Did Mankind Evolve from Martial Arts Instructors?
By Herb Borkland
Did mankind evolve from martial arts instructors? Or, to put it another
way, why do traditional masters begin by teaching new students how to
Martial arts are the oldest unbroken chain of human learning, of an incalculable
antiquity stretching back into the dark predawn of human consciousness.
The original link in this chain got forged a couple million years ago.
One day a monkey discovers how to use that sensational new evolutionary
gimmick “the opposable digit”, his thumb, to grab a stick
and clobber an attacker. And his tribes watches this happening like it
Afterward, the victor chatters and shrieks and mimes bashing bad chimps
until his sons pick up clubs of their own; and they, in turn, will teach
their sons, and so on. Never leave home without it. Other generations
of males in the tribe also get the idea, so this one particular tribe
prospers and grows when others, less defended, fall prey, are killed and
dispersed. “Survival of the fittest”, in action.
What’s crucial is not the first monkey’s discovery of club-fighting
in Pre-Human Earth Time. No, what counts is the very first student to
learn the art from an old silverback, thus marking the birth of martial
arts instructors. Flourish of trumpets! Oh, yes, a little something else
is also going on. At that same instant of destiny, the infinite implications
of being able to grab and hold useful objects of all kinds becomes the
future of the emerging “tool-bearing animal” named homo sapiens.
There was, however, a truly planet-altering price to pay for the advent
of simian club-fight stylists. Monkeys walk mostly on all fours. A monkey
cannot carry his club and locomote as usual. The club gets in the way
unless… Unless the monkey stands upright and walks on his hind legs.
Then, as he covers daily ground, the club, too, becomes conveniently mobile.
Otherwise, he must take an iffy chance on another good stick being close
at hand the next time he gets attacked.
What a discovery! This is terrific for our self-esteem. Humanity owes
its very existence to the earliest martial arts instructors. Okay, laugh
it up, but I partially believe my own gag. And, anyway, all this is only
a set-up, because…
Meanwhile, something goes wrong as you take the “Great Moments
in Evolution” theme park ride. Immediately after that Moment when
Old animatronic Monkey passes the club to Young animatronic Monkey, the
lights go out, the ride clanks to a halt. Soon it starts up again, but
now we see a family of cave-dwellers in animal skins teaching junior how
to start a fire. There’s been a skip in the action, a gap in the
And that’s because science doesn’t know what happened to
make monkeys into men, men who use fire to cook food, speak a basic language,
can reason a little, know they must die and who already sense being surrounded
by higher forces, spirits, gods. Paleontology has never been able to establish
the existence of the so-called “missing link” between monkeys
and man. Instead, evolutionary theory offers “gradualism”
as an explanation – these characteristically human attributes just
sort of started showing up.
Perhaps that’s how it happened. After all, we’re talking
about millions of years. But the fact remains, despite all our proud science,
there remains this fabulous central mystery about the Coming of Man, which
begins, poetically, with our monkey martial artists learning to stand
up and walk so they can fight like men.
And 21st century masters instruct students how to stand up so they can
fight like men. Yes, yes, good balance is necessary for winning. But there
is never just one reason for anything that happens. So, here’s the
big question: Could the master’s first lesson also somehow be a
living but forgotten echo from our pre-human beginnings?
I see skeptical looks on your faces. Starting off by not slouching in
class is nothing so very grand, is it? It just looks better – but,
of course, that fact by itself is an important clue to the truth. Good
posture has always been valued in every culture and clime. Do we not admire
and trust “an upstanding citizen” who “holds his head
high” and will “show some spine” to adversity and “grow
a backbone” if trouble comes?
So, a sense of posture as being an ethical virtue survives instinctively
in people. But, dude, that’s… amazing! Clearly, much more
than merely the convenience of tool-bearing was influencing the magic
monkeys to become human beings. Something else, a mysterious force of
aspiration, at some point in time began to pluck us upward – and
this lies at the root of all we mean by Goodness.
And if the racial memory of this mystery survives in our sensibilities,
why not in our equally-ancient martial arts? What the master begins by
teaching new students invokes the origins of human aspiration, the force,
as it were, from the sky, from the heavens above, which drew us up to
stand erect, to become men.
Still don’t believe it? Think I’m just spouting poetry or
religion or some-such jive? Does anything else suggest all this argy-bargy
is really anything more than an ego-boosting martial arts day-dream?
Two bits of evidence. In both tai chi and yoga – the most profound
mind/body teachings ever systematized – a point of vitality exists
above the crown of the head: in tai chi, “the golden thread”
from which the entire body is hung like a puppet; and in yoga, the highest
charka is located overhead in the air.
About The Author:
Washington, D.C. native Herb Borkland has been called "a
martial arts pioneer" because he was an original student at the first
taekwondo school in the United States. After taking his degree at The
University of Virginia, Herb went on to become a closed-door student of
the legendary Robert W. Smith, author of the first English-language book
about tai chi. An Inside Kung-Fu Hall of Fame writer, he was the first
journalist ever invited to train in SCARS, the Navy SEALs fighting system.
Herb scripted "Honor&Glory" for Cynthia Rothrock, featured
on HBO, as well as winning the first-place Gold Award at the Houston International
Film Festival for his Medal of Honor soldier screenplay "God of War."
For three years he hosted the national half-hour Black Belts cable-TV
show. Herb and his wife, the Cuban-American painter Elena Maza, live in
Columbia, Maryland. He is also a regular columnist for FightingArts.com.