Skeptic - Of Martial Arts and Magic Arts
an amateur magician still learning to hone his craft, at one point or
another every martial arts charlatan who pulls off a trick they attribute
to their having “special powers” had to at some time have practiced it
on somebody. Before they got it down right and became adept at fooling
gullible students (or just themselves), they must surely have failed a
lot. I have come to understand that in my youth I was witness to some
of these amateur “masters” still trying to figure it all out. I experienced
a good many fakes and con artists while they were still working on their
various gimmicks. Back then I never fell for those claiming “secrets powers”
of the shaolin or ninja or medieval samurai. But now, as a researcher
and professional martial arts instructor with 30 years experience, I am
disgusted by it and can happily call them out.
What dismays me the most with all the pop-culture martial arts nonsense
(or “bullshido”) out there is that many people are all too quick to believe
in such illusions. There is a pernicious absurdity in how readily
some will give uncritical acceptance to assertions of martial arts “powers.”
As with devotion to so many fringe claims, some people have a desperate
need to make themselves feel special or powerful—without putting
in the work and discipline real fighting and real self-defense skills
demand. They want a short cut. They want “secret techniques” from
a privileged source. It’s the same phenomena at work with belief in faith
healers and psychic charlatans. In much the same way, student followers
of pretentious martial arts frauds are often more than willing to help
accommodate and enable their instructor’s tricks. It’s just another
example of self-delusion, I suppose.
Yet, as an expert fighter and instructor, as well as a long time skeptic,
what I find truly pathetic in the tendency towards belief in “mysterious
Eastern powers,” is how distinctly it contrasts with the foundation of
my chosen fighting art.
Starting with the ancient Greeks, our ancestors within Western civilization
had their own traditional self-defense methods—their own “Arts of
Mars” (i.e., the martial arts).
They cataloged and recorded these combative traditions in unmatched literature
consisting of dozens of systematic technical treatises. They actually
went out of their way to call their craft a science (scienta, in fact)—the Noble Science of Defence,
based on principia (principles) that could be reasoned and
explained through systematic rules and geometry. Their methods were uniformly
based on rational concepts —such mysterious esoteric concepts as
timing, distance, leverage and perception. Oooh… How exotic.
self-defense methods were taught with an ethical and spiritual framework
while recognizing the elements of mental and emotional control, as well
as physical fitness involved in such study. They were as far beyond
the modern sport fencing style as professional tennis is beyond children’s
ping-pong. Notably, this sophisticated knowledge of armed and unarmed
close combat was achieved without resorting to the candy-coated mysticism
and metaphysics that today so many of the popular Asian fighting arts
are camouflaged with. As someone who works to educate the public on the
reality of personal violence and recover authentic historical teachings
and skills, the strong empirical and rationalist component of Renaissance
martial arts teachings is constantly refreshing to me. It stands in stark
contrast to so much of the lunacy out there. So much of what is now presented
as traditional Asian martial arts are hyped up and watered down, yet are
missing the functional center.
Sadly, most all the supposed powers presented by martial arts grifters
to the amazement of ignorant Westerners actually have little or nothing
to do with effective self-defense techniques. Personally, I can demonstrate
all sorts of martial “feats” that, when performed by supposedly “traditional”
Asian stylists, are purportedly based on chi or ki or some other nonsense. But,
laughably, they are little more than the simple application of timed leverage
along with some physical conditioning (and sometimes a little psychology).
Yet Westerners, uninformed of their own martial arts heritage (let alone
basic physics), will often fall victim to such hucksterism.
Over the years, I have met so many martial arts enthusiasts who would
claim, “Oh no, I knew a guy once who had a master who could do the real
thing!” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that story… well,
you know the cliché. The facts are: real life combat skills and
real world martial history are far more compelling and far more fascinating
than all the fantasy myth and modern misrepresentation you can imagine.
Masterful skill and ability at its highest levels can seem wondrous and
amazing, but it is nothing paranormal.
For myself, skepticism of martial arts claims is a practical matter of
self-interest, if not altruistic consumer advocacy. Perhaps, then,
it is no wonder that I have come to reach a certain observation... For
a long time I have been a fan (though not a practitioner) of table magic,
street magic, and small-stage magic—slight of hand, card tricks,
simple illusions, etc. Though it might be surprising, I have often
asserted that there is actually a strong but unrecognized connection between
the martial arts and the magical arts, between the student of magic and
the student of fighting. Although they would seem polar opposites, consider:
each employ deception and perception to achieve results.
- We both depend upon concealing our true actions and movements while
reading those of our targets.
- We both employ adroit dexterity honed through long hours of practice;
yet display a sense of sprezzatura—the appearance of unstudied ease and natural
- We each study concepts privy to a select few that are at once simple
- We each are concerned with how human beings react physically and emotionally
to what they perceive and experience as reality.
- We both acquire mental and physical discipline through exercise of
- We each work toward an unattainable mastery over our art.
- We each seek ultimately to direct the mind of those we engage.
And lastly, I would add that we both must deal with charlatans, frauds,
and clowns who, with the complicity of pop culture, influence the uneducated
with claims of powers and metaphysical certainties.
I have come to notice how research into the ways human beings trick themselves
with their senses so that they can be mislead by magicians reveals a fascinating
parallel to what I have learned about misperception in the martial arts.
It is a phenomenon, which so far, I have been able only to convey and
start teaching to only one highly focused and dedicated student.
Thus, although one art deals with personal self-defence against violence,
and the other art with entertainment and education, they are much alike
in how each pursues and performs their skill. Each art offers a means
of wisdom and self-discovery. Each sharpens intuition and encourages
the search for underlying truth. And each ultimately teaches the
practitioner that there is always more to learn. Intriguingly, as
a martial artist and swordsman, I know of no other activity for which
I can observe such an affinity. Curious that…
If you want to learn about our forgotten Western heritage
see the online documentary:
“Renaissance Martial Arts” at www.theARMA.org/RMAWD.htm
This piece is dedicated to James Randi.