The Sharp Edge of History

A guy walks into the dojo and says: “I just want to learn to fight. I really don’t care about all that other stuff.”

He didn’t say what other stuff he meant. We didn’t ask. He wanted to learn to fight.  We teach that. He started that day.

What he did say was that even though his high school wasn’t that violent, things happened. And he did not want to have to worry about it. He did some martial arts where he used to live. He knew he could learn it if he practiced.

He was ready to start.


In The Beginning

There are a lot of origin stories in martial arts. People have worked hard to uncover the hidden roots of their styles, digging into history, visiting monuments, examining carvings in ancient temple walls, reading old books and listening to tales from long ago.

But that kid coming into our dojo that day, who just wanted to learn to fight, is an origins story. It is one that will matter to him, and it might hold clues to the ancient ones too.

The human impulse to defend effectively and the insight that training will give you more ability that ‘just doing it’ may be familiar to us, but it was not always so.

The high school guy who came into our dojo that day said: “I want to learn to fight.” He did not say: “I want to fight.”


Wrong Place. Wrong Time.

Chimpanzees fight. When a band of chimps in the wild notice a chimp from another band snooping around their territory they will attack him. Not chase him off – they aren’t trying to make him go away. They sneak up. They attack and kill him, rip his limbs off and jump up and down on the body. No training necessary. Spontaneous violence. No special techniques. The strength they need to climb, carry, throw, gather food, and play is employed to break up the body of their enemy.

The primatologists studying this tried to prove that it was human influence that made the chimps violent. No. That’s the way chimps are.  They thought this stranger wanted their territory, food or females. Why else would he be snooping around?


The Ghost of Training

What if one day one of the chimps who was a victor in that massacre had a vivid memory of his moment of exaltation and dominance? What if he thought it would be fun to act out what he did when he smashed and defeated the trespasser, so he repeated the moves with his body and in his imagination, over and over, kind of like an evil exuberant dance? Then the next time a trespasser approached their turf he might have been even more devastating. More accustomed to the physical moves, and more habituated to the mindset of attack.

What if he visualized “success,” like an athlete in training does today.

That is primitive and it is violent. But if you are looking for origins we might start looking way back.

Over millennia of human history there have been innovators in the martial arts, new approaches, inspired visionaries, virtuoso practitioners who made discoveries, groups that refined training, and scribes that codified systems so the insights could be passed on. But those are not origins.  When you start looking back, no matter how far you look, it seems there is something further back.


Blood Line

We taught that young guy who came into the dojo who just wanted to learn to fight. We taught him on his first day. We introduced him to the basics he would learn in class. We showed him those moves in the way we learned them, maybe a little bit evolved here or there.

One of the instructors showed him the dojo customs we use in class. Maybe that was the ‘other stuff’ the guy was talking about.


There are lots of transmission stories in martial arts.

Tracing back our lineage helps us to orient within our own style, and locate our style in relation to others. It acknowledges the persistent effort by real people, over many generations, which brought our art to us.

Some of the connections we know well.

We know that great Okinawan karate practitioners like Kanbun Uechi and Chojun Miyagi and many others traveled to China to learn martial arts there, so they could deepen their own practice and bring fresh knowledge back home.

We do not know so much about why they thought the arts they learned at home were inadequate.

We know about the trade missions that sailed from the Ryukyus periodically, for centuries, navigating from Naha to the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and beyond, where Okinawan crews learned new combative methods by studying, observing, or fighting.  What they did and what they learned over those 500 years is barely known.

We know something about Kalayari Pattu from India. Some in India claim that Kalayari Pattu is the original ancient martial art that spread out across the world from there and influenced all the others.  There is a lot of interesting writing on this.

No matter how wide you cast your net to capture  influences that formed a style there seem to be some that remain out of reach.


Single Point of Origin

The idea of dissemination of styles from a single point of origin is appealing. It is simple and clear.

Some make the alternative case for spontaneous generation of fighting styles all over the world – since people share the same body design and had similar combative challenges they would find similar solutions.

Was the use of fire discovered in one place, or did it appear in many places? What about the use of tools, agriculture, metallurgy? Technologies have appeared in many places, disseminated by travelers, invaders and neighbors. They flourish in some places, vanish in others, and don’t catch on for centuries in others. There are multiple points of origin.

On the other hand many religions and nations have single point of origin narratives.


No Island is an Island, Entire unto Itself

We have heard something about the “36 families” – a Chinese diplomatic and cultural mission established near Shuri in a village enclave called Kumemura.  They and their associates from Ming era China brought martial arts techniques with them, and shared them with their counterparts when they settled on Okinawa.

We have heard stories about shipwrecked sailors who found refuge and hospitality in the islands and shared their novel martial skills with the people there – the people whose descendants became our teachers.

Several of the kata in Okinawan styles are named for these sailors. Who they were, beyond their names, was not recorded.  The original fighting forms they taught, and which of the modern versions is most similar, is debated. But the influence of those people continues, and it reaches us.


Old School

The idea that a stable form of martial arts is transmitted unchanged from generation to generation over time and distance, even as culture and conditions change, is appealing.

Animals adapt to a changing environment to stay alive. People adapt their way of behaving to accommodate new modes of life. The origin and spread of words, memes, ideas, insights, infectious diseases, childhood games, folk customs and the borders of social identity can be as hard to track as footsteps on asphalt.

A lot of good effort has been made to track exactly what our ancestors taught in martial arts. As thin as the written record is, the written record is not the main problem.

The barrier is in human habit: when we first learn a kata it is hard to grasp the depth of what we are learning.  We pick up the surface elements, then as we practice, trying to imitate the form precisely as taught, the form will open up to us, revealing new layers of meaning.

If we do not take the time for that process to unfold we will not see what is hidden in the kata. We make improvements. We add and delete based on our assumptions and preferences. Then some of the knowledge that was originally encoded in the kata, or other components of training, is lost.

The old masters taught their new students one kata for three years they say. The result was deep conditioning of the body, skill training, focus, cultivation of patience and persistence, and deference to the judgment of the seniors in matters of training. But another effect was to assure thorough and intact transmission of technique.


What Bodhidharma Taught at Shaolin

How far back can we trace the transmission of martial arts?

Bodhidharma, a 5th century Buddhist monk, is the starting point for many styles.

We know a lot about the stream of Buddhism that Bodhidharma brought from India to China. We know he brought the Lankavatara Sutra with him from India. He had it translated into Chinese, and it served as the doctrinal focus of his teaching at Shaolin.

We know that to comprehend and use the content of that book would take 10 to 20 years of study, as it does today.  We know that its key method was a union of philosophical understanding and practical experience in meditation.

We know that when he arrived in China the monks there already practiced a Taoist movement-sequence system for body-mind cultivation.

We know the figure identified as “the Buddhist warrior-protector deity Vajrapani,” who was the primary figure of devotion at Shaolin, is a key figure in tantric Buddhism, central to Performance Tantra, which was disseminating at the time that Bodhidharma taught.

One of the epithets of Buddha was “Enemy Destroyer.”  This referred to Buddha as one who destroys confusion, anger and greed in the minds of people – the real enemies – the destruction of which, according to the Buddhists, is what leads to liberation, to the end of suffering. In many interpretations Vajrapani represents that “Enemy Destroyer” aspect of the Buddha.

Religious people in many cultures have compared their spiritual quest to warfare and their training to preparation for battle.

Military people in every culture have used terms and ideas derived from religion to describe their mission and their lives.

The sharp awareness of the present moment, experienced in battle, and the total commitment to training for victory, have been applied in the Buddhist tradition for example, to encourage monks to apply themselves with life or death urgency to their meditation and study.

The military use of religious ideas including the quest for personal perfection, salvation, total commitment to the ultimate good, and the sacrifice of the comforts of this world for a higher purpose, are found in many cultures.

It is easy to adopt the language of one while doing the other. Shaolin became a fort centuries after Bodhidharma lived, as the Buddhist institution in China became as instrument of state power, just as the Buddhist ecclesia did centuries later in Japan.

It was simple for the young men training to fight at Shaolin and other temple centers to link their training to the religious language of their tradition and map their combative training onto the process of seeking religious perfection. This is common across traditions and cultures.

The degree to which this permits adherents to fulfill the ideals of the religion they purport to follow varies.


According to scholar Meir Shahar and others, the legend of Bodhidharma teaching fighting arts at Shaolin makes its first appearance in the 16th century, a millennium after he lived.

True stories are good. But even the invented ones can have value.  Like martial arts movies, the events may be made up but what the characters are like, and what they do, can still be relevant to us.

Can we draw a line from Bodhidharma’s time to now and show a linear sequence of cause and effect – like a row of falling dominoes, one hitting the next in an orderly sequence in time and space – in which a discrete fighting style, with a leader at the head of every generation, and an intact body of knowledge, was transmitted?

Just going back a generation or two we can see the “roots and branches of our style” issue is debated and open to interpretation in many groups. Many connections remain unknown.


Right Place. Right Time.

We know that macaque monkeys were living on a remote Japanese island called Kojima, for a long time. Shortly after World War II a boatload of scientists showed up on this island to study them.

They put some sweet potatoes on the beach.

The macaques loved to eat the sweet potatoes.  They didn’t like to eat the sand and dirt that were on the potatoes when they picked them up from the ground. So it was their habit to brush the sand and dirt off before they took a bite.

One day the scientists were watching these monkeys eat their potatoes when they saw something they had never seen before. One monkey took its potato and dipped it into the seawater, swished it around to wash it, and then took a bite.

That was a fast way to clean a potato.

The scientists were not the only ones who noted this innovation. Pretty soon the other macaques on the island caught on. They started washing their potatoes too.

The monkeys seemed to find the seawater-dipped potato tastier than a plain one. One monkey started dipping her potato into the water every time she took a bite. Because, the scientists believed, the potato tasted better with salt.

Potato washing became the norm among the macaques of Kojima.  Most never brushed a potato again. Perhaps their offspring would be born into a world where brushing potatoes off before eating them would become the stuff of legend, soon to be forgotten altogether.


Learning from Scientists

But consider this: What are the chances that after all the years of macaques eating near the edge of the ocean the scientists showed up on this island just in time to witness the most miraculous innovation in macaque history? And they just happened to be watching the one monkey who did it, as it happened.

It could have happened that way. Could there be another explanation? When you are at the beach do you ever rinse the sand off your hands or your feet or your gear in the water?

Could one of the scientists have done a simple gesture like that, without even thinking anything of it, while the monkeys were watching them? Do you think the monkeys would take their eyes off a group of strange never-before-seen creatures who just appeared in their isolated home island, and have been staring at them for hours?

Could it be that the scientists forgot to consider their influence on their subjects in their interpretation of the events they observed? They changed conditions. They observed an adaptation to the new conditions.

Could it be that the monkeys washed some food before? Or that some were washing their spuds somewhere unseen by the scientists?

Was this potato-washing an innovation? Or a transmission? Who gets the credit for it?

We may never be certain. We know the monkeys appreciated their new knowledge. They shared it with each other. Life was better.


The Invisible Network

It is hard to track origins and lines of transmission: who taught who, what they taught, why they did it just that way, when it happened, who saw it, who thought to write it down, why they chose what they chose to pass on, who preserved it as taught, who improved it, who misunderstood it, who restored the meaning.

The identity of the contributors to a style is one issue. The treasure that we have in the style is another.

Our era is different from the China of Shaolin, the Japan of Kamakura or the Ryukyu Kingdom.  But in one respect it is exactly the same now as it was in their time: No one knows what’s coming next.

We know that among the many people who came before us, the ones that we admire most worked hard all their lives and accepted risk to do right. They respected their teachers. They took care of their people. They prepared for life’s challenges in advance.

We know that there came a time in the life of every one of them when they turned their back to the legends, faced their world and did what they needed to do.


We follow their tradition.


Note: That high school kid who joined our school “just to learn how to fight” learned how to fight.  He learned some of “the other stuff” too. For example: we challenge each other in training. We are all in this together. When one gets stronger we are all lifted up. There is no benefit in keeping knowledge only for your self when someone else could use it. There is no good reason to stop exploring or sharing or training.


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