What does it mean to be a true Martial Arts Master? We often have visions of a little Japanese master who lives high on a misty mountain. Only he has the real secrets of self-defense. He is a magical man, impervious to pain and unbeatable in battle. Although weak, he has the strength of 10 men. The words he tells you answer all of life’s questions. But those are the movies my friends! I have met many true martial arts masters and some consider me one. I can tell you – the movie version is fiction! There are no martial arts masters! But there ARE Master Instructors.
It’s a shame that most of our martial arts knowledge comes from martial arts movies. Works of fiction, showing us the story we want to be real, but just isn’t. The truth about martial arts masters is that they are not magical men, impervious to pain and unbeatable in battle. They are mostly older gentlemen, who have aching joints, old injuries, scars and will avoid fights or violence of any kind if given the choice. But that doesn’t really make for a good story. We don’t want martial arts masters to be like us – or our grandfathers. We want them to have conquered aging, found the magic diet, be able to stomp a 300lb man with a lightning fast cam hand to the groin. They never had to work, for with their monkish demeanor and amazing combat skills, they amassed wealth from their days as wealthy samurai and then retired to a life in a bamboo hut in the hills, eating what they grew and living on the gifts of those students who make the journey to learn its secrets.
That’s a real shame – because we miss the real importance to the martial arts of someone who has devoted most of his life to a martial art.
What we don’t embrace in our lack of understanding of martial arts mastery – is exactly what is mastered – and how.
Let me get into the how first. How do you become a martial arts master? Education. Endless, painful training. Week after week, month after month, year after year, for decades. From this training comes the technical skills necessary to become a martial arts master. He had to follow the same path as all students under the watchful eye of a sensei to learn the basic, intermediate and advanced techniques of one or more self-defense systems. Once he got the black belt (if the system uses that ranking), he now has to spend years honing those skills. Practice, fight, compete, train. After about ten years, he will have mastered the curriculum that forms his basic skills quite well. But he is still not a master.
After about ten years of training comes the “seasoning” period where the practitioner becomes aware of his place in the dojo and in the lineage of the dojo. He begins to understand the role and responsibility of being a Sempai first and a Sensei second. There will be a beginning to understand how knowledge can be passed on to others. Until now there has been an inward focus – which must now be turned outward. There was taking, where now must be given. Also comes an understanding of what it takes to run a class and perhaps a dojo. There are business aspects and security aspects. One learns how to deal with the many types of personalities that new students and less new students bring. All the while, this man must maintain control of his own life outside the dojo. In this modern world, we cannot retreat to previous centuries – we live here and now. We deal with insurance and bills and jobs and family and cars and laws and permits and kids. We have responsibilities to our physical-genetic families and our martial arts families. On the way to mastery, this sensei will have to learn to juggle all those responsibilities. Sometimes he will and sometimes he won’t.
Since the main secret of mastery lies in the fact that the master is a simple person, like everyone around him, with the same successes and failures, with similar concerns and worries, with normal daily responsibilities – he must like to be a huge amount of his private time teaching students. While a martial arts practitioner may train a few times a week, go to the gym, enjoy time with the family, etc. The sensei spends all his spare time – and some not so sparingly on the dojo and the betterment of others. He spends most of his time teaching and coaching and training others – and THAT is what makes him special. He is just like you and everyone else – except that in addition to his normal life – he puts his heart and soul into serving the dojo and the students. But that doesn’t make him a master.
So what makes someone a martial arts master? Nothing! No one ever masters the martial arts. No one will ever be perfect and perform flawlessly all the time in all self-defense circumstances. The reality is that it takes so long to really become a technical master that the physical body begins to lose its edge by the time the technical edge arrives.
Then why are people ranked or called a master? Here’s your answer. Because a master is ranked as a Master Instructor. Being a martial arts master means you are a martial arts master instructor! You have the technical ability and years of teaching experience to transfer the knowledge to others. And this is no sinecure. Every student learns in a different way, has a different background, has different physical and mental skills and training needs. A true master can see the path each student must take to succeed in the martial arts. The strong may require technical skill. The weak may need toughness. The boy may need patience. The older ones may need motivation. The craftsman may need coaching. The less skilled person may need reassurance. The real master knows the history of the system, the teachers of the past, the history of each technique. He knows how the entire system works to help students on their way. A master knows every technical nuance, even if he can’t perfectly execute every nuance every day. A master instructor feels the “to” or duty to those who have passed on the knowledge through the ages and knows that he must not only pass on the knowledge, but improve it. A martial arts master’s goal is to make sure his students become better than him!
Being a Martial arts Master (instructor) also means that other instructors come to you to learn. There are nuances in technique and education that they want to collect and communicate to their own students. They want to use the master’s knowledge to improve themselves and their students.
The final secret to being a martial arts master is knowing that you also have a martial arts master – living or dead – whom you look to for your own training and motivation.
Finally – humility is key. Thinking you are a master makes you feel like you want to show and tell the world that you are one. Being A martial arts master makes you feel worthless – unless you can make sure your students and other instructors are the best they can be. You wouldn’t think of calling yourself a master and feel a little ashamed if others do. This is what it means to be a Martial Arts Master!