Sunday, November 19, 2006

Missing The Boat

Are you serious about your training in the Filipino martial arts? If you are reading this blog, then I’m presupposing you have more than a passing interest in the subject, in which case, here’s my challenge:

Are you really doing everything you can to expand your knowledge and skills? If you are like the majority of folks out there, I would have to say “probably not,” and the reason, as I see it, is insularity. Most of us become comfortable training in our own little bubble, content what is easy, unwilling to look beyond what is convenient.

In the old days the FMA were highly secretive, passed down within families or secret societies. The reason for this was survival. Partly this was due to the oppression of the Spanish colonial era, but at a more fundamental level it can also be attributed to the complexities of Filipino culture, which is one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse. Rivalry and competition for survival was (and still is) fierce down to the basic structure of society, and so fighting skills were closely guarded secrets in order to preserve the split second advantages that could mean the difference between life and death.

Nowadays, however, we live in a golden age for FMA training. Migration and travel have spread practitioners around the globe while modern media has spread the word. The advent of the internet created a broader forum and recognition for the FMA, stimulating growth by providing contact and access to any seeking these skills.

While the FMA expanded worldwide, however, it also exported some of the baggage associated with old cultural values. I’m specifically referring to the rivalries, often fueled by machismo that helped push the arts underground in the first place. Even while Filipinos banded together for survival in new and unfamiliar places, it still was not uncommon to hear various manongs (old masters) talk derisively about their compatriots. They may have presented a common front to outsiders, but within their own communities old divisions continued, delineated by lineage, language and regional origin.

Early FMA in the U.S. followed tradition, staying within closed doors. This began to change when Angel Cabales opened the first public FMA academy in Stockton in 1966, but as others followed this example, stylistic rivalries were perpetuated. Sad to say, people who had grown up together became separated simply because they went to train in different schools, and much of the responsibility for this lies with their teachers.

While the attribute of fierce dedication to one’s training developed fierce warriors, it also limited the ability of the FMA to propagate in a more open society. Most people come to martial arts seeking a path to personal freedom, the ability to defend themselves and feel safe. The “us versus them” mindset didn’t translate well into a more egalitarian society and so the FMA remained largely the purview of those personally loyal to a single teacher or style.

It is perhaps in the last fifteen years or so that these self-imposed limitations have begun to fade. Just as Moses could lead the Israelites out of Egypt, it has taken a new generation of leadership to move forward into a new land, unshackled by the prejudices of a different time and place. Organizations like WEKAF and the new USFMAF have created forums that cross stylistic boundaries, opening heightened visibility for the Filipino arts, yet there is still much further to go.

When I first encountered the FMA in 1979, there were only a handful of teachers on either coast. If you wanted to train, it took dedication and commitment. Showing up was often a pilgrimage; one frequently had to travel far or relocate to attend classes, and so loyalty to a school was built in, since there were few options and only the most dedicated persevered.

Nearly a decade later, some small progress had been made. There were a few more established schools, but the FMA community was still small enough that in most areas, local practitioners knew who else was involved, even if in different programs. The seminar circuit was just starting up, mostly through Remy Presas and Dan Inosanto.

I was naïve enough back then to assume others were as hungry to expand their knowledge as was I, so I was astounded in 1987 when I approached one practitioner, a junior instructor in another martial art who also dabbled in FMA, with an invitation to a rare Bay Area seminar by grandmaster Angel Cabales. Though the opportunity was presented to experience a legendary teacher right in this person’s own neighborhood, the offer was declined with the comment that “I only train with so-and-so, who comes by once or twice a year, and he’ll be back in about six months.”

Now back then I trained daily on my own and with partners, and took weekly lessons with each of my teachers in FMA, Kenpo and Tai Chi Chuan, so I was astonished that someone who perhaps got a seminar twice a year would not even consider getting in some extra training, especially of such caliber. Experience is cumulative and is the basis for skill and, perhaps, wisdom. It’s one thing to be loyal to a teacher or school, but it’s another to ignore what others are doing in the same field of endeavor, whatever that might be.

Since one is more likely, as a martial artist, to encounter those who have NOT trained in your school or style, it would seem common sense that learning what others might do would be an advantage. As the saying goes, “Know your enemy.” Remember the earlier points about preserving secrecy to prevent rivals from figuring out how to beat you; now that the knowledge was practically being given away, such a gift was ignored! I can imagine reaction of many an old warrior to that one.

Fast-forward twenty years to the present. There are many more FMA schools across the land and as the marketplace has grown, prospective students have more choices where to go. Teachers have trained teachers who are now themselves trainers of teachers, perpetuating both old styles and spinning off new variants, so the arts are not so rare or hard to find. Though classes are still generally fairly small, the overall number of practitioners has grown in proportion. For the most part teachers and students in local communities know of each other, and most contact is respectful or even cordial, yet that same sense of insularity remains. Too often there is still that attitude that everything we need to know is contained in one place alone.

I’d like to challenge that belief, and I’ll use a simple example. Virtually every martial art teaches the armbar. It is arguably the most basic joint lock because it is simple and effective. Between styles one might find variations on applying this technique based on entries and leverage, and within any given style there will be subtle nuances based on size, strength, sensitivity, skill, experience and understanding. The more one learns about applying this one lock, the deeper one’s own practice becomes. Each new bit of information that is assimilated expands our own ability, not only to apply this technique but also to see and avoid the setups that might be applied against us.

There’s a joke that the most common phrase in the FMA is “Oh, we have that too,” but if this were true, there would only be one style encompassing the whole art. We clearly see that there are differences, based on pragmatic things such as weaponry and footwork, yet all too often fleeting chances to explore new possibilities are allowed to pass, and who knows when such might come again? Many are those who have “intended” for year after year to train with a master, only to see that teacher, and the opportunity, pass away.

A couple of recent “we have that too” examples come to mind. In the first one, I spoke with a teacher whom I respect about sending a couple of his top students to check out the Visayan doblecada seminar that was recently held in Oakland (there’s another coming Dec. 3rd). I got the “we have that too” response. I don’t know what double stick training takes place at this particular academy, but as his art is predominantly based on single stick, I doubt the time and energy has been spent developing the sophistication behind Sonny Umpad’s methods. To whatever degree double sticks are emphasized, I think it’s a fair assumption that the details will be different. Each art has an area of focus and specialization, and by cross-training, we can go straight to the heart of the matter without having to reinvent the wheel for every aspect we encounter.

Despite lack of interest from this one source, at least the doblecada seminar was reasonably well attended. A more poignant example of lack of support took place this past weekend, however, when grandmaster Crispulo Atillo’s Balintawok seminar here in the Bay Area was cancelled due to lack of interest. Many of us here have not seen Balintawok, a Cebuano art related to Doce Pares, Serrada and Visayan Corto Kadena, among others, and so this was a chance to fill in some blanks. From my own point of view, I’ve found each variant of the similar themes among these arts adds to my understanding of the overall qualities characteristic to the central Philippines. Is this so uncommon a view?

How long can we expect old grandmasters to be available to help us develop our skills? At what point will promoters stop trying to give us opportunities to meet these men? It costs money bring people from far away. Arrangements have to be made. In a situation like this, where there is no apparent interest in the seminar, the choice is between cutting one’s losses or incurring greater ones. Worse, it forces the promoter to reconsider similar offerings in the future. After all, why should he throw money away? It isn’t a question of making money from the event, but at least feeling the community is willing to share the burden in order to gain the benefit of shared experience. The money lost in this particular venture could have been spent more productively if the promoter had simply traveled on his own to attend a seminar elsewhere. While this would have been personally rewarding, he took the chance instead to offer something special for the rest of us, and for this he got burned.

The Bay Area is considered a hotbed of Filipino martial arts. It’s a seminal location for numerous styles in the U.S. Perhaps we are spoiled by the plethora of choices available nowadays, but this is an illusion if we don’t avail ourselves of the opportunities that arise. After all, the choices we ignore become meaningless. One direction adds to our level of experience, the other means we stand pat. As I’ve heard many times, we either move forward or we are moving backwards; to remain in place is to let the world pass us by.

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