Instead, I'd like to present the historical precedent for studying, and achieving high proficiency in, multiple arts, and how this mindset is actually a modern phenomenon (and most likely a reflection on the capabilities of modern practitioners vs. their historical counterparts).
Because I primarily study Japanese martial arts, let's start with the famed Samurai...
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Some modern systems have adopted this philosophy and tradition. I personally have modeled my own system, San Budo Sogo Bugei, after this structure. My students engage in the study of Atemi Jutsu, Aiki Jujutsu, Kenjutsu and Kobujutsu. The only difference is that I don't give separate licensing/rank for each of the disciplines under the system umbrella. It's all San Budo Sogo Bugei.
But now, the Samurai were professional combatants. It's not fair to compare the average Western hobbyist to such an elite fighting force. Surely there must be civilian precedents for obtaining high-level proficiency in multiple arts, right? Of course! My favorite example is Kano Jigoro. Kano began his study of martial arts at the age of 17, and by the age of 21 had earned Menkyo in Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu Jujutsu and Menkyo Kaiden (the highest license attainable) in Kito Ryu Jujutsu. So after just 4 years of training, he would hold essentially masters licenses in two very formidable classical arts in roughly the same time it takes the average student to earn a Shodan nowadays. But wait, there's more!
- Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan Karate, had studied and attained proficiency in Shorin Ryu and Shorei Ryu prior to bringing the Okinawan art of karate to Japan.
- Miyagi Chojun, founder of Goju Ryu Karate, would study Naha Te under Higashionna Kanryo for 11 years before traveling to China to study Fujian White Crane under Ryu Ryu Ko.
- Oyama Masutatsu, founder of Kyokushin Karate, held a 7th Dan in Goju Ryu, 4th Dan in Shotokan and 4th Dan in Judo prior to founding his art (which he earned all between 1946 and 1953).
- Ueshiba Morihei, founder of Aikido, held the Kyoju Dairi license in Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu as well as had extensive training in Kito Ryu Jujutsu, Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu Jujutsu, Shinkage Ryu Kenjutsu and Goto-Ha Yagyu Shingan Ryu Taijutsu.
- Hatsumi Masaaki, head of the Bujinkan, studied and attained Menkyo Kaiden in nine classical arts under his instructor Takamatsu Toshitsugu. He only had 15 years of training with Takamatsu (1957-1972) before earning all nine of his Menkyo Kaiden.
- Tanemura Shoto, head of the Genbukan, began his training in 1962 and has since earned Menkyo Kaiden in 18 different arts.
Dave Falcaro, head of Neji Gekken Ryu, summed it up amazingly as well. To paraphrase, "If my lineage is false and I have no connection to these arts, then you are basically stating that I'm pretty amazing and a martial arts genius to have come up with all this information and all of these techniques on my own."
It's somewhat amusing, though. Those who criticize other martial artists for holding high rank in multiple arts, or God forbid create their own system, are so-called "traditionalists" that ignore their own history (and not even distant history). Most of these "traditionalists" study an art founded in 20th century, and certainly after the cutoff for koryu vs. gendai arts of 1868. They forget that their own arts were created by mortal men, not some mystical beings with divinely inspired martial prowess, and in order to create your own art you must understand at minimum two unique arts from which you can pull from and begin modifying. If you only study one art, whatever modifications or additions you bring to it will still be based upon the fundamental principles of that art and no matter how hard you try, at best you'll simply have a separate branch of that art. Not a unique art in and of itself.
In fact, modifications are part of the natural progression of your study. You are not meant to practice the art exactly as it's been done for the last 100 years. The Japanese have a concept called Shu, Ha, Ri to describe the various levels of training. The first stage, Shu, is where you are learning the art in its entirety and regurgitating it exactly as you were shown. The second stage, Ha, is where you begin to internalize the foundation of the art and apply it in unconventional methods. The final stage, Ri, is where you transcend the stylistic boundaries of the art and make it yours. Unfortunately, most practitioners here in the States are stuck in Shu. They simply regurgitate what has been taught to them, and God forbid their instructor was actually Asian, because then whatever they've been taught is practically Gospel (because Asians are never wrong or make human errors).
Keeping that in mind, as martial artists we should all be seeking that final stage, Ri. We should all be seeking to break the mold and transcend what we've been given. As much as I hate to give credit to MMA for anything, what the prominence of MMA has shown us all is that it is not enough to rely on one art as your foundation for self preservation. However, this is not a new concept. This is, in fact, one of the oldest concepts of human combatives. In order to be elite, you must strive for mastery of all ranges of combat - armed and unarmed, close range and at a distance, standing and on the ground. Most modern arts focus on one area of combat, one piece of the pie. It is not only natural, but should be encouraged, to study multiple arts in your pursuit of Budo.
In Korea, many martial arts instructors get their education in college as you can earn a degree in martial arts from most of the universities. In order to obtain a degree, you must study at least two arts. Because of the popularity of Olympic programs this is often Taekwondo and Yudo, however many choose to also study Kumdo and/or Hapkido as well. Even at the middle and high school levels, martial arts training plays a large part in their physical education. So while a practitioner may choose to focus on one art after they graduate college and open a school, nearly everyone who studies martial arts in Korea studies multiple arts. It's just the norm.
At the Shaolin Temple in China, the study of Shaolinquan is a major part of their lifestyle. However, Shaolinquan is not a single martial art but rather a collective term for hundreds of styles that trace their lineage to the Shaolin Temple. To learn a complete system, Shaolin monks are required to learn and master a number of styles and weapons. Some of these arts may be related, and are referred to collectively as the "big" and "small" forms of each other. Others may be polar opposites, such as Taijiquan and Paoquan. The more diversity between the styles you study, the more complete of a martial artist you are.
Let me clear. That type of dedication is commendable, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who has dedicated their life to even a piece of Budo. I just wish those same people would have mutual respect for those who choose to go above and beyond the norm. Is it common to reach high level proficiency in multiple arts? No. But it's certainly possible. To do so takes a unique individual, and a unique instructor to encourage such an endeavor. It takes an obsessive level of dedication and personal training to break down the fundamentals of arts that may or may not be related, categorize them into separate files in your head, and be able to function as either one at any given time without drawing on influences from the other.
I will fully concede that most people sporting high ranks in most arts have in fact only been awarded honorary rank in those arts (usually by trading documents with another practitioner) and are misleading themselves and their students by not disclosing such. But there are those who are just fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time, to train with the right people, and have the capability to absorb a wide range of information. So before you rush out to call the school down the street a fraud because the same instructor teaches a Goju Ryu program alongside an Aikido program, maybe you should get to know them first. There is enough negativity going on in the martial arts world. We should be building each other up and celebrating each other's successes. There's an old Chinese proverb that I think is quite fitting. "Those who say it can't be done shouldn't get in the way of those doing it."