Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Master Silver's Magic Pill

Of course I refer to Master George Silver, the 16th century English martial pragmatist who championed the older, versatile, proven, holistic and inclusive fighting arts and opposed the specialized and faddish flavors of the month. Fortunately for us, his written work/s survive, for all martial arts are greatly supplemented by literal study. One would have little hope of ever becoming a great martial artist or instructor without a great deal of literal study, regardless of one’s system. As has been said, “The one who knows why will always be the Master, the one who only knows how will remain the student.”1 And as Master Silver said, “There is nothing permanent that is not true…” Therefore, truths are expedited when learned from others, and often rediscovered and repeated out of ignorance, at best, when literal study is lacking –but no less true.

Therefore, the more one knows, the more difficult it becomes to write much that is new and original about the martial arts. Martial arts and mankind never change, only what we know about them changes, in a sense, as they are both based upon principle. All that the masters wrote about their preferences, dislikes and feuds are still being rewritten by others today, which brings me to a paraphrasing of a certain story/analogy told by Master Silver to illustrate a point.

There was a certain man who was about to cross the channel by boat. He knew from previous experiences that he was prone to getting terribly sea-sick, but he had forgotten to stop by the drug store on the way to the dock to pick up some anti-nausea pills.
An old woman, having seen his anxiety, approached him and inquired about his troubles. He explained, and then she produced a bottle from her purse. Inside were some pills. She explained to him that they were an infallible home remedy, passed down through her family for generations. What they were composed of was a strongly guarded family secret, passed to them from Asia ages ago. She could not say how they worked, but she swore that they did, and it was quite convincing. It seemed her entire family used them when going across the channel, and they never did get nauseous. But because they were so secret, their making so expensive, and their popularity so high, she charged an exorbitant amount per pill. But it was a “fact” that so long as the pill remained in one’s stomach, one would be projectile-vomit free.
So the man relented, handed over the cash, and boarded ship. He swallowed the pill with some water, and began his voyage.
Shortly into his trip, however, the nausea came. As the boat rocked to and fro, he progressively felt more ill. But he remembered the woman’s words; so long as the pill was in his stomach, he would not vomit.
Then it came. His stomach convulsed, and the remains of his breakfast rocketed across the floor. Clearly within that mess, was the special magic pill.

The woman hadn’t lied. She had told him a truth, of sorts, yet he was conned none the less. So long as the pill was in his stomach, he hadn’t vomited. Yet his expectations were not met; he had wanted to be nausea free, and not to vomit at all. The fact that the woman’s family never got sea-sick had nothing to do with the pills either.

Now, due to a certain degree of obsolescence, among other things, there are more sportified, faddish and bizarre huckster systems (and organizations) out there than ever before. And the ignorant have no reason not to believe what they see and hear. After all, what they are shown in the studio seems novel and highly effective; the perfect magic pill to cure your self defense ills. But what the uninitiated lack is the context of any given fighting system (not to mention the catches of strange organizational hybrids in the now pseudo-arts of the medieval/Renaissance West).

Let’s move on to a dialogue between instructor and scholar, like that used by Master Joseph Swetnam, to illustrate this some more, and like one that happened at my school last week (that just so happened to follow the telling of Master Silver’s story of the magic stone).

Following some lecture and technique training…

Scholar: I’d want to use that figure-four from the ground like you showed us last week!

Instructor: If you recall from last week, I taught that technique supplementally, so that you could add it to your repertoire, and primarily, so you could be better prepared to defend yourself against it. We have better options here.

Scholar: But it was so easy and effective! Why shouldn’t I use it?

Instructor: It is very effective, within its own context, as are the systems that revolve around such techniques. But, you must understand the context. The context of our Art is that of combat. The context of that technique is one of sport. Sport is not suited to combat; it is fragile by comparison.

Scholar: What do you mean, “fragile?”

Instructor: By fragile, I mean that it is likely to break under the stress of combat, should any of its supporting rules be broken.

Scholar: Rules?

Instructor: Yes. Systems that revolve around such techniques are sport oriented. Sports invariably have rules. The now popular systems that use such techniques cater to a list of roughly 31 different rules, some catch-all, and some specific. If any one of those rules were to be broken, it could cost the practitioner of those systems victory. In fact, if one were to build an art around breaking all of those rules, it would be a very solid structure for a combat art. To bring your attention back to our system, you’ll notice that 99% of any given technique in our curricula is entirely illegal within those schools.

Scholar: So what was wrong with that technique? That fighting methodology? How could it be broken?

Instructor: Firstly, one of the simplest answers is that if you face more than one opponent, knowingly or unknowingly, your victory will be lost. You will be injured or killed. While diving onto an opponent on the ground and attempting to lever his arm far enough to make him submit, choke him out, etc. any third person could beat you to death. But perhaps the most important principle lacking in such an art is that of intellectual departure. Often the most efficient means for survival in combat is the ability to escape, which cannot happen when tied up on the ground in a time consuming struggle.

Scholar: I see.

Instructor: But that is only a fraction of the equation. What if we were to break any of those 31 rules? Not all of them, but a single one. Perhaps he has a pocket knife. Perhaps we allow him to break the rule of biting, or of small joint breaking, or fish hooking, or eye gouging, then what do you think would happen to the technique? And what about the ground itself? Not all surfaces are conducive to comfortable rolling about.
However, such techniques exist only because rules against firstly preventing their avoidance exist. There are far more efficient alternatives in combat. Wrestling takes time. Conversely, a combat art is about efficiency, of both time and energy. Why dive onto him to lever his arm when you could run, kick, stomp, knee, and break? Why bring him into that position when in reality, an opponent with no rules can knee strike you and drop elbows onto your spine, all of which are banned within such an art? And necessarily, they teach no weapons.

Scholar: But I went to their school, and they told me that 95% of all fights go to the ground! And when they demonstrated, it was quite effective!

Instructor: Again, you lacked the context. Under demonstration, they were abiding by their own rule structure, and when performed on you, you are but a novice without the knowledge of how to properly defend yourself.
When a potential client visits a school, of course they will speak only good of themselves and try to make you their student. What else would they do? It is a rare school that will tell a potential client the limits of what they instruct. Perhaps even their instructors lose sight of the true context in which they teach their system.
A lack of context is why combat organizations such as the U.S. Army now teach such sport arts in place of combat arts.

Scholar: But what about the percentage of fights that go to the ground? Isn’t that significant?

Instructor: It is true that many fights go to the ground. But the true answer is not so simple. Certainly within their systems, nearly all fights inevitably go to the ground. It would follow that they attempt to bring a fight into the direction for which they train, and to gain students and promote their systems, they would skew the numbers in their favor. And, we know the adage that x percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.
Likewise, those who train in systems that lack a strong ground component will not only be more adept at remaining standing in combat, but will also skew the numbers for the same reasons. But remember, there are always three perspectives in combat; first, second and third person. What does the neutral third party have to say about it? Well, by all accounts, not that many fights go to the ground. Yet some still do, so would it not be prudent to train for it if we were truly studying a war art? Of course it would, particularly if we were to face those who train to cause fights to go to the ground, whom are becoming more and more common.
But of course, for the numerous reasons I have already told you, we wish to avoid being on the ground in a true combat art. Thus you will note that our techniques dealing with the unfortunate event that we are brought to the ground involve quickly regaining a standing position. And of course, we do have many techniques where we bring our opponent to the ground, but you will note that we do not voluntarily follow him there. You will find no such thing in any war art in history outside of a minority of a very few contextual techniques. Imagine a battlefield before firearms if such things were true. A writhing mass of bodies on the ground. The 5% still standing would kill the other 95% like fish in a barrel!

Scholar: I see; the magic pill. So such “no holds barred” fights in the ring look like real fights, but they really aren’t. The vast majority of holds are actually barred. What they say appears to be truth, yet it is not truth in principle. They do not necessarily lie, but they do not show the reality.

Instructor: Indeed. They are rough, they take skill, and produce great fighters, but they are limited. They are born of and revolve around sport. You must educate yourself on the context of what you desire so that the truth cannot be hidden from you when you seek it, because we could have such conversations about many systems. Do not buy into any magic beans without first researching them. There is very little new under the sun when it comes to the fighting arts. Ancient wisdom should be combined with current knowledge.


1. Paraphrased from Ed Parker.

Copyright Oct. 2010, Benjamin Bradak

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