By Jaredd Wilson
There is a saying that says “When the student is ready, a master will appear.” What that means is when you start looking for answers, there’s usually someone who can help mentor you through your questions. This happened with a book for me. The book was Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence. And today it is my pleasure to present part 1 of an interview with Rory Miller, author of several books that have influenced my thinking on martial arts, and martial training. Along with writing his own book, he has co-authored Facing Violence: Prepared for the Unexpected, and Scaling Force: Decision Making Under the Treat of Violence. They all deal with experienced and realistic approaches to dealing with violence and violent situations.
Jaredd Wilson of Atemicast: Thank you spending some time discussing your ideas and books with us. First off, for those who are unfamiliar with you or your works, could you please tell us of your professional qualifications?
Rory Miller: I've been involved in martial arts since 1981; spent seventeen years in Corrections dealing with a lot of criminals; a little over a year in Iraq as a contractor working with the Iraqi Corrections Service; and have been teaching professionally since I got home from Kurdistan. I doubt your readers want to waste a day on a resume. There's an out-of-date CV here
JW: Reading the CV, I can see you have an extensive list of professional credentials. As for your martial arts background, you say you started in 1981. Why did you start taking martial arts and what systems or styles have your studied?
RM: Long story. When I was eleven-- not sure how many of you are old enough to remember the seventies, but the world was supposed to end (nuclear war, overpopulation, emerging diseases, economic collapse, ice age...you name it) anyway, when I was eleven, my parents moved us out to the desert. It was halfway between homesteading and a survivalist compound. Upshot was that I was raised without electricity, so no TV. I think everything I knew about martial arts when I went to college can be summed up by "I saw one trailer for a Bruce Lee move and caught one episode of 'Kung Fu' while I was over at a friend's house." But it was fascinating, and during the late seventies and early eighties, martial arts was considered THE way to become a complete human being, whatever that is.
So, when I finally got to university, and a town that had more than 200 people, I was looking for MA. I lucked into judo at the University club. I like judo. There's no mysticism, there's no bullshit, just physics and conditioning. Information isn't held back-- within a year or so you will know everything the black belts know, they're just better at it. The instructors set a high bar as well-- Wolfgang had been on the West German national team and Mike had been a junior nationals champ before college. They set the standard for what I expect from an instructor.
I dabbled in almost everything the area had to offer-- a couple of flavors of karate and Korean stuff, little Chinese, but my real loves, next to judo, were European weapons. I played in the SCA and got a varsity letter in fencing.
First exposure to jujitsu was in Reno. I was looking for a judo school and found an offshoot of Danzan-ryu. The system was good, but the instructor spent more time trying to convince the students he was a "true master" (whatever that is) than he did teaching. I got bored and left. I continued to play in other stuff but centered in judo until we moved to Portland and I found Dave Sumner teaching Sosuishitsu-ryu jujutsu. That became my home. I still dabble in other stuff. Less interested in styles and systems now, I just play with the best people I can find. Amazing what you learn when you play.
JW: You know, I never thought of Judo that way, but I like that interpretation of it. What was it about Sosuishitsu-ryu that made you feel "at home" there? Was it the mood, the theory, the techniques?
RM: Sosuishitsu was the most brutal art I'd ever seen. It wasn't a sparring system, it wasn't a dueling system. It was centered around the fastest way to kill a skilled, armed and armored man from a position of disadvantage. I'd had a fair exposure to violence by then and more than any other training I'd seen, Sosuishitsu paid respect to the way things actually happened. Which in a way is weird, because some of it centered on medieval Japanese battlefields, which sounds very different. But the essential assumptions were that the enemy would attack when you weren't ready or had some other disadvantage; that the attack would be full speed, full power, untelegraphed and with every intent to do you arm. And your responses had to be simple, gross-motor, fast and finishing. Despite the age and the seeming alien environment of the system, the fundamental assumptions were dead-on for serious assaults.
The other things that made me feel at home were, first of all, Dave. Fantastic fighter and teacher who had built a lot of good fighters. They played hard. The other-- this might sound weird, but there are two things that make a training space feel like home. One is the smell of lots of sweat, and some of it adrenaline sweat. The other is a canvas heavy bag with lots of little brown dots. If I get those two things I know I'll be happy.
JW: I think its interesting that you ended up at a traditional jujutsu school, as I got the impression from your writings that you see most martial arts, as you put it, "purposely flawed" in their training. Do you believe this is something that can be overcome within in traditional systems, in terms of self-defense?
RM: You're making a leap there, Jaredd. This isn't a traditional/RBSD thing. It's the nature of training for anything you can't actually do. You can pretty it up as much as you need to sleep at night, but martial arts is _about_ hurting people. Creating cripples and corpses. Until and unless the casualty rate in training is the same as it is in real life, there is something built into the training to keep it safe. there has to be, it's not a problem, until the safety flaws become unconscious. Then it can be a very big problem and you get people who are more skilled at n ot hurting people than they are at hurting people.
JW: As a follow up, what about more modern budo systems, such as karate-do or aikido?
RM: I have my own opinion and it usually turns into a long rant. Ueshiba was a bad ass. he trained in a tough system under a sadistic teacher and then he went to Manchuria where he was killing people and people were trying to kill him. I think, and this is personal opinion on my part, a large part of aikido, particularly the philosophy was driven by his need to come to terms with his past. But in practice you have tools that were tested to the edge of death, but people latch on to the later part of his life. Martially, Ueshiba became Ueshiba in Manchuria, not in meditation. People can't do what he did because they are imitating the part of his life when he was trying to muzzle his own fangs.
As for karate, the early guys, the pioneers were tough, skilled, canny fighters. The change came when instead of teaching fighters, people found out there was more money in teaching the timid and children. The first generation tried and there are still people who are more than effective with the karate-do systems, but for every fighter that was promoted to teaching ranks there were ten or a hundred non-fighters. And naive consumers can't tell the difference. After a few generations of that, the systems have shifted because the non-fighters don't even know that they can't fight, and they promote more (because their standards tend to be easier) than the fighting instructors will.
JW: You mentioned judo in your past, do you see that as self-defense applicable?
RM: Well, now that I've offended everybody... Everything is self defense applicable. But unless you study assault patterns you won't know where it fits. Judo is awesome. One of the primary skills in any fight is the ability to move a body. Grapplers excel at that. The problem is that grappling is so easy to fall in love with. Some of the stupidest mistakes I ever made-- I'd catch myself reverting to tournament judo if a threat managed to take me down. I loved grappling and I was good at it, but sport grappling goes for pins and submissions and has a completely different view of time than being in an environment where sooner or later the bad guy's friends will work up the nerve to get involved. I had to break my sports assumptions to adapt to my real environment.
This can be a deep subject. There are some things that are complicated in training or sparring that are dead simple in real life and some things in real life that we don't even think of in sparring. Example, one of the hardest parts of judo randori is spinning into a hip or shoulder throw. It's a chess match of manipulation, sensitivity and ruthless speed at the right moment. In real life, people jump on your back and hand you the hardest part. Or take a submission system-- a guy attacks you, you take him down, put him in a lock...and now what? You've already shown superior skill and in this position he's not an immediate threat. Can you legally justify breaking the arm? So how do you leave without the threat re-engaging? Or how do you maintain control while you transition from this lock to a handcuffing position? I had to look for answers to that in Small Circle Jujitsu. It wasn't in my sport or my koryu training. An example for most striking systems: self-defense frequently starts after taking a hit from behind. It's not as simple as just turning around to use your skills. Do you train for that? So applicability--You need to know how to move a body. Any grappling art will give you a grounding in that. I lean toward judo, but that's probably just prejudice on my part.--You need to know how to get kinetic energy into the other body. You need to know how to hit, in other words. But it's more than that. You need to be able to hit hard, preferably targeted, to targets that are unsafe to train (my top three are the ears, base of the skull and the throat) on a moving target while you yourself are moving. And if you are training self-defense you have to be able to do it with compromised structure at a bad distance and likely direction. Any good striking art will give you this, but be careful. If you never impact on strikes you won't know how to hit without hurting yourself. Same if you rely on tape and gloves. there's a fracture named after boxers because of this.
Getting into self-defense there's a bunch more. I have a list in my head of things I think every fighter should be competent in and another list of what's important in self-defense. Some cross-overs, but they aren't the same list.
JW: I tend to agree with you. I come from aikido/jujutsu and I think the early aikido is very different from the later aikido. I also think some of the changes were political after WWII. From my understanding, Japanese were prohibited from any military/martial gathering including martial arts. But, if you were promoting peace and understanding...well that was acceptable.
Next week we’ll get to see part II of the interview