“Karl Friday: The answer to the first question depends on what you mean by “martial arts.” Can you learn to fight without a teacher? Obviously. Can you learn to fight *well* without a teacher? Probably. But can you learn a *specific art* without a teacher? Not really. Even if you keep the definition of “teacher” restrictive enough to exclude someone you just watch and imitate (including by video or book in modern times), the best you could possibly expect to achieve is a reinvention of the art–the creation of something new, in imitation of the art itself.
Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. But it’s not the same thing as studying the art itself. In activities like boxing–or basketball–the difference is probably not all that important, because the key concern is the development of a set of skills to help achieve a manifest and tangible goal–winning games/matches. So if your goal is just to win sword fights, or to impress people with flashy sword draws and cuts at the air, you certainly could do reasonably well (maybe even as well or better) learning iaido or kenjutsu without a teacher as with one. But that, of course, begs the question of why? I can often go for weeks at a time without being drawn into mortal combat with swords (especially if I stay out of certain neighborhoods in Atlanta!). So learning to use a sword, per se, isn’t really the point of studying Japanese sword arts. Using the sword as a tool to lead you along a particular sort of path toward personal development is. And that requires a guide, who knows the path. ”
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