Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Pure Martial Art


phrase by the Greek philosopher Aristotle made me think of the martial arts.

The phrase, loosely but famously translated, reads as: “I love Plato, but I love the truth more.”

Cynic (pardon the pun) that I am, I don’t believe very many of these ancient texts were written without some personal agenda.  And the truth was the truth because the author subscribed to it.

I feel the same way when someone in the martial arts proclaims: “My art is the only pure form of…” He could be referring to a style of Karate; a question of lineage; the way he does a Kata (sequence of movements); or the way he was taught as opposed to other students of the same instructor.


The following statement may be my form of truth but I’ve found it hard to find anything in the martial arts that is “pure”, at least in the sense that the material as it is performed in front of my eyes is as immediate and as absolutely the same as it was taught to that person a decade before. I find that to be an impossible goal for anyone achieve.

It’s not just a problem of searching for that ever-elusive origin. Time gone by, distances travelled, additional influences, etc. all leave their mark on a martial artist, no matter how much she attempts to “stay true to the past”.

Let’s look at just 1 scenario –

4 instructors attend a seminar by a legendary teacher. The teacher imparts a series of techniques in the hope that these instructors will pass those techniques on to their students.

Instructor #1: is standing right in front of the group but because the legendary master teaches without much explanation and the instructor’s way of learning is to have everything explained, the instructor only retains 70% of the material at best.

Instructor #2: interest at this point in time lies in tournament competition, so he takes away only what he can use in tournaments.

Instructor #3: is already turning away from the path set by the organization involved so he takes the material as though he is looking back over his shoulder in flight.

Instructor #4: (no joke here) is standing near the back, and can't see the footwork, so now when he teaches the material, he adds what he believes to be the necessary footwork.

No one stands still. All martial arts are filtered through individual needs, personalities, skills and acumen. Take even the greatest teachers out there –

During their first decade of teaching, they will teach “true” to what they’ve been taught.

During the second decade, they will already have shaped the material according to their interests. People change, constantly. Techniques change. An instructor may emphasize different things in 2012 as opposed to 2002.

In their third decade of teaching, they’ll often have created their own sub-system (even though they may not admit it).


If I teach the Karate routine Heian Yodan to 5 students, each student will eventually perform the routine slightly differently from the others. That’s due to anatomy, skill level, experience, intelligence, etc.

But that’s the great things about the martial arts – they’re messy. That makes them alive, and interesting. Okinawa, the birthplace of modern Karate, was a cauldron of various instructors and influences. Everyone influenced everyone else. Karate was forever changing.

I don’t think that any one teacher or system owns the truth in martial arts. Even testing the art in live combat as fighters did on the raised platforms of old China may prove nothing more than one fighter bested the other on that one particular day.

And what is the truth in martial arts? Are we looking for sport combat or street combat or combat in war? Are we looking for the strength to turn away from a fight? Are we looking to change young lives for the better? Are we trying to make a positive difference in our community?

I think that there are many truths in the martial arts based on individual, group, community, national, international and cultural experiences.

Instead of saying “My style is the best” and “I teach only pure, unadulterated Karate” we should welcome the diversity that is – in truth – the martial arts.


  1. What a great article!

    1. Hi Gary,

      Thanks! The martial arts world is big, and there are tons of influences in it. Those influences are constantly changing. It's not that the "old" has become irrelevant; the "old" is constantly with us, guiding us, nurturing us. There is so much to learn, so much to do. That's the exciting part!


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