A Rose by any Other Name Would be Something Completely Different

Tony Annesi

Traditional martial arts are much more than they seem. Properly understood, they are a method to life mastery. In order to go beyond the punch, kick and throw level of understanding one must first know why one studies. Then one can discover the method which budo offers to achieve one's goals: the How of the Why. That is what this series of articles is all about.

Recently I gave a little lecture to my new Aiki students regarding how important it was to learn terminology as soon as possible. Although I believe that learning Asian terminology has more advantages than simply having a tool for reference, my talk emphasized the importance of having a common vocabulary. Common terms allow a practitioner to discuss, correct or modify techniques without having to go into a long-winded explanations of details.

It is easier to say, "It's like Kao Ate but at an angle." If the student understands the basic technique referred to then the position, opportunity, and energy of the correction is quickly and even more accurately communicated. Even though Kao Ate literally means Face Strike, the student immediately understands that it is the portion of that technique prior to the actual face strike to which the instructor is referring. Kao Ate then becomes a terminological shorthand for a certain type of movement.

The value of labels is undeniable. Otherwise, we would not have names for the four walls of a Japanese dojo, titles for relationships in the dojo, ranks, kata, kicks, or types of kumite. But, as has been said for decades by social commentators, labels also limit us. The value of labels is that they separate. The value of broader labels aspiring to "labelessness" is that they unify. To reason rationally one needs to do both.

To understand how one reasons rationally, one studies epistemology. Certain theories of epistemology tell us that human beings first learn to identify concretes and then to generalizes them into wider concepts. These broader concepts may then be widened further without losing sight of the original individual concretes. For example, a child might first look at computers as the big machines Mommy plays with at work, then later broaden this concrete to include the PC on which Daddy types at home. The concretes must become a broader concept when one finds out that there is a computer inside the engine compartment of the family car, another in your sister's wristwatch, and yet another on brother's makiwara (punching board). Wristwatch "computers" and mainframe "computers" are not the same thing, to be sure, but they can be categorized under the same concept. In this way, the human being learns to both analyze (break things apart to understand differences) and synthesize (bring things together to understand similarities). I remember always getting essay questions in high school and college that asked to compare and contrast two points of view regarding the role FDR played in recovering from the depression, or the role of the "unrelated deaths" in Romeo and Juliet: analysis and synthesis.

One of the most fascinating aspects in the martial arts is analysis. Any good traditional instructor worth his wardrobe of heavyweight gi will be able to break a kata or a technique down to minutia. Yet the very next class will have the same instructor telling students not to worry about details, to "just do it with feeling!" That instructor is not totally crazy (although all martial artists may be in contention for that category to some degree), rather he/she is doing a laudable job in both analysis and synthesis. Analysis is absolutely necessary for detail and synthesis is absolutely necessary to apply that detail.

Each of us practices an art and usually a style of that art.

Every attempt since Bruce Lee to create a "style of no style" has ended in naming that which has been created. You have to refer to it, thus you label it. Martial artists who have been around for a while are adept at categorizing all the labels. They know which styles to put into which arts and which arts to put into which country of origin. They know how to recategorize those arts by hard or soft, weaponed or non-weaponed. And after a while, they know that the categories, although accurate and helpful to some extent, just don't quite fit. Not only do arts cross categorical boundaries, but people start using terms and labels inaccurately which makes the boundaries even weaker. Chinese Hsing-i has been categorized into the "soft" arts, but those who have gotten hit by a Hsing-i punch know that "soft" doesn't seem to be the best description. Aiki has been called a "grappling" art, but one does not grapple on the mat as in judo, rather "grappling" only applies to a few momentary locks. In much of Aiki there is only minimal body contact; sometimes none at all. Labels, therefore, are as limiting as they are liberating. They give us a handle on our techniques, tools, methods, results, but make us also think that our definitions are inaccurate. Labels clarify and confuse. But they are necessary.

Since labels are necessary but have been abused, the only way to revise our understanding of that which has been labeled is to redefine terms or actually relabel. Even the slightest adjustment in definition can change people's attitudes toward a subject. It becomes "New! Improved!" and more comely words are used to describe it. That's why "tax collection" is now called "revenue enhancement." and "trash collectors" are called "sanitary engineers". Rather than make our new labels in the martial arts simply more palatable, I would prefer offering more accurate ones. Take tradition for example. Tradition, traditional, traditionalist all carry strong implications many of which are inaccurate. Some martial artists who consider themselves free-spirited, see traditionalists as locked in by the shackles of their art. Practitioners who consider themselves modern, see traditionalists as those who preserve that which once was but exists no longer (except in the arts which embalm them). Martial sportspeople consider traditionalists trainees who are afraid to get hurt or to lose. All these perceptions may have a bit of truth to them, but none are a good definition of traditionalist because the word itself has been applied in such a varied manner.

I am suggesting that those who are now considered "traditionalists" be recategorized into three broad divisions, each which its own niceties: CLASSICAL, TRADITIONALISTIC, CONTEMPORARY. A Classical Traditionalist is a student of an art with a very long Asian lineage (over one century at least) whose purpose is to study the art as living history and to preserve the art as a living historical document. Students of ancient Japanese bujutsu like Katori Shinto Ryu fall into this category. Any desire to develop self-defense skills, physical health, or spiritual awareness is secondary at best for these practitioners.

A Traditionalistic Traditionalist (such a person might more clearly be termed a Value-oriented Traditionalist or even a Self-development Traditionalist), preserves the values of the arts which have formed the root of his/her style and in doing so maintains much of the practices and techniques which have been handed down from source styles. But his/her emphasis is on self-enhancement in physical, mental, and/or spiritual areas. Traditionalistic Traditionalists, like non-traditionalists, may be interested in the artistic side of the martial arts, in self-defense, or in moving meditation, but they use tried and true methods to help them on this path. Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo is an example closer to the Classical end of the category, while non-competitive "traditional" karate is on the Contemporary end. Stylistic maintenance or sport application is only incidental to the goals of these practitioners.

A Contemporary Traditionalist (or perhaps an Applied Traditionalist) uses whatever skills and practices his/her art hands down to build a base for modern day competition or street self-defense. To this student, the goal of physical proficiency is paramount, while stylistic preservation and intellectual or spiritual development is incidental. Sport or self-defense versions of Goju or Shotokan may serve as examples of this division. These are the subdivisions of the category known as "traditional martial arts" in the contemporary world.

Opposing these are the categories of "Non-traditionalist", another much abused word. In my estimation, there are three subdivisions called IMITATIVE, ECLECTIC, and INNOVATIVE. An Imitative Non-traditionalist is simply a person who is coming from a traditional base and imitates the uniforms, practices, principles of traditional arts but does so in a manner of his own design. He is a sort of "traditional" non-traditionalist. His emphasis may be any of the emphases of a traditional art except stylistic maintenance. This type of non-traditionalist is very creative in filling in the blanks which would normally be filled by a researchable tradition, and he may even create his own history out of whole cloth and initiate his own customs based on his interpretations of his art as a new wave of the arts of the ancients. Many contemporary ju-jutsu styles are examples.

An Eclectic Non-traditionalist simply recombines that which he has learned in previous training in either traditional or non-traditional arts and terms the result a unique non-traditional creation. He does what traditionalists have been doing for centuries but sees himself out of the mainline of Asian tradition. Often he simply is following a Western tradition of being 10% new and affixing a "new and different" label to his product. His emphasis also can be on self-defense, sport, exercise, etc., but seldom personal development or stylistic maintenance.

An Innovative Non-traditionalist attempts to start from ground zero in his development of a martial art. His goals are usually singular in nature and are prestated as either tournament success, self-defense prowess, or self-development. Since he has but a single goal he can measure his practices against that goal. Although he may not always be truly innovative--some of his techniques, practices, theories must be based on other arts--he will attempt to test everything he includes in his curriculum against his prime emphasis. He may even acknowledge the sources of his practices but he will also be able to explain how he has adjusted these to fit his needs.

Now let's graph these out.

preserves an inheritance
imitates without inheriting
chooses appropriate aspects of traditional arts
chooses appropriate aspects of the traditional arts
applies tradition to contemporary goals
applies innovation to contemporary goals

This chart shows that there are certainly differences between "traditional" and "non-traditional" arts, but that there are similarities as well. By reframing our terms, we have more clearly understood both.

Certainly, this is not the only way to categorize the emphasis martial artists put on their practice. In fact, we can take "motivation" as another principle of categorization. What are the prime motivations for martial study? In the last quarter century, I have able to reduce these to four main areas, SELF-DEFENSE, SPORT, SELF-DEVELOPMENT, ART, each with two sub-divisions. In the Self-defense Style, students train in two different ways; some work to be able to react correctly if suddenly attacked by an untrained assailant, while others work to be able to win a fight in which they must face off against a trained antagonist (i.e., they free spar).

Then there is the Sport Style, which breaks down into sparring (contact, semi-contact, non-contact) and performance (usually kata) for the purpose of winning a trophy or recognition. Third, there are martial arts styled for Self-development which can be physical (i.e., exercise, coordination, grace) or mental (intellectual or spiritual). Finally, there is Art (especially as demonstrated in the performance of forms) which can be done for exhibition or as a hobby for personal enjoyment. Each of these "styles" can have traditional elements and each can have been adapted to a contemporary frame of mind. No matter what style of martial art one chooses, one must realize that one or more of these "categorical styles" are being chosen simultaneously.

This type of labeling can at least allow practitioners to mix and match the categories to get a short hand description of their chosen method. I, for instance, call myself an Innovative Traditionalist because I try to learn from the arts which I study as they have been handed down but also try to experiment with what I have learned to both test and improve it. When asked for my stylistic emphasis, my response is a hierarchy: self-development, self-defense, art and sport, in that order.

Do you remember your Trekkie Trivia (now renamed Trekker Trivia)? Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise was famous for having been the only Federation trainee to have solved the paradox of the Kobayashi Maru, a command-decision simulation in which there was no winning solution. Having once failed at the computer simulated drill, Jimbo realized that the computer had been programmed to produce a no-win situation. Kirk was able to solve the dilemma by going outside the system: he reprogrammed the computer. Occasionally we need to reprogram our bio-computers here and there. You will, after all, never smell the fragrance of a rose if someone convinces you that it is stinkweed.

Any method of practice (which is what a style really is) may be difficult to describe in brief, so we use convenient labels. But the labels become muddied by misuse. Since all practices must be able to be referred to, compared, and contrasted, some labels are necessary. Therefore we should occasionally review the labels in current use and update them to more accurately reflect the floral composition of our own chosen bouquets. A rose by any other name, may be mistaken for a tulip! By the way, you can prefer roses over tulips while still respecting the beauty that tulips bring into other people's lives. Both the rose-lover and the tulip-lover share a love of flowers. Traditionalist and non-traditionalist alike share a love for the martial arts.

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