It was a large school in a local shopping center, with a full class of students, children and adults, working out on the floor. The owner had been in the arts for quite a number of years and was eager to answer any questions about what he taught. “This is a traditional school”, said the instructor as he pointed to a Bo and Kama that were displayed on the wall. “And we only teach traditional weapons and katas”.
He is justifiably proud of what he teaches; he has turned out an impressive number of advanced belts, and he is a highly respected martial artist. But is he really following the weapons traditions of the old masters? Is he really teaching his students what they need to know now?
For the most part ‘traditional’ weapons were farm implements or tools that were commonly carried and used in everyday life. There have been lengthy discussions, and some disagreement, about what each of the ‘weapons’ were really used for. As an example, some say that the Nunchaku was a rice flail, others say that it was a horse bridle. What they were used for is not important. The important thing is that they were unremarkable in that society, at that time. They were common, non-exotic tools. They were some sort of legal, practical, non-threatening implement that doubled as a weapon of defense.
Our martial arts forefathers were practical men and what they taught had to be practical as well. In those times, a weapon was considered practical if it was useful, available and legal to carry, anywhere, anytime. In those days carrying a weapon that was banned was dealt with harshly and swiftly, often with severe penalties including lose of life or limb, and there was no board of appeal. What good would it do to teach a student the use of a weapon that would land them in jail or even get them killed?
The teachers of yesteryear taught only what was effective and what could be used. They were duty bound to do so. They established the tradition of teaching only those weapons that their students could have with them at all times, weapons to defend themselves and their loved ones. What kind of teacher would teach their students something that did not work, or would jeopardize their well-being or the safety of their family? The teachers of old would never teach a student the use of a weapon that they could not have with them at all times. What would be the point? The Bo, Kama, Nunchaku, Eku, Tonfu etc. are the by-product of that tradition, not the tradition.
Does anyone think it possible that the old ones are spinning in their graves at the idea of teaching old weapons in new times? I asked a self-described traditionalist why he insisted on teaching the Bo. He replied that it was taught for exercise. Exercise!?!?!? Swinging a cane would give the same level, or more, of exercise, and the student could have the cane with them - and know how to use it - when it was needed. I can, and do, carry a cane with me when I travel, and I would have never considered carrying a Bo. Another instructor said that Bo kata taught balance coupled with coordination. I responded that mopping or sweeping the floors would accomplish the same thing, with the added benefit of clean floors. In fact the students would more likely have a mop or broom with them in public than a Bo.
Weapon traditionalism, as practiced today, is not traditional at all, but is instead an exercise of remembering a tradition. And in remembering that tradition instructors fail their students. The one true tradition is teaching weapons that are legal and practical as dictated by the laws and practices of the land where the instruction is given. The teachers of today must recognize the impractically of teaching weapons that are forbidden on public streets or public transportation. If the weapon that is practiced is a weapon that cannot be used, in any arena, then it is not a ‘traditional weapon’. It would be like a Tae Kwon Do instructor teaching kicks during class, then making the students leave their legs in the Dojang when they went home. What would be the point of teaching kicks when the students didn’t have legs?
Times change. It has been pointed out that we no longer use the medicine or communication methods of the 1800’s, why should we restrict our use of self-defense weapons to what was taught in the 1700s. Weapons that were accepted yesterday are not accepted today. Weapons that were legal yesterday are not legal today. The rules have changed, but the need for protection has not. Now more than ever practical, legal protection is needed. And present day instructors, teaching out-dated, illegal weapons are not meeting those needs. Teaching weapons that cannot be used at all times, in all places, is doing a disservice to the student, to the community and to themselves, but more importantly, it is certainly doing a disservice to tradition.
As the great haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote, “Seek not what the old masters did; Seek what they sought”.