I looked up, and saw the impossibly tall, dreadlocked form of my boss, Eric, toward whom I offered a sheepish smile and a nod. Scrambling for something to say, I remembered overhearing him mentioning training at a school nearby. “Aren’t you training in Brazilian Jiujitsu?” I asked, and he grinned. “Yeah! What do you do?”
A loaded question, from my perspective. I paused. Since going to college and temporarily leaving my home dojo, I had received training in Chen Tai Chi, San Da, Tang Soo Do, Longfist Kung Fu, and wrestling; I sought out any training opportunity I could find, and wasn’t about to claim ownership of any one style. “…Whatever I can get, really.” I managed, then continued, feeling as though that was sort of a cop-out. “I’ve trained in a lot of styles now, but mostly things like karate and Aikido.”
“Oh,” Eric boomed, pushing his lips forward in characteristically cool fashion and raising his eyebrows. “I get it,” he continued, grinning toothily now, and pointing a long finger at me. “So he’s a Jeet Kune Do man.”
I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation—or the rest of the day—went after that; it was that last statement that struck me. Until that point, I had never really stopped to consider my position on training in so many different arts and understand what it meant; I was following a doctrine which a friend would later astutely call a “liberal arts” approach to martial arts: Learn from everything, integrate from diverse sources to gain new perspectives and deeper understanding. I would sum this viewpoint up into two primary perspectives: 1) That there is something to be learned from every martial art, and 2) The more styles in which one has trained seriously, the broader and more realistic their total understanding of combat. The latter of these two ideas also implies the corollary that martial artists who study only one martial art may be limited in the scope and realism of their training; though my next post will work against this somewhat, I still believe it somewhat valid.
Bruce Lee was firmly behind this approach and it is strongly evident in his written works, not to mention in Jeet Kune Do itself. Just from memory, I can recall seeing described techniques from Judo, Aikido, Wrestling, Karate, Wing Chun, Boxing, and Savate in his books. His attitude made a strong impression on me when I had first begun my training, and as I’ve mentioned in other posts it has remained a guiding principle in my approach.
Lee, for example, always urged readers to be “beyond system”, explaining that “the man who is really serious, with the urge to find out what truth is, has no style at all.” The idea was that a serious martial artist is not after mastery of a style, but mastery of fighting itself (and, arguably, mastery of his or herself). The total knowledge of all fighting could be imagined as a huge landscape, over which each martial art, is spread in a plane and occupies a certain area, with more or less overlap with other arts. No one art covers the entire landscape, though; and focusing on just one art means that only a small fraction of the “terrain” is ever covered. (One can easily expand this notion of “breadth” to also include “depth” in training, which is certainly sacrificed when one studies other styles; this will be mentioned in my next post).
As Lee put it, “If any style teaches you a method of fighting, then you might be able to fight according to the limit of that method, but that is not actually fighting.” There is something more out there to be sought, a sort of “essence” of fighting, and focusing on only a single art can’t necessarily get you there.
While I am not nearly as dogmatic about this point as I used to be (as I’ll show in my next post) I think it still holds plenty of water. I can no longer count the number of times I’ve seen martial artists practice or talk about techniques and fighting in a way that exposes their utter naiveté to situations and types of fighting outside whatever it is we do. I don’t think they are necessarily to blame if they have never trained outside their own style, but they would gain much in the way of realism from branching out. For example, I once heard a fellow Aikidoka ask rhetorically why someone would ever want to throw a kick, “it just leaves you so off-balance, so vulnerable, what’s the point?”. Dumbstruck, I kept my mouth shut and decided I wouldn’t be the one responsible for teaching him the reality of the situation. The situation is equally bad in other martial arts all over the country and probably the world; there is a degree of fearful ego that comes from parochial views and an unfamiliarity with "the other side".
In a similar vein, it’s well known that dozens of skilled kickboxers, karateka, and other stand-up martial artists who focused the entirety of their training around stand-up striking found themselves nearly defenseless against grapplers and ground-fighters in the early years of mixed martial arts. Likewise, I’ve seen grapplers whose training has led them to think so myopically about fighting that their entries and positioning tend to leave huge openings to strikes and techniques that would be illegal in their realm of practice. Not to even make mention of weapons; there are countless stories of brilliant fighters being foiled by knives, clubs, and other unexpected additions that were outside their preparation.
Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary Japanese swordsman, complained about this martial-short-sightedness in The Book of Five Rings, “…martial art is conventionally viewe in a limited way, as if it consisted only of swordsmanship.” Contemporary Aikido shihan Mitsugi Saotome explained the point well in terms of context: “Much can be gained through specialization, but too much specialization greatly narrows perspective and understanding. One small part cannot be understood out of context… If you are narrowly attached to one art, your spirit will become enslaved to that art. For a full understanding, you must have a vision that expands enough to encompass all others.”
Beyond the clear notion that in the martial arts, what you don’t know most certainly can (and often will) hurt you, studying other arts has tangible and direct benefits to one’s all around skill, and training in a new art can significantly improve the depth of one’s training in their original art. I can still recall how my training in ukemi from Aikido left higher-ranked Tang Soo Do practitioners clueless when trying to apply joint locks and trapping techniques on me during exams, or how the spacing and striking awareness generated by sparring in Tang Soo Do and Karate improved the realism and crispness of my Aikido practice. Without exception, all of the greatest martial artists I’ve ever known or heard of have had significant training in more than one martial art.
After all, this is a large part of the mindset that started the Mixed Martial Arts movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s, though as I’ve mentioned before the momentum gained from this once liberal attitude is starting to fade as, for better or for worse, MMA begins to coagulate into its own unique style.
While I’ll never insist that anyone can be perfectly trained for any situation, I am convinced that some inter-disciplinary “breadth” is necessary for a solid education in the martial arts. Just how “broad” will depend on the needs of the practitioner, with the implicit understanding that some “depth” is lost with each addition of other training methods. Regardless of how you distribute your training among whatever art (or arts) you study, I believe it is essential to maintain the seriousness and reality that comes with being “beyond system”.