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At the Core of Martial Arts

At the Core of Martial Arts

This article was written by Tony Terranova. Tony came to live in the UK when he was eight years old. He was originally from Sicily and his first language is Italian. Tony started training in 1983 and was graded 1st Dan in Shotokan by sensei Enoeda in 1986. Tony trained in Shotokan alongside the now world-renowned martial artist and author Geoff Thompson (they have remained good friends). Tony stopped training in 1991 due to work (which involves a lot of global travel) and returned to training at the age of 45 in 2002 with the FSBKUI receiving instruction from sensei Jerry Breeze (6th Dan). He also currently studies under Sensei Ross Iannoccaro (6th Dan) in Ju-Jutsu. He currently trains and teaches at Cheltenham S.K.C.

Tony has written a number of previous articles that you may have seen in Martial Arts Illustrated, Shotokan Karate Magazine and the articles section of I found the article below to be a very interesting analysis of what lies at "the core of the martial arts" and I'm very grateful to Tony for sharing it with visitors and members of this site.

All the best,


At the Core of Martial Arts

by Tony Terranova

Martial arts instructors strive to maintain high standards and preserve tradition (based on their beliefs). This can be a difficult task given that the martial arts have undergone more changes in the past 10 years than in the last millennium. It can also be said that during this period certain arts received bad press (some of it was self-inflicted) with the evolution of 'cross training' and the dilution of old principles.

So how do we trace the changes that have occurred? What's different? Is it that fads and fashions (illusions created by marketing and spin-doctors) drive content? Or could it be a result of one of the martial arts misconceptions that all martial arts are good for self-defence?

Research tells us that there are two ends of the scale on this subject. At one extreme are the practitioners who train in the traditional arts and show little interest in self-defence or competition fighting, they can demonstrate great knowledge about their own art but have a limited concept of other styles. At the other extreme end are the street-smart self-defence practitioners and fighting gladiators. These are no different except to say they have knowledge of real life situations (with proven test cases) but they struggle to understand why traditionalists keep practising stuff that does not work in street combat.

This leads us to another question "do martial arts teach values and if so are they desirable"?

Traditional arts do provide many answers as to why we learn to fight and when it is morally right or wrong. From the traditional view point "The Core of Martial Arts" is about virtue and wisdom, (the art is just the vehicle to get us there), these are the attributes that remain with us after our techniques are less practical as time takes its toll on our bodies. We are told to try and understand a different point of view (opinion) and to respect the contribution that others can make by keeping an open mind. If we put too much emphasis on fighting we could be in danger of losing the big picture; "a good and worthy life".

If we then consider combining the traditional viewpoint with the knowledge that exercising at (or near) capacity is a good way of reaching an introspective state we reach the conclusion that training is principally an act of faith in which we develop our bodies, character and mental stamina. This conclusion is derived from the fact that the human race is genetically designed for exercise not rest. William Shakespeare nicely sums this up with his quote "our bodies are our gardens - our wills are our gardeners".

Accepting that different instructors (and students) have different values (and beliefs), martial arts institutions may begin to respect everybody's point of view and perhaps re-establish new operating models that could enable further growth in the arts without the bad press. The responsibility of promoting martial arts and its benefits sits squarely on the shoulders of the instructors (at all levels).

We all want to be good instructors, but it's not easy. If you ask a bad instructor and a good instructor the same question "are you a good instructor?" Don't be surprised if their answer is clinically based on their own perceptions of how well they teach the techniques of their respective styles (and I have been guilty of this myself).

However, in looking deeper at "The Core Of Martial arts" we find that past masters where more than just instructors of their art they where mentors to the students that they taught. The mentor philosophy inspired students not only to be better martial artists but also more importantly, better human beings. The end result being martial arts is just that, - 'martial arts' - with no bad press or obsessive compulsions to compare one art to another. The bottom line was that one individual (the instructor) could make a difference.

The principles and values contained in many of the oldest martial arts books gave as much press to the virtues of wisdom as they did to actual techniques. The Bubishi, states "In spite developing only mediocre skills, one can still enjoy immeasurable rewards and find direction through helping their fellow man. Austere conditioning and balanced nutrition are the corner stones of mental stability - and austere conditioning must be evenly balanced with philosophical assimilation and protracted introspection" (translated by Patrick McCarthy' - ISBN: 0-8048-2015-5). The To-Te-Jitsu by Gichin Funakoshi states "No Martial arts exists where mental concentration and development is not essential to its training" (ISBN: 0-920129-22-6).

Is it fair then to ask the question "do we as instructors fall short of the values personified by our past masters in every dimension of the martial arts?" Are we now driven so much by materialism that we are deluded into thinking that's what we really need? The past masters where totally committed to the core of martial arts (not materialism). Mental Stamina was their antidote to doubts and distractions. There is a distinct difference between commitment and interest. If we are interested in doing martial arts, we do it only when the circumstances allow us to; if we are fully committed, we make no excuses but work to get results on a consistent long-term basis.

Can we then consider promoting the martial arts as one common platform on which we take up our different locations? If we can accept this concept then the two extreme ends no longer exist and it develops respect within the arts. For example: Geoff Thompson was responsible for taking the noise out of the marital arts (he is in the street-smart/fighter category). He distilled the arts down to a narrow but effective set of techniques that work in a street confrontation. But he has still consciously followed the discipline & moral code of the martial arts as evidenced by his lifestyle and positive, proactive approach to life.

We can also promote that participation in the martial arts was valued by past cultures and deemed to be beneficial to the practitioner's health - it was a way of life (not just training). This still holds true today, but the quality of a practitioner's experience depends on the environment created by the instructor. As Instructors we have a responsibility to remain aware of our own behaviour and to understand how our students may perceive what we do and say.

The inspiration to write this article is credited to my good friend and training partner Mike Bennett (he has trained in Mayo-Shin-Do for over 17 years). Although we practice and teach different styles (my foundation is Shotokan) we still work out together and share our different views on the basis of one common platform. In Mayo-Shin-Do (the origins are from Japanese and Chinese styles) they teach traditional karate, judo and kick boxing. In the following paragraph I am repeating a few of Mike's comments (his words not mine).

"As we progress in our training, what we initially seek changes as we learn how to control the body through mental and physical form. As knowledge of combat skills increases we also need to understand first aid, the human body, and the effect of nutrition. Instructors have the responsibility to adjust their level to that of the student when sparring, which teaches respect, and builds trust. Instructors should also strive to mentor and guide students to a better way of living; the art of fighting is not always about fighting"

In the Mayo-Shin-Do system to attain black belt status you have to also pass a written test on first aid, human anatomy and nutrition. Mike is totally committed to the martial arts, in September 2004 he will be closing his successful building business so that he can teach martial arts full time.

Can we then conclude that it significantly benefits the martial arts if we all keep an open mind on the contribution others can make and the virtues of traditional concepts? If we can all achieve this and focus on hard training (and not bad press, politics and spin), then we unanimously accept the power of the following profound quote by the Dalai Lama - "Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it" (An Open Heart 'The Dalai Lama' - ISBN: 0-340-79430-5).

Copyright © Tony Terranova 2004

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