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The Art in Martial Arts

by John Donohue, Ph.D., July 28, 2014

For many practitioners, the phrase "martial arts" doesn't do a particularly good job of encompassing the complexity of the systems we study. There is also a certain oxymoronic tension between things martial and things arty and serious trainees often prefer to emphasize the physical efficacy of these systems. OK, the argument goes, I suppose we can call them arts because there is certainly an esthetic to them as well as some philosophical underpinning, but in the end let's not lose sight of the combat aspect.

If it's an art, it's more akin to the "sweet science" of boxing. But as Donn Draeger, an internationally known teacher and practitioner of Japanese martial arts, pointed out so many years ago, the modern systems in the Japanese martial tradition (the ones I am most familiar with) have evolved away from the reality of combat efficacy—as practitioners, we are constantly bringing knives (or worse, bare hands) to gunfights. For Draeger, terminological distinctions were made along the "jutsu" and "do" labels, where more combat oriented systems like jujutsu could be contrasted with the more sportive and philosophical judo.

So is what we do more like fighting or more like philosophy expressed in motion? The answer, I suppose, is "it depends." The uses a thing is put to are as varied as the people involved. There's a multitude of purposes in the martial arts: they can be understood as fighting systems, as cultural vehicles that embody certain values and ideals and can be used in a form of cultural perpetuation, as systems of self-development and even as vehicles for a type of enlightenment. The continuum of purposes stretches from the purely physical to the highly philosophical, which suggests to me that this little debate will never be definitively concluded.

But I think that there is another way to understand the "art" dimension that nicely sidesteps the efficacy versus esthetic debate. If we focus on the process of training, the dynamic of mastery, we may come to a heightened appreciation of how we might think about the "art" aspect to what we do.

Martial Artisan?

My argument here is that any serious martial artist is an artisan, someone engaged in an activity that requires some real skill. What we do is a craft in the most sophisticated sense of the word. It's not to be confused with the sorts of things considered crafts in popular usage—activities pursued at summer camp with beads and leather or hobbies involving wool and needles, glue guns and spangles. I am referring instead to a concept of craft that encompasses the use of a highly developed skill-set that can only be acquired after a great deal of effort. Think of the craftsman Antonio Stradivari working on a violin.

Martial artists are craftsmen and craftswomen. Craftspeople. Which is a somewhat clumsy construction; so in the interest of gender inclusiveness, let's agree on the label artisan.

What characteristics are associated with this label? I think there are a few significant ones that connect very powerfully to the process of training in the martial arts. An important one, of course, is exceptional skill, but perhaps even more significant is an understanding of how that skill is acquired.

The formation of a martial artisan is a long-term and complex project. It requires significant effort on the part of the trainee because the skill set is a complex one and cannot be acquired quickly. In many ways, studying the martial arts runs counter to contemporary culture's infatuation with immediate gratification. Martial arts study, in fact, is nothing if not an ongoing exposure the delayed gratification.

The learning process is also one that cannot be done alone: proper training requires appropriate guidance and instruction that can only be obtained from a teacher. Hence the centrality of the sensei, the sifu.  Under a master's guidance, the trainee receives instruction, (constant) feedback, and guidance. The teacher also provides a living example of the mastery of the art's content, a true role model that provides the trainee with inspiration—no mean thing in a process that is long and often frustrating. In this sense the period of study with an acknowledged master is strongly similar to the apprenticeship system of medieval craft guilds, which were organized to protect the craft heritage and ensure its appropriate continuation.

The traditional arts in Japan—whether martial or otherwise—had, in fact their own guild-like system. These hierarchical organizations known as iemoto were designed to both control access to particular systems and also serve as quality control mechanisms, since iemoto identified and certified individual teachers as having the requisite skill needed to guide their apprentices.

Development Of Martial Artisan

The development of the martial artisan requires not only physical effort, but considerable mental and emotional effort as well. Because of the demanding nature of the skill-set, trainees need to be tremendously self-motivated and also capable of constant self-criticism. Like artisans everywhere, the martial trainee needs to be focused on the art and completely devoted to excellence. This requires sacrifice, discipline, and a certain mental toughness. The artisan's apprenticeship is a long and hard path to walk. It is filled with effort, criticism, frequent failure, and a relentless need not to be self-delusional. The artisan's absolute standard means that each trainee runs the risk on not only giving the process everything she or he has, but of being judged lacking in the final analysis.

Trying to become an artisan, in other words, is not a game for sissies. There is too much at stake.

The process is analogous to musical training at high levels.  The need for a skilled teacher, a long apprenticeship, appreciation of an absolute standard and the stamina and honesty needed to pursue excellence are characteristics of great musicians, just as they are of great martial artists.

It's a well-known fact that the Japanese have a saying that the way of the pen and the way of the sword are one. As someone who is both a writer and a martial artisan, I often note that. The links between martial study and musical apprenticeship, while obvious, had to be pointed out to me.

I was recently on a trip to Ireland and had the opportunity to meet with a master craftsman, John Butler, owner of Ceol Pipes, which is devoted the making of uilleann pipes. Probably the most sophisticated form of modern bagpipes, they present a real challenge to master. I play the pipes, starting out on the Great Highland bagpipe, which most people are familiar with. (My wife has noted that my main hobbies involved either jumping around in kendo wearing the pleated skirt called a hakama or playing the bagpipes and wearing a kilt. She feels there is a disturbing pattern here).

In any event, playing the highland pipes is challenging, but tackling the uilleann pipes is even more so. When John Butler and I got talking, he learned of my novel writing and eventually visited my web site and saw some of my reflections on the craft of writing and the martial way. That's when he pointed out:

"On your website you mention the similarities between writing and studying martial arts. I think you can add playing music, and in particular the uilleann pipes, into that equation. The ideas of apprenticing to a master (or studying the works of the old masters) and the long hours of solo practice, reflection, concentration and self-criticism are as relevant to the serious piping student as to the other disciplines."

I'm grateful to John for sharing his thoughts and agree completely with them.

Training A Worthy Endeavor

And this opens up for me another idea about the artisan concept and how it can help us greater appreciate the value or martial training.

Ultimately I believe that the value of training has to do with the development of the person. Efficacy is a by-product of good training, but at the end of the day our powers fade and skills wane. It's just a fact of life. What then to make of the years we have spent training? I think we can point to the artisan-like elements and the impact they can have on forming character: the ability to acknowledge the importance of something greater than yourself; the desire to become linked with that big Other; the willingness to take on the yoke of apprenticeship and cultivate an enhanced awareness of the self and the world. That, it seems to me, is what ultimately makes training a lifelong and worthy endeavor.

It's not just the goal inherent in the path we walk; it's the way in which we conduct ourselves during the pilgrimage. Not simply as martial artists but as something even more fundamentally human: artisans.

John Donohue, Ph.D. is a nationally know expert on the culture and practice of the martial arts, John Donohue has been banging around dojo for more than 30 years.


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