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  • Writer's pictureRobert Parkes

Your Movement is Your Certificate

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

There is a famous Zen story about how long it takes to attain enlightenment that goes something like this:

A Buddhist monk approached his teacher and asked the Zen Master, “If I meditate very diligently, how long will it take for me to become enlightened?”

The Master thought for a moment, and then replied, “Ten years.”

The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast. How long then?”

The Master replied, “Well, then it will take twenty years.”

“But if I really, really work at it. How long then?” persisted the student.

“Thirty years,” said the Master.

“But I don’t understand,” said the disappointed student. “Each time I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?”

The Master replied, “When you have one eye on the goal, you can only have one eye on the path.”

While having goals in training is useful, it is often hard for a student to understand that the appropriate focus for progression in the martial arts is not the attainment of the next belt or certificate, but practice with a view to mastery. Before Rebekah and I were graded to Instructor level in De Campo 1-2-3 Original, our teacher, Maestro Paolo Pagaling, said something that has really resonated with me: "Your movement is your certificate." In other words, it isn't the credential that you are awarded, or the belt that you wear around your waist that is important, but your actual embodiment of the techniques and tactics of the system you are claiming to represent. It is easy for the trained eye (and sometimes even the inexperienced eye) to recognise skill. Grandmaster William Bernas has made the same point to us about his Bernas Estocadas system, stating that in the end, it isn't the teacher who needs to tell the student if they have attained a certain level, because this should be obvious to both themselves and the community. One could also take from this, that if a community doesn't see that a person has the knowledge and skill they are claiming, no list of credentials will alter the fact of whether you have or have not developed a capacity to express yourself fluently in a particular art. This may explain why historically, in Filipino Martial Arts culture, masters often form their own art at a certain point, and live or die by their own reputations as practitioners, rather than relying on lineage lists for credibility (Reyes, 2001).

The struggle to represent the path

I have often struggled, particularly in the development of my own Kali Combatives curriculum, to make the path clear. Other Zen stories tell of the folly of even trying. However, as a teacher educator in my professional life, I am fully aware of the usefulness of explicit quality criteria for the student, but I am also fully aware of how easily it can become a distraction for a student who is focusing on the superficial replication of a limited list of techniques, rather than on mastering the ability to freely express themselves with those techniques. Being able to immediately mimic or approximate a technique you have just been shown is not the same as being able to use that technique intuitively in a non-cooperative exchange. Nor is it even the same as simple competence in the technique, as a single night of practice is hardly likely to reflect real embodiment. In language education, it is known that you have to be exposed to a new word around six times before it actually becomes part of your vocabulary (even if you can say the word successfully on a first attempt)!

In the early days of teaching my Kali curriculum, I did represent this progression in different ways, trying the standard lists of techniques, and more uniquely different types of diagrams. I found that it was the case that students who were focused on rank, rather than "the path" as the Zen Master notes, imagined that I was changing criteria. In fact, the underlying progression model always remained the same. I was simply trying to find different ways of making the stages clear to students (a multi-dimensional phenomenon in a 2D written form), especially when their focus appeared to be in the wrong place, or I simply became dissatisfied that my diagrammatic version of the stages of progression weren't an accurate enough representation of the stages.

So what are the stages that I was trying to represent?

It seems to me that the famous Samurai swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, inadvertently provided a useful progression framework in his Go Rin No Sho (Book of Five Rings). Musashi aligned the five chapters of his tactical treatise with the Go Dai (five elements) of Japanese Buddhist philosophy, that one also finds used as a progression model in the writings of contemporary ninja author Stephen K. Hayes. According to Musashi, the Earth Scroll provided "a firm grounding in the direct and correct way" or what we might call a 'good foundation' (much of which he considered universal to any school of swordsmanship). The Water Scroll required the student to begin "to know ten thousand things from knowing one thing" and was where Musashi focused on the heart of his specific system of swordsmanship. Clearly, this was the level at which core concepts of the system were developed, and technical nuances explored. The Fire Scroll led the student "to know the way of combat" and was therefore focused on the combative application of the core concepts and adapting them to specific situations. The Wind Scroll required the student "to know the strategy and approaches of other schools," and was particularly focused on what Musashi saw as the limitations of methods that are too rigid, and therefore how to defeat them by a more versatile approach. His final Void Scroll was a celebration of how to "follow the true way" of spontaneous adaptation to the situation that presents itself.

For me, this elemental structure has always been a useful tool, and when it is coupled with the idea that different martial arts, and indeed, different Filipino Martial Art systems are like languages that you are learning, stages of progression in an art become clearer. The Solo Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982) used in educational theory is also useful here, and I'll both use and build on it below.

At the Earth Stage, the student is learning a new vocabulary. Mastery at this stage looks like an ability to approximate the techniques of a particular art. Note, this technical approximation is simply the fundamental stage of a martial artist's development. In educational theory, this is a Uni-Structural level of attainment in which simple procedures can be followed with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

At the Water Stage, the student is starting to develop an understanding of the syntax of the art, the equivalent of being able to use their vocabulary in simple, compound, and complex sentences (three sub-stages in themselves). Practically speaking, they are starting to put techniques together. They may not always use the most appropriate techniques for a situation, but their movement is definitely starting to look more like the standard form of the art. In educational theory, this is a Multistructural level of attainment in which techniques are starting to become more connected, and the students' expression of the movement more fluid.

At the Fire Stage, the student's technical and tactical capabilities are maturing, and they have started developing an increasing capacity to successfully apply their knowledge and skill in non-cooperative combative situations (such as free sparring). This stage is the equivalent of being able to converse in fluent dialogue with other speakers of the same language. At this stage, just like in regular dialogue, the practitioner can express themselves in different ways (ie. whispering or shouting), and successfully influence the level of intensity of any combative exchange. In educational theory this stage of attainment is identified as the Relational level, where the practitioner is now able to analyse a situation, apply appropriate methods, understand the relationship between methods, and justify their actions.

At the Wind Stage, the practitioner has become capable of speaking in multiple registers. In our school, this would be reflected in a student who has attained a degree of (Relational level) competence in multiple FMA systems. The practitioner at this level can switch between methods as required by the situation at hand. They understand the usefulness and limitations of different methods, and their own strengths and weaknesses, and are able to use these to their advantage when facing a non-cooperative opponent (from any system). In educational theory, this level is described by the term "Extended Abstract", but for our purposes is probably better described as a Functional level, in which the practitioner can generalise, hypothesise, reflect, and theorise, applying their knowledge and skill to completely new or novel situations. A practitioner at this level will be particularly noted for their versatility, multi-directional movement, and capacity for intuitive and innovative action.

The final Void Stage is arguably one in which the practitioner is on the way to becoming a poet. They are not only fluent in the language/s of the martial art system/s they have studied; and have the capacity to express themselves in different ways (including different registers) using that language; they are also able to do this effortlessly, gracefully, elegantly, etc. This is the stage of true Transformational mastery that we may aspire to, but never completely reach (in the same way that you may be able to speak a language, even write it with everyday competence, and adapt it for use in many different formal and informal situations, but never develop the 'turn of phrase' found among professional writers or the poet).

If you take the view that martial arts are languages, it becomes easy to see why naive eclecticism (or de-contextualised borrowing) is not the same as studying an art with a view to mastery. In fact, decontextualised borrowing from different arts is like being able to say hello in five languages but speak none of them, you are simply borrowing words into your existing language. This may be fine if you are happy with your existing language, but it doesn't give you the added bonus of being able to speak a new one. Likewise, it suddenly becomes clear why focusing on rank and credentials makes little sense. The real focus should not be the simple attainment of a college certificate in speaking Spanish or Japanese, but needs to be on developing a capacity to express oneself freely using that language, and this is the same in martial arts. No piece of paper or coloured belt (signs as they are of progress) can replace the obvious level of attainment revealed in how a student/practitioner actually moves and interacts. This doesn't mean that we don't award progress or levels of attainment with certificates. We do. But it is all about training with the right focus. It is also worth noting that although many schools will have special grading days, a good instructor is actually assessing their students' capabilities all the time; so don't think because we haven't had a formal test that you haven't been informally evaluated. Finally, although we haven't explicitly discussed attitude and values, an absence of understanding on the part of the student, including an obsession with rank, is a good reason for them not to be promoted, because it reveals they are still stuck in the same place as the student of the Zen master.

Video Credit: Maestro Paolo Pagaling and Magtutudlo Robert & Rebekah Parkes performing karenza (improvised shadow fighting) using the technical 'language' of the Filipino Martial Art of De Campo 1-2-3 Original


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