Here is a collection of quotes from Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings:
There are some people who think that learning more than one style is sacrilegious. Here is what one high-level teacher said to me, directly to my face.
“Why do you need to study that style? Our style has everything you need!”
I’ve heard that argument before. We are the best. Our art is number one. It really is, some might argue, deep down, a kind of arrogance. Or else, it is a kind of self-centeredness, perhaps a narrow-minded view of things.
But let me expand upon that quote and fill in the blanks. What he is saying could possibly be reworded or re-interpreted as:
Our style can take care of any situation. Our style teaches you everything. You don’t need to worry. You will win every swordfight because our style accounts for all circumstances.
Which, to some people, might equate to:
You don’t need to learn that style because it is not as good as our style. Our style is superior because it has everything you need.
Really? Can you honestly think that? And can I honestly, in my heart of hearts, really and truly believe that? He is asking for that proverbial leap of faith. He is saying, “Trust me. I know. Our style is the best.”
I don’t know. Maybe I’m a pessimist. Maybe I’m a doubter. My mother is a suspicious type and maybe I picked up that trait from her.
Nevertheless, when I heard those words, even though they were spoken to me in Japanese, I was a little shocked. Speechless. I couldn’t argue. That would have been rude. And in Asian martial arts, if you argue, you are gone. I stood there in silence, processing what he had said to me. When no rebuttal was forthcoming, he stormed off, muttering to himself.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the day that I ceased being a student of that dojo in his mind. He likely thought I was being disloyal according to traditional Japanese budo standards. When you join a dojo in Japan, it is for life. It’s like joining a clan, a family. That’s traditional Japanese budo thinking. And in Japan, you must think like the group thinks. Conformist thinking. The old Japanese proverb says: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered back down.” That’s the result of a homogeneous culture. If you don’t want to think like the group, then go away.
But modern budo thinking is different. I could go off on a tangent and discuss the merits and demerits of whether classical budo needs to change its thinking to stay current in the world and so on and so forth but that is a discussion better left to another time and another article. And added to that, the North American budo mindset is different too. Since the days of Bruce Lee and his revolutionary idea of the borrowing and synthesis of the best of all martial arts and rejecting the classical mess, North American budo has always had that independent streak to it, reflective of the heterogeneous nature of American society and its history of independence. And if you compare American budo mindset to the European one, I tend to find that the Europeans are much more traditionally-minded.
Anyway, I digress. To make a long story short, the impetus for my asking to study another style began one day when I was fooling around with another fellow with some extensive sword and martial arts experience. I thought my style, this style that we are talking about, was pretty good too, like my teacher. But I discovered some things to shake my faith that day. That fellow tried some kendo attacks and I found that I couldn’t deal with them. He tried some other moves from another koryu sword art and I couldn’t deal with them either.
Yes, I know. Many are thinking that I was too green at the time. You didn’t know enough about your art. Yes, it’s true. But it was more than that. I believe what Musashi said covered how I was feeling that day after that encounter.
“Without knowledge of the Ways of other schools, it is difficult to understand…”
I saw things that day that shocked me. I saw things that day that stupefied me. I saw things that day that amazed me, things that I would never have thought about.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t know my own art well enough (I understand that this will take a lifetime of study in its own right), it was that I was in my own little world. Or more precisely, I was only in the world of that koryu sword art that I was studying. Things work well there and everything is perfect there. I was looking at the world through rose-coloured lenses. Sure, you see other styles at demonstrations but you never fully appreciate them until you have to face them.
It was like a thunderbolt struck me that day. I have never forgotten that day. I thought I was good but found out I was no good. Why couldn’t I defeat that other fellow? He wasn’t faster or stronger. I was younger and faster and hungrier. It wasn’t a physical thing.
I was totally outclassed. He did things that I had never seen before. Techniques I would never have dreamed about from the confines of my small, little perfect world where everything works out nice and clean. I faced tactics that confused me. I was bewildered and in a near state of panic.
I thought, as young people do, that I was hot stuff. I am here in a foreign land, 6000 miles from home, but I can handle it. It’s no big thing. I’ve conquered the not-understanding-the-language thing, I’ve got a Japanese girlfriend, I’m an English teacher making good money (which at that time was a big status thing; we were like international superstars) enjoying life in the fast lane in Tokyo, one of the biggest, most happening cities on Earth. I was the cat’s meow.
But at that moment, I was totally overwhelmed, totally outclassed. I was feeling, in all honesty, a little humiliated. I didn’t like that feeling.
But I learned some things about that style which I still believe are true to this day. It doesn’t deal well with certain types of attacks and certain attacking philosophies. Its defense is based on a certain tactical premise; a certain tactical assumption if you will. It has a particular aim in its attacking philosophy. It is not good at attacking; it is better at counter-attacking than outright attacking. Etcetera…
What did I learn that fateful day? I realized that I didn’t know enough about other schools. I hadn’t seen enough.
“In strategy, you must know the ways of other schools…”
So what did I do? I did some research into sword styles. In Japan, there are many sword styles. You can’t go and study each one. I did more research and narrowed it down. In the case of one particular school, I went out and actively sought to study there. Another fell into my lap by luck, or some might call it… destiny.
Anyway, that one day of humiliation changed my life. It taught me many lessons.
One was humility. You think you’re so good? Well, you’re not. You got a lot more work to do. And who do you think you are, anyway? My inflated world and equally inflated ego came crashing down. That was an excellent lesson that has served me well and keeps me grounded to this day.
Another was: “… you must think broadly.”
Musashi is so right. And funny thing is, I see it in my students now. The ones that are determined to learn only one style. They like so-and-so style and it fits them and they don’t want to learn any other.
But at some point in their development, we will inevitably run into a conversation at the dojo that revolves around the existence of other schools, other ways of swordfighting. At some point in their career, they will have to come face-to-face with the reality that there are other styles. You cannot shut yourself off in a cave forever. And it is usually at this point that the “Well, what if I do this?” questions come up. I say, sure, go ahead, let’s try it and see what happens. And the outcome is the exact duplicate of my awakening 20 years ago.
Some people ask: “That’s good and all but the old saying is: Jack of all trades, master of none.”
I answer, if you want to be a master of that style or any style, yes, you must study that one style and know it backwards and forwards.
But here’s an interesting observation: I have noticed both in Japan and more so, overseas (in North America or Europe for example) that many of the high-level practitioners in the various koryu sword arts and even more modern arts (gendai budo) do multiple arts. Yes, these high-level practitioners and teachers study and practice more than one art (like aikido, jujutsu, karate, naginata, etc…).
Oh, but they do not study other sword styles, some counter. Those are different classes of weapon arts and others are unarmed arts, they remark.
Yes, that’s true. But there are some that even practice other sword arts. Sometimes, these are a complement to their original art as is the case with kendo players studying iaido. Some iaido practitioners complement their study of iaido with another koryu sword art or a related battlefield art like bojutsu or jojutsu/ jodo, sojutsu, naginata-jutsu, or other weapons system. Some study kyudo (Japanese archery). Regardless, some people can and do study multiple arts.
Doing multiple koryu sword arts however is an interesting case. It’s too confusing though, some say. For the majority of people, I would say, yes, I agree. It is too confusing. There are a few however who can do it. The secret is keeping them separate and distinct, retaining the original and unique flavour and philosophy of each one intact. That is the difficult thing. But it’s not that much different than minding that you don’t let your karate get infused into your swordsmanship, or being careful not to allow your iaido body influence your kendo body, and so on.
So, back to the point, if you want to be a master of one style, you must study that one style and know it backwards and forwards. I totally agree. However, if you just want to be a competent swordfighter, like Zorro in that movie The Mask of Zorro, if that is your goal, then that is a completely different ball of wax. If you do not aspire to be a master of one style, then it is a moot point. Your prerogative then is to get experience. Like Jimi Hendrix said:
I know, I know you probably scream and cry
That your little world won't let you go
But who in your measly little world
Are you trying to prove that
You're made out of gold and, uh, can't be sold
So, are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have…
It depends on what you are aiming for. Or for some people, like me, it is not so much a planned design as, more so, where luck and the winds of destiny carry them.
So now when people ask me “Why do you do so many styles?” I say I don’t know. It just turned out that way. And then I give them the words spoken by the old Wizard from the 1982 ground-breaking film Conan the Barbarian, when he related the transformation of Conan from slave to warrior:
"He was taken to the East... where the War Masters would teach him the greatest secrets..."
That usually sparks a lot of interesting conversations.
So I wrote this article for the young teachers out there. There will come a time when your top students will want to or ask permission to broaden their horizons. I know you hate to share them with any other teacher or to lose them or that they would think to even look at another art or style. I hope at that time that you will remember this story and know that it is a natural part of their development, like kids growing up. They have to leave the nest sometime and explore their world to learn and develop further. It’s their own personal journey of enlightenment. They have to go on that journey. Just don’t be too harsh or close-minded.
“To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior, you must study fully other martial arts…”
Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.