Lessons From the Past: The Importance of Evolving Martial Arts

Updated on September 16, 2018
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Jamal is a graduate from Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

I brought two books this past month, Bruce Lee: A Life, and The Book of Five Rings. The first was a biography. Exploring the life, stories, myths, and truths surrounding someone widely considered one of the greatest martial artist-if not the greatest-of all time. The second was a recent translation of a short manual written by a 16th century samurai who was also considered to be one of the greatest warriors Japan has ever produced and possibly the world over, Miyamoto Musashi.

The gulfs between these two couldn’t be greater. Over three hundred years between their life times. Completely different lives. Different cultural and martial contexts. There really isn't much to connect these two people other than my own interests. Or so I initially believed. After reading the books however, I found that they share a common outlook on martial arts and it has shaped my own view of it as well.

"Though effective at close quarters, he found that it was ineffective against an opponent who was not willing to directly engage and keep their distance"

The Modern Innovator

Bruce Lee’s background for fighting was famously the wing chun-style of kung-fu and street fighting. The latter having a great influence on his approach to not only kung-fu, but other styles over all. For most of his early, martial career, he considered wing chun to be the best style out there. Not a shocking view point as many martial artists hold that view of their chosen styles since there have been martial arts. The basis for his conclusion was its practical application to a no rules combat situation-as well as I believe, his natural and ungodly speed.

However his view began to shift after a famous duel with Wong Jack man in San Francisco. There are multiple versions of the battle, but regardless the outcome appears to be that Bruce Lee won or at least came to a draw and this left him with dissatisfied with his chosen style. Though effective at close quarters, he found that it was ineffective against an opponent who was not willing to directly engage and keep their distance. According to some versions, Bruce literally had to chase Wong around until he managed to pin him to ground and beat him into submission. An ugly win that had nothing to do with wing chun’s ‘superior’ attributes. He also found it to be incredibly exhausting and the lack of stamina became another source of great frustration to him.

Being the obsessive, perfectionist he was, Bruce Lee then sought to rectify these limitations and that led him to explore other styles in greater depth and from a less condescending attitude. The result was his abandonment of loyalty to specific styles and instead learning to adapt in order to evolve. This is where his famous analogy of water comes from, its ability to shape itself to any situation and something he found traditional martial arts completely lacked on their own. Armed with this revelation, he developed his own philosophy of Jeet Kun Do to put these lessons into practice. Jeet Kun Do or JKD, is often thought to be its own separate fighting art but its not. It was merely the idea of taking what was useful from other styles and applying them to the fighter’s personal attributes and preferences. The only real techniques you could argue were his focus attack and defense at the same time and the necessity for constant movement.

Though not many schools were formed, the idea survived in the form of the few schools that teach the ‘martial art’, as well as in mix martial art forums.

Unlike Bruce Lee, Miyamoto Musashi always had no qualms about fighting dirty to win.  If he felt the challenger had an advantage, would use the proper weapon to nullify it.
Unlike Bruce Lee, Miyamoto Musashi always had no qualms about fighting dirty to win. If he felt the challenger had an advantage, would use the proper weapon to nullify it.

The Renegade Warrior

Miyamoto Musashi was a samurai from the Yoshino District of 16th Century Japan. He lived during the closing years of Japan’s warring states period where various warlords fought with each other non-stop to rule. His background was in the traditional samurai arts which tended to focus on warfare, archery, and swordsmanship using the Katana long sword as the main weapon while the tachi short sword was held in reserve for close quarters or suicide.

As common as fighting was during this period, Miyamoto killed his first man when he was thirteen years old. This was followed up by numerous challenges, all of which is said he was to have won, save one, which resulted in a draw. He also developed his philosophy and skill from surviving his battlefield experiences, in particular the Siege of Osaka Castle.

It is said that he became such a proficient killer that he eventually stopped killing challengers and instead resorted to incapacitating them. He later became a teacher of his own kendo school, Niten Ichi-ryū, and dictated the lessons from his experiences to an apprentice. The Book of Five Rings emphasizes various approaches to combat and the mindset required for it. Yet two things over all stood out to me: adaptability and practicality.

Miyamoto grew dissatisfied with the structured approach many of his peers and decided to trade centuries-old traditions, for one that was willing to do what it took to win. The physical incarnation of this approached being the use of both the katana and the tachi in battle rather than just one sword. Miyamoto was also infamous for his duplicity when fighting duels, often playing head games to off balance his opponent before he even arrived by arriving too early or too late.

Decades of battle had taught Musashi Miyamoto that honor, gods, and ritual, had nothing to do with winning a battle. And that a true warrior should not only do whatever it takes to win, but also train for any unknown circumstances he may encounter and be ready to die if need be. His idea of personal integrity could be very polar at the least.

Courtesy of the U.S. Army.  Many people, martial artists included forget that martial arts forms were developed for war time situations that had no rules.  Combative sports and other applications are fine, but the roots always remain the same.
Courtesy of the U.S. Army. Many people, martial artists included forget that martial arts forms were developed for war time situations that had no rules. Combative sports and other applications are fine, but the roots always remain the same. | Source

Achilles’ Heel

Despite centuries apart, both of these legendary men came to virtually the same conclusion about martial arts and adopted similar practices to deal with those issues. They both found the status quo to be too static and immobile. They found tradition too bound up with fighting so that it diluted its true nature and goals: victory. And they found the key to regaining the original spirit of martial arts was in being ruthless, becoming adaptable, and being prepared for the unpredictability of combat.

People like the familiar, like what is comfortable and shape their perceptions and lifestyles around that. This applies to martial artists especially as the same arrogance still exists today for varying reasons. Mixed martial arts will proclaim their style to be the best because they do adapt and take in different styles, but are seemingly unaware that MMA still relies on rules and the controlled environment of combat sports. Traditional martial artist too often religiously bind themselves to their styles because of personal ego or cultural identity, and thus fail to adapt their style to the new scenarios that people encounter in the modern age. Many soldiers will criticize traditional styles assuming that their military opponents who practice them like North Korea will still fight according to those styles during an actual engagement. And so on.

The greatest threat to a martial artist, be it soldier, fighter, teacher, or even street fighter isn't another style or a gun, but hubris. The assumption that they already know before hand what their opponent or life, will be bringing to the table. Because when this happens, the brain unconsciously begins prepping the body’s responses and timing instincts to those assumptions. If something occurs outside of those assumptions, like say an opponent who keeps their distance, or someone that decides to not show at the appropriate time, then half the battle was already lost.

These were the lessons I took from these two men: legendary in their own context because they learned not to make those mistakes.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jamal Smith


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      • rabbit75 profile image


        16 months ago

        I am a fan of Bruce Lee and martial arts or fighting in general. Unlike a lot of trolls that can't stand that an Asian is an iconic symbol of "martial arts", I do not care about whether Bruce Lee was the "greatest" fighter of all time or even of his time. It's not the point. While I doubt that he was the very first to start mixing other styles, he was actively doing so and promoting the concept. He believed in the individual and fighting was not a one style fits all type of deal since everyone's body types are different and at different levels of fitness.

        I am not just fan due to his contributions to how martial arts evolved and even how mixed martial arts eventually evolved, but his contributions to film and even American cinema. Unfortunately, racist Hollywood rarely or hardly ever mentions his contributions to camera angles and fight choreography, making fight scenes in American movies more dynamic and intense.

        Almost every action fight scene that we watch now in American cinema was influenced by Bruce's contribution to the media. Great hub and thoroughly enjoyed it.


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