Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The value of a person’s insight is inevitably limited by his or her level of real-world experience. On a few occasions, spectators at my public demonstrations of Acero Sevillano, or Andalusian edged weapons arts, have smugly remarked that our techniques resembled Filipino knife-fighting. The implication has been that what we are demonstrating are Filipino knife arts. Hmmm!

Obvious novices to the martial arts, perhaps these undiscriminating spectators have yet to embrace Bruce Lee’s maxim that, “The value of a cup is in its emptiness.”

Nor do they seem to be familiar with his parable of how five different martial artists once observed the same street fight and later described it with completely discrepant perspectives. To paraphrase Lee’s teaching anecdote, the boxer witnessing the fight mostly noted the punches he saw used. The karate-ka noticed the kicks that were used. The wrestler described the fight in terms of the grappling techniques he observed being applied, and so on. The point that Lee, a pioneer in the martial arts, was making is that most people see only what they gets filtered through their personal frame of reference.

This, of course, is much more than just a convenient teaching parable, however. It actually underscores a phenomenon that has been researched and documented by sociologists for decades: that is, we cannot accurately see or interpret things that exist outside of our frame of reference. To make sense of such unfamiliar things, we re-frame them as something that we are familiar with, even if means calling apples "oranges" (because we have never seen an apple.)

The phenomenon is so well-known that many ways have been developed to address and correct it. For example, there is the classic tale of the six blind men attempting to describe an elephant. While there exist myriad versions of this story, the essence of it goes as follows:

A king once gathered six blind men together and asked them to examine and describe an elephant. When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each one and asked: 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is it?"

The blind man who felt the animal’s torso described the elephant as a wall;
The blind man who felt the ear described the elephant as a fan;
The blind man who felt the tusk described the elephant as a plow;
The blind man who felt the trunk described the elephant as a water spout;
The blind man who felt the leg described the elephant as a pillar;
The blind man who felt the tip of the tail described the elephant as a brush.

The sightless men could not agree with one another and eventually came to blows over the question of what an elephant is really like. This delighed the king.

The story compares the six blind men to scholars and preachers who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: “Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”

The Buddha then speaks the following verse:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
In quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing

There is also the old saw, To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. How true; some opinionated spectators seem to be as intellectually dense as hammers. Clearly, those spectators at my demonstration were only familiar with the fighting arts of Eskrima and Kali and therefore blind to the fine points of other, non-Filipino, knife arts. They are victims of what one friend describes as “perceptual naivetĂ© resulting from an absence of a referential basis.”

Although I have been active in the martial arts since 1967 I, too, am nonetheless susceptible to this phenomenon when viewing activities outside of my own frame of reference. When I visit another martial arts pioneer, Maestro Ramon Martinez, my students initially view the fencing taking place on the piste and see it only as “sword-fighting.” Yet, Maestro Martinez will later sit with us and identify that this “sword-fighting” is Spanish saber, and describe the many subtleties and nuances that distinguish it from Italian rapier or French small-sword.

Today, I believe I can appreciate and articulate the differences between Spanish, Italian, and French fencing. Still, I have yet to learn the distinctions between these styles in the different time periods during which they evolved. I don’t know these yet, but I am confident in the fact that I at least will not confuse them – as some of my spectators have – with Filipino knife-fighting.