The Dao of Jiu-Jitsu: Palimpsest Training

Tiger, Nicole Charbonnet.

Tiger, Nicole Charbonnet.

About a month ago, I began to seriously study the 10th Planet system. I joined their forum and signed up for access to the techniques online. These appear in videos called “Mastering the System.” There’s seventy-eight of them. 10th Planet jiu-jitsu is the fourth grappling system I’ve devoted serious time to understand. What makes this one different is that the other three are of schools I have joined: judo, Relson Gracie, and American Top Team (of which I am currently a student and a once-a-week instructor). I went to 10th Planet because the lockdown half-guard is the only type of half-guard that I have been able “to get.” It feels comfortable, logical, and safe. And it has been working. I, like all of you, often turn to videos for technique instruction, but that rarely turns into devoting time to learn a whole jiu-jitsu ecosystem.

For some, this is an unwritten cardinal sin. You may learn moves but not chains of moves or systems of chains that are outside your school. Or at least, do not acknowledge their name or where they come from. This is a prohibition I’ve never felt comfortable accepting, not just because of its demand of blind loyalty, but because it has always felt intellectually backwards. The pursuit of knowledge overrides any loyalty to your own college. Imagine not reading a study done at Berkeley because you are loyal to your alma mater of Stanford. In that context, it sounds ridiculous. Yet in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, this climate is quite common. Prohibitions against attending seminars held at other schools, or cross-training at other schools, or even fraternizing with other schools and their members is a misuse of power that redefines the student-instructor relationship as paternalistic and priestly.

Too often in our martial art, devotion to one type of jiu-jitsu, which I think is really a devotion to a personality, leads to the most egregious contradiction in a lot of our schools: we ignore, dispel, mock, or bad-mouth another’s style because it is not our own, without testing it against the reality principle. The first lesson we learn walking into a jiu-jitsu gym is that jiu-jitsu became jiu-jitsu simply because it worked. We signed up because reality proved that if we spend our time learning how to fight on the ground, it is the best way to defeat a stronger, bigger, faster opponent. Jiu-jitsu is the single most effective martial art because of its no-mysticism, pragmatics-first approach to real combat.

A Way

Urban Palimpsest, Carlos Garaicoa

Urban Palimpsest, Carlos Garaicoa

Bruce Lee’s approach to martial arts, compiled in the classic Tao of Jeet Kune Do, was dedicated to “the free creative martial artist,” and it provides the principle truth – the dao – most applicable to jiu-jitsu: “use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”

But we humans.

We, flawed beings. And being flawed, we are jealous and paranoid, and we safe-guard our small world from outside truths, forgetting that other worlds do not diminish our own but can expand our understanding of the universe for all.

What we need to understand is that no one has a hold on the origin. There is no original author; nor is there a holy parchment, pure and clean and untouched, that has not been inscribed upon by other prophets. There were many hands writing the original script, editing, inflecting, adjoining, amending, even erasing and writing over.

The body of jiu-jitsu knowledge is a palimpsest.


Usually used to describe discovered ancient scrolls, a palimpsest is a written document, usually on vellum or parchment, that has been written upon several times, often with remnants of the old writing, still visible underneath.

Codex Ephraemi, 5th century, Greece.

Codex Ephraemi, 5th century, Greece.

The French philosopher Gerard Genette wrote a work on the philosophical implications of palimpsests. Genette described how any text – whether a written document, a film, a painting, or a performance – has a palimpsestic relationship to prior creations. That no matter how hard one tries, the prior texts leaves a visible trace on the new original work of art. All original human creations are thus inherently intertextual. The presence of others moons and planets exist within the system.

Bruce Lee back then understood this better than most of us, and knowing so in an age prior to the mixed martial arts movement. He told us, warned us, that “set patterns, incapable of adaptability, of pliability, only offer a cage.” Our system is a jail cell if we fail to open its doors. Jeet Kune Do’s motto, using no way as way, is a call to accept other martial arts to be written upon the body-knowledge of the all martial artists. Our bodies are books. Our days training are inscriptions upon us, like invisible tattoos for every lesson learned on the mat.

In my own training I’ve experienced, like you, that awkward moment of the erasure of another style many times, simply because the move comes from “that guy” of that other place.

This happened most dramatically to me about eight months ago. I hesitate to write this because the instructor was a guest of a person I respect. However, nothing can illustrate better the rigidity of “the cage,” than that seminar I attended where, in the beginning, a self-defense question was posed. How to escape an underneath-the-arms bear hug? I was asked to demonstrate my answer.

When I was asked to escape that double underhook bear hug, I tried to meekly refuse exhibiting my answer. I knew the guest instructor wanted me to do the a particular self-defense Gracie approach. I was visiting my first school, and tried to inform him I no longer trained at the school. Unfortunately, his reply was nonchalantly dismissive, “but you’re a brown belt, come on.” I accepted his invitation merely to save face and not make it more awkward.

As a long-time judoka, I had more than three answers to the question posed to me. Reluctantly, I stood up. The seminar instructor grabbed me in the double-under bear hug, and asked me to escape. I immediately dropped my weight, stuck my butt out slightly, and went for koshi guruma (a judo hip throw, also known as the head and arm throw). I lifted him off the ground and he asked me to stop. No, no, not that. He then asked a white belt to stand up and perform the script: “when someone bear hugs you under the arms, put your hands on his chin and push him away.” I felt like a fool, not because I gave the wrong response, but because I was reminded of the bad of jiu-jitsu, the cage it can be, and I had just paid eighty dollars for that reminder.

Masterless Masterfull
wall in rio

Wall in Rio de Janeiro

The retort would be that without a master to guide you, your training would be rudderless. Without direction. Full of false starts and walks into blind alleys that lead to a dead end.

That certainly can happen. Perhaps more often than not. But there are other forms of learning, one in which we have no one master but many masters that we lean upon, and we allow those masters to converge with each other in our training. And we decide the answer to self-defense questions ourselves. That is, we try x master’s way and z master’s way to find our way. Our way, right now, but one that is subject to change. A way that is always subject to growth.

Perhaps more than the grand majority, I have six people who are my teachers on a consistent basis. I moved away from my first school, but not so far away that I cannot visit it once in a while. Our main instructor focused more on his main school, leaving my affiliate school to fend for themselves. Our team grew and a new affiliate is close enough that I began to train there. Each of those people I honor as my teachers but respect them enough not to beatify them and make their talents holy and their weaknesses mysteries. The BJJ Globetrotters is an organization that best understands this model.

I end with the words of the person who best understood this form. “A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence.” A good teacher, liberates one “from the uneasy sense of confinement. It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.”

Ready for any other teachers that may join and inscribe upon you their own way.


2 responses to “The Dao of Jiu-Jitsu: Palimpsest Training

  1. I really enjoyed reading that, well done. Being new to BJJ I am finding it interesting how many influences there depending on who you train with or even talk to. Some folks put more of an MMA spin on it while others are strictly grappling with no striking. Regardless I think the “cage” you describe is something I will try not to become trapped in.

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