A Concept of Traditional

What do we mean by ‘traditional martial arts,’ here in the West? I’m sure there are many points of view. For some, nothing short of an Asian-looking training hall complete with a stern Asian instructor will do. For others, the central idea of ‘tradition’ is that of preserving ancient practices, which doesn’t leave room for the kind of mixing and modernizing that tends to go on these days.

I’m interested in a more inclusive concept, starting with what the schools that call themselves ‘traditional’ are likely to have in common. At a minimum, there will be uniforms, of Asian origin, and there will be rituals governing the structure of class and relationships between students and instructors. Their will be a hierarchy of rank, not unlike that in a military organization.

As for the physical training, it will be demanding (but this can mean many things). At least some of the training exercises will have been handed down through generations of teachers in a lineage. It might include training for sport or competition, but this will not be the main or exclusive point of training. It will include forms (patterns) and/or repetitive drills whose value begs questioning by novices, as well as by students whose sole initial interest is in sport or practical combat skill. And, in keeping with the rituals and hierarchy mentioned in the previous paragraph, those students will be expected to practice those forms and repetitive drills without question.

That last bit might be the most important. The mindset with which the student is expected to approach training is central to this concept of traditional. Students are asked to open their minds, and just train. To empty their minds, switch off the questioning, and work. Put aside their goals, yet trust they are heading the right way. This is difficult, and it has consequences. The student must trust in the program, accept the instructor’s authority. The instructor must bear that weight, in a responsible, ethical fashion.

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