Developing One’s Own Martial Arts System and Style
Hanshi Stephen F Kaufman
Master and Founder of Hebi-Ryu Budo – School of the Snake
Developing one’s own system and style does not simply suggest that anyone who thinks they have practiced for a period of time is capable or qualified to create a “style.” To many, this is a confusing issue. It entails certain ideas and responsibilities that the majority of practitioners generally do not understand. After all, what is a style?
Style is a very personalized approach to a specific set of expressions in any given art. It does not mean because you have developed certain movements or combinations of technique that you are the creator of a “style.” It involves thorough investigation of the ideas presented to you by previous teachers and masters to enable you to propel the art to the next level of functionality and respectability: the art—not you! In most cases, people, regardless of supposed rank, tend to think that if they change a particular move, or two or sixteen, they have created a style. As well, if you take what you have learned and proceed to call it by a different name, even though honoring your predecessors, you are only creating a school with your name and not an actual style or system. Additionally, it is not enough to theorize on how things should be done, but rather, they must be field tested in real situations. The creative aspect involves much soul searching and the constant examination of your motives. It is not an ego trip, and in no way can it be indicative of self-aggrandizement. In finality, there is no such thing as a “style,” but rather an extension of functionality through intention.
Here is how my Hebi-Ryu came to be. After considerable searching for a higher understanding of what I was actually practicing, when I returned to New York upon discharge from the USAF, where I was an instructor, I found no one who was truly capable of teaching karate to a more than perfunctorily level. Keep in mind that this was in 1960. What followed in my quest was a constant meeting with other well-known sensei who had the same situation. There were variations of Shotokan, Ishinryu, Moo Duk Kwan, Shorinryu, Kung Fu, Kempo, etc. What we practiced was called karate, not martial arts. The only way we could determine if something was workable was to actually “throw down” with each other. Now, this is an acknowledged and verifiable fact. As well, there was no one who could extend their own selflessness by being able to examine the value of what they were teaching. The only way to do it was with actual contests. We called them pick-up fights, and many people got hurt and did damage to others as well. Mostly everyone, but not all, saw kata as being ineffective. There was other use for karate, with the exception of throwing punches and kicks and winning fights.
I soon realized there had to be more to it than simple physicality. I will not belabor the reader with the trials and tribulations that accompanied my personal search; I determined that the general approach of teaching the art was in need of serious revamping as to the reasoning for it to be studied. In no way is this meant to denigrate the traditions from whence they came. Self-defense aspects were never an issue, because in confrontations, variations of non-classical judo, ju-jitsu, military hand-to-hand and basic street fighting techniques were used. We didn’t study jo or bo, but we did know how to use a stick, a bat, or a garbage can cover. We also knew about nunchuks, but they were made illegal to carry. Those that tried to use kata moves were usually knocked on their ass. Then, of course, Hollywood got into it and completely destroyed the budo mentality with the exploitation of martial arts “performers.”
At the time of my searching, I had no idea that I was developing a system or a style. I was trying to free myself from the restrictions that encompassed my sense of self with regards to karate. That it did develop is evidenced in the manner in which I live the life I do. It is the primary reason I was able to interpret Musashi’s Book of Five Rings to the extent that anyone can understand it regardless of his or her profession, and it is the world’s best-selling interpretation.
Having now been in the martial arts for more than sixty years, I find that I still may have things to learn, but certainly not in the same way that most younger students do, age and experience notwithstanding, and it is to what I have devoted my life. Whether I chose this life, or this life chose me is not the question. The fact remains that this is what I do, and I make no excuses for it; rather, I am very thankful for the direction my life has taken—even with all of the heartbreak, failures, and victories.
If you are capable of taking yourself and your “way” to a higher level, then it will show in your actions and not in your braggadocio. And, no, I don’t recommend it as a life-style, unless you are capable of having profound revelations that include throwing your guts up, interminable frustration, questioning your sanity, and being able to overcome with intelligence and fortitude the acceptance of perfection to the extent you can conceive of it.
If you are of the mind to do at most of the above, then go ahead and claim your style, but first come to terms with your motivations. They must be of a higher ideal and not construed as a commercial endeavor. Understand that when you take this responsibility, many people will not understand what you are trying to accomplish. As well, your own visions will begin to change via your intellect and perceptions of everything.
Hanshi Stephen F. Kaufman
New York, 2020
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