套路 – tàolù
Taolu is the pinyin romanisation of 套路. In this context ‘tào’ is a classifying word for anything regarding sets or collections of things, ‘lù’ is a journey, road, path.
In English we speak of martial arts forms, sets, routines. The Japanese term ‘kata’ is often used also.
Plato was of course the Athenian philosopher, so widely knows as one of the pillars of early Western thought.
So, you may ask, where am I going with this…
The World of Forms
Well, please forgive me for potentially bastardising Plato’s theory of reality but I tend to relate much of what I learn back to my martial arts training and I recently came across Plato’s Theory of Forms whilst listening to the awesome Philosophize This podcast.
It basically states that the world we see around us is a mere copy of another world – the real world, the World of Forms.
The World of Forms is unchanging and unseen, whereas our material world is in constant flux. Our world is like a shadow, cast by the eternal World of Forms, which itself transcends space and time.
Everything in this world is an imperfect replica of the perfect version within the world of forms.
And that is where I started to relate my martial arts training to this ancient philosophical thought.
(I’d just like to point out that I personally don’t believe that to be the nature of reality, in that respect, I am of course completely ignorant, just like everyone else, even Plato).
If I had £1 for every time I had been asked the question, ‘So what’s the point in martial arts forms? You don’t fight like that’, I’d have precisely £84.
Whilst in my mind I always wrap a stinging palm strike around the questioner’s left ear for their temerity in questioning a traditional martial arts instructor about such a thing, in reality my answer hasn’t always been so consistent – and I confess, on many occasions, probably not very good either.
But hey, despite rumours to the contrary, traditional martial arts instructors also make mistakes and are also on a 路 of learning themselves.
I like to think that up in the World of Forms / Heaven / The Universal Mind / The Matrix / Shadow Reality / Higher Realms – whatever you wish to call it, there exists the absolute perfectly performed version of the martial arts form which you are performing.
What us mere mortal martial arts students are attempting in or Earthly efforts, is to train our forms to the point where they are as close to a perfect representation as they can be!
That’s Not How You Fight
No, probably not – not until I’m very close to performing it as the perfect version, which transcends all space and time – but I’m at least going to try!
But here’s the important take-away when it comes to forms training and their application to conflict in this material world – and the one point which is often missed. You are learning principles, not techniques in your 套路.
Let’s take a straight punch for example.
Just off the top of my head, years of training and the practice of a ‘simple’ straight punch in a martial arts form does not merely teach you the straight punch. Over the years (and it really does take years, sorry!), you’re learning the foot positioning, weight distribution, pelvis alignment, body rotation, shoulder and elbow positioning, rotational power, head position – and these are just a few externals – on top of this you have more internal elements such as rooting, sinking, energy transfer, explosive power, relaxation, breathing, mindset, the timing and synchronisation of all of the above… and so much more!
Nothing in the above list is a ‘technique’, but in the concept of martial arts they are principles, which transcend techniques and become the eternal building blocks and foundations of your style. Much of what is mentioned above would be true for a punch, a palm strike, spear hand, elbow strike, etc.
So, at the risk of not increasing my savings of £84, I hope that readers will realise that when you see a person performing 套路 and you think ‘hmmm, those techniques would never work against me’ realise a couple of things:
1. Most importantly – a good martial artist would probably never need to have a fight with you
2. If they did, chances are they would not stand in front of you, performing 套路 whilst they despatched you with the greatest of ease. If they had learnt the principles of their style, you’d have to look a lot deeper than how their arms and legs were moving to understand how to combat their style.
Aim For Perfection
Personally, I see my forms training as a way to reach perfection in my art, to transcend the earthly and crude mere performance of the 套路 and transcend all space and time to become one with the perfect essence of the form. The eternal version within Plato’s World of Forms.
Admittedly that’s quite a lofty aim. Do I believe I will ever get there? No, of course not, I don’t think it’s possible – but that is why I am for it.
By reaching for perfection, I set the highest possible standard for myself! I don’t merely accept mediocrity. I don’t consider being quite good as good enough. I also don’t compare myself to others (this is really important) because my target is much higher than anything material.
To conclude – I do enjoy playing around with abstract concepts and relating them to martial arts training and calling it a morning’s work! – as with any lesson learnt from our training – the most important thing about what we learn is that it becomes something that transcends the training hall and our own practice, to improve our life and the life of those around us.
So what’s the life lesson from this?
Do your best, try hard, and don’t accept mediocrity on your 路.