Posted by: B Gourley | October 30, 2009

Breadth and Depth in the Martial Arts

Various pole-arms at the Beijing Military MuseumDuring Japan’s Feudal Era, warriors had to develop a wide-ranging expertise. There are classification systems such as Bugei Juhappan, or “18 warrior arts”, that suggest what proficiencies were considered essential for a warrior of the day. Of course, there is not just a single Bugei Juhappan, but variations from lineage to lineage, and other schools used other numbers to classify the number of weapons and methods to be mastered. The common use of 18 may be due to the fact that it is 2 X 9, and 9 was an auspicious number among the Japanese.

In addition to a well-rounded education that included knowledge of the Chinese classics and, often, Buddhist scripture, warriors had to be competent in unarmed combat (grappling and striking) [alternatively called taijutsu, jujutsu, yawarajutsu, koppojutsu etc. depending upon the school and emphasis], swordsmanship [kenjutsu], spearmanship [sojutsu], use of a staff  [bojutsu or jojutsu], halberd fighting [naginatajutsu], horsemanship [bajutsu], archery [kyujutsu], and various specialty weapons that might be associated with the school in question such as throwing blades [shuriken] or chain and sickle [kusari gama]. Furthermore, there were subjects of study that were essential for warriors who had strategic responsibilities that included strategy and fortification, but also involved knowledge of weather patterns and topography. Of course, it behooved all combatants to have some understanding of medicine and the care and treatment of wounds. Warriors employed as ninja had to master most or all of the above methods, but also had to practice skills necessary for infiltration / exfiltration and disguise /impersonation. As if these physical skills were not enough, there was the practice of meditation that was used to help foster the mental discipline and clarity required to be successful in combat.

Mastering the skills mentioned above is an impressive life’s work. There are certainly commonly concepts in the methods of using different weapons, and these may create synergies in learning. However, the fact remains that this was a lot of techniques to learn and a massive number of hours committed to practice. Having learned the forms, one has to develop the skills that will allow one to apply their principles under diverse and rapidly changing conditions. This comes with free-form training (randori keiko) and the practice of henka (variations on the form.) To only memorize and practice forms, over the long-term, has a disutility. This is not to say that there is not a time for that type of training (or multiple times for it over the course of one’s life), but certainly one doesn’t want to be so attached to the forms that one is incapable of recognizing or responding to novel forms of attack. My point is that memorizing the techniques, and even drilling them to the point they are second nature, is only scratching the surface of the lessons they have to offer, and, therefore, a large time committment is required. 

Low technology warfare involving unarmed combat, swords, sticks, spears, or halberds is not mastered on the same time scales as modern weaponry. As an Air Force Law Enforcement Specialist, over about 14 weeks split between Lackland Air Force Base and Fort Dix [Air Base Ground Defense training], I learned to use the Beretta M-9 9mm pistol, the M-16 rifle, the M-60 machine gun, the LAW Rocket, the M-203 grenade launcher, hand grenades, and Claymore mines. Of course, weaponry was only a portion of the course of study that also included many unrelated skills like traffic ticket writing and tent-pitching. While there was still a lot to be learned about these weapons and benefits to be gained from practice, I knew enough after those schools to have a better than average shot at lethally with all those weapons, and I doubt that doubling my time spent on each would have yielded much of an increase in skill (particularly where Claymore mines and LAW rockets are concerned). In 14 weeks of kenjutsu, a student may not have entirely mastered holding the sword, let alone significantly increased their odds of being able to survive in a fight with a similarly armed wild-eyed person off the street. Not to be too mathematical, but the learning curve for low technology weapons is much more shallow and takes a long time to reach a point of diminishing returns relative to modern weaponry.

A more relevant analogy may be seen in the difference between self-defense training and kobudo. In teaching self-defense one wants to present techniques that can be rapidly learned and memorized, are not complex in the slightest, and that may be remembered under duress by someone who is not diligently drilling their technique all the time. The idea with self-defense is to just increase the student’s odds of being able to get away from someone who is intent on committing a crime, but is not a particularly skilled adversary.  This is in contrast to kobudo, which takes much longer for the student to grasp the techniques, but the forms are designed to develop the skills necessary to survive combat against a highly skilled adversary who does not leave big openings, who has a sound state of mind, and who is capable of rapid adaptation and unconventional attacks.

Having taken the meandering path to the central question of this post, I’d now like to consider the question of the relative merits of breadth versus depth of study of kobudo in the modern era. As I ramble on about above, there were a lot of weapons and skills that a warrior had to master during the Feudal Era, but mastering them was the job of the samurai. While I realize that many samurai, during some periods, had significant bureaucratic taskings, developing these skills was the central job for many. There was, of course, also a sort of Darwinian elimination of all but the most capable of learning lessons quickly and effectively through combat (and, later, even through matches).

The question of interest here is whether those of us living in peaceful times and not employed as bushi are well served by trying to master the same broad set of skills, or whether it would be better to spend more time developing depth of understanding of fewer weapons or approaches to unarmed combat. While, to some degree, specialization and automation have increased humanity’s potential for leisure time, in reality most of us work demanding jobs and having a couple hours everyday on average for training and conditioning is probably the most that can reasonably be expected. There is not much of a career for kobudo practitioners today. Those who can make a living solely off teaching have usually been training a long time, so that career path is not of much help for students in their formative years who would like to devote a major portion of their lives to training. (Not to mention it seems to be quite difficult to make a good living off teaching kobudo under any circumstance. Success seems to require a large customer base, a status conducive to being highly-coveted as a teacher, and/or a willingness to compromise on the values of one’s martial art.)

With respect to kobudo, there are confounding factors that can exacerbate the issue of having too much material to do justice to in a modern life. For example, with respect to the schools I have studied, a number of schools funneled into one lineage due to a combination of lack of interest in old schools of martial arts after the Warring States period and the fact that such arts were forbidden for a time. The latter meant that only those willing and able to train in secret and in contravention of the law could pursue the martial arts. This has led to a vast and fairly diverse body of martial arts being taught to people, or at least myself, who could keep themselves busy indefinitely with a fraction of the material. It seems to me that Kukishinden-ryu alone offers a more than a respectable body of skills to spend one’s life studying. Kukishinden-ryu includes five scrolls of taijutsu techniques, bojutsu (6 foot staff), jojutsu (4.5 foot staff), hanbojutsu (3 foot staff), kenjutsu (sword), kodachijutsu (short sword), sojutsu (spear), naginatajutsu (halberd), a few juttejutsu (pronged truncheon) techniques. During the Warring States period, the precursor to this school could easily stand-alone as the course of study for serious bushi, but today it may itself be more than the typical student can master.  

Of course, the question of whether one should study many schools or fewer (or one) need not have one answer applicable to all. Some people may be able to devote enough time to training to make mastery of multiple schools feasible due to their personal circumstance, or they may have a gift for learning quickly. I tend to believe that, if one classifies disciplines as “prodigy” and “non-prodigy” arts, martial arts are theoretically “prodigy arts” (though in practice this may not be true for a reason I will discuss below).

Having most probably lost the reader, I will explain what I mean by “prodigy arts”. There are endeavors such as mathematics, music, and chess that are unified by the fact that there are a reasonably finite set of principles that govern activities in those domains, and from those few principles a natural order develops. Where these characteristics occur, there are people who will be talented at making the connections between the underlying principles naturally, and who can easily and naturally pursue advanced and complex work in the subject even without being greatly experienced. Thus we have musical geniuses and mathematical geniuses, but not political science geniuses, legal geniuses, or history geniuses. The former have a finite and interconnected set of unvarying unifying principles, and the later do not and, therefore, those arts require experience for mastery.

I think there are a set of fundamental principles that guide effective practice of the martial arts (e.g. keep your spine straight, don’t reach for something that is coming toward one, control the distancing, keep energy in one’s tanden (dantian in Chinese), etc.) I think a few rare people may pick up these lessons and how they are interconnected across different schools with great rapidity. However, there is an essential mental piece, and I am less certain that this is prone to prodigies. To become skilled in the martial arts there are mental skills that must be mastered that I tend to think require experience. High expertise requires shedding illusions, eliminating mental attachments, and fundamentally rewiring the way our mind responds to events that challenge the way we think of ourselves or that tend to cause stress or anguish. I cannot speak beyond my own experience, but this is a much more difficult nut to crack and takes far longer than mastering a set of kata and developing one’s own capacity for henka.

Young martial artists often pursue a short-cut to achieve a high level of awareness that involves developing an almost paranoid (not using the term in the clinical but rather the colloquial sense) mind-set whereby they practice scanning their environment for who might be trouble-makers, trying to anticipate the most strategic way to carry out every action, and running little scenarios in their heads about how threats might unfold. Ultimately, while this may allow one to be more aware and less prone to “zoning out” in one’s day-to-day existence, it is a rather low-level understanding of awareness. In essence, such people are practicing looking at the world through tinted lenses, when it benefits the warrior to see the world clearly. To imagine threats where there are none is not the goal, but rather to develop the capacity to be unperturbed by changing or unexpected circumstance.

I’ve gotten a bit off topic, suffice it to say that it takes a considerable investment to understand the mental piece of the martial arts in addition to the physical element. This is not to say that the physical and mental should be divorced. One should always be practicing the mental piece when one is engaged in physical training, but one should also practice the mental piece when one is taking a walk, shopping, a customer is venting, or one is about to drift off to sleep. Furthermore, I, personally, have found benefit to be had from zazen (seated meditation), outside of just practicing awareness and clarity in physical training.

I have gradually come to think there may be a great value in being more focused in my training. When I started to study this art, I was elated by the fact that there was so much to learn and practice. One never had to worry about getting bored because, with several schools constituting many forms and weapons, one could study for years and still be learning techniques unlike anything one had ever seen before. But in recent years my perception has begun to shift. Of course, I am no prodigy by any means, and so I may have different experience than many, but for me there is now a drive for a deep level understanding of just a fraction of these schools.


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