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An Instructor's Perspective
by Michael D. Jones
Dec 1st, 2006viewed 6426 times
When I think of my teacher, Professor Byron Walker, and reflect on his skill as a martial artist, certain aspects come foremost to mind. One of them was the pinpoint precision with which he executed his techniques. Another was the intensity, or spirit, with which he performed them. Also, he possessed a tremendous depth of understanding; he knew the physics and physiology that determined the effectiveness of any given technique, and further, sought to understand the underlying concepts in such a way that he could derive a variety of different applications for any given movement. Truly amazing, though, is that he developed most of this skill on his own. His abilities far exceeded what most people would gain from a comparable amount of formal training. To some extent, that is due to his innate talent (Master Strickland has referred to him—and I find the term apt—as a savant). But it is also a testament to his profound dedication and single-minded pursuit of excellence. He exemplified the concept of Budo, the “Martial Way.”

A detailed explanation of Budo is beyond the scope of this essay. For that, I recommend a book: Living the Martial Way, by Forrest E. Morgan. It is a definitive work, researched and written in an expert manner. However, before we continue, students need at least a nominal understanding of the differences between a martial art, a fighting art, a combat sport and a martial way.
Fighting arts are the precursors of all martial arts, combat sports or martial ways. They are systems of fighting skills designed with the sole objective of overcoming an adversary in real combat. Generally, fighting arts are simple, rudimentary and effective. Over time, however, they evolve into martial arts, which tend to be more involved, complex and theoretical. Whereas a soldier might assimilate the elements of a fighting art in a relatively short time in order to prepare for combat, a martial artist will develop his skill on a continuing basis for a deeper and broader understanding. In Japanese terminology, martial arts carry the suffix gei or jutsu, such as bugei or bujutsu. These mean, literally, “way of war.” In this case, the term “way” means method. (In contrast, the word do also means “way,” but with a broader connotation than method. “Do” means “a way of life”). Combat sports were developed to allow martial artists to practice their skills without the peril of real combat. All forms of fencing, boxing and wrestling are examples of combat sports.

Martial ways are, as far as I know, unique to Asian martial styles. In times of peace, practitioners of various warrior arts sought to keep their arts alive by toning down their lethal nature and investing them with elements of moral guidance and an emphasis on self- improvement. Forrest Morgan gives a succinct description:

Asian combative systems with names ending in ‘Do,’ such as judo, taekwondo, karate-do, etcetera, are not martial arts in the traditional sense. Although some of these systems are effective methods of combat, learning to fight is always a secondary aim to developing moral character. The word ‘do’ means ‘way’ in Japanese and Korean and would be translated to ‘tao’ in Chinese. These martial ways are actually modern systems founded by masters of older fighting arts who believed their ways would be ideal vehicles for guiding students towards self-perfection.1

Using martial arts training as a vehicle for character development is a valid and desirable concept. But unfortunately, this often leads to an art with diminished effectiveness in real-world self-defense. Martial art teacher and writer Bob Orlando describes this as a process of “devolution.” In the absence of any real combat experience, martial artists have no empirical basis to judge the effectiveness of their skills. Over time, the gulf between art and reality widens:
As the distance between the past and the present increases, the effectiveness of any classical fighting art decreases. The result…is that, with each new generation, actual knowledge of tested and proven combat and self-defense effectiveness moves ever-deeper into myth.2

Tang Soo Do is widely practiced as a martial way, but it is founded upon an inherently powerful and effective martial art. From 1990 through 2002, I held dan rank and instructor certification with the World Tang Soo Do Association (WSTDA). The WTSDA is a large international organization led by Grandmaster Jae Chul Shin, dedicated to the practice and perpetuation of Tang Soo Do as a martial way. During those years, I had ample opportunity to observe first-hand the effects of “devolution” as the leaders of the organization sought to emphasize character development over the substance of their martial art.

Leadership members of the WTSDA make no secret of the diminished role of combat effectiveness in their organization. Their doctrine explicitly states, “The purpose of Tang Soo Do is not for fighting, but to perfect techniques which will enhance your total self.”3 On the occasions that I heard Grandmaster Shin speak at regional functions, he echoed that sentiment repeatedly, emphasizing that Tang Soo Do is “not a fighting art,” and propounding a view that the sort of rough and tumble fighting that was part-and-parcel of the training process when he was young should be abandoned in order to make the art more attractive to a wider range of students. In response to my frequent complaints about the lack of practical application in WTSDA curriculum, Master Allen Sharpe, Region 4 Director wrote:
“I don’t want you to forget that one of our primary goals within WTSDA is to develop the character by utilizing physical techniques of self defense and self development as a vehicle for that goal. We are not overly concerned about combat efficiency although it is a consideration.4
(Emphasis mine.)

While I do, in fact, agree, that martial arts can serve as a means of overall self-improvement, I see it as a fundamental mistake to sacrifice the effectiveness of the art in pursuit of that goal. I don’t mean to advocate the cage fight mentality of today’s mixed martial arts (MMA) competitors, but merely to suggest that a realistic context must always be at hand when developing fighting skills. Anything less is false knowledge and self-deception. That could be a fatal mistake. As renowned karate master Masatatsu Oyama said:
A karate master must not fight with outlaws, but should rather avoid them. If, however, a fight, though with a man of villainous character, begins, he must stand and face it. The Sun-tzu says, “If we know the other man and know ourselves, there is no fear in a hundred battles. If we do not know the other man, but know ourselves, the odds are even. If we know neither the other man nor ourselves, there is danger in a hundred battles.5

In other words, if we dwell on elements of style and theory at the expense of realistic application, as indeed many devotees of martial ways do, we will have no honest idea of our own capabilities. We will not know ourselves—and that is a danger.
Actually, there should be no conflict between the cultivation of virtue embodied by a martial way and the development of viable combat skills in a martial art. The concepts of honesty and integrity that all martial ways espouse demand nothing less than an honest and realistic rendition of the art. In the words of Forrest Morgan:
When it comes right down to it, martial arts are about one thing, fighting. And regardless of how much one philosophizes about developing character and walking in peace, if he’s a true warrior, he began by learning how to fight, and he will spend the rest of his life honing his combat skills. That’s not to say peace and character development aren’t important parts of the Martial Way, but strength and confidence are its foundations, and the warrior must learn to walk without fear. As a warrior, you will strive to live a life of Budo, but you should train in the ways of bujutsu. You must always strive to master the arts of personal combat.6

Thus, it is essential to realize that combat skill is not a secondary focus of the Way. Rather, it is the foremost concern. And in pursuit of that skill, we develop perseverance, discipline and courage. We learn to interact positively with our peers in the training hall, for our progress depends on them. We consider the consequences of our actions, for with the capacity to commit violence comes responsibility. And if we are honest in appraising our skills in contrast to our potential, we will know humility. In other words, we develop character. It is not the primary concern, but rather the ultimate outcome of our training. If we wish to live the Martial Way, we must practice a real martial art. This is what I learned, and what I hope to pass on as a legacy from Professor Byron Walker.

1 Living the Martial Way, Forrest E. Morgan, pp. 238-9
2 Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts, Bob Orlando, p.19
3 WTSDA Black Belt Manual, p.4
4 Personal correspondence from Master Sharpe, March 18, 2002
5 This Is Karate, Masatatsu Oyama, p. 319
6 Living the Martial Way, p.62
- Michael D. Jones
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