I first stepped onto the mat when I was seventeen years old. My best friend, Isaac—whom I’d sparred with a few times—goaded me into taking a Jiu-Jitsu class. Although the style was street-oriented, it was still very much based on traditional Japanese systems. This was when the UFC was in its infancy, and though many people had become enthralled by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu via Royce Gracie’s domination in the early UFC events, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu craze was still a few years off.

I enjoyed traditional Jiu-Jitsu, and fully embraced it for a few years. But as time went on, I began to lose interest in traditional martial arts hierarchy, and the overly formal style of training. I also became very disillusioned with the mysticism inherent in martial arts.

Now, I get it. These arts were developed in secret a long time ago, and kept secret so that one’s enemies wouldn’t learn them and use them against him. And in modern times, people enjoy learning what they think is “special” knowledge.” People are still enamored of pagan mysticism, such as astrology, healing crystals, and other such nonsense. The point is, it fascinates, and it sells.

It also doesn’t work; especially in martial arts.

Traditional Jiu-Jitsu is taught in lists. There’s a list of white belt techniques, then blue belt techniques, then green belt, and so on. At the highest levels of the system I began learning, were “secret” lists of “secret” techniques. Very mysterious. My fellow students and I marveled that we might one day learn these “secret” techniques, and were impressed that our sensei possessed such arcane knowledge.

It’s now my intent to pull the curtain back on this nonsense and expose it to the cold light of reason. But first, a brief history lesson:

Legend has it that traditional (Japanese) Jiu-Jitsu was first brought to America by a man named Professor Henry Okazaki. Professor Okazaki was supposedly a bodyguard for Emperor Hirohito, but decided to emigrate to Hawaii post-WWII. There, Professor Okazaki opened a school of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu.

One thing I should make perfectly clear about traditional martial arts at this point is that all such systems venerate their alleged “founders.” For the particular style I’m discussing here, it’s Henry Okazaki. For Judo, it’s Jigoro Kano. For Aikido, it’s Morihie Ueshiba—and that’s not including all of the countless Karate styles, or the myriad Chinese styles of martial arts. And while it’s fine to venerate someone whom you admire, to hear most traditional martial artists talk about the founders of their systems is akin to hearing deeply religious people talk about Jesus. Listening to some of these stories, you’d literally think the old masters could walk on water.

So it goes with Professor Okazaki. Not only was he a master of Jiu-Jitsu, but he mastered Chinese Gung-Fu (Kung-Fu), and the Hawaiian art of Lua, which was practiced by the Kahunas on the islands. From what I know of Lua, it’s a very violent art of bone-breaking and flesh-rending techniques, and at the upper levels, sounds suspiciously like Voodoo, with the most secretive technique being the (gasp!) “Kahuna Death Prayer.”

Lua is a whole other story, but in order to really describe the secret list of techniques I referred to earlier, I must concentrate on the Chinese art of Gung-Fu. At the highest levels, practitioners of Gung-Fu are said to learn the techniques of Dim Mak, or “Death Touch.” The appeal of these techniques is that, using very little force, you can disable your enemy by touching them in just the right way on the right part of his body. Some of these techniques even have a delayed effect; the victim will die hours, days, weeks, months, or in some cases, even years afterward.

Think about that for a moment. Think about how enticing such a proposition would be. Let’s say you’re not very big, not very strong, and even with years of martial arts training under your belt, you’re not going to win many bar fights using just your hands and feet. But then someone comes along and says that he can teach you to stop anyone—no matter how big or tough—with a simple touch, or precise strike.

This is a big part of why people are still enamored with mysticism and traditional martial arts in the modern age. It’s that false promise of making you more than you really are, and of giving you “special talents.”

The problem is, none of it stands up to any real scrutiny.

The arts of Dim Mak are based on the eastern medicinal practices of acupressure. The theory behind acupressure is that lines of energy, known as “meridians,” course all through your body. This energy, known as “chi” (“ki” in Japanese), is your vital essence. The arts of Dim Mak disrupt the vital flow, hence causing disease, organ failure, and death. Some of the arts are very specific, not only in where you strike your enemy, but when you strike him. The theory behind this is that certain anatomical areas are more vulnerable depending on the time of day, how long the victim has been awake, and even how long after the victim has eaten.

When I first began learning about ki, it was explained to me that these so-called meridian lines perfectly matched the nerves running throughout the human body. So, in effect, it wasn’t just some nebulous idea about disrupting energy, it was about attacking nerves. That made sense, but remember, I was only seventeen at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I learned how unscientific and baseless all of these claims are.

Getting back to Professor Okazaki, he supposedly learned a complete set of Dim Mak techniques, and added them as the final list to his system of Jiu-Jitsu. He called this list: “Shin Jin No Maki.” Supposedly, there were techniques for causing “tooth rot,” “bone rot,” and even the Big C.

Yes, I’m not kidding. My original martial arts instructor claimed to know a technique which, by striking someone in a specific place, you could give them cancer. But it wouldn’t show up for five years.

Now, fast forward several years. I’m living in Seattle, and teaching self-defense in my spare time. By this point, I’ve mostly moved on from traditional Jiu-Jitsu in favor of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts-type training. I was getting my teeth cleaned, and my hygienist was telling me how she learned about nerves in the face and mouth in hygienist school. “There’s a nerve in the roof of your mouth,” she said, “that if I injected Novocain into it, would make your entire face go numb.”

Intrigued, I decided to ask her what she thought about the Shin Jin technique which supposedly causes “tooth rot.” The technique—which now seems laughable—is to make a “Jiu-Jitsu knuckle” (the letter “N” in sign language; also a fabulous way to break your finger by hitting someone with it), and strike your enemy’s mouth, right along the gum-line. My hygienist thought it over for a few seconds, and replied:

“Tooth rot is bacterial. You can’t cause it with a punch. What you can do is deaden the nerve and kill the tooth. It won’t fall out, but it’ll turn black.”

So there you have it. I think it’s quite easy to see how a lot of mysticism gets ingrained in the human psyche. From a martial arts perspective, I’ve no doubt that somewhere along the line—perhaps many, many times—during fights, one of the combatants wound up with a black tooth. People seeing that—especially uneducated, superstitious people—would easily believe that mysticism was involved. Maybe even the person who delivered the blow thinks he did something magical, and seeks to find an explanation. Hence, ki, meridian lines, and everything which followed.

That’s also the danger of romanticizing the past. Ancient civilizations didn’t have “special” or “unique” knowledge which was somehow lost. In fact, quite the opposite. You don’t have to go very far back in human history before you find yourself in a world where absolutely no one understands electricity, germ theory, atomic structure, or a thousand things which even the least educated people in first world countries have basic knowledge of.

The sad truth of traditional martial arts—and I believe that Bruce Lee was one of the first prominent martial artists to not only figure this out, but to proclaim it to the world—is that, learning to throw a crisp left hook, or a good, strong uppercut, is worth more than all of those “secret” techniques combined. I know that takes a lot of the mysticism, romanticism, and even a certain amount of fun out of the endeavor, but it’s also reality.

And the more mired in reality we become, the less nonsense we find ourselves slogging through.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some admirable things about traditional martial arts. Indeed, there are. But those things are separate from what I’m discussing here. The mysticism, the “secrets,” the rigid, hierarchal structure which can allow the wrong type of people to gain positions of authority, are all beside the point of what martial arts are supposed to be:

The study of combat; pure and simple.

Causing the most amount of damage with the least amount of effort.

And, unfortunately, there are some hard truths to face. One is that, no matter what anyone says, size and strength absolutely do matter. Another is that there are no secrets. Only what works, and what doesn’t.

The rest is all bullshit.


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