The Boa That Swallowed an Elephant: Part II

First, if you are using say, the muscles of the shoulder girdle (even augmented by hips and “taking the center”, or whatever) then you are using the very same utensils that the attacker is using. Unless you are very extraordinary, both you and the attacker are of the same order of magnitude in terms of strength, speed, etc., and hence it is somewhat unrealistic to expect consistent success. It is as though two gunslingers were standing out in the street about to “draw down” on each other. Both have the same implements (pistols), and since it is unlikely that one participant is significantly faster than the other, success cannot be predicted. That is why that scenario, so often portrayed in cinema, almost never happened. And because of the demand for speed, any appeal to principles (sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control) becomes severely degraded when flinching in response to an attack.

Second: The success most of us have with natural skills is both ubiquitous and compelling. To the extent we possess speed, strength, and agility, to that extent the greater our success at physical endeavors. The martial artist I alluded to above was an extraordinary athlete, possessed natural skills in abundance, and had proved himself a fair hand in a fight. Thus, there is nothing second-rate about using one’s natural skills. But it is important to recognize the distinction we are making. The ability to be able override the flinch response, which is necessary to apply principles is very difficult, and requires a significant retraining such that a new set of responses replaces one natural abilities. Therein lies both the complexity and the difficulty of an art like taiji quan. Most martial artists have not met anyone who could apply taiji principles. Like les gens serieux they see a hat, and have never learned to see what is inside of things. If they have met someone, they are convinced that their own skills, or the skills of their teacher are adequate to whatever tasks they feel they need to prepare for. Finally, for those who do study an internal art, many, perhaps most, will not attain a high level of skill. Let me put that less despairingly: Of those who practice an internal art, most will have too much confidence in the natural abilities to devote themselves to cultivating a new set of principles. Those that do so, however, will achieve their goal.

It is easy to talk about principles, it is difficult to elucidate them. For the nonce I’ll restrict the universe to discourse to what taiji calls the “six harmonies” or integrations. There are the three external integrations of: hand and opposite foot, elbow and opposite knee, and shoulder and opposite hip. There are also the three internal integrations of shen, yi, and, qi but these are technical terms peculiar to the internal martial arts.

I am of the opinion that modern Uechi ryu, in its adoption of an overly tense and stiff sanchin kata, leaves no room for the three external harmonies. Modern Aikido, also in my opinion, when push comes to shove, has likewise failed to achieve whole-body integration.  Moreover, whatever tenuous roots modern aikido has with the sword are any longer very difficult to determine.

Principles infuse movement at the cellular level, affect how one organizes the body. Contrariwise, techniques are more like the practice of prearranged scenarios of possible situations. An while Uechi ryu and Aikido practitioners would  assuredly claim to be practicing principle-based martial arts, it is very difficult for me, even after a lot of study, to elucidate exactly what those principles are.  That is not to say either art cannot be effective. I will repeat again that external martial arts are not inferior to internal martial arts. In fact for the majority they are more so.  I also know practitioners of both arts which are truly fearsome fighters. But I remain convinced that even such great ability is the result of the cultivation of natural abilities by a rigorous practice ethic.

Katori Shinto Ryu is at a bit of a crossroads. The art claims a celestial progenitor, Marishiten, a deity brought in courtesy of Shingon Buddhism, and who has a long association with warrior societies. She (or he, the iconography varies) is also said to be able to confer invisibility on her devotees on the battlefield. Moreover, oral tradition includes in katori’s curriculum many of the elements of esoteric Buddhism which, again according to tradition, are essential to the practice of the art.

What is striking of course is the fact that no one practices Katori in that manner today. At least no one I know does. Thus, while at one time someone might have been able to answer the question: “What are the principles of Katori”, at present the best anyone can do is to demonstrate the techniques of the art. But remember, principles are based on understanding, while techniques are based on bodily responses.

The rather glaring dichotomy outlined above is something that I believe my Katori teacher, Sugawara sensei, has thought deeply about. In personal conversations with me, and with others, he has expressed a desire to try to discover what an “original” Katori would have looked like. He also realizes that any solution he comes up with is probably unverifiable. But what I find remarkable is that, in trying to find a set of principles to infuse the tactics or Katori, to give Katori a meta level, if you will, he has drawn deeply on his experiences in the Chinese internal martial arts, in particular taiji quan.

While Katori is not, essentially, an internal martial art, it is quite compatible with the three external integrations. Being external, they are ostensible, can be articulated, and their value can be demonstrated. But as is often the case, for most students, their natural abilities (speed, strength, and agility) are so beguiling, that often Sensei’s observations are given little shrift. This is not so much a criticism, as a statement of the complexity of the task.

Because vision is the most primary of our senses, and people naturally judge on appearances, seeing un chapeau will always be the default over seeing a boa which has swallowed an elephant. Similarly, and for the same reasons, our natural bodily responses will always be the default criteria by which we judge a martial art. And while there is no reason whatsoever to give up a martial art you love in favor of one which I love; there is every reason not to be ignorant of the landscape.