Reposting. Originally posted on January 22, 2013.
Dynamic systems theory says novelty, or innovation, is built into systems; it’s always there because solutions — some of which may need to be novel ideas — are always available to a system internally when that system goes off balance.
My evolving view of martial arts nowadays is that FMA is not a system; gung fu is not a system; karate is not a system. None of the specific martial arts is a system. They are subsets of a larger system: using human limbs in offense and defense. From this perspective, innovation is always there for it comes from human creativity, which has neither beginning, nor end. We can imagine a beginning and an end to human creativity, but that imagination arises precisely from the power of creativity.
Over time, fighting within the limits of two arms and two legs came to be formalized into and represented by the different fighting styles. I think this view is older than Bruce Lee, by the way. Humans have been fighting and adapting to each others’ fighting styles for as long as we learned the limits of talking and decided to develop effective ways to punch and kick, and throw a rock or a stick at each other.
The value of the question
If we resolve to answer the question for ourselves — is there innovation in martial arts? — we could guide our skill development. We can either focus on the medium (i.e., techniques, drills, style), or we can search for principles.
On one hand, if we focus on the medium we develop a skill within the limits of the medium; true enough, if you focus on stick-fighting exclusively, you will be really good in stick-fighting, but not necessarily empty-hand, if you don’t expand your training outside the limits of using sticks.
On the other hand, if we focus on learning principles behind the medium, we find more opportunities in offense and defense; true enough, if you learn the principle of ‘palm-up/palm-down’, for example, you can figure out the logic behind effective offense and defense more easily.
My teacher, Guro Bill Aranda, tells me that he teaches me what he learned, not what he was taught. To me that means the same thing that I’m now looking for: not a style but how to optimize how I naturally fight, i.e., uncover and hone how my body naturally moves. Why would one want this? So that you fight with more fluid movement without thinking; so that you fight according to the way your body naturally moves.
In this sense, all fighting is both unique and common. A #3 strike is either going to come from the center line, or outside it. Whatever unique path or extra steps we take to get to the target from inside and outside the center line is and can be unique to how we naturally move, but ultimately, the strike can only come from inside or outside the centerline, i.e., the expression may be unique, but the principle is the same.
So, is there innovation in martial arts? My personal take is yes and no. It is both/and, not either/or. Innovation is possible and not possible. I say this not to be philosophical, but to express a nuanced view of martial art innovation.
It is possible when you focus on the medium, or the martial art style, or physical expression. It is possible if you think in terms of ‘hardware’. For example, there are multiple great leaps of innovation from propelling an arrow to sending a bullet downrange. The hardware is unique in each lethal expression. Soon, I am sure we will be shooting laser beams, not bullets, at each other; once that day comes, we will have made another major leap in innovation in terms of the medium.
It is not possible when you think of ‘software’ – the underlying principle or meaning behind the use of an arrow or a bullet, for example. It is clear that the principle behind both is that of sending a projectile at high speed to penetrate a target. When you see that there are key principles at work, and that these principles are fundamentally the same, it is not possible to innovate. There is one underlying principle behind any punch, or kick, or arrow, or bullet: thrust forward toward the center of the enemy. Principles are limited and immutable.
In many ways, this ‘both/and’ perspective is what FMA and ‘gung fu’ teaches us: there is innovation between the blade and empty-hand, between the stick and the blade. At the same time, the underlying principles behind strikes are the same throughout time.
In life, we have it within us to help ourselves, because novelty — new ideas, innovation, solutions — are baked into each of us. We use innovation to problem-solve, to adapt, to overcome. But it is also true that nothing is entirely new under the sun. There is no new principle of being within our shared human experience that is completely brand new. Because we live in closed system, planet Earth, with the pretty much the same environmental stimuli over time, there are no new principles of being human under the sun. What is only ever changing is our engagement with others for each of us are inherently, boundlessly creative.
Through our engagement with others, we see our strengths and our weaknesses, and our interrelatedness to everything. Alone with our thoughts, in our inner world, we can find ways to best adapt and survive. But we are flawed; as a result and necessarily, some of our ideas, no matter how clearly we think we understand, will invariably be flawed in some way, as well. It is only also through our engagement with others in our environment and in the quality of our relationships with those we engage that we find what is true, the right path, the meaning behind personhood, behind community. Engaging the world is key to being more fully effective and human in the world.
A student learning to fight has it in him to sort out how to use his limbs efficiently and effectively, and how to use tools as extensions of his limbs, if need be. But it is also true that he only learns to fight because his neighbors provoke him, or his teacher shows him principles and teaches him which techniques will work or not work in a fight.