College Days in Martial Arts

“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane.”

John Francis Shade (born July 5, 1898, died July 21, 1959)

At the height of his mischievous genius, Nabokov wrote this wonderful book, Pale Fire. Only he could have done such a thing. The book starts with this long poem written by a great poet named John Shade. The fellow is murdered (or commits suicide)  leaving an unfinished work of 999 lines. A neighbor of his, a native of a country called Zembla and a professor,  grabs the manuscript and notes and takes the responsiblity or writing a very long commentary on this Shade’s poem. He interprets his dead friend’s poem as entirely  referring  to talks they had shared about the Zembla political situation. He completely  misses the point of the poem,  assuming that it only has to do with his country Zembla. His commentary—like a book review on Amazon—ends up being all about him and very little about the poem.

Sometimes different interpretations of the martial arts ends in pushing contests such as this altercation between Ying YanFa and C. Knotbie

This is a perfect paradigm for the problem of ‘interpretation’ in the martial arts. In contrast, I’ve always imagined the community of martial arts teachers as members of a university faculty. And in a university you have different expertise. And they all co-exist. They often do, but the physics department doesn’t have to make fun of the math department. In reality they respect the math department and acknowledge that it is accomplishing something different but equally valid. The poli sci department may think everything is really about poli sci but recognizes that there are other disciplines and points of view.

Martial artists have got to stop misrepresenting the very nature of the martial arts. Yes, if you teach self defense, if that’s your big commercial hook or more importantly personal preference, then of course you are going to say that the martial arts is about self defense. But that’s an outright lie. It is a lie to say that martial arts is anything less than what it is : fully. You could say martial arts deals with self defense. You can say martial arts deals with character building. You can say martial arts deals with Chinese esthetics if you want to. But you can’t say that it is any of these things. The lie comes in equating one function of the martial arts with the whole thing.

I used to tell potential students that martial arts was like a chess board. It has all of 64 squares. I would say that too many teachers take one square and blow it up to the size of a chess board and say that’s a chess board. It’s just not true.

Martial artists don’t need to pretend to respect each other. They need to really respect each other and really understand that there is more to it than a single focus. I remember an interview with Joe Lewis conducted later in his career. In this he mentioned that he had realized, having taught over many years, that he had made a mistake in assuming that everyone wanted what he wanted out of the arts.  He realized that there were many other things people gained from the arts. This is a really important point. It seems obvious but its not.

So the next time someone says martial arts is about kick ass, or martial arts is about winning, or martial arts is about being the only one left alive, or martial arts is about becoming one with the universe; they are all of them wrong, because they are all of them right.

“…you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist.”
Richard Feynman