InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Feb 2002
EJMAS Tips Jar

On Teaching, an interview with Karl Friday

EJMAS: We'd like to explore the idea of learning in the martial arts. Do you need an instructor to learn martial arts? Do you need one to learn History? Do you need one to learn Basketball? We'd like to suggest the answer is no to all three questions, but that you'll likely learn better and faster if you've got someone who's done it before to show you some of the shortcuts.
Karl Friday: The answer to the first question depends on what you mean by "martial arts."  Can you learn to fight without a teacher?  Obviously.  Can you learn to fight *well* without a teacher?  Probably.  But can you learn a *specific art* without a teacher?  Not really.   Even if you keep the definition of "teacher" restrictive enough to exclude someone you just watch and imitate (including by video or book in modern times), the best you could possibly expect to achieve is a reinvention of the art--the creation of something new, in imitation of the art itself.

Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there's anything particularly wrong with that.  But it's not the same thing as studying the art itself.  In activities like boxing--or basketball--the difference is probably not all that important, because the key concern is the development of a set of skills to help achieve a manifest and tangible goal--winning games/matches.  So if your goal is just to win sword fights, or to impress people with flashy sword draws and cuts at the air, you certainly could do reasonably well (maybe even as well or better) learning iaido or kenjutsu without a teacher as with one.  But that, of course, begs the question of why?  I can often go for weeks at a time without being drawn into mortal combat with swords (especially if I stay out of certain neighborhoods in Atlanta!).  So learning to use a sword, per se, isn't really the point of studying Japanese sword arts.  Using the sword as a tool to lead you along a particular sort of path toward personal development is.  And that requires a guide, who knows the path.

Karl Friday and Dakin Burdick
Karl Friday (left) demonstrating Kashima Shinryu sojutsu to Dakin Burdick.

The question of learning history without a teacher is similar in some respects, but also fundamentally different.  It's similar in that it also depends in part on what you mean by "learning history."  If you mean acquiring a storehouse of facts--names, dates, etc.--then a teacher is pretty much just an aide to self-discipline and a short-cut to finding the best tools to help you with your task.  Kind of like a personal trainer is for someone trying to stay physically fit.

But learning to think like a historian, and/or to produce historical scholarship, are skills that are much harder to acquire on one's own.  It can be done--which is why learning history is fundamentally different from learning a bugei--but it's no where near as simple a process as most people would like to believe.  Anyone who's reasonably bright can collect and collate facts, but the real art lies in knowing what facts to look for, where to look for them, what questions to ask, and a host of other things (not to mention the technical skills for reading and understanding the sources) that can't easily be outlined or articulated, and are therefore best acquired by guided experience.  Which is why the apprenticeship process through which students are guided in grad schools exists.

All of which is to say that "learning history," "learning basketball," and "learning bugei" are very different things.  The first is about acquiring a very amorphous and subtle set of mental skills and attitudes to be applied toward the production of a visible and tangible result.  It can be accomplished without a teacher, but not easily.  The second is about acquiring specific motor skills and technical knowledge to be applied in pursuit of a very concrete goal.  Here the teacher is mainly a short-cut.  The third is about working through a specific process in a specific way, in pursuit of an intangible goal.  Here, the process itself is the whole point, and the teacher *is* the activity.

EJMAS: The important part of "learning bugei" then, is to be around the teacher. It certainly involves learning physical skills but how relevent are those skills? Would one seek out the best teacher one could find, ignoring the particular art? To push it a bit further, would basketball serve as the activity, provided the teacher was correct and the process of discipleship was the same? Can we tease out the specific ways in which martial arts produce their unique results while other activities do not.
Karl Friday: Actually, I'd argue that bugei study ("martial art" is really too broad a phenomenon to discuss coherently here) *doesn't* produce unique results--in fact that's the whole point of why you can't learn the bugei without a teacher.  What it *does* do (or is supposed to do, anyway) is guide a learner toward a universal/common result, by a unique and very specific path.

Any given bugei system is just one form of budo, which is in turn just one of a theoretically infinite variety of michi (do) that lead to the kind of universalized state of understanding of Things posited (in one form or another) by Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.  In the medieval and early modern Japanese conception of things (which is the crucible in which bugei thought and culture was formed), Buddhist religious exercises, Taoist and other meditation practices, and whole-hearted devotion to any number of other pursuits--including chanoyu, calligraphy, music, painting, etc.--all represent essentially co-equal routes to the same place.  Hence the metaphor of michi, and the related terminology of the arts that conceptualize it as a  path up a mountain.

Attempting to navigate that path on your own is like attempting to find your way up a very treacherous mountain on your own and in the dark.  There are lot's and lot's of routes that will get you to the top, but even more that will lead you off a cliff, or leave you stranded under impassible overhangs.

Hence my point: in bugei learning, it's not the goal, it's the process that's critical.  And getting the process correct--getting on the right path--absolutely requires a guide.  Without one, there's no way to be sure that what looks like a perfectly good  route up the mountain--what looks like essentially the same route someone else has successfully followed--doesn't actually deadend--or worse--somewhere.

Now, again, if you want to define martial art as having fun swinging a sword, or even as acquiring skills that will lead to success in combat, then the role of the teacher becomes much closer to that of the coach in basketball--and the need for one lessens considerably.

In basketball, there is a clear and simple goal, that is readily understood and easily explained: getting the ball into the hoop while preventing your opponent from doing so.  There are parameters set by other rules--the boundaries of the court, the time limits, the prohibition against picking up the ball and running with it, and the like--but beyond that, getting good at basketball is really just a matter of getting efficient at shooting, setting up shots, and preventing the opponent from scoring.  All a coach really adds to this process is hints drawn from experience--he can teach you moves and plays that speed up the process of learning how to score.  But with enough talent and enough time, you could probably get very, very good on your own.

Learning to fight per se is, in many respects, a similar sort of thing:  The goal is clear and simple (to kill the other guy, and avoid being killed yourself) and the value of the methods used are determined by how well they work, period.  With enough talent, you certainly can become an expert sword fighter entirely on your own.  The biggest difference between this and learning basketball is that the odds are pretty heavily stacked against even the most talented would-be swordsman; it's much harder to survive enough mistakes in lethal combat to learn from them than it is to lose basketball games!

But bugei study is not just about learning to fight--in fact learning sword skills is pretty silly, if this is your primary goal.  Learning to fight, *in a very particular way* is a *tool* used to more subtle purpose.  That's why books and videos aren't much good for learning--other than for polishing up stuff you already know.  It's not what you do, it's *how and why you do it* that really matters.  Learning techniques and tactics in bugei study is like learning the alphabet in pursuit of becoming a writer or learning arithmetic in pursuit of becoming a mathematician.  It's where you start, but it's only a tiny first step.

EJMAS: We've mentioned discipleship, Taoism and Buddhism, would it be fair to suggest that the Bugei are religions or at least equivalent to religious practice? We certainly hear a lot about the "Zen of Budo".
Karl Friday: Budo is NOT a religious practice, nor is it an expression of any religious faith  (a point that I've argued at length in several forums, including my *Legacies of the Sword* book).  It's an utterly secular practice, compatible with a wide range of religious beliefs--or lack thereof.  But in the worldview of medieval and early modern Japan (which underlies the whole budo concept), the bugei came to identified as a "michi," or "path," toward the same sort of transcendent understanding of the universe as was sought in various religious/philosophical traditions.

In early Japanese usage, the term referred simply to specialization or proficiency; but during the middle ages, "michi" took on a deeper meaning, as it merged with ontological and epistemological constructs drawn from Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.  All three philosophies embrace the idea that some extraordinary level of understanding exists at which one can comprehend the phenomenal world as a whole, and that this level of understanding is attainable by virtually any human being who seeks it diligently enough.  Followers of Confucianism or Taoism call this achievement "sagehood"; those of Buddhism, "enlightenment."

The cosmological premises underlying Confucian or Taoist sagehood and Buddhist enlightenment differ radically, but the three states share a unitary or totalistic notion of human perfection.  They all recognize only two forms of human endeavor: those that lead to ultimate knowledge and understanding, and those that do not.  Any and all variations of the former must, then, lead to the same place.  There's no such thing as specialized perfection in the modern Western sense that recognizes the mastery of tennis as something fundamentally different from mastery of physics. The medieval Japanese concept of michi, then, saw expertise in activities of all sorts-from games and sport to fine arts, and from practical endeavors to religious practice-as possessing a universality deriving from its relationship to a common, ultimate goal.  Concentrated specialization in any activity was held to be an equally valid route to ultimate attainment of universal truth; complete mastery of even the most trivial of pastimes was believed to yield the same truths as can be found through the most profound.  Within this cultural milieu, military training took its place alongside calligraphy, flower arranging, incense judging, poetry composition, No drama, the preparation of tea, and numerous other medieval michi.

Karl Friday and Peter Boylan
Karl Friday demonstrating a disarm with Peter Boylan

Moreover, warriors recognized that fighting was a natural phenomenon like any other, and  concluded that the more closely and optimally their movements and tactics harmonized with the principles of natural law, the better their performance in combat would be.  On the purely physical level, this is a simple deduction, as obvious as the advantages of shooting arrows with rather than against a strong wind.  But the monistic worldview of premodern Japan didn't distinguish physics from metaphysics.  So to the samurai, the difference between corporeal and "spiritual" considerations in martial training was simply a matter of the level of sophistication and expertise at which the task was to be approached.

The "spiritual" aspect of bugei training--what modern writers often distinguish as "budo"--is an integral part of a unique parcel.  Budo is not a form of religion, nor is it a part of any religion.  It's a unique path that by its nature (it is believed) ultimately leads to essentially the same place as Taoist, Confucian or Buddhist (and other) religious training is believed to lead.  It's a path (michi) like all the other michi (chanoyu, calligraphy, flower arranging, and the like), but it's also driven by a unique internal logic of its own.  For more on this, see my translation and comments on *Neko no myojutsu* in Dianne Skoss' forthcoming volume.

Budo is about using the struggle for perfection of skill in a seemingly simple arena as a vehicle for broader personal development.  To return to teaching and the mountain guide analogy, a guide doesn't actually have to fall off a cliff or get lost and freeze to death himself to know that he should steer his clients away from routes that might lead to these results.  And a swordsman doesn't need to have had his head split open or a limb chopped off to know that certain tactics are likely to lead to these results and that he should teach his students to avoid them.  In the same way, budo masters warn of similar sorts of pitfalls and dead ends waiting to trap the unwary in the psycho-spiritual component of the learning process.  Taking a wrong turn in this realm not only ends one's progress toward perfection of martial skill, it can lead to psychosis and/or moral corruption.  That's why the right guide is essential!

EJMAS: So how do we pick this guide for the martial arts, by the ability to kick our asses around?
Karl Friday: That's the tricky part.  But it's not a whole lot less tricky, even if all you're really looking for is a reasonable level of ass-kicking ability.  Just because someone is very good at fighting (or playing basketball, or whatever) doesn't mean she's any good at all at teaching others.  Or that she'll be any good at teaching *you*.  And someone who's not a particularly great fighter herself can often be a great teacher--how many of the really legendary football or basketball coaches were or are better *players* than the ones they coach?  Choosing a good teacher--for any activity--involves a very subjective evaluation process.

Karl Friday is Professor & Undergraduate Studies Coordinator, Dept. of History, University of Georgia and is also a Menkyo Kaiden in the Kashima Shinryu.
InYo Feb 2002