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Mountain Path Kung Fu, Albuquerque, NM

News and Blog

News and Blog

On Self Defense: Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

Posted by [email protected] on January 29, 2016 at 2:00 AM

On Self-Defense

Part 1 of a 3 Part Series.

I am often asked whether or not I teach “Self-Defense.” The answer is a tangled mess of “yes, I teach Kung Fu,” and “No, because I teach Kung Fu.” Is it a complex and confusing answer? Yes. Because it is a complex and confusing question.


To understand the answer we must first understand four issues at the heart of the question. Foremost among these issues is what “self-defense” is. The second issue is what the term “self-defense” has come to mean within the martial arts industry. Third, we must understand why you not only have a Right to defend yourself but an obligation to defend life. Finally, we need to understand what a martial art is and why if it truly is a martial art, its principles will mirror precisely the principles of warfare. (depending on your art those principles will specifically mirror the principles of either maneuver or attrition warfare. These principles are well defined and not especially the subject of much debate among warfighting experts.)


A Primer for Understanding the Four Items Cited Above:

There is a tremendous amount of criticism towards the “traditional arts” as being outdated or lacking utility in our modern world. Others will claim that the values base offers a wonderful rooting from which to address the issues of day to day living but that beyond an exercise practice, traditional styles aren’t of much value in “actually defending yourself.” These are the claims of someone who does not understand what the traditional martial arts are, their history, or the values base from which they stem. Frankly, these claims are not that much different than the idea that the First Amendment to our Constitution is outdated because some people could get their feelings hurt by words and so we should limit some speech or that the Founders could never have envisioned how quickly news could travel via social media so the freedom of the press ought to be limited. It’s Absurd! (by the way, those are actual arguments I recently heard… seriously.) Just as claims about traditional arts being ineffective, outdated, not applicable in modern times etc. are made by people who don’t truly understand the martial arts as a specific, microcosmic representation of warfighting theory; people making claims about Rights being outdated do not understand what a Right is and why it has value.


Interestingly, Rights and the martial arts as a representation of warfighting theory are intrinsically linked; at least to the ethical Scholar Warrior and in the mind of the Professional Soldier. I read an article yesterday while scrolling thru my Facebook feed (and I’d really like to find it again) in which the author asserted that virtually no one is teaching “self-defense” any more. I am inclined to agree with him for a variety of reasons save one which he based the fundamental stance of his argument on. He asserted that in order to learn self-defense, we must understand violence and that doing so was next to impossible save for one demographic group – violent offenders, the predators. He asserted, quite accurately I might add, that a majority of instructors only have anecdotal experience with violence and that a preponderance of their systems are based on dogmatic methods that have little use today or even worse “because my teacher said so.” He accurately asserted that in order to be able to defend oneself, they must be inoculated to violence and learn to overcome extreme pain. He was dead on about that. That author was right on virtually every issue save one. There are groups of people who understand violence. The professional warfighter more than certainly, understands violence. It is literally his profession to understand violence and then to apply violence the way a surgeon applies the scalpel. I’d challenge you to meet a veteran of the Battle of Sangin in Afghanistan or the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq and not draw the silent conclusion “that man knows violence.” The men and women, who created the traditional arts, did so because they were taking those skills to war. The traditional arts are based in violence and in medicine – we’ll talk medicine in a future post. The reason they also happen to have sincere codes of honor and a powerful values base, is because they are just as good at inoculating the practitioner against the psychological post combat trauma effects as they are to inoculating the practitioner to the actual violence. That is to say, a rock solid values base that provides you with clear cut guidelines on when to apply violence, safeguards you from later wondering, if you went too far during a conflict. (if anyone knows the piece I am referring to let me know, I’d like to cite the author, I really think he wrote a great piece.)


I teach “Traditional Kung Fu and Traditional Values” and so in a strict sense yes I teach “self-defense.” In the colloquial term “self-defense” that has come to be common place within the martial arts industry… No. No, I don’t teach that.




What is “self-defense?” Self-defense is the act of defending oneself, or others from injury or harm. Simple, right? Without the context of values base and examining it strictly as a definition, sure. Let’s then assess why you have not only a right to defend yourself, but an obligation to do so.


We must understand what a Right is. There are two criteria that must be met in order for something to be a Right. First, a right cannot impose a burden on anyone else. That is to say, it can’t compel other people to do something active in order for you to exercise your Right. Secondly, every Right, must have a correlating duty. For example, you have an obligation to stand Jury Duty because you have a Right to a trial by a jury of your peers. Or another, example, you have a Right to freely practice, or to not practice your religion, because you have an obligation to allow other people to freely practice or not practice their religion without interfering, you have a right to your privacy because you have an obligation not to intrude on the privacy of others etc. So you do have a Right (notice the big “R” there!) to your Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness… that is what the Founders meant when they claimed such Rights to be “self-evident.” Such Rights were so very clear that everyone understood them intuitively, I think people still do.


So, now that we understand what a Right is, we can then ask “do you have a Right to live?” quite obviously, the answer is yes of course you do. Your Right to live is the very reason all of your other Rights exist. So you’re Right to defend yourself extends directly from your right to simply exist. The correlating duty is an obligation to defend life, including your own, in the greatest quantity possible should you ever be put in a position to do so.


Self-defense is the logical, appropriate and proportionate measure necessary to defend and preserve life. Our modern military measures these criteria, particularly the “proportionate” aspect, by requiring all of its combatants to strictly adhere to Escalation of Force Measures, Rules of Engagement, the Law of War, various “General Orders” and the Code of Conduct. All traditional martial arts which I have ever been exposed to follow a similar set of constructs as our modern military which regulate or govern the use of force. As many martial arts have become watered down and have moved further and further away from practitioners who did truly understand violence and specifically warfare, these values and use of force measures become relegated to motivational posters and quotes throughout the various schools. An example of this escalation of force model exists within virtually all Shaolin based systems. Within Ng Ga Kuen, and something I teach to all of my students, is the “Shaolin Creed” which states: “It is better to avoid than to check, it is better to check than to hit, it is better to hit than to kill, it is better to kill than to be killed.” Avoidance of conflict being the best possible outcome. A measured response utilizing only the necessary quantity of violence is precisely what the Shaolin Creed dictates. That doesn’t mean it advocates “going easy.” There are times in which extreme sudden violence is necessary and just as the Escalation of Force Measures that my Marines and I were subject to when I was in Iraq governed how much violence we would’ve delivered upon the enemy, so to the Shaolin Creed governs when to deliver more or less violence as the situation then dictates. So that’s what self-defense is. A measured (logical) sometimes violent response appropriate, and proportionate to the threat at hand, in that moment.


(A brief side note: Not all situations are the same, obviously. So there are instances which could be based on a wide array of factors in which a pre-emptive strike may be necessary. This could be as simple as a hostile intent being demonstrated by a physically dominant foe in which one could rationally assume no other outcome but severe injury or death and thus a measured, appropriate and proportionate response would be pre-emptively necessary. So an estimate of the situation is necessary in every confrontation and decisions are made on such assumptions as may be drawn from that estimate. I’ll do a piece shortly on such concepts but if you’re so inclined, do a little research on Just War Theory and Kantian Ethics.)


What “Self-Defense” Has Come to Mean.

The term “self-defense” as a colloquial term within the martial arts industry, has come to be a really ugly animal, or at least it is in my opinion. Often, when I am asked about what I teach, it is more like I am being asked “Do you teach Self-Defense?” as though it were its own discipline, style or method than if I were being asked if I teach self-defense. So the term has taken on a specific marketing essence which through a wide array of misunderstandings and often dubious misrepresentations the public has been convinced that “Self-Defense” is some fancy sequence of punches and kicks that will ward off any attacker. That’s illogical even to the least tactically proficient person. The recognition that all people come in different shapes and sizes and that an attacker is unlikely to choose a victim they can’t logically out match is obvious. However, through marketing savvy, dogmatic belief (“my teacher said so” types) or a duping of the public, a great many schools market themselves as teaching self-defense as a “style” rather than a method of using the skills that your system teaches or focuses on to appropriately and proportionally quell a violent threat. This has compelled a lot of authentic and very skilled traditional stylists to advertise themselves as teaching “self-defense” because basically if you don’t advertise it, you don’t eat…


This is not an indictment of any system or stylist. In my own school I teach certain techniques that are simply titled “Self-Defense Technique 1 – X” There’s lots of them. They are titled that way because it allows the novice student who is trying to learn a vast array of new movements and Cantonese names for those movements a way to grasp simply, efficiently and early the recognition that his Kung Fu has martial value, defense based value. Those techniques fall definitively within the scope of the criteria previously outlined, “measured, appropriate and proportionate.” For those schools teaching self-defense under such criteria, great work, I’m honestly not trying to bad mouth anyone. I do think that the essence the term has taken on within the industry seems virtually predatory though. Almost a sense of “sign up your kids or they’ll get bullied!!!” which is seriously detrimental to the value we add to our communities.


In Part 2 of this series – available second week of February, we will discuss why a traditional Martial Art is based in warfighting theory and what that means. We will also discuss symmetric and asymmetric combat and demonstrate precisely how the principles of warfare and a traditional martial art like Ng Ga Kuen Kung Fu mirror each other.


Next week I’ll discuss some of the Veterans work we’ve been doing here at Mountain Path, within the community and in concert with Andi Miles and Nic Baker of Khoo Wellness.


-Sifu Rob


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