For the most part, I believe that we are all inclined to try to blaze a new trail for others to follow. We are driven to leave our mark in the world somehow, whether through action, the written word, legend, or at least in the memories of those whose lives we touch. Of those who seek to find the new, only a handful is able to create something so meaningful that it simply cannot be ignored, categorized or forgotten. These are the luminaries of the time.

The World of Martial Arts is no different in this respect. In this realm, luminaries come around once in a lifetime, true teachers that kick the slow evolution of the traditional Martial Arts into high gear, sparking mutations that forever change our movement, our philosophy, and, hopefully, our understanding. Teachers like Morihei Ueshiba, Ed Parker, and Bruce Lee revolutionized the arts and galvanized entire movements of faithful practitioners and disciples – all fiercely loyal to their founding fathers in the ways they best see fit.

Unfortunately, sometimes the arts suffer under the weight of the defense of so many, when the view points are so vast and varied; and, because the founders have passed on from our world, they are viewpoints that can never be truly resolved for no other reason than the Instructors with the answers are not here to settle them.

Still, our Instructors did not leave us empty handed. They left behind a wealth of knowledge, in their writings, notes, journals, videos, interviews, and blood, sweat and tears on the mat, free for us to assimilate, analyze, interpret and apply to the best of our abilities. We have but to seek out the answers to find them. The question is, how many of us still seek to answer the questions?

The Secret Back Fist

Many of the Martial Arts we practice today house numerous factions, associations, and federations, all of whom believe and insist that they alone have the secrets of the founders, that only they can truly convey the meanings and teachings of the art as they were meant to be learned. The unfortunate result is infighting within the art itself. That staunch loyalty to the style simply becomes the means by which the student is kept from discovering for him or herself the path the founders laid out. Often, those very students get caught in the cross-fire of a feudal society within the Art that can end in resentment and eventually abandonment of the path.

We can thank, in large part, the dark shadow of business marketing that looms over any dojo that hopes to make a decent living, for this Curse of the Secret Back Fist. Let’s face it, as a wise, not-so-old Instructor of mine once said, “Money might not buy happiness, but poverty doesn’t pay your bills, and if you want to train, you have to eat.” Economics are, in part, at the root of many of the disagreements between styles of the same art that we see today. How? A dojo that wants to keep its doors open needs to drive new students to its mat, so that, as some students leave, the spot is immediately filled by a new, paying member. But, with so many options available to a new or prospective student, each dojo has to find a way to shine and stand out from the crowd. And there you have it, The Secret Back Fist. It really is that simple.

Is This What the Founders Wanted?

As students, we must maintain a discerning eye. We must be willing to ask ourselves: “Is this really what the art is about? Is this really what the Founder wanted me to learn? Is this really what he foresaw or hoped his art would become?”

I cannot personally imagine Sijo Lee or O’Sensei, both of whom worked throughout their lives to birth philosophies that were uniting and open, would have wanted their teachings to become fragmented, sectionalized, and, in some cases, stagnant under the weight of Tradition. I believe that they’d hoped the arts would continue to evolve in their absence, in harmony. Evolution is sometimes a messy endeavor to which many feuds can be attributed as well; however, in some cases, it seems as though the disagreements are less about the course the art should take and more about the person guiding a particular path.

Every Day on the Mat Makes History

Both Sijo and O’Sensei started as students somewhere. Every time they set foot on a mat, a little piece of the history behind their arts was written. Sijo’s very first Pak Sao as a student of Wing Chun under Yip Man in 1954, O’Sensei’s first throw as a Daito- Aiki-jiujutsu student under Takeda Sensei, founder of that system, in 1915, these were moments that became history. They were the launching pad for arts that transformed the world of Martial Arts as a whole, but it all started with one student, one day, on a training mat at a dojo, just like so many others.

What do I mean to say with all of this? While innovators like Lee, Takeda, Parker, and Ueshiba are one in a million, every day that we, as students, train, every step we take on the mat, every time we speak about our styles, our philosophies, our movements, our instructors, and our heroes, we have the opportunity to write a little piece of the history of Martial Arts. When we dispute the merits or faults of one style over another, we may be influencing a future leader, or even ourselves. When we bicker over who has the right or the means or truth to carry on the tradition of the art, we risk its evolution, its mutation, its ability to become more than we can imagine and actually blossom into that which its Founding Father or Mother knew it would become.

We must be watchful, always, of our words and actions on and off the training floor, because every day we practice our art, each time we apply a principle or uncover a new aspect of its philosophy, anytime we pass on the knowledge we have gathered from our Instructors and experience, we make Martial Arts History.