The Boa That Swallowed an Elephant: Part I

In my opinion one of the great novels of the 20th century, or any century for that matter, is Antoine de St. Exupery’s  illustrated classic, The Little Prince. There is a chapter at the outset in which the author relates how,, at the age of six, and after having seen a story in a book about how a boa constrictor would swallow their prey whole, he submits his rendition of “a boa that swallowed an elephant” (the drawing at the top) to the adults for their perusal.  Their usual  response was to exclaim, “how cute, un chapeau (hat)”.  Thereafter when he wanted to distinguish between “les gens serieux” (the serious ones who only saw the outside of things), and those who saw deeply, he would show them his drawing of “the boa who swallowed an elephant”.

The martial arts world as well admits of no dearth of serious people, those who wish to sort out the “classical mess” of traditional martial arts, and refashion them to be more “effective”. Usually these are people who are plentifully endowed with “natural skills” (speed, strength, agility, etc.) and who, by dint of those abilities, have proven themselves quite formidable in whatever competitive arena is associated with their art of choice. I first noticed the trend in the karate world where, in point based competition (or even in full contact for that matter) ninety percent of a given system was jettisoned in favor of a couple of kicks and punches. Since those techniques were not useful in their world, the extrapolation was made that they were not useful in any world. The phenomenon was not limited to the karate world however.  One very famous martial artist, a magnificent athlete (albeit with a dubious resume) made quite a name for himself and even coined the term “classical mess”.

My take on all of this, is not that these men (or women) could not fight, in some cases they most certainly could, but that like “les gens serieux”  they could only see the things that were on the outside, i.e. external.  Put differently, they often failed to distinguish between a principle based martial art, and a technique based martial art.

I will not presume to comment on arts I have not studied, but I do submit the following examples from arts I have some small experience with.

When I first began studying Uechi ryu karate it purported to be a principle based martial art, and having only three kata, it held out sanchin kata as the core of the system. At that time the style had no closed fist techniques (it did, however,  have a one-knuckle fist), and virtually all techniques in the other two kata were preceded by a control technique. Sanchin kata, however, came with no users manual other than to perform it as a dynamic tension exercise in which, not knowing precisely what to tense, everything was tensed so as not to leave anything out. This of course made for great strength and stiffness, but over time  it also had the effect of reducing whatever meta information was contained in sanchin to ones’ ability to tense their muscles. In other words, the system has evolved into a set of techniques making use of the practitioner’s natural skills.

My take on all of this, is not that these men (or women) could not fight, in some cases they most certainly could, but that like “les gens serieux”  they could only see the things that were on the outside, i.e. external.  Put differently, they often failed to distinguish between a principle based martial art, and a technique based martial art.

I will not presume to comment on arts I have not studied, but I do submit the following examples from arts I have some small experience with.

When I first began studying Uechi ryu karate it purported to be a principle based martial art, and having only three kata, it held out sanchin kata as the core of the system. At that time the style had no closed fist techniques (it did, however, have a one-knuckle fist), and virtually all techniques in the other two kata were preceded by a control technique. Sanchin kata, however, came with no user’s manual other than to perform it as a dynamic tension exercise in which, not knowing precisely what to tense, everything was tensed so as not to leave anything out. This of course made for great strength and stiffness, but over time it also had the effect of reducing whatever meta information was contained in sanchin to ones’ ability to tense their muscles. In other words, the system has evolved into a set of techniques making use of the practitioner’s natural skills.

Aikido first caught my attention by promising a set of techniques based on principles. It made frequent mention of ki, circles, and “using an attacker’s energy against them, taking the center, etc. However, whereas karate’s operating system started fail when faced with tournament competition, Aikido, eschewing competition for the most part, begins to self-destruct with a stubborn training partner. It is not that Aikido’s desiderata is mistaken, it is that like Uechi ryu’s sanchin, there is no user’s manual for putting the body’s natural flinch response aside when facing a determined attack. Based on what we know of him I am perfectly willing to admit the Aikido’s founder was able to “penetrate the mist”. And while this was something he probably learned from his teacher, I do not believe it was something he was capable of teaching. Hence, when faced with an unchoreographed attack, the aikidoka will generally resort to his natural allotment of speed, strength, and timing, to apply an aikido technique. I believe Aikido has a very useful set of tactics. As a system of “bone-locking” it is very effective. But after studying the art for several decades I remain unconvinced it is anything but a useful set of techniques. Whatever meta content was envisioned by Ueshiba Sensei I suspect has been lost.

Before I continue, and lest I offend, I am not saying that Uechi ryu, or Aikido, are essentially not principle based, or put differently, simply catalogued techniques, the one of Okinawan progeny, and the other Japanese. What I am saying is that if one is not aware of the difference between a principle and a technique, then one is going to rely on that which comes naturally; namely a flinch response, or what taiji calls “double weighting”. While the term may mean a lack of separation of weight between the substantial and the insubstantial leg, its larger sense is that when one uses a flinch response to deal with “trouble”, then one retreats from the level of principle, and fights on the level of “natural” technique.

And about that, two comments:

Continues in Part II