Three Paths Up the FMA Mountain (for Jason Spotts)

I’ve recently relocated back to the Philippines; so good to be back! Aside from getting reacquainted with long-seen family–some cousins I hadn’t seen since childhood–and seeing how the many towns and barrios have changed, I find myself often talking shop with FMA practitioners. This may sound like a stereotype, but unlike in the US one does not have to travel far or go on social media to find other Arnis practitioners. Especially here in this province, where my mother grew up, Arnis is practiced among many families and is a skill passed down like a favorite family recipe.

I am in Jalajala, Rizal, the site of a brutal battle between the Japanese and local guerrillas, of which many members of my family had fought, including my grandfather. I frequently hear of families who once had Japanese uniforms, the contents of wallets, swords, firearms, rank insignia, and even fingers–taken as trophies but sold to collectors, as my barangay is a poor one. In the Battle of Jalajala, 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in a literal bloodbath against my countrymen who were armed with farming tools: Machetes mostly, and made-to-order blades and bamboo spears. Few of these fighting men considered themselves martial arts “experts”. At a local gathering I encountered a group of young men sparring with sticks, and when I asked where they learned Arnis, most said they didn’t know Arnis, they just knew how to fight. Imagine that, LOL. Much can be learned from this example, that art and actual deployment of the art in combat are not always the same thing. Many people around the world have learned from teachers who have never fought matches, even teachers who argue against fighting matches. While all around me are young men who have learned from grandparents and great-grandparents who have killed men. Living with me right now is a cousin whose husband learned from my own grandfather, and lost his life defending a woman whose husband was beating her. My cousin seriously injured the man, but he incurred an injury that was infected and died from it. Arnis is like those family heirloom quilts you might have been given by grandma: beautiful, treasured, probably worth lots of money–but used on a daily basis. Arnis in this town is serious business, even if there are few self-proclaimed experts among us.

This area is also the birthplace of some serious martial arts experts as well. Over the years I have read accounts of masters whose teachers fought in the Battle of Jalajala. Without a doubt, the experience if you survived was most likely life-changing. My grandfather made many references to this battle, as his experience influenced how he taught the martial arts. My older cousins tell me that a Sikaran master had come to our town to fight my grandfather on several occasions. They had become friends, and my grandfather had developed many methods to defeating a kicker, as our style utilizes primarily low kicks. My cousin, who eventually relocated to Kenya, told me he had learned Tae Kwon Do while in Africa, and Papa taught him Sikaran when he returned, and told him to replace his TKD with it. But I digress…

One thing I noticed while talking with the various neighbors and family, no one studied for long. I have several cousins and uncles who took work outside the area as police officers and tanod (private security guards), who have great skill even in their older age despite only studying martial arts for a year or less. One Karate-Arnis teacher I met on the way to Angeles City told my mother and I that he learned Arnis from a friend’s father, only a few months worth of lessons, and learned Karate from books. But he is a long-time teacher with plenty of fighting experience and built his own system out of that tiny sliver of education. And this is not strange. There is no shame in admitting that one is an autodidact, nor is there shame in never having received formal rank in any art. There is no shame in creating one’s own style out of pieces of arts picked up along the way, nor do these men embellish grand stories about where they learned. What does matter to them, however, is that they have tested their skills on other fighters, and that their students skill speak for itself. God, I love the Philippines.

So I write this for all the martial artists I’ve met along the way, all those who have written me letters and emails, who have approached me in tournaments and open mats, who have visited my school–and expressed disappointment that they cannot have the ideal learning experience in the art, but do not wish to self-educated on DVDs and seminars. There are many ways up the top of the FMA mountain. I am positive that if modern-day media existed in the 1950s, our masters and grandmasters would have used them. My grandfather use to brag that he had been beaten by men, then returned several times to challenge (and often get beaten again) in order to decipher, figure out, “steal” the opponent’s techniques. This ain’t the rap game, folks, you are welcome to steal another guy’s lyrics. LMAO.

I still recommend traveling to meet and train with teachers. It’s a wonderful experience, and eating crow, suffering for an art is a very healthy, yet small price to pay for the experience. Sleeping on your master’s floor and eating what little bit of food you can buy in order to have enough money for transportation home is worth the wonderful knowledge your teachers will impart if you strive to go and visit them. But if circumstances cannot allow you to do such a thing, do not be ashamed to self-educate. I had a student from Canada for a few years, who would work for six months and save up the money to come and see me in my school in California with just enough money to train for two or three days, then he’d be off to Canada until I saw him six months later. This student was extremely diligent, had a very high tolerance for pain, very, very humble, and if I were to hear that he was teaching, although he never made it past my third beginner level, I would be confident that his students were in good hands. You see, because in the martial arts, we should be valuing quality, not quantity. Even your local boxing gym might be led by a man who did not have a professional career. We must let go of the notion that expertise requires years and years of study. If you are looking to learn to defend yourself, or learn the arts well enough to teach others to defend themselves, you pull knowledge from wherever you can find it. You don’t need a lot, but what you get, you must develop to a high degree. What is more important than a teacher, is a mentor. What I’ve realized from the descendants of the Jalajala guerrillas is that you don’t need much knowledge to kill a man and stay alive. What you do need is grit, toughness, and diligence–and of course, reliable skills to develop.

Now if your goal is to master the martial arts or develop your skills to a dominant elite level, we are talking about a whole ‘nother subject.

There are three basic ways up the mountain for aspiring FMA teachers:

    1. Find a teacher, and study with him full time until you have completed his curriculum and requirements for rank
    2. Find a teacher(s), and study with him when you can, until you have completed his curriculum and requirements for rank
    3. Find a teacher(s), study with him/them when you can, then supplement with as much information as you can gather, then follow the advice of a mentor while you navigate the martial arts experience to test, explore, and modify the knowledge you have acquired. Then declare your own rank when others see you as having arrived

You might be surprised if you are a long-time reader of my blogs. In the past, I have contended that one must stay under a master for guidance, but I realize that while that is the ideal method of learning, it is not the only path to advancement in the arts. We will peel back the layers of this philosophy–self-directed learning in the martial arts–in upcoming articles. By the way, make sure you pick up a copy of my newest book, Techniques and Fighting Strategy, found on the Offerings page of the site. And if you are on Facebook, make sure to look for our like page by under the same name as the blog and follow us! I post related memes and thoughts that may not appear on this site. Soon we will be adding a YouTube channel as well, so keep an eye for it! If you haven’t subscribed yet, go to the main page and subscribe so you don’t miss a single post! Thank you for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

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