The struggle for FMA purity

A plate from Camillo Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms and Philosophy (1553). Escrima’s espada y daga (sword and dagger) technique was borrowed from Spanish swordplay.

A plate from Camillo Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms and Philosophy (1553). Escrima’s espada y daga (sword and dagger) technique was borrowed from Spanish swordplay.

The preservation of the purity of a style or system has been the subject of many heated debates within Filipino martial arts (FMA) circles.

But really, is there such a thing as pure unadulterated Filipino martial art?

I will tackle in this article three reasons why the FMA will continue to evolve while basically remaining the same.

The first reason is the conceptual nature of the FMA.

In one of my previous articles, I mentioned that change is inevitable to something as conceptual as the FMA. In my humble opinion, the true foundation of the FMA is its concepts not its techniques. Concepts encourage experimentation hence a practitioner of a conceptual system like the FMA must be open to change.

Concepts transcend restrictions, which is evident when the early Filipinos added the Spanish espada y daga (sword and dagger) technique into their fighting repertoire. They can freely pick up useful stuff from their enemies and use it against them because of the conceptual nature of their martial arts. Take for example the principle of angles of attacks, which is a foundational training concept of the FMA. It states that regardless of weapon, whether stick, knife or empty hands, the angles of attacks remain the same. This core training principle is so universal, you can apply it to any martial art. And when you do that, you realize that you can borrow elements from other arts without altering the heart and soul of your system.

Looking at its past and present, I believe that the FMA will undergo more transformations as it further spread across the world but its core concepts will remain the same.

The second reason is the original tradition of the FMA that encourages practitioners to shine by their own lights.

In the Philippines, there are literally hundreds of styles of arnis, escrima and kali, and many of them were named after their founders. These styles share a common story: the founder learned the art from one teacher or numerous teachers, and after years of practicing incorporated his innovations with the materials he learned ending up with a new style.

The late FMA scholar Pedro Reyes, in his article Filipino Martial Tradition (RAPID Journal, Vol. 4 No. 1, 1999), wrote on how the FMA tradition differs from other Asian martial arts, it reads, “Kung fu students avidly seek genealogical charts of their styles because that is how they establish their legitimacy. But classical arnisadores pay only scant attention to charts like this. For the classical arnis master stands on his own abilities. He is not a master because he has received a certificate from a school, or because he has been appointed successor by a grandmaster. He is sui generis. Arnisadores prefer teachers who shine by their own light, like the sun, rather than planets that shine by the reflected light of their school or teacher. That is why arnisadores like Jose Caballero, Remy Presas and Edgar Sulite claim to have created their own styles, rather than to have inherited them.”

The third reason is the individuality of every man.

It is impossible to preserve the original purity of any martial art as it passes on from one individual to another. This is because each individual is unique and will learn, adopt and teach the art according to his mental and emotional makeup, physique and character. Each of these components will serve as filters that would alter the original characteristic of a martial art as it passes on from one generation to another.

To put it in a more scientific manner, each individual would interpret any art form he embraced (martial arts included) according to his representation of the world and this will make change inevitable. Richard Bandler and John Grinder put it eloquently with the following words: “By individual constraints we refer to all the representations we create as human beings based upon our unique personal history. Every human being has a set of experiences which constitute his own personal history and are as unique to him as are his fingerprints. Just as every person has a set of distinct fingerprints, so, too, does each person have novel experiences of growing up and living, and no two life histories will ever be identical. Again, though they may have similarities, at least some aspects are different and unique to each person. The models or maps that we create in the process of living are based upon our individual experiences, and, since some aspects of our experiences will be unique to us as a person, some parts of our model of the world will be singular to each of us. These uncommon ways each of us represents the world will constitute a set of interests, habits, likes, dislikes, and rules for behavior which are distinctly our own. These differences in our experiences will guarantee that each of us has a model of the world which in some way will be different from any other person’s model of the world,” (The Structure of Magic Vol. 1 1975).


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  1. Understanding of the concepts and principles of a fighting system is truly the heart and soul of a true martial artist. Filipino martial arts remains to be relevant as ever due its pragmatic approach to fighting. Whatever works for an Eskrimador is in fact a matter of survival which is a mindset and a concept. FMA tradition is unique among its Asian counter parts for it stands indifferent to formal structures and rigid traditions imposed by others. We are thus free to use any strategy, mindset, or techniques even those that are foreign to us as long as it would work to our advantage. The technique, skill, strategy, or any for that matter is only as good as its successful application. If it works, it works. If it fails, it fails. It’s not the system or the teacher that is to blame for any misfortune. The sole responsible for any outcome is the individual himself. So in contrast with the other martial arts, the defeat suffered by its proponents does not affect or reflect the school, teacher or the system. An Eskrimador indeed prefers to shine on his own.

    Bong Abenir

  2. Unfortunately this freedom of expression is being taken advantage of in North America. There are many good arnisadors and some others who should not be tesching at all.

  3. “The third reason is the individuality of every man.”

    Because not all FMAers are equal, both in understanding FMA concepts & in weapons/armed virtuosity, the third point will pose the gravest problem for FMA as it mutates.

    Without the fights, challenges, fiesta sports, that existed in the Philippines to regulate the wrong mutations of FMA and cull them from the rest, the “third reason” will be the bane of FMA.

  4. Romeo Macapagal on

    Forms and techniques are expressions of the principles and intentions contained in a martial practitioner’s strategy.

    In the changing elements of a battle, the perfect, exact form cannot be expected. The practitioner must adapt his execution of the form to the exact condition of the conflict. If his deviation from the formal form fulfills the requirements of his strategy, he wins. If not, he loses.

    Self-expression is really nothing more than learning the use of your body, the use of your sword, and the use of your mind, all as one.

    The form or execution of a technique, if it has been proven to be correct in principle, intention and mechanics, will always work within the variances of the condition for which it was designed. Thus, the form is always there but expressed in various ways by various players according to the way they have trained, the way they have learned, and the way that the battle proceeds.

  5. Guro Angel Eligado on

    Very well written. For a system to be effective both academically and in the battlefield, ONE MUST OWN IT. The warrior does not follows forms. He constantly flows and evolves until his being becomes the only weapon he needs. Study principles and not techniques. Let your body and not the tool you have in your hands command the movements you need to teach, to fight and to survive. Pugay po!