Koichi Tohei, one of the pivotal figures in aikido, is quoted as saying:
“The mountain does not laugh at the river because it is lowly, nor does the river speak ill of the mountain because it can not move.”
I often keep this quote in mind when people start comparing martial arts. And people do enjoy comparing martial arts against each other! I’ve lost count of the number of Facebook discussions, email threads, and (sometimes heated) in-person conversations I’ve come across in which the pros and cons of two martial arts are compared.
In truth, comparing martial arts in order to determine which one is “better” makes no sense. To carry Tohei sensei’s statement further: when you go hiking, do you comment on how the mountain is more beautiful to look at than the river? Of course not. If you must compare martial arts, compare them based on their basic assumptions of conflict, and how their strategies and tactics address those assumptions. In aikido, for example, it’s often assumed that there are multiple potential attackers (even if you’re only dealing with one that you know of). We also tend to assume that the conflict is occurring in a relatively civilized location–a bar, a street corner, and so on. This is a different set of assumptions than, say, Krav Maga. Does this mean one art is better than the other? No. They are simply different. And, with luck, we can learn more about ourselves by appreciating these differences.
Tohei’s statement resonates with me on another level, however. Just as it’s incorrect to compare two martial arts, I often think it’s incorrect to compare two people in the same martial art. This idea became very apparent to me when I was the dojo the other day. As I taught class and worked with students, I realized that each person moved in different ways. Some people in the dojo are very large and very strong. Others are small and light. When we train, we should recognize and respect the power of our opponent. We can’t make someone strong and heavy instantly become light, nor can we do the reverse. Even more important, we should respect the power of ourselves. For example, sometimes, when I have trouble taking someone’s balance, I try to match their power. This can work if the person is similar to me in terms of size and movement. But it rarely works when someone is bigger, stronger, faster, or whatever. What works better is to recognize my opponent’s power, and still respect my own.
After all, the river does not try to become the mountain, and the mountain does not try to be the river. They simply meet in harmony.