Avid martial artists also get asked the same question as most ultra runners do. Why?? Why dedicate so much of one’s resources towards something so impractical, or likewise – where is the place in today’s society for something so inherently violent and dangerous. Certainly most long time practitioners have had to come up with their own answers to this, in order to justify their training. After all, the ancient martial artists were simply living their lives in a feudal society where the feudal warriors carried arms and defended their standard of living in a society where laws were scarce and human life underrated, quite often likened in the media to living in the ‘American Wild West’. This rationale is, in fact, not entirely that different from the modern day soldier who, ideally, acts in order to preserve and protect our customs and values against potential threats. In fact, the art of warfare and killing is best preserved and evolved in the modern armed forces and is the place to be if one wishes to be fluent in them. (Another source of information available, along similar line, at Japanese Sword Arts FAQ Version 2.7 tries to summarize the aim of Kendo and Iado training in contemporary society).
A simple reflection on the fact that martial arts were practiced in order to defend or take life serves to distinguish it from other physical sports. A martial art is only as good as its student – he/she can increasingly aspire to achieve swift reflexes, unflinching focus and steadfast determination and has to overcome a long and steep learning curve that cannot be rushed. A strong emphasis on fundamentals is paramount towards achieving this physical and mental prowess. Just as you would not expect a runner to finish a marathon by training for it once a week, neither can one expect to achieve proficiency in the martial arts without putting in the appropriate years training. Perhaps more poignantly, many training dojos fall short of simulating controlled combat environment and one is never placed in a situation where their fight or flight autonomic responses are challenged and so the mind still remains untrained and the training incomplete. The benefits to be had by such practice involve the satisfaction gained by working hard to acquire an objective using persistence, focus and sacrifice. However, having said that, the learning curve to achieve “perfection” is incredibly steep and it takes nothing short of a major commitment of time and energy to even come close to achieving the “fighter” image of ourselves that we keep in our minds.
Becoming a proficient warrior is, of course, just one of the many goals of martial training requiring a very different learning approach! Ultimately we all have different and ever changing goals and those do not necessarily involve combat effectiveness. If that were the case, then I would join the armed forces and train in as many martial arts as I possibly could. But for those of us, who pursue a ‘different’ goal, it is not entirely necessary to know if Kung Fu is better than Jujitsu, as now the focus is on one’s attitude towards their chosen art. It’s challenging to overcome the physical and mental trepidations that might keep one away from a dojo. It forces one to confront their fears and teaches how to be focused and committed, skills that are quite transferable to the real world. There is also a sense of confidence that results from testing and improving one’s skills in training with other individuals and in knowing and improving the limits of one’s body. For me, there is also the satisfaction of a base curiosity about our fighting nature and to better understand my fit into such a culture. I might still not know how to win a fight, but at least, I’ll know what my limits are and when and how fast to run away from threats. Who knows, I might even gain something spiritual out of my training after years of trudging along. But mostly, I like the process of “safe” and continued training itself. I guess it’s a bit like running!!!
Martial arts allows us to learn from our predecessors, much like a history lesson, and take in values, traditions and lessons learnt that serve to provide a sense of balance and identity, while continuing to ensure the survival of that culture. We all pursue martial arts for different reasons and I’m not entirely sure if there is a right reason, however, I do believe that in order to get the most out of one’s training, it is imperative to imbue oneself with the past and the present related to their arts and to be disciplined about one’s training. This is not so one can recite the lineages of their particular ryu or regurgitate katas by rote, but rather to ensure that we retain the capacity to think analytically and stay open-minded. Many dojos often impart a very dilute or placated version of the original form (Read here to find out more). Being aware, honest and analytical about one’s pursuits will allow them to keep in focus and ensure maximal gains on their training.
Click here to read Diane Skoss’ opinions on similar matter, and if you’ve decided to take the plunge, then read on here! Ellis Amdur’s book Dueling with O Sensei also provides a very informed opinion on martial arts in the modern society. Having said all that, it goes without saying that it’s no fun training with someone who doesn’t have a sense of humor.