“Style is a pedagogical tool that helps the student to recognize and identify shapes and patterns. It is also a label that allows us to sell the pedagogy itself. But once the student has learned the true nature of shapes and their meaning, then the style must be transcended. Otherwise, the style becomes nothing more than a well-crafted boat floating in the wrong river.”
– Ian Sinclair
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to prove the effectiveness of tai chi as a martial art by entering either myself of one of my students in MMA competition. That notion died an early death for a number of reasons. Some reasons were time and money. Others were medical. Some were philosophical. I found I could not justify subjecting myself or others to potential physical harm for money. At my age, I also couldn’t get the insurance, or justify the risk to my family. However, all of these are really just excuses.
There are already a few other tai chi proponents who are making names for themselves in MMA competition. But they are not making a name for tai chi as a style. Why is that?
The reason, as I see it, is that a martial art is, quite simply, not about any particular style.
The emergence of martial styles has led to misperceptions about martial arts, and has created some absurd limitations among certain students. This is why I believe that one of the good things about the rise of MMA sport is that it has challenged personal attachments to any particular style.
When you fight, you do not fight with your teacher’s style. You may have a personal style. But if that style is easily identifiable, then your opponent may have a clear tactical advantage. Also, if that style is not your own, but is instead one passed down for generations, then you are not really a martial artist. You are, instead, merely a mimic.
On the road to mastery, martial artists train to overcome their own physical and psychological limitations, and to compensate for limitations which cannot be overcome. In this respect, a style becomes a reflection of the master’s strengths, weaknesses, and pathology. Any disability that we have therefore contributes to our style. So, when you imitate the style of a teacher, you are actually imitating their pathology, and not necessarily compensating for your own. Now, the fact that we, has human beings, often share common strengths and weaknesses, means that some of what works for other people will also work for us. So, everything we learn will give us something that we can apply to our own reality. But if we train to be exactly like our teachers, we will be making a grave error.
This is why, whenever a proponent of a particular historical style attempts to prove the superiority of the style against a seasoned MMA fighter, the stylist will lose. This is not to say that their style does not teach valuable skills which can be effective in combat. Rather, it is because the stylist is not really a complete martial artist, just as a style not the complete art.
Put another way, a martial art is not a style.
The style is an expression of a pedagogy. It is a way for the teacher to communicate the external shape of the art. The student must transcend the style and go more deeply into the art than the teacher is able to take them. This is the only way that the student can hope to understand the true meaning of what they are learning.
Most of us could learn to quote Einstein’s explanation of the theory of special relativity. But we would not necessarily understand what the words mean. Only by truly understanding the theory, and by expressing it in our own words, could we convincingly demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the theory. Without being able to express the theory in our own words, we could never hope to apply the theory in any practical manner.
As long as people think they are learning a style, it will never be practical. No teacher worth a gram of salt thinks that their students will achieve mastery by becoming attached to a style. There are stories of teachers who, on their deathbeds, lament that all of their students are doing the art exactly the same way as the teacher.
This is one of the reasons why good teachers are revered. Not only have they learned to adapt the knowledge they learned from their teachers. But they have also spent decades teaching their students to find their own way.
Not everyone gets it, though.
Remember the parable,
“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. But teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
Well, unfortunately, some students just use it as an excuse to sit in a boat and drink beer all day. When the lake dries up or gets fished out, they don’t know how to adapt.
Style is a pedagogical tool that helps students to recognize and identify shapes and patterns. It is also a label that allows us to sell the pedagogy itself. But once the observer has learned the true nature of shapes, and their relationships to the mind, then the style becomes a well-crafted boat floating in the wrong river.
The irony is that this principle is well known in traditional martial arts. The story is illustrated in the Ox Herding pictures of Zen.
The complete process of transcending style can be described simply as:
- No style, no meaning.
- Style without meaning.
- Style with meaning.
- Meaning transcends style.
- No style, no meaning.
We should learn from our teachers, and pay respect to the generations that have passed on this knowledge. But that the art survives only if it can adaptive and applicable.
Remember that the founders of the art were creative, innovative, critical, and reflective. They followed goals, absorbed what was useful, and adapted the art to serve them.
Each generation must advance the art, or the art will die.
– Ian Sinclair (Sinclair Martial Arts)