The Traditionalist Mindset

Robert Barton 

The mind set of the traditionalist approach to martial arts is a very misunderstood thing. We often see these traditional approaches described as limited and rigid. These descriptions are myopic and espoused by those who do not understand traditionalism and who take a different approach and so discount what they cannot understand. The worst result of this misunderstanding based view is that students who wish to embrace a traditionalist approach sometimes believe the rhetoric and start to behave accordingly creating a pseudo traditional approach that though it calls itself traditional is not at all like the mindset of the people who have passed our arts down to us. The true traditionalist mindset is in actuality exactly the opposite of limited and rigid and is characterized by an intention to reach a depth of knowledge in martial arts that is generally not available to the non-traditional approaches and with this depth comes an understanding that gives actual freedom from rigidity and false limitations. Many people eschew this deep approach to martial training and take an approach that intentionally strives for breadth at the expense of depth. Such is the more eclectic approach to training that has become so popular in recent decades and with shallowness becoming the limitation.

In essence it is a matter of personal preference and if one values breadth over depth one may take this broad approach while others who value depth take the deep approach of the traditionalist and find that with the depth actually comes great breadth. I would like to explore that mental approach to traditionalism as I have been taught. I do not claim an unbiased viewpoint here and I am not fool enough to say that I am being object. This is the voice of a confirmed traditionalist who is describing an approach that I know to work very well and to which I have adhered for over three decades. This is an exploration of traditionalism and not intended to be a comparison of mindsets and approaches.

Any traditional form is studied in layers with a surface layer that is what seems obvious or the most simple to understand. And when the obvious is penetrated and one looks beyond the surface one starts to see the okuden or inner teachings. It is at these deeper levels that one finds the subtlety of martial arts. As one digs deeply into the techniques and kata of a traditional system one is digging into the past and finds many of the things that have been buried in the form. It is at this level that ones learn the heiho or strategies and only then can one become a heihosha or strategist.

The traditionalist is always ready to learn new things and this is in keeping with the age old traditions of martial arts and date from a time and place when that which you did not know could kill you. As these warriors of old the traditionalist remains ready to experience new things and see what other styles have to offer or what threat they present. This search for the new and dangerous is for the traditionalist seen as leading into the secrets of a style rather than simply cross country to many styles. If the most advanced principles and most dangerous skills are buried under the surface of an art then it stands to reason that if one wants to learn advanced skills one needs to get below the surface of an art. Surface knowledge will never reach any appreciable depth even if that surface knowledge is over a vast area: a wide surface knowledge will only produce a very well rounded beginner with no understanding of advanced skills.

Unless one has mastered an art one cannot truly understand what that style teaches.  Even after one has received recognition for having mastered a style one needs to continue to study and experience the style in order to continue to reach improved levels of awareness and skill. If one chooses to earn black belts in ten styles and go no deeper into any of those styles one is still simply a well rounded first dan that still lacks the depth of a second dan. The reason for this is that the student only has the awareness of this very surface level and has never developed a deeper level of awareness to martial principles and concepts. The student has entered this surface level of training again and again and has indeed become very well educated in that level of training.

Should one dedicate him or herself to learning an art to a much deeper level he or she will be able to bring that depth of awareness to examine any art with which he or she comes into contact. There is a level of mastery of martial principles, concepts, philosophies and strategies which goes on at a depth beyond the divisions of style and school. These deepest levels of martial arts awareness can be reached through many schools and so there are many doorways through which one may walk. But to reach them one must walk through one of these doors; all the way through. To step into one doorway and look around for a short time and then move to the next doorway will never lead to this depth of understanding. In order to reach these general skills and awareness one must experience the specific skills and awareness developed by a single style as far as possible. It is here that true breadth of knowledge comes in. At this point the student has penetrated beyond style to awareness of pure principle and form. At this level of awareness any stylistic method can be examined and understood easily and dealt with appropriately.

Not all styles or schools can lead one to this level of knowledge because many styles and schools were founded by those who had not reached these levels and so the entire school or style exists at a surface level and lacks subtlety and depth which it will only acquire after several generations of people have continued to develop the style. Traditionalists will find styles which are built upon numerous generations who have developed and explored these principles with each generation pushing deeper and deeper into martial mastery. Some of these older styles and more recent subsystems of these older styles use kata and exercises that span centuries. Traditionalist will take these exercises and methods that are very old and practice them while looking at them through fresh modern eyes always seeking what older eyes saw in them and also always bringing a new perspective based on the here and now.

A true traditionalist respects the old, tried and true and is willing to listen to what is new to see how modern developments and training techniques can enhance the roots of martial knowledge and the learning process. By embracing a traditional approach to traditional styles the student works to extend the depth of his or her knowledge, understanding and awareness realizing that this approach takes commitment and focus. The reward is an understanding of martial arts that is pervasive, deep and reaches a level of sophistication and subtlety that actually leads to the breadth for which many people hope. 

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