he fell over wheezing. At that point we realized that a shoelace was resting tightly around Donny’s neck. Where had it come from? Takamura had secreted the shoelace in his sleeve and then executed a simple choke with it. As he revived Donny from his impromptu slumber he explained to the stunned witnesses that Donny had missed the point of the seminar altogether and made a dangerous assumption. He assumed that this was a contest with rules and that Takamura sensei was unarmed. The most interesting thing to me about this whole incident was that Takamura had deliberately pulled the shoelace from his shoe, placed it in his sleeve in plain sight and not one of us noticed. What a lesson rich incident this was…..


Ikigai said...

A great story. This also speaks of the original Okinawan mindset for karate as well.

Rick said...

Does the concept of Zanshin, or "remaining mind" figure in Okinawan Karate?

Steven Smith said...

Potent. (That's all I have to say.)

Zen said...


In a real fight...there are no rules.

Rick said...

A difference between sport and martial arts.


While in a real fight, there are no rules. There are civic laws. ...