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On the Shoulders of Giants: Strategies and Philosophies from 6 Martial Arts Masters

Leo Fong is one of the wisest people I know. Now in his ninth decade in the martial arts, he’s also one of the most experienced, accomplished and versatile. When he talks, I listen. A few of the pearls he’s dispensed over the years have been rattling around in my pocket for some time now.

As a firm believer in the power of principles, Fong encourages his students to seek the deeper truths of the martial arts. “There is an important difference between understanding what makes a clock tick and knowing how to tell the time,” he once said.

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But in this quest for truth, Fong doesn’t advocate merely replicating the masters’ journeys but rather seeking what they sought — striking out for the same destination, paralleling their paths, not merely trying to duplicate them.

Fong maintains that five masters in particular helped shape the martial landscape of the 20th century: Gichin Funakoshi, Jigoro Kano, Morihei Ueshiba, Bruce Lee and George Dillman. With this in mind, I hatched a plan to examine the principles these masters laid down — the trails of breadcrumbs they left — to see if there might be some common ground. Here are Martial Arts Masters:

Gichin Funakoshi

Jigoro Kano

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Morihei Ueshiba

While each set of principles is sufficiently different to indicate independent evolution through separate journeys, there are certain commonalities that will help illuminate the critical turns along the way for those who seek the same ultimate destination.


In many contests, the winner is the one who acts first. The fastest horse out of the gate, for example, often (but not always) crosses the finish line ahead of the others, and the quicker draw in a gunfight has a good shot at being the last gunslinger standing. In some confrontations, then, a first strike will be sufficient both to begin and to end the matter. And even if it does not, it likely will force most adversaries into a reactive posture, particularly if said adversary has little experience with this particular brand of physical interaction.

Why, then, does Funakoshi tell us, “In karate, there is no first strike”? Well, as a threshold matter, if no one ever launched a first strike, there would be no more fighting, and the world might be a better place in which to live. But on a more practical level, notice that he begins by limiting the universe in which his edict applies. He does not say “In this world …” or “In fighting. …” He says, “In karate. …”

This proviso at least implies that the combatants are operating within the parameters of his art — that both have at least some idea of what they’re doing. And as we know all too well, one of the most valuable lessons that the fighting arts bestow early on is the ability to take a hit and keep moving forward. When confronting an experienced adversary, then, launching the first strike may not be tactically advantageous.

In fact, when engaging a seasoned fighter, striking first may be disadvantageous. 

Consider this: Every offensive move that an attacker makes commits one or more of his limbs to a particular trajectory or position, meaning that if the defender can anticipate and/or exploit that trajectory or position, he or she will actually have more control over the confrontation than someone who’s simply waiting for any of an infinite number of possible attacks to be launched.

For example, being grabbed by the lapels commits both of the attacker’s hands to static and relatively nonthreatening positions while leaving the defender with all four limbs free to counter. In this context, forcing the opponent to attack first is really a way of taking the strategic initiative.

bruce lee

george dillman

DUALITY/MULTIPLICITY by Martial Arts Masters

Continuing with both Funakoshi’s wisdom and the interplay between ethical and pragmatic principles, it’s self-evident that it takes at least two to have a fight. In the ring, this might be an amicable and mutually beneficial training exercise.

On the street, it could be a matter of life and death. But either way, it’s not a solo activity. And in most cases — even the highly confrontational ones — showing a measure of courtesy is usually a good idea. It’s not just because we all should strive for the common good in a larger sense but also because many an angry hand has been turned aside by a gracious word or deed.

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But even when two combatants come to blows in earnest, Fong maintains, “We are still communicating with each other.” And this kind of communication becomes much easier to master by recognizing the role the other person plays in the engagement — what his strengths, weaknesses, goals and motivations may be. Given the way in which aikido advocates using the opponent’s energy against him, it’s not surprising that Ueshiba’s principles focus heavily on understanding the partner’s mind, place and energy. It takes two to tango, and fighting is a pas de deux in which it’s not enough to consider just your part.

Leo Fong

This precept is especially important for instructors to understand, as in this role, their focus should shift — at least, when teaching — from self to others. Lee’s pronouncement that, “There is but one family,” may be the highest form of expression of this principle, and its truth is borne out by Dillman’s point that it’s much harder for one human to harm another when he has to look his victim in the face.


On this topic, there’s near universal agreement among the masters. Without certain cerebral components, physical technique is just brawling. And without some kind of moral compass, even the most effective fighter is missing the bigger picture. The mental and spiritual pieces don’t just help complete the martial puzzle; in many ways, they are the puzzle. Consider: With a little luck and a modicum of awareness, the average person may be fortunate enough never to have to use the martial arts for self-defense, but no one can navigate life without calling on the kind of mental agility and spiritual strength those same arts can teach.


It’s rare that combatants of vastly disproportionate abilities actually come to blows. Common sense generally tackles the weaker of the participants before he gets in over his head. As a result, if you do find yourself in a fight, it’s generally unwise to assume that you have your opposition totally outgunned on all points. Rather than simply trusting that your hands are so fast or your legs so powerful that no one could possibly block them, the masters collectively advise planning your attack with at least a little creativity. (“If you wish to attack West, first attack East.”)

They also recommend keeping your options open in case the response isn’t quite what you expect. (“Keep to the middle path/Know where to stop.”) As Mike Tyson so eloquently explained: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Fate rarely deals the cards we expect, and it’s not making and executing a perfect plan that leads to victory — it’s being able to adapt, improvise and overcome when the plan falls apart. Or as Fong advises, “Don’t try to drive the situation; surf it.”


We come into this world alone, and we will leave it the same way. Spending the entire time between these immovable markers following others seems like a tremendous waste of the gift of individuality. So in martial practice, while we certainly work for the art, the art also should work for us. The teaching of the masters in this regard is that self-knowledge and self-expression are, in many ways, the most valuable gifts the arts can impart.

Gichin Funakoshi,
Gichin Funakoshi (right)


It’s in this realm that mental, physical and spiritual toughness converge. Funakoshi said that training should be consistent and lifelong. Dillman echoes a former British prime minister in commanding us never to surrender. And Lee directed us to “Walk on.” Setbacks are an inevitable part of progress. What truly counts many times is the ability to take a hit, get back up and keep moving forward.

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We don’t employ our arts in a vacuum. In addition to the opponent, there’s also the environment to consider. The dangers and opportunities presented by the world in which we operate are vital variables in the equation of self-defense, and the masters encourage us to be on guard at all times, watchful for both danger and opportunity at every turn.

Jigoro Kano


The many other principles reproduced herein — the nuances of forms, the yin aspects of technique, the overall goal of the art, the nature and length of the journey, and so on — are equally important aspects of training. However, they feature explicitly in only one of the sets of instructions under examination. Martial artists spend a great deal of time learning the mechanics of a given system, but it’s important to take a step back every once in a while to ensure that you’re also hearing its overall message. If you have not already formulated a set of principles for your personal practice, now is as good a time, and here is as good a place as any to begin.

Wherever your path may lead, may you travel hopefully.

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