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The more time I spend in the FMA community, the more fascinated I become with the phenomenon of myth and its effect on the arts; their propagation and their popularity.  Since 1982, I have participated in one capacity or another in the FMA community; as a neophyte student, as a dedicated follower and as a leader and instructor.  Throughout this time, I have gained a deepening understanding of the effect of mythology, story-telling and creative history on the arts as a whole and on the individuals who participate in them.   Now, as I grow old in the art, I begin to question the myths I was taught.  Are they digestive aids or deeper lessons?

Story telling has two participants, the teller and the listener.  Both are willing participants in the phenomenon and both have a stake in the mythologies created.  The teller strives to preserve a legend, to legitimize his position and to inspire followers.  The listener seeks to gain something others cannot (or may not) gain, thereby setting himself apart and reinforcing/justifying his or her special and unique position in the world.  The listener has a need to fulfill a fantasy and play out , in a limited and controlled fashion, what Conrad calls the “Hero’s Journey”.   Legend is usually only a small part truth and mostly myth or lie.  The difference between a myth and a lie is that a myth reinforces archetypes and supports organized systems of belief that are at the core of a community while a lie is a falsehood told to support illicit aims or shameless self promotion.  There is a natural tendency in human communities to create stories and myths as a means of establishing complex tenets through simple parables and legendary examples.  One need not look far to see these myths in our FMA community.  We have all heard them and probably re-told them hundreds of times.  I myself have often participated in this very practice.  It is not surprising.  The Philippine culture has extraordinary roots in oral history and storytelling.  As most students know, there are thousands of islands in the archipelago and hundreds of languages; only a few of which have any pre-colonial history of written communication.  Legends, myths, stories, customs and social rules were passed from generation to generation through oral history.  If you have spent time among the Philippine people, you have probably heard many many stories.  Every culture has this.  But what makes it germane to us as students of the Philippine Martial Arts is the extent to which we buy into the myths and the meaning behind them.  As neophytes, we generally buy into these stories because they are simple and they place the mysterious knowledge we are about to learn before us in a simple, linear, logical pattern; easy to digest and fitting into our simple fantasies.  The true nature of what we are learning is contradictory, complex, layered in social, moral and spiritual ambiguity.  There is no simple path to the truth that fits our minds because our minds are incapable of understanding the whole of the universal truth.  That is why this is a lifetime study that yields at our elderly death only a modicum of wisdom.  That is also why we need stories and myths that help us make sense of what we are doing. 

But the truth appears to be nonsense.  Here is a good example.  We have all heard of the story that our forefathers in the art hid their knowledge and skill from the Spanish occupiers within the native dances.  Some posit that the ubiquitous Tinikling dance is indeed a method of teaching combat footwork or that the hand movements known as “Bulaklak” in indigenous dance are instead carefully choreographed “Cadena de Mano” movements.  I have even heard that the kerchief dance is a literal substitution of the kerchief for a sword.  All of these stories were told to me as gospel and as examples of how clever the Philippinos were; hiding their deadly knowledge right under the Spaniards’ noses.  It makes sense.   But, it is not true.  Were the native peoples forbidden to practice their deadly arts overtly?  Absolutely.  Did they then, as a whole, at one moment, make the collective decision to “hide” their art in the dance?  No.  That is absurd in an archipelago riddled with hundreds of tribes who warred as much among themselves as against the Spanish.  The truth is far more interesting and far less linear and much more difficult for westerners to understand – and therefore, nonsensical to our limited ability to understand.  The truth is that the movements within the dance and the movements of martial practice were always intertwined.   They are one in the same and simultaneously distinctly different. The distinction between expressive movement (dance) and combat movement (martial arts) was only determined by the circumstance and the outcome.  It is only in our neophyte limitation that we draw hard distinctions between the two and have a need to erect these constructs of mythology to support that limited understanding and a false sense of grandeur.   In indigenous tribes, there is no distinction between dance and martial movement except context.  So, imagine how absurd the Spanish must have looked to the Philippine people who continued to participate in their cultural activities “practicing” their art like breathing air; the Spanish too limited in their capacity to see the martial and the expressive coexisting.  This is far more powerful, far more empowering of the Philippine people than our simplistic “hiding the art in the dance” myth.  This same concept can be applied to much of what we do.  The way in which we swing a large blade owes as much or more to the mundane, daily chore of weed cutting as it does to the legendary battle of Magellan and Lapu-Lapu.  But cutting weeds does not sell an art; it has no uniform or fancy name (It is, however an outstanding way to learn how to cut with a large blade).  And erecting a myth or legend around these techniques actually may dishonor those who swung the tool in the dirt of toil.  So, you can see by these examples that these fancy myths we create around our art may very well dishonor our lineage rather than honor it – taking away the extraordinary from our predecessors and placing it in a repository of mythic adoration.

 What fascinates me more and more is that, instead of seeing these myths dispelled by instructors who are supposed to be digging deeper and deeper in to the mystery of our arts and stripping away the trappings of myth, I see the stories reinforced, re-affirmed and re-invented.  And, even more fascinating is that I now see new myths arise; some of which are complete fabrications with no basis in reality.  I watched one of these myths take shape before my very eyes from its first occurrence to its adoption into the curriculum.  It even contains a complete anachronism; supposedly drawing on ancient techniques designed to penetrate Spanish armor.  I watched a renowned Master of the art forget the actual technique, make up something on the spot and then build an elaborate story around it and immediately adopt it into the curriculum as he turned to me and said “This is how you will teach this technique from now on”.  It was not how I learned it from his teacher.   If you stick around as long as I have, you will see this happen a lot.  Lately, as some of my contemporaries strive to make their art relevant and “sexy”, I see them concoct these outrageous histories and invent new weapons for the gullible and willing neophyte to consume; and, right along with these inventions, go the requisite stories, myths and legends that legitimize or give credence to these “Masters”.   I find it somewhat ironic that even though I would rather eschew myth for truth, this new crop of Masters is simply doing what their ancestors did; telling stories.  The difference is that instead of creating myths that support moral and social tenets within a community, they offer fabrications and lies designed to further their legitimacy by supplying their gullible neophytes with the sugar coated simplicity they crave.

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Comment by Burton "Lucky Dog" Richardson on December 27, 2011 at 7:30pm

Nice. From my perspective, many instructors in all styles get into the "entertainment" mode, seeking first to awe their students. That leads to fantasy and away from sparring/fighting where we can each experience the truth of combat. I prefer to teach my students to fight. The interesting thing is that along the way, there are plenty of great details, while not overtly entertaining, that give those "wow" moments to those who fight regularly. And to me, the art is first and foremost about the ability to fight well. Character development comes from the grueling and humbling process of experiencing the truth!

Comment by Bram Frank on December 27, 2011 at 8:12pm

Male enhancement runs rampant in the martial arts and most isnt what we would consider malicious as you have so clearly stated: its to enhance or embolden the fable, to get the point across but too often as the fable is retold it becomes gospel, even to the point of the only reality in its telling is one's faith in the story: like a religious proverb or verse. I find when fables contradict history, archeology, physical and /or medical science that the story is more reverently hailed as true by its followers. As Burton has said in other words fighting is based on the science of how a human body moves and doesn't move, how it works and how to make it not work: there is nothing else, combat is experienced not lectured...Of course one cannot argue with those that believe the hype even with facts that support one's position: one can only teach the simple facts and try to bring a sense of reality into the program...I have worked in the ER, as a PA with a general surgeon and I'm always amazed at the deadly myths I'm told or I hear perpetuated: all in the name as proof of how deadly a technique is or how effiecient a certain style is over others...and most of the time ithey defy the laws of logic or what is known in other fields. In martial arts one needs to see past the creative myths and find the simple truths and ensure they survive along with the myths. As for the myths that are used to keep egos going? Unfortunately they usually have a life of their own.

Comment by John R. Malmo on December 27, 2011 at 8:34pm
Great post as usual Lawrence. And very well stated follow ups by Burton and Bram!

I find the stories entertaining...especially when secretly laughing with men that know better. :)
Comment by Guro Lawrence Motta on December 27, 2011 at 10:34pm

What an honor to have such great comments on this topic from men I respect very highly.  Truth be told, the stories are fun and at times inspiring.  But, to my taste, I find the truth far more inspiring; truths like humble farm workers answering the call to duty to fight in WWII or citizen soldiers today placing their lives on the line in Afghanistan, braving enemy fire to save a wounded comrade.  They will be the first to tell you that it is no fable.  Uncle Leo used to tell me "when it really comes down to it, it's just chop chop chop"; like he was talking about cutting weeds with a panabas.  Thank you Bram and Burton and GM Malmo for your comments...much respect to all.

Comment by Badger Johnson on December 28, 2011 at 1:13am

Lots of FMA instructors claim to teach students how to 'knife fight' when in reality they have no idea how to do it. There's a specific framework and progression of steps and most of them are totally ignorant of even the basics like 'how to control the speed of the blade'.

Comment by terry joven on December 28, 2011 at 10:26am

Great Post!

You need to be able to apply what you learn! Not depend on myth or legends or a certificate to save your a$$.

Comment by Joel Huncar on December 28, 2011 at 12:06pm

OK, I am going to throw my opinion out here on this one.  In my opinino myth is not truth, but it gives us as FMA practitioners a sense of interconnectedness and commonality.  Myths hold truths in the lessons they teach if you dig into them, but they should never be confused with fact.  I love the stories of Lapu Lapu defeating Magellan in single combat, tales of blind princesses and Moro princes and try to enjoy them for what they are, unfortunately an oral history is never truly historical but can be very enjoyable.  They are the spice that makes our art much more palatable then simply learning the arts of war for the base reason of learning a better way of "kicking ass".  I think that is what sets us apart from MMA practitioners who learn arts like Muay Thai but only view them as another tool in their tool box and rarely attempt to try to understand the deep cultural heritage behind the art.  The bottom line is that legends, myths and oral traditions are a valid way to try to try to connect to the cultural heritage of FMA.  While as a westerner I can never truly be completely immersed in that culture but by at least trying to in my limited way keeps me from being a person who is simply a fighter instead of a martial artist. 

Comment by Sam Juanitas on December 28, 2011 at 2:59pm

Simplicity is the key to success in combat

Comment by terry joven on December 28, 2011 at 4:03pm

well said Joel!

Comment by robert small on December 28, 2011 at 5:48pm

well said...we live in a more modern world and in such we should strive in ourselves and in  our arts to progress, to improve, make better.. while still showing respect and remembering what we can from the past..even if some stories over time have become distorted because of language barriers, cultural differences, or miss interpretation..the improvement of the individual and art are the real goal..for art and combat..

great subject...thanks

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