by Pedro Reyes
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This article was posted on the peak-l list by Robbie Trinidad on 24-Apr-99.
Rapid Journal, Vol. 4. No. 1., 1999
Taichi Works Publications, 458 Jaboneros St. Binondo Manila 1006
FILIPINO MARTIAL TRADITION
by Pedro Reyes
I hear that on the Internet, there is acrimonious debate on questions
such as who is the arnisador whom Gran Maestro Antonio Ilustrisimo appointed
successor, who should continue the line of Edgar Sulite, who is the real representative of Pekiti-Tersia? I can only shake my head in amused disbelief. To a
traditional arnisador, such questions are non-questions. The controversies arise because some martial artists who know the Chinese or Japanese martial arts try to
force the tradition of arnis to fit the molds of those styles. But the tradition of arnis is different.
Arnis is a Military Art, not Civilian
Legend asserts that monks and civilians developed Kung Fu and Karate.
There are many variations to those legends. In one, monks hardened their
hands so that
they could chop wood for fire because they could not carry bladed instruments. They extended their discovery to develop external Kung Fu for self-defense. In
Okinawa, civilians also hardened their hands and feet, and use agricultural implements to defend themselves against marauding Japanese soldiers. That is the origin of
Karate, legend says, And Taoist monks developed internal Kung Fu to integrate mind and body. How about Arnis?
Here, there are no records, there are legends. But we can make educated
inferences. The first clue is the name of the art, Arnis de Mano. Arnis
seems to be a
corruption of the Spanish word "arnes", which means mail armor. Mail is flexible armor made of overlapping metal rings, loops of chain, or scales, such as those
worn by European knights in the Middle Ages. Arnis de Mano thus literally means armor with the hands and alludes to the reputed ability of the arnisador to defend
himself with his hands and alludes to the reputed ability of the arnisador to defend himself with his hands as though he had put on an armor of mail.
Another clue to the military character of arnis is that arnisadores
train with weapons before they train with bare hands. Why? No soldier goes
to war with empty
hands. He fights with weapons first, and uses his bare hands only as a last resort. In contrast, Kung Fu, Karate, Judo practitioners betray their civilian origins by
starting with empty hands.
Arnis Adapts to Civilian Weapons
But when the Spaniards occupied the Philippines, they abolished the
warrior class. They forbade the Filipinos from carrying their beloved spears,
blowguns. They banned archery. But Filipinos could still carry the riding or whipping stick with which to drive their cows, carabaos and horses. They could walk
around town with canes or walking sticks even if they were not elderly. Farmers could strap a utility bolo around their waists before stepping out of the house. Any
farmer or townsman could conceal a dagger or a knife around his person. And of course, a man, or woman, always had his hands and feet.
Arnisadores now concentrated their techniques around those five classes
of weapons. They no longer practiced archery, used the blowgun, and they
forgot their techniques for those weapons. Of course, the arnisadores would also use other weapons if they were the only ones available, such as the hand scythe,
the pestle, or the carrying pole. But they retained the military character of arnis. Arnisadores still began their training with weapons and the teaching remained
Arnis is Tribal, not Familial
What do I mean by "impersonal?". The unit of ancient Filipino society
is the barangay. A barangay is composed of several families which were
not always related to
one another. The number of dedicated warriors in a barangay was probably small. So every able-bodied man had to be able to defend the barangay. Thus arnis
masters would teach any able-bodied man in the barangay regardless of the man's family.
In contrast, ancient Chinese and Japanese masters considered their martial
arts as family heirlooms, to be used to defend the family of to enhance
its prestige. So
they confined - or tried to confine - their instruction to members of their clan. For example: Formerly only members of the Ch'en family could learn Tai Chi Chuan
until Yang Lu-ch'an broke the monopoly. Only the Takeda family and their retainers could learn Aiki-jutsu. At present, even the Kano family tries to keep control of
judo even though instruction is not confined to the Kano family and is open to any one.
In those styles, the titles of student, master, grandmaster, great grandmaster,
and so on reflect those of the family, son, father, grandfather, great
grandfather, etc. The
master becomes the second father who can interfere in the most intimate details of the life of the student to an extent unknown to the arnisador.
Each Arnis Master is Sui Generis
Kung Fu students avidly seek geneological charts of their styles because
that is how they establish their legitimacy. In
figure 1, I have created a chart of the genesis of the Antonio Ilustrisimo style in imitation of the Chinese. (Notice that
Gran Maestro Ilustrisimo has only his father as his teacher. In my conversations with him, he vehemently insisted that
he learned only from his father, never from his famous uncle, Melecio Ilustrisimo, nor from Pedro Cortez, whose
technique he considered inferior to his own.)
But the classical arnisadores pay only scant attention to charts like
this. For the classical arnis master stands in 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 master. That is why arnisadores like Remy Presas and Edgar Sulite claim to have created their own styles, rather than to have inherited them.
When a student first approaches a traditional master, the master may
say, "Yes, I will teach you the little that I know." He would then demonstrate
his abilities and if
the student likes it, he would stay for more instruction. What the classical master will not say is, "Yes, I will teach you because I'm the 10th degree master of Rabid
Dog Arnis" or "The grandmaster of Howling Devil Arnis appointed me as his successor." Such boasts are the product of a later, crasser, more commercial age.
Incidentally, masters from the north are more apt to be self-depracating
while masters from the south are more prone to boast. This is due to social
personal dynamics and has little to do with actual ability. But in a century of hard sell, this could be one reason why Arnis from the south is spreading throughout the
world, while Arnis from the north remains in the shadows.
A Student Becomes a Master
But in that case, does an arnis student become a master? Does he promote
himself? Strange as it may seem to a Chinese of to a Japanese stylist,
the answer tin
traditional Arnis is "yes". The traditional arnisador begins to teach when he feels he is ready to teach, not when his master tells him so. For the traditional master will
never give him a teaching certificate, much less appoint him as his successor, no matter how able the student is.
That for a simple reason. Once an arnisador starts to teach, he is open
to life-and-death challenges. A master who gives a teaching certificate
to a student, or
appoints him as successor, effectively signs the death warrant for that student. No master likes that responsibility. (A Minor factor that may inhibit the master would
be his loss of prestige should the student fail the challenge).
Suppose the student wants to teach, but the master thinks he is not
ready. The dynamics of Philippine society decides what the master would
do. He is likely to
remain silent, although in rare cases he might tell the student not to teach. He might also express his doubts to a few intimate friends, but those friends are not likely to
pass these to his student. Thus the new master would go on teaching blissfully unaware of the misgivings of his teacher. There are arnisadores who have become
famous masters without taking lessons. Pedro Walis of Iloilo was one; he claimed to have learned arnis simply by watching other masters practice and teach.
Arnis Tradition is Open
Certificates of proficiency, appointments of representatives of a style,
selection of successors, are contemporary phenomena, products of masters
who wish to
commercialize their skills. Many of those masters have studied Japanese styles and they pattern their ranking after the Japanese; some even call their instructors
"dans". For few contemporary students are willing to pay tuition, or put up money for a seminar without a visible token in return, be it a certificate of attendance, a
grade diploma to be hung on a wall, or even just a membership card. Contemporary masters can provide those tokens with a free conscience because life-and-death
challenges are illegal and are now rare.
Is this the end of a classical tradition and the end of a new one? Perhaps.
For unlike the Chinese or the Japanese, Arnis tradition is open. Arnis
masters are not
afraid. This is due to the military origin of Arnis. In war, one utilizes even alien techniques if they are effective.
The first radical change in the nature of Arnis occurred when the Spanish
abolished the warrior class and prohibited the use of their weapons. The
reacted by concentrating their techniques on the weapons now legally available to civilians. These are the riding stick, the walking cane, the utility bolo, and the hand
At the same time, a branch of arnis that many aspire to learn but only
a handful can master became Christianized. I refer to esoteric Arnis. The
directed their attention to the Christian pantheon. Curiously, the arnisador sometimes found himself using the names of the old gods to address the gods of the
Christians without losing the effectiveness of his oracion
In many cases, the changes were not too traumatic. For example, the
arnisadores simply moved the great days of initiation into the oraciones
of the Moon Goddess
to the days of lent and to All Souls Day. As for the celebrations of the Earth God - Christmas became one of them, leaving only the summer initiations without
Christian equivalents. Incidentally, arnisadores prefer to offer themselves to the Goddess. A traditional practice, for example, is to drill during the nights of the moon
to seek favor, protection and strength of the Great Mother.
Next, the Spanish friars introduced the komedya and asked the arnisadores
to choreograph the mock battles. Arnis masters responded by creating a
new style, or
branch of arnis, exhibition or theatrical arnis. Present day masters who coach cinematic actors are heirs to this branch.
The third change occurred when promoters introduced sports tournaments.
Sports Arnis was developed from competition without protection to one where
competitors protect themselves with armor. The rules for this new branch or arnis are still evolving, but already arnisadores have created techniques specially tuned
The fourth change is the one we have been discussing: the awards of
certificates of proficiency by commercial gymnasia. This is no longer classical
Arnis? To some, that sounds derogatory, but need not be. Competition for students can improve quality, although it could propel arnis the wrong way among
unscrupulous masters hungry for money.
Some masters are caught in the transition to this "new tradition." Grandmaster
Antonio Ilustrisimo believed that certificates were worthless, so that
he did not rank his
intimate disciples. Nevertheless, he cynically issued certificates when he needed money, or to silence disciples who pestered him for them
And in the future? I would like to see arnis maestros with intelligence
and guts enough to integrate modern gun fighting into arnis. Some arnisadores
would like to
re-introduce archery, spear throwing, and blowguns, but I consider that a backward step. People do not fight with bows and arrows, shields and spears, and
blowguns anymore. They fight with guns.
A Different Enlightenment
If you were to challenge me to write in a few words the essence of Arnis, what would I say? Arnis is the search for one's unique self. Who am I?
If you are an arnisador, you begin by imitating a teacher. Then you
find that the only way you can master the techniques is to make them your
own, adapting them to
your own build, temperament, and reflexes. Now go back and forth between those two states, the conditioned and the unconditioned consciousness, until you realize
that your self has always been and is always free. Then shout in exultant freedom.
The martial artist who is Buddhist awakens the non-attached heart; the Taoist, the harmonious heart. The arnisador enjoys the free, creative unconditioned heart.