Thursday, March 29, 2012

Martial artist or martial arts practitioner?

     As we become older and experience and learning make their imprint on our self we tend to think deeper about things... ideas we held firmly in our twenty's can become quite blurry and not so black-and-white in our forty's. Introspective analysis of one's ego and what makes it tick is a bit easier once our lives have been simmered in time, hardships and achievement. Not too easy, mind you: the ego tends to fight very hard at asserting its dominance over our thoughts and feelings but with discipline, training and an open mind a person can unshackle itself from the worst of its chains.

     I have been spending quite a bit of time thinking of what the martial arts have meant to me over the years, the needs that drove me to pursue them in hopes of them turning me into something other than what I was.  More importantly, do the arts still fulfill those needs or have my needs changed so that their study is not as relevant as it once was? Have I become the martial artist I once aspired to be, or was I ever one? And what does that make me if I am not?

It is true I guess, but it's still hard to do...

     Take a look at this excerpt from an article on what it means to be a martial artist:

"A Martial Artist is not a title or rank or certification. A Martial Artist may not even be a black belt.
A Martial Artist is a WAY of being that lives in the soul of the person. There is no ego. There is no trying to be a Martial Artist. One just is.
The Martial Artist places the Art above himself/herself, wishing and needing no credit or reward for the work. It is a work of love, not labor.
To become a Martial Artist takes time and a maturity that can not be rushed. One grows and matures into a Martial Artist as a seed grows to become a Redwood over many years. While many seeds may be planted, few grow into a martial Artist. There is no trying, just living and doing. There is no talking about it, but rather a modest self awareness in the doing.
While others may refer to someone as a Martial Artist, a Martial Artist would not refer to themselves as a Martial Artist because that is ego. He/she is the essence or spirit of the Martial Art itself, living the art naturally, effortlessly and completely.
The tenets of the martial art are not written on the wall for others to read, but lived by the Martial Artist for others to see and emulate.
The Martial Artist embodies the best of the martial arts in everything he/she does."
Above By Master Edward Rugh
     Sounds deep, mystical and enlightened doesn't it? Master Po could have written this... I like the overall message of the article as I find myself at a point in my life where the actual use of empty hand skill is quite remote (I work with computers and machines, have a wife and four children that keep me quite busy, and don't get out much at night since that's the time I am at work). There were times in the past though that a job required the training necessary for not only defending myself but restraining others without causing excessive injury. But now? I spend my nights off trying to catch up on all the sleep I have missed during the week.

     When I was twelve years old I had my first lesson at an ITF dojang; it was a surprise from my parents for my birthday. While I would have preferred a ninjutsu school (ninja craze was in full swing in 1982), in Puerto Rico there were very few choices near me (and my dojang was quite a trip for me, I had to take a bus and walk a couple miles to get to it). Can you remember the first time you put on a pristine white gi and tied the obi around your waist, the giddy feeling you had of being just BETTER by virtue of such awesome uniform and all the magnificent possibilities it represented? Images of flying kicks, somersaulting over ten foot walls, grinding massive stones to powder with a punch... I wanted to become the best martial artist EVER!!

     Then, reality check.

     I trained hard, practiced at home for hours, kicked banana trees and struck sand buckets with nukite strikes... never was I able to somersault over anything though, and breaking was limited to boards (I did try to break concrete bricks with shuto, but soon gave that up).  Slowly it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe there was a lot of smoke and mirrors regarding martial arts (I didn't want to call it bullshit just yet, I was young and still had hopes).

No gliding on treetops during a sword fight for me, I should have trained harder!!

     As I grew older and saw the true abilities martial arts practice could develop, I pursued other systems in search of one that fit my ideas of what a martial artist should be. I still harbored the wish that I could learn the secrets of Five Venoms Toad style and be invulnerable to weapons; or that I could master the Hands of Death as Lo Lieh did. But I have had the opportunity to meet some great practitioners whose abilities border on the incredible, and their skills are real. My mindset moved slowly away from the fantastical and focused more on the practical uses of martial arts. The biggest change came when I started security work, and I learned from experience that a lot of what I thought would work most definitely sucked anywhere except a training hall. Being able to break stuff with your hands is pretty useless when you are supposed to restrain someone without hurting them, even if they are fully intending to do just that to you.  Legal ramifications of the job made me change my training focus and so I attended defensive tactics training and aikido to give me better skills at handling such threats.  I was not thinking much about the "do" aspects of what I was doing; only that whatever techniques I chose would protect me and others while keeping with force continuum policies of my employers. 

     Court defensible take down & restraint techniques are a main component of defensive tactics training

     In 2000 I discovered Isshin ryu karate, and my search for a core art was over.  This Okinawan martial art, with its simple yet sensible approach to fighting, became my field of study and I spent three to four hours a day, four times per week at the dojo either as assistant instructor for younger/beginner belts or as part of the yudansha class. I went to work, got out and went to the dojo and stayed there until closing. There was nowhere else I wanted to be; many of the other members were black belts in other systems (Kempo, Judo and other karate systems) and we spent hours debating over differences in training, techniques, bunkai and kata. If there was ever a time when I thought of myself as a martial artist, this was the time. 

     When our teacher retired and closed the school, I decided to train on my own for a while. After all, I had a wealth of material to digest and experiment with, and I wanted to combine what I had learned into an effective synergistic system (for my own study and application mind you, not to create the next Super Martial Art System).  Soon afterward my youngest son was born, and as anyone who has been a father can attest to  there was no time for, well, anything but him. 

     Fast forward eight years... finding myself with the opportunity and time to train again in a more structured form rather than sporadic sessions when I had the energy to do so, I nonetheless feel no particular rush to join anywhere or anything. I have checked out some places, yes, and even started training in jujutsu. However this has been more in learning a new set of skills for rounding out my knowledge than a particular need to know how to fight someone on the ground or getting ready for some MMA fight.  If I practice just for the sake of practice, does that make me a wannabe martial artist? I don't think of training as a vehicle to self development in the way some think of budo, a person can find many other ways to better themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. My mother has never had a martial arts class, but she is a devout Catholic and lives more in line with the spirit of budo than others who toil at their martial classes in search of enlightenment. 

     Maybe I don't need to be a martial artist to be a better person, but the path the arts follow is one I can identify with. Finding my own way with my training is but one way; it isn't a straight line, but there are lessons in the winding of the path. I have come to terms with the fact that I might not be living the ideal of a martial artist, but trying everyday to incorporate the precepts of being one in what I do is in itself something to strive for. After all, isn't the journey on the path itself more important than the destination? 

What do you consider yourself, a martial artist or a practitioner? Does it matter? Why does it matter?



  1. I remember very well thrusting nukites into sand, somehow thinking it would develop some amazing spiritual insight as well as overall martial ability. I very quickly discovered that it did neither!

    Despite this and any other cynicism that comes with age, I consider myself a martial artist as well as a martial arts practitioner. With the requisite passion, when you attain enough skill to make the martial arts your "own" (however much that is) I think you stop being merely a martial arts practitioner and become a "martial artist" as well.

    Lovely article - thought provoking and beautifully written.

    1. Thanks Dan, I think time and age make one gain a different perspective on the issue and while not being cynical I probably are more pragmatic about my practice now than I was at my 20s. The martial arts are definitely a deep influence in my growth as a person, they are now a vehicle for a different type of change. And that's wonderful in itself, that the arts are possible of effecting change in various ways, through different stages of a person's life. Not many things in our lifetimes can do this...

  2. Some engage in martial arts just to conquer their fears in life. Some want to reach the top of the ladder, while others are satisfied with their current ranks. Some learn martial arts to avoid boredom, while others are inspired. Each martial arts practitioner has a reason of choosing a certain path, JoRoman. Nevertheless, a martial arts practitioner should have an inspiration -- an inspiration that would help you outwit your fear or obstacles in life.

    Saundra Tosh

    1. Thanks for your comment Saundra, as for other people's motives to get involved in martial arts I make no assumption. I make no claim to training in martial arts because it felt akin to a spiritual calling, although they do provide a large part of the philosophical framework I believe in. My post was not to point out any particular reason, gain or deficiency in personal choices to train; only that we should be aware of what we are and admit it honestly.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks for your comment Diana, if you love what you practice and honestly follow whatever tenets your discipline is based upon then you can only grow and become a better person for it.

  4. Nice line about martial arts "A Martial Artist is a WAY of being that lives in the soul of the person. There is no ego. There is no trying to be a Martial Artist. One just is."
    Thanks for this blog.
    Kung Fu

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reading it Glenn!