Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Silat Wars

Long ago and far away, a writer at a science fiction convention stepped onto the hotel's elevator and beheld an attractive young woman who was, ah ... well-endowed in ... um ... chest development.

He made what he thought was a witty and suggestive remark. She smiled and replied, playing along.

They left the elevator on the floor whereupon his room was located.

And, as the woman tells it, ten minutes after they met, she was under him.

How you view such an encounter bespeaks your experience. For somebody who came of age in the sixties as a hippie, pre-AIDs, then the couple might have been considered adventurous and sexually liberated, and more power to them.

Somebody born in the late 1890's might have viewed this couple as a trull and a roué, and been convinced they would burn in Hell for fornication.

Most folks around today would probably be somewhere between in their views. It's all a matter of perspective.

(Just to complete the tale: The elevator couple hit it off. And no, I wasn't the guy. Eventually, they moved in together. Eventually, got married. Eventually, divorced. Sometimes, the stories don't end happily ever after. Sometimes, they do; keep reading.)

Eight or ten years back, I was engaged in what was sometimes hot and heavy email and public web page debate on the pros and cons of our martial art and its associated branches. I didn't start the discussion, but merely responded to what I perceived as mud-slinging by folks in some of those other branches. Since I was by then a few years deep in an art that doesn't much care for backing up, I moved in. Bring it, dude. Let's see what you got.

There were several arguments, but the crux of the central one was that one of these, ahem, other branches allowed as how what we in our little conclave practiced was essentially "silat lite." It was okay -- for what it was, of course, they said condescendingly -- but our teacher hadn't really gotten the whole enchilada in his training, only a few beans and a bit of cheese and lettuce that fell onto the floor. Whereas the teacher of the other branch had the whole meal -- beans and rice and tacos and tamales, right down to the fresh guacamole and chips, the entire spicy feast. (Probably I shoulda used Indonesian food for this metaphor, but what the heck.)

Not that they were offering my teacher any personal disrespect, they were quick to point out. They liked him, he was a nice guy. Which was good, since they one and all knew he could kick their asses seven ways from Sunday if they stepped across a line.

My teacher just shrugged it off. Who cares? he said. I'm comfortable with my skills. The truth eventually comes out.

He didn't need defending. I, on the other hand, needed to defend him.

Most of my discussions took place with ranked teachers -- gurus -- and now and then, with the head honcho of this branch himself. There were three or four with whom I fought the keyboard wars, giving, I thought, much better than I got. They were, though I never put it quite this way, full of shit to their hair lines, I was sure.

They had knowledge that we, they said, simply did not have. I asked for evidence and got none. Instead, they shook their heads at my stupidity for not accepting their comments at face value. Their teacher had told them, was I calling him a liar?

Well, not in so many words ...

Not exactly ...

Why, yes -- yes, I am.

I was, I thought, mostly reasonable and using good debate tactics. Diligent in putting forth what I thought was my case. I confess that I sometimes saw myself as Horatius at the Bridge, beset by Kool Aid-drinking heathen rabble. I expect they saw me as an ignorant fool heretic who Had Not Seen the Light of True Silat™

Mostly, we kept it civil. Now and then, an invitation to cross hands was issued; mostly, I confess again, by me. Oh, yeah? Come show me! Nobody did, which was just as well. I was not a guru, merely a lowly, creaky, old student. They won, how big a deal was that? They were supposed to win, they were gurus coming from what they were asserting was a superior art. How could they lose?

I won? Cranky, old man, mostly mouth? Not so good for their side in that case. (And yeah, I was aware of that dynamic at the time. Always helps if you can put your opponent into a no-win situation.)

Fast forward a few years: My teacher had been right. The truth started to out. This other branch of our art began to fall apart. Nearly all of the gurus had either been kicked out, or left on their own in disgust, because, it seemed, that what they were being told and taught didn't, ah, jibe with reality. They had bought into a story and, lo and behold, it was something of a fairy tale, much of it made up from whole cloth, and as real as the cow jumping over the moon.

That had to hurt. I felt sorry for these guys. They had been loyal, and it had gotten them kicked in the teeth.

Being disillusioned by a teacher for whom you feel respect, admiration, even adoration, can be painful in the extreme. Being tossed out like yesterday's fish bones wrapped in greasy newspaper is an unpleasant experience -- especially when it was no fault of your own and unjustified.

This was a ugly period in this branch of the art's history, and when the mud settled, all of the most senior students had been booted or had boogied, including the designated lineage holder and a handful of gurus with ten or fifteen years experience.

Several of these former teachers and I have had some long discussions, online, by phone, and in person since they split the sheets with their old teacher. And, not amazingly, much of what I thought and said years earlier was closer to the mark than not, they now say. A couple of these men have become what I consider friends, and the songs they sing now don't sound anything like the ones they used to sing.

Perspective means a lot. It is one thing to be on the inside looking out; another to be on the outside looking in. Or, as Valentine Michael Smith was wont to say, sometimes things get grokked in the fullness of time ...

Note: Don't mention names in the lettercol, if you send any comments. Most of us in the art already know about whom we are talking, and if you don't, it won't help if you see the names ...


Evan Robinson said...

Oh, it's not just Silat. Even before Mr. Parker died the American Kenpo wars were hot and heavy, and the fracturing of the IKKA (International Kenpo Karate Association) in the decade after his death only made it worse.

The addition of Kenpo schools not descended in any meaningful ways from Mr. Parker has only made it worse still. So it's not just the American Kenpo wars anymore, it's the American/Chinese/Hawaiian Ken/mpo wars :-).

I participated in some of those kinds of discussions in the early 90s and I empathize with both your younger self's viewpoint and your current viewpoint. Unlike you, I have changed systems twice since then (with a long hiatus in between and partly because of availability and partly because of aging).

But like you now (I believe), I've given up on "this is better than that" in favor of "I prefer this for me" with a "this is why" if asked. I'm not training the way I did when I was 30, but then I'm not 30 anymore. But the basic principles are the same, and the differences give me something to compare against what I think, which keeps my mind active while my body is learning.

I don't think I can stay engaged in a physical practice any other way.

Thanks for the post -- I enjoyed it.

Travis said...

What?!? Reasoned discourse didn't get you anywhere? I am shocked sir...

Jay said...

It baffles me to no end that kind of mudslinging. it seems such a waste to spend all that time bitching about someone else when in most cases the mirror would be a more apt target.
I tend to stay out of that fray and am waiting for fullness myself, you grok? ;-)

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, mostly it's a waste of time and energy to engage in such things. Serious martial artists sometimes tend toward zealotry, and you cannot argue with faith. Politics, religion, beer -- not open to much change once somebody's made their mind up.

But there's that Edmund Burke quote about all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

If somebody puts out major bullshit in a place where you play and and you let it lie, it becomes the default for people who don't have any way of knowing better. A teacher makes a claim, nobody refutes it, students show up believing they can get what's being advertised.

They are going to step into something stinky.

Sure, some people have to learn the hard way, and those are the lessons that stick. But in this case, some of the students spent a whole lot of time and money before they got wise. Maybe one or two might have heard the warning and saved themselves some grief.

Maybe not. But if somebody is about to reach down to grab a poisonous snake and I warn them against it, at least I tried. If they persist, it's their fault, because at least an option was offered.

This teacher told so many stories he couldn't keep track of them. Many of them made their way into print or onto the web, where they take on a life of their own and cannot be easily revised. When you come across the eighteenth contradiction, you have to wonder if anybody else is pay attention ...

jks9199 said...

It seems to go on in every art... And even in sub-sections of various arts. I just heard some stories about the particular sub-system I work the most with in my style a few weeks ago.. Stories about why one person isn't the "master" he's made out to be, etc.

Y'know what? I know my teacher. I know what he taught me. I'm still working to get that stuff right. And I know who has been designated as being "the man" for the sub-system. So... I do the sub-system his way (as influenced by my own primary teacher's training). And, when and if I teach the sub-system -- I teach it that guy's way. He's the designated guardian.

I don't get into the "which way is better"... At most, I simply collect new ideas or different approaches (if they seem like they'll work). I've seen the chief instructor teach the same material several different ways in the span of a single training session... so I know why there are differences in how people do it.

(And I'm rambling... I think there's a point buried in there.)

Stan said...

Like Evan and JKS stated, this seems to happen in every art. It's kind of funny that it happens both in big ways and small ways.

I study DZR jujitsu. It amazes me the ways that people can twist one instructor's words or interpretation to mean that another instructor's techniques are wrong, weak and a "violation" of the "true spirit of Danzan Ryu."

When people question what the system's originator "really meant," my favorite response (not mine, I'm not taking credit!) is, "well, I guess we'd have to dig him up and ask him!"

Personal Opinion Alert: Martial arts is both a historical stream and a deeply personal interpretation. When someone wants to insist that they have "the answers," I've often found that they haven't been listening to the same questions as I have!

I like what I do. If "my" art/system/ryu is not THE perfect system for the masses...that's okay with me. I'm getting better, even if I am getting older.

Thanks for the thoughts, Folki!

Dan Gambiera said...

Indonesian brain rot strikes four out of five.

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