Evolution vs. Dogma in Martial Arts

By Jon F. Merz

I’ve been fortunate to train for over twenty years with Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center in Allston, MA. Back when I started training, there were only a handful of folks in the dojo (which at that time was held in parks across the city of Boston, in rented space in other dojo, etc.) and we were all very like-minded individuals. We’d all trained in other arts and styles and we all wanted the elusive teachings of the art of Ninjutsu. We would stop at nothing to get more information, to train harder, and to test ourselves as much as was possible in a variety of environments. The training back then was hard, most often painful, and bonds formed in the group as so often happens when under stressful situations. Back then, our Friday nights were usually three hours worth of hard training followed by a shared meal afterward where we would laugh and joke. We were all young; we all had little in the way of family obligations; and we all had an unquenchable thirst for training.

Times change. Nature changes. Life evolves.

The Grandmaster has said that our art evolves, that it is a living, breathing art. And after training for over twenty years, it’s easy to see that. The art changes with each new generation that is exposed to it – to meet the needs of that generation. It would be foolish to think that a student walking into the dojo today should be expected to train the way we did back then. My teacher has said that he didn’t know as much twenty years ago as he does now. His understanding of the art and the material has grown exponentially over the years. He no longer needs to rely on the brutality of only physical power to make the art work for him. And trust me when I say that his technique is far scarier and more elusive now than it has ever been. He is truly embodying what the Grandmaster expects of all practitioners.

Not everyone who practices or teaches martial arts feels that way, however. There are some who still cling to the old ways, boastfully proclaiming that theirs is the only right way to teach their style, that tradition is more important than anything else. I have to wonder whether that is because they simply are unable to allow their minds to evolve or because they know that they cannot understand higher level material and therefore feel safe within a certain comfort zone. I’ve certainly seen it in numerous styles: the practitioner cannot do a certain technique and rather than admitting as much, their ego demands they try to explain away the waza or revert to something they know they *are* capable of doing. Instead of learning, they never move out of their comfort zone.

I teach my sons various techniques from my art. But I’d be robbing them of their own personal experience and evolution if I demanded they train the way I did. That’s not putting my “students” first; it’s mindless bullying. Lectures about loyalty to some ideal, lectures about respect, all of those things are preaching a dogma rather than teaching an actual art. People who demand respect only gain scorn from those they bully. In the end, they drive away some students while find others who only reinforce their bad practices. These “followers” of this cult-like behavior form a protective bubble around their teacher, further reducing that teacher’s interaction with reality. Eventually, this cycle spins downward into oblivion and rather then up in steady progression. And the skills of all involved – the teacher and the students – diminish until they have a very scant arsenal. Had they recognized the need to always move out of their comfort zone, the vicious cycle would stop. With new learning comes new opportunity; with no learning only comes an eventual degradation of mind, body, and spirit.

Classic examples of dogma over evolution are senior students who bark orders at junior students, seniors who allow themselves to get lazy and out of shape and adopt a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy, and those who think they are beyond reproach or have nothing to learn from those junior to them in rank. Boastful proclamations of one’s ability or position with a dojo – especially those accompanied by threats – are sure signs that the teacher has fallen prey to his ego and no longer possesses the clear thinking that should be present whenever one assumes the mantle and responsibility of teacher.

And if students are getting hurt during training, that is frankly even worse. I’ve known some teachers who espoused such methods with haughty statements of, “Well, how else are they supposed to learn?” If a teacher has only injury to offer students as a means of showing them how to deal with the dangers of combat, then something is very wrong with that teacher. Had they evolved instead of staying rooted in dogma, they might have better techniques that are capable of conveying the duress of battle without the need to injure. After all, there are units in the military that quite effectively prepare people to face death and are able to do so without injuring their troops. If they can do it, then why can’t martial arts teachers?

As practitioners of martial arts, we are supposed to have flexible minds and attitudes that enable us to use whatever is at hand to make the best of a bad situation. But stating that things are the way they are because it’s always been that way is doing a huge disservice to students and teachers alike. Being able to flow effortlessly from one variable to another in the course of combat is a skill that begins to form very early on within students. Depriving them of that by clinging to the “old ways” or “the good ol’ days” is like clinging to an anchor amid a sea of your own ego.

Dogma is rigid and fixed in only the single perspective of one’s own egotistical certainty; evolution is a natural and organic free-flowing mindset. If you teach martial arts or train in martial arts, are you rooted in dogma?

Or are you evolving?

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