The Scholarly Eskrimador
by Bob Sykes
Bob Sykes: What is the Institute of Filipino Martial Arts?
Abner Pasa: I have pursued my study and training in the Filipino martial arts for myself, as a means of survival against unprovoked violence.
On several occasions one of my teachers asked me to propagate the art which I have always. politely declined. He had always been insistent and on his deathbed he expressed the same desire. In our culture you do not deny a dying man his last request because the belief is that if you do, you condemn his soul to limbo.
However, still unwilling to teach the FMA, I attempted to undertake the task by working wilh olher practitioners of the art. However, the bickering and contentious arquments made me realise that the successful propagation of the art lies somewhere else. I tried to request one of my instructors to undertake the task for me. The monthly fee he demanded was something that I could not afford. So, finally, I had no allernative but to underteke the task on my own.
Being a private person, I also realised that if I wished to get back to my privacy, I nceded someone or an organisation to carry on the task of propagating the art. It was with this thought that I formed the Institute of Filipino Martial Arts, Inc. in 1991 and registered it with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
What is the difference between the Warriors’ System and the Balitok System?
I have always wondered why it was difficult for me to teach all comers while I see others willingly accept everyone that comes along.
An insight came when I was undertaking my doctoral studies in education and Raymond Stites in his book The Arts And Man provides an apt description when he stated that Art is, “The most direct language of the soul, the means by which man completely unifies his emotional and intellectual life so that his feelings as well as his thoughts can be transmitted to others. Yet art is more than communication. Through artistic creation and enjoyment… man becomes succinctly aware of his oneness with nature and his fellowman”.
I realised that when you love something you want to share it with others who will treat your art the way you do. In other words, you want to share it with others who you know and trust. Since trust comes with knowing someone well, this explains the feeling of hesitancy I experienced when I asked to teach total strangers.
Of course, there is the practical consideration of not wanting others to know what your techniques are so that they cannot plan countermoves. An attitude takes into serious consideration Sun Tzu’s admonition in his classic the Art of War ttat one who knows his enemy nced not fear to go into battle, adding that one who knows himseif and knows his enemy will never lose.
Like many other exponents of the art in the past, I felt no need to have a name for what I was doing. The naming geme was of no significance to me because I had never intended to teach others. The more imortan point of my training is to ensure that I learned well and could make my skills work when needed. however when I undertook the task of propagating the art and opened a gym at the Cebu Coliseum I wes deluged with queries about the style or group’s name. In fact, I was also asked about my diploma. And for the first time, I had to go to my teacher to ask for one. My teacher said, “I told you so” and gave me my diplomas from grade level one to my current ranking. I presented the diplomas to the students and jotingly told them, “Now you can ask the diplomas to teach you Eskrima!”
To pacífy the students, we adopted the name of Cebu Martial Arts Association but that was not well received, and since we were originally training on weekends, I thought it was a good idea to call ourselves the Weekend Warriors. The name stuck and in time it was stortened to warriors. But students continued to ask what was the name of the style. My oft-repeated answer had alway been, “What is the need for a name?” And when pressed for an answer I often replied that the name of the style was tumba-tumba to describe the characteristic movement I have observed with my stick when I was using it. The students were not impressed and instead they used the name of the group, Warriors to describe the name of the style. At that time I thought it was not important.
The term Balitok came from one of my teachers in Bacolod City. While playing with one of his students, he commented that I reminded him of someone he knew in the past who played just like me. That exponent called his style balitok. As a child I have oflen heard of stories warning us of a deadly snake which attacked its prey by doing a somersault. The story goes that the snake generally positioned itself uphill to launch itself on its prey. My teacher recounter his experience (whether it was real or an embellishment, I am unsure) that while he was walking along the river-bed he saw a snake launch itself from a branch of a tree and attack a child. Luckily the child’s dog protected him and killed the snake. The reputation of the snake appears widespread. A hilot master from Notheastern Mindanao also tells of several experiences about the snake and a herb to cure snake bites as well. The snake is described by the hilot as dark coloured like the branch of a dead tree and has a hump in the head. Attempts to trace the scientific name have proved unsuccessful. A flying snake reported in a Time Magazine publication as found in Southeast Asia is reported not to be poisonous. How much of the story is legend and how much is true is speculative.
Nevertheless, excited and enthralled by the mystic of the term balitok and taking the cue from my teacher that the way I was playing reminded him of someone who used to call his style balitok, decided to use the name for my personal style.
However, in answer to your question of what is the difference between Warriors and Balitok system the answer would be a matter of gradation and magnitude. Perhaps it is easier to understand if I explain the background of the whole thing.
Remember I never dreamed I would be teaching others the Filipino martial art. For me, Eskrima was a very personal thing. Like a toothbrush, you do not want to share it with your close friend, perhaps even your wife. Besides my philosophy in training had always been to be unfathomable. This developed out of Sun Tzu’s maxim that when you know your enemy half the battle is won, and when you know yourself and the enemy no battle is lost. So I figured that if I myself will not know what I will do until the final moment I have to act, then the enemy will never be able to read my intentions.r So, like an athlete, I have trained all these year to push the mechanics of the skill to the level of unconsciousness.
However, faced with a situation where I had to teach others, I now had to bring all these things into the level of consciousness. Not only that, I now have to bring into the open what I have also believed was sacrosanct in my system. In a manner of speaking I now have to bare my soul to practically everyone. This was a very difficult thing to do. However, to withhold the essence of the system may put students at risk. This would be irresponsible, unfair and a selfish action.
Seeking to duck the issue and aiming to provide a means for exposing other styles to those who may be interested in studying them, I thought of showcasing other styles in the task of propagating the art. As a consequence, the method of teaching was expanded to include other styles that I am familiar with, or others, in the future, that may wish to be included in the programme. The strategy is envisaged to work two ways. First it allows a means for other styles to be exposed to students around the world. Second, it may allow me to fade and withdraw from the scene if people are interested in other styles instead.
The result is that we now have a three tiered programme. The first one is a foundation programme (Applied Eskrima) that prepares the student for training in the Warriors’ system. The second is the Warriors’ system which is currently an expanded programme of the original foundation programme for my personal style. Expanded in the sense that it now showcases other styles in the art. And finally the third is the Balitok system, my personal style of the art.
Today, only a few students and selected members of the family have been taught what is now called Balitok. Among the students there is only one non-Filipino, Krishna K. Godhania, who has been initiated into the Balitok system. Another student, Andre du Preez is about to complete training in the Warriors’ system and may be initiated into the Balitok system.
What are you trying to achieve with your dissertation?
The main reason for my doctoral study in education is to find a way of successfully introducing the Filipino martial arts into the Philippine educational system. The result of my study shows that the Filipino martial art still constitutes essentially a fighting art. It has tried and failed to develop into a game that enjoys a widespread support and acceptance. Presently, organisations aiming to promote the sport only get their support from their own spheres of influence. Practices continue to be divisive and confrontational.
The study recommends an approach from the point of view of motor skill development as an essential component in the general educative aim of the full development of man. The strategy is directed towards providing physical educators with the understanding and development of the fundamental skills essential to the study and practice of the Filipino martial arts. It seeks to highlight the rich cultural heritage in the history and traditions of the art. It plans to involve physical educators in the task of developing a viable game that can perhaps develop into the Sport of Arnis.
Finally, it is hoped that the study proposal can provide the framework and platform for an orderly and critical review of issues, theories and principles fundamental to the Filipino martial art. A theorectical base that can promote unity and co-operation in praxis.
Can the masters ever unite in the Philippines?
On their own, that will be impossible. I am, however, hopeful that the programme being suggested for implementation in the Philippine educational system would allow a platform to discuss skills and abilities along more neutral themes. The fundamental skills taught to physical educators suggested in the study emphasises motor skill development. As such, training is characterised by the three qualities of motor skill development, namely: quality of effectiveness, quality of efficiency and quality of adaptation.
Aside from the fact that bringing the art into the schools is in line wilh government thrust to promote an awareness among Filipinos of their rich cultural heritage which may promote a sense of national identity. The main theme of the programme is that martial training is relevant to education because when one is training one is not fighting. Utilising the quality of adaptation, martial training can be directed towards more desirable educational ends. One of which is developing discipline and acquiring the ability to deal with unprovoked atacks as well. To promote cooperation among practitioners, abilities and skills have been reduced to principles and theories fundamental to the study and training in the art.
Approaching training using the motor skills approach diffuses the problem associated with the need to prove that one is beter than the other. Teaching students the appropriateness principle inculcates the idea and a belief that there is no ultimate or the best technique, that nothing is absolute. And with a growing interest to study and practice the Filipino martial art, masters of different styles will have more students than they can handle. The economic issues that contribute to the need to claim to being the best will be diminished. Furthermore, the adoption of a set of criteria to determine skillfulness in the art and the use of sound basic fundamental principles and theories in teaching the art may allow a healthy and critical review, reflection and development of teaching methods and strategies that will ultimately benefit the art. Moreover, it can provide as a means of bringing together diverse styles and personalities into a community of collegiality rather than internecine squabbles, character assassination, back stabbing and cuthroat competition. We should remember the maxim that, ‘man is best when he co-operates with others.’
How do you maintain your own level of skill?
In the past, the maintainance of level of skill was achieved by long hours of training. Working with the familiarisation of strikes in the post for accuracy and power, using double ended three ball device for accuracy and timing, doing regular workout on timing drills wilh partner to appreciate angles, almost daily training with the amarra to develop handspeed. Controlled sparring with qualified and competent practitioners is a must to develop a high level of skill, and occasional sparring to maintain your timing and to keep in shape is important.
Since my illness in December 1995 and my successful rehabilitation in mid 1996, I have managed to maintain an acceptable – level of skillfulness by regular exercise with the amarra, familiarisation of strikes drill, workout with double ended three balls and by shadow fighting with a large dose of imaginative or visualisation based on experiences. Training with my newest instructor who is presently ninety-two years old has also allowed me new insights into more subtle use of body mechanics and strategy for better effective and more efficient use of skills appropriate to my present physical conditionings.
What is important to note is that, as my study revealed, one cannot really say what skills or techniques will be needed when one’s life is put on the line. Therefore, what we are really trying to achieve in training is to develop motor skills that have a high correlation for the ‘transfer of learning’ or the ‘quality of adaptation’ of the motor skill developed in training to suit the circumstances and the situation when they are needed, hence the importance of the ‘appropriateness principle’ that we are advocating in the system. But, more importantly, one must make the technique his very own. In the regard, the ‘configuration principle’ is a good aid to learning.
Based on my experience, the single most important factor for survival in life-threatening situation is the ‘heart’ of the person. That ability to stand up and not lose poise and composure. For some people this is a natural gift. But for others this needs to be cultivated. This is where training can help. Building self-confidence is, therefore, a vital aspect of martial art training. Teachers need to appreciate this essential aspect of martial arts training. Students on the other hand, need to adopt a critical attitude towards training to ensure that skills developed are functional and effective. Of course, it must also be realised that survival is not the only objective of martial arts training in contemporary times.
You taught a seminar for Krishna Godhania recently, what did you think of the level of the participants?
Teaching in that seminar was a pleasant surprise, the standard of the UK based students was very high I was also impressed with the technical ability and commitment of Krishna’s students from Spain, Italy, Germany and Hungary who also attended. It gave me great satisfaction that those attending the seminar were at the level that I feel they can appreciate what I am trying to teach. The notion that one needs to understand for himself how to deal with the situation at hand. A realisation that a particular technique is not as important as being able to effectively deal with the threat, to ensure one’s survival. A recognition that the instructor’s role is to develop a skillfulness that one can rely on to deal with unprovoked atacks irrespective of one’s level of training. That one with a few techniques has just about the same chances of success in surviving life-threatening situations as one with many techniques and with variations as well.
I am really pleased to see so many students being able to use the techniques taught in a very fluid manner. The technique has really become their own. Now I am sure that when needed they have in their repertoire something that may save their lives.
Published in Martial Arts Illustrated Magazine, February 2002