Monday, November 12, 2012


Why would I write about something that is not a martial art? Apparently, not everyone realizes that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is not a martial art.

One of several problems I have with MMA is that it attracts some of the worse people in society - but it also attracts many good people. On almost any day, an Internet search for news on MMA will lead to examples of how street fighting without redeeming philosophy or moral guidance leads to violence and misuse of drugs. Don’t get me wrong, I use to enjoy watching Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman, But these were two classy sportsmen.  But even boxing attracts many bad apples.

Karate also attracts some bad apples, but traditional martial arts, I suspect attracts a much greater percentage of honest, law-abiding people.

Karate was never intended to be a sport. As developed by Okinawan martial artists centuries ago, karate was a method of self-defense, self-improvement and self-discipline. During its evolution, it was a necessary tool for Okinawan body guards of royalty because bladed weapons had been outlawed by King Shoshin in 1480 AD due to his non-violent Buddhist philosophy. However, we all know (except for self-serving royalty and politicians) that taking weapons away from people does nothing to stop criminals - it only gives criminals incentive to rape, murder and steal. After all, their law-abiding victims are not going to be armed. So watch out for any self-serving politician who looks to eliminate our second amendment and give control to other countries through the UN to monitor gun controls in the US.

So, after having no bladed weapons to defend their selves and having no standing army, Okinawa was an open invitation for invasion. And it happened. The Japanese Satsuma Samurai invaded Okinawa and conquered it with little to no problem
The Japanese invaders of Okinawa had no idea what karate was. It was practiced in complete secrecy for centuries until introduced to the Okinawan public school system and also to mainland Japan in the 20th century. It was the Japanese, not the native Okinawans who modified karate into a sport. And since that time, much of Japanese and American karate has suffered (there are exceptions). Sport karate opened a Panadora’s box.

My Sensei operates one of the largest and most successful traditional Okinawan/Japanese/US martial arts associations in the world, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and brought members together from around the world – all of whom have proper credentials and certifications in martial arts and none practice sport martial arts that I’m aware of.

Many sensei, martial arts associations and dojo have applied for membership in this organization, but most are turned down because of a lack of credentials and lineage. It is not easy to get into this association.

There are questionable styles that have recently surfaced with no basis or no lineage. One organization even advertised in a popular martial arts magazine and would send out any rank diploma for a fee (without any proof of rank).

So, new students are faced with a dilemma – finding a martial art that suits them, finding a martial art that is legitimate, and finding a martial art instructor with legitimate certification. You may ask, what is legitimate certification? Thank God, government has not stuck its ugly hand into certifying martial artists (yet), and I pray it never does. Government always makes things worse. There are organizations around the world that are considered legitimate based on history and/or lineage. But it does require checking and some knowledge.

I have nothing against MMA (I don’t watch it), but I do have a problem with their use of the descriptive phrase ‘…. martial arts’. They should describe their system for what it is “street fighting with a couple of rules”. But calling MMA an art?  This is very questionable.

I’m currently working on a book (actually a couple of books at the same time). This is a problem I’ve had all my life. I cannot do just one thing - I need to do a variety of things. One of the books I’m writing is Layman’s Guide to Traditional Martial Arts. In this book, I spend several pages trying to define martial arts: never thought it would be so difficult. But just think for a second. How would you describe art?  You can probable visualize people performing martial arts, but to define it. Now that's a challenge. gives 15 explanations for "ART". A few of the more useful are: The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. A branch of learning or university study, especially one of the fine arts or the humanities, as music, philosophy, or literature.  Skill in conducting any human activity: a master at the art of conversation. knack, facility, technical skill, skillfulness, know-how. The principles or methods governing any craft or branch of learning: the art of baking; the art of selling, craft, technique; procedure, method, way; fine points, subtleties.

A sketch by the author
Art is an esoteric expression and any attempt to define art is difficult, especially when art is different to different people. For example, when I look at a sketch, I look for something that excites my senses – something that brings out emotion or awe – it has to be beautiful and provide visual stimulus and the person who created that piece of art, must have put considerable time into its creation. When it comes to most abstract art – for me, any zoo animal can do abstract art (and many have) – but it is art to some people, and it is what they find interesting.

When accessing martial arts dictionaries, I couldn’t find one that provided any real definition of martial arts. For instance, the Overlook Dictionary of Martial Arts defines martial arts as “…an encompassing term usually reserved for the Asian fighting arts, although it can refer to any fighting discipline with or without weapons”. This definition is so general that it may suggest anything from target shooting to wresting can be a martial art, as long as it is done by someone of Asian descent. Even more enlightening is A Dictionary of the Martial Arts since this dictionary didn’t even make an effort to define martial arts.

In another, the Overlook Martial Arts Handbook, the author writes, “The term ‘martial arts’ means those arts concerned with the waging of war”. Many other definitions I found on the Internet appeared to be written by non-martial artists with little to no understanding of martial arts. For example, defines martial art as - any of the traditional forms of Oriental self-defense or combat that utilizes physical skill and coordination without weapons, as karate, aikido, judo, or kung fu, often practiced as sport. This definition falls flat on its face, as martial arts, until recently, was never considered sport, most incorporate weapons and some arts are exclusively about weapons such as kobudo, iaido, kendo, and kenjutsu to name a few of the many dozens. 

By separating the two words – “Martial” and “Arts” we might gain some insight. Martial has several definitions. The one that stands out is characteristic of, or befitting a warrior. When discussing martial arts we refer to budo (martial way) or bushido (way of the warrior). This is a clue because way used in this sense means a path: the path of someone who has characteristics befitting a warrior. But then, what is path?

A path leading to a garden - sketch by the author.

One definition of patha course of action, conduct, or procedure: the path of righteousness”. This is a good definition as it implies a path should lead to righteousness. It should also lead to knowledge and understanding particularly when considering martial arts. Martial art must lead to righteousness; it must be beautiful and involve a segment of higher learning. It needs to be a lifelong path that leads to self-enlightenment. Does this sound like MMA?

Now let’s examine the philosophy of Gichin Funakoshi and Shoshin Nagamine two well-known Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate masters from the past. Nagamine, Soke wrote, “If there is no kata, there is no karate, just kicking and punching”. He continues that kata is karate, and one must embrace ‘do mu gen’ proverb – which asserts: There can be no end to learning”. He concludes karate begins and ends with the study of kata”.

So if we are to believe Nagamine (as well as other Okinawan masters), karate must contain kata and kata must be the primary curriculum, otherwise it is not karate. Kata is one of the primary exercises that places karate in the realm of art. Gichin Funakoshi, the great Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate master wrote many similar arguments including one of my favorite, “the ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in perfection of its participants”.

So, is MMA a martial art? It certainly does not fit the definition of martial art. In the immortal words of Nagamine Sensei, “it is just kicking and punching”. A martial art must have social and esoteric benefits to lead a person down a path of righteousness. It is almost like a religion - it is very Zen like, in that it should help a person to be a more productive member of society. So is there much in the way of social benefits in MMA. Not that I’ve seen! So, let’s just call it what it is – it’s street fighting with a couple of rules.

A very important legend about the creation of martial arts describes a monk named Bodhidarma, who taught philosophy and Zen in the Shaolin Temple in China 1500 years ago. During meditation, Buddhist monks were in such poor physical and mental condition they fell asleep. Bodhidarma instituted the practice of ‘shi po lohan sho’ known as the ‘18 hands of Lohan’ in what is reputed to be an archaic form of Kung Fu that likely originated in India. This blending of Zen with empty hand and weapon’s fighting resulted in Shaolin monks becoming formidable fighters and philosophers throughout China. So if we declare this as the original form of martial art, it is apparent that Zen, self-defense training, and forms (kata) were necessary ingredients in martial art. Some authors have even described kata as moving Zen. So is martial art a sport – I don’t believe so. Karate and martial arts have never been sports until they were Japanized in the 20th century. Whereas, for several hundred years, they were not considered as a sport.

 If we examine Traditional “Japanese” Karate as opposed to TraditionalOkinawanKarate, karate was created by Okinawans and kept secret for centuries from all outsiders (especially the Japanese). There were rules required to learn the art and individuals had to swear an oath to keep the art secret. It is not a Japanese art and was not introduced to Japan until the 20th century, and it was the Japanese who later created karate sport at the objection of Okinawan masters in the mid-20th century. Even the indigenous Japanese arts like jujutsu and judo, were never taught as sport until recently. These were originally samurai combat arts designed to defend against a heavily armored samurai.

In contrast ‘do’ there are systems of martial art that attach the suffix ‘jutsu’ – such as karate-jutsu, or jujutsu. These have been classified as martial arts for years but few of these have many kata although they do observe traditions.

Peter Urban (1967) suggests that martial arts means fighting arts but goes into more detail and indicates that a more valid interpretation comes from the word Budo which translates as ‘the way of the fighter’. The suffix do or way which is often used in Oriental spiritual thoughts provides profound direction in our search for an answer.  Urban further writes the use of techniques and integration of these techniques with the spirit are all important. The way or path is intended to lead the individual to the attainment of perfection or what is often known as self-realization, enlightenment, or simply maturity.

The way of the warrior should lead to ethical conduct and self-awareness govern by tradition. Martial art must include a balance of the spiritual, moral, and technical. It must include kata.

Be it karate, kendo, judo, jujutsu, iado, kobudo, aikido, kyudo, etc, Urban writes that based on the idea of virtue, the followers of martial arts are in effect the descendants of the samurai of old. It is the aim of all martial arts masters to work toward promulgating this spirit of the ancient Zen warriors, a spirit which is more than mere knowledge of fighting techniques- it is the attainment of a virtuous way of life.
So, if you are new to martial arts and ready to find a school to learn martial arts - its up to you. You can train in traditional martial arts, or you can find sport karate, MMA, kickboxing, etc. Its all up to you to decide. As you are searching for a place to train in martial arts, boxing or MMA, remember, one of the most important factors will be the instructor. Is your instructor, or future instructor, the type of person you can get along with. How about the students in the school. This is always a very good indicator of what the instructor is like. Are the students pleasant, respectful, intelligent. Or do they look like a bunch of ... Well, hopefully you get the idea.