Mountains and Rivers

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.

2 thoughts on “Mountains and Rivers

  1. You can’t help comparing martial arts. It is part of the process of choosing which style is going to provide you with the broadest and most efficient techniques. But is a right choice possible? Some martial arts or martial art styles might fit your character and your morphology better than others. But just as no general practitioner can deal with complex diseases of the eye, or the tooth for instance, you won’t find the perfect martial art making you prepared for all eventualities. And even if such an art existed, it would be too challenging for your body and for your mind. Rather than comparing martial arts, the solution to the problem of acquiring the broadest efficiency seems to be in the spirit in which you practice. You have the American way and the Japanese way.
    The American way says that in order to acquire maximum efficiency, you should master the widest range possible of techniques. In a competition, athletes compete by category, which means there is not much physical difference between opponents, and competitors undertake roughly the same training. So, instead of practicing harder the basic techniques, you would be better off knowing some techniques your opponent is unaware of. Conversely, a wide knowledge would prevent you from being taken unaware. This would give you the edge over your opponent. America being a melting pot, you can easily figure out why this way of thinking came into being.
    The Japanese way says that in order to acquire maximum efficiency, you should master the basic techniques to such an extent that you become prepared for all eventualities. In Aikido, take ikkyo or irimi nage for instance. Not only are you supposed to be able to apply these basic techniques to each and every conceivable bare-handed attack, you should also be able to use it against all armed attacks, against a front or back attack, from a standing or kneeling posture and so on. Since you also often change partners during practice, you should be able to apply a technique to any type of opponent; if the technique doesn’t work well, you become aware of its shortcomings with a given type of partner and become able to choose the appropriate technique for each particular case. You are also supposed to be able to combine the techniques in order to deal with multiple opponents such as Kokyu ho against three persons where you combine a shiho nage and a kokyu ho. And you should also know how to use a given basic technique as a counter or go about roundabout ways to apply this technique.
    Japan being an island and martial arts having been the main specialization of the warrior caste, you can easily figure out why this way of thinking came into being.
    So, instead of looking for Prince Charming by going through the purely theoretical and groundless process of choosing the best martial art, one would certainly be better off knowing oneself and one’s chosen art through practice by thoroughly following one of the two afore-mentioned ways. 

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