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Wisdom from Traditions

September 12, 2016

The reason why I look smarter than I actually am – I read material from people who are actually smarter than I am. One such person is Dan Djurdjevic. Here is one of the posts that really resonates with me, on why he studies the traditional martial arts. Go give his post a read and come back when you’re done.

For the record, I train in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu (which comprises of traditions that go back for centuries) as well as Traditional Yang-style Taiji (with elements of Xingyi and Bagua thrown in). These arts are traditional arts and include many elements that are not immediately practical to modern day living (when was the last time you had to use a spear in combat? Exactly).

Because they are traditional arts and I want to learn them as such, I spend time training in things a modern martial artist doesn’t pay attention to. And because my attention is dispersed among so many things (traditional weapons, striking, grappling and such) I end up taking a lot more time to get good at any particular area. Odds are, a karateka with a quarter of my training time can probably beat me in a striking match. *shrug. That’s the trade-off I accept for training in a broad-based collection of skills. And the reason I am drawn to such training is very brilliantly articulated by Mr Djurdjevic’s post in the above link.

He refers to traditional martial arts as “a knowledge and skill database progressively developed over at least 1,000 (probably more like 2-4,000 years) unbroken years – years when this knowledge was actually relied upon by ordinary people in everyday life.”

In this day and age, people usually don’t get into that many fights, or kill that many other people, to be able to recreate the same kind of knowledge traditional arts are supposed to convey. The martial traditions of the Bujinkan were used in the battlefields of Japan during the many years of civil war and military conflict that made up Japanese history. The official history of Taiji may not include being used as a battlefield art, but since the founder of Yang-style Taiji had a teaching stint with the royal guards of that era (besides extensive dueling experience), he was very likely to have been exposed to genuine weapon work and skill (such as the sabre and the spear), and then be able to fit in those weapons to the Taiji paradigm and OS (Operating System).

Conversely, I am skeptical of modern creations, people who train in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, put them all together in their own hybrid style, and then call it a martial art. How many people did they kill to test those skills, I wonder? If they don’t get things horribly wrong, they might end up re-inventing the wheel, calling it some hyped-up macho name, and rake in loads of money from impatient and gullible people who want a quick fix. Sometimes I am tempted to do the same thing myself, but a conscience is such an inconvenient thing… *sigh

Of course I am not saying that every traditional martial art, or every teacher of such arts is good. I am fully aware of the various problems that might occur within traditional martial arts.

First and foremost, a martial art can be limited. For example, a civilian martial art may not be that developed in its understanding of battlefield weapons, a battlefield art may probably not be suitable for dealing with a civilian-style ambush attack. A traditional art may be developed within the confines of a particular historical period (certain geographical environment, certain clothing and attire) and may not be suitable for a different time frame. An art developed for close-range assassination and ambush might not do just as well in a regular dueling match.

Or certain arts may just be overhyped. I’m not going to name any particular art here (I still enjoy living without crippling injuries), but if you take a trainee from even just 100 years back, subject him to hours and hours of physical conditioning every day for months or years, he will get good at fighting even if the system he studies is somewhat flawed. Strength and aggression play a HUGE part in fighting successfully, and that is all fine and dandy until you teach the same techniques to people who cannot commit pretty much their entire lives to training, for at least a few years. Suddenly flaws in technical understanding, or areas where strength and speed are used to patch up gaps in skill, start coming up.

It gets worse when a student without the crazy levels of conditioning thinks he or she can make the same flawed techniques work…

When looking at Chinese martial arts, by the way, you also need to consider this bit of history. Since the time China started modernization attempts in the 1800’s, the introduction of Western military technology meant that many martial artists were no longer wanted for military work or as security guards. Some became street performers and travelled the country putting up shows for the general (uneducated) populace. If you study a Chinese art that was used for this, be aware that there may be elements in it that are NOT martial but meant only to impress the peasants into forking out a few more coins. Your teacher isn’t going to admit that of course…

So you can see, I have issues with martial arts used for performing. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate a good show like anybody else (I am a musician) but once you start mixing martial arts with performances things can get confused. There was a guy who used clip from a Shaw Brothers kung fu movie to support his line of argument on how to train for real fighting. I facepalmed myself so hard I nearly injured myself!


The core of traditional martial arts, whether Japanese or Chinese, lies in transmission. The hard-earned wisdom, insights and techniques have to be passed successfully to following generations of practitioners, or else the benefits of studying that particular art are diminished or lost.  This transmission also includes teaching methodology; hopefully someone in the earlier generations of that art was a proper teacher, who could implement into the system the most optimal ways of teaching students the techniques and principles of the art.

Because I am a teacher by nature, I value the teaching methodology as much as the actual martial techniques themselves. In my opinion, it will take at least 3 generations of transmission before the system can be quite sure it has worked out the best, most ideal ways to teach the next generation of practitioners.

But life happens. Things can go wrong. Sometimes the teaching is cut short: the student leaves the teacher or the teacher passes away before transmission is complete. The student may leave because he thinks he knows everything there is to know (Dunning-Kruger effect) or the teacher may have deliberately left out important details because he didn’t trust the student yet. Sometimes the teacher leaves out material or exercises that he doesn’t need (for example, it doesn’t fit his body type) but other students would, and because his successor did not come across such material he could not teach it to his own students.

Yup, so tradition wasn’t a guarantee of quality…

I’ve rambled quite long enough for this post. Over some time I hope to put up what I know about the ways martial artists from China and Japan tried to deal with the problems of transmission. They handled them quite differently, and looking at it will show quite clearly the differences between Chinese and Japanese martial arts.

Junjie 俊傑
Bujinkan Ninjutsu

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