One of the strongest images I have of my maternal grandfather is his claim of being a martial arts “hermit”. Those who have met him walk away with the impression that he is unfriendly and introverted. Not just because he didn’t speak English, but surprisingly he was a walking contradiction: my Grandfather was a very giving man, but when it came to his martial arts he was very selfish; he was fiercely patriotic, but didn’t seem to like many Filipinos (just like my mom, more on this later); was a lifelong martial artist, but really disliked martial artists. When I speak of old-school martial artists looking another up and down, thinking “I can take this guy”, my Lolo takes the cake. As a young man, he taught me to train hard and out do my peers and to look down on them as inferior martial artists. Does this make you uncomfortable? Good. That’s what warriors do. If you’re looking to get along with someone, go hold hands in some seminar somewhere…
I begrudgingly complied with many of his requests to keep my distance from most other martial artists. After attending a few FMA seminars with my old friend Billy Bryant, I stopped going when my grandfather objected. Although I was somewhat rebellious and independent thinking as a youth, I was obedient when it came to martial arts, because I really did look up to him and I truly believed that my grandfather was better skilled, more knowledgeable, and could make me into a superior fighter if I followed his lead. Now in my 40s, I am a spitting image of my Lolo in looks, build (he was actually leaner), lifestyle, and outlook. I hope that in the next 30 years, I am equal to who he was as a Master and as a man.
At the heart of this old man’s philosophy was his belief that in order to gain martial arts mastery, one needed to become a martial arts “hermit” in order to grow–even if only for a short period of time.
The hermit is one who has isolated himself from the rest of his community. For whatever reasons–religion, art, intense self-reflection–a man who lives this lifestyle is destined for wisdom or insanity. Our greatest human minds have lived the life of a hermit at some point in their lives. By disallowing distractions and frivolous activity to enter our lives, we enable ourselves to develop, reflect and perfect whatever it is we focus on during our solitude. Many of the things martial artists do, such as rub elbows with other teachers in the political world, put on demonstrations, write meaningless “look-who-I-am-and-what-I-know” articles for the magazines–do nothing at all for one’s skill in the martial arts. The true martial artist has no interest in such things, which has no place in one’s martial arts path. You want respect in the martial arts? Then make your skill unrivaled by most, and then you will earn respect. This is the old-fashioned way of building one’s reputation: standing on the merits of actual ability.
I consider myself an “Eskrima” hermit because I did not have classmates, family or friends in Eskrima while I was learning (besides my brother). In Kung Fu and Karate training, I had schools full of classmates, friends on the tournament circuit, and other school owners as friends. Even in Kuntaw, I had friends from all over the world who practiced Kuntaw and Silat; but my Eskrima experience is all to myself. This would seem odd, because my grandfather was not an “eskrima guy”, he was an empty hands guy, and his second weapon of choice was a bolo. But I took to the stick because this was the weapon we sparred with, and it was also the weapon I had the most difficulty learning. As I started to get out and meet other arnisadors and eskrimadors, I learned that–like my grandfather–I found most of them weak, sheepish, into politics, poorly skilled and I simply tended not to like them. In fact, most of my friends in the martial arts are Tae Kwon Do practitioners and boxers. I find martial artists egotistic, insecure, poorly skilled and undisciplined. This is not say that I am a monk either; but I treat my martial arts with much more respect than most martial artists. Confidence and antagonism seem to frighten most FMA people, so they seek strength in numbers or to simply avoid any forms of in-person confrontation. This is very disappointing because I know that back home, Arnis practitioners are not this way. Most have no rank and are happy with that. But most Filipino Arnis fighters are highly capable of defending themselves and will try you out at the drop of a dime, and you have to respect that. I consider anything less than that to be a weak representation of our arts. What I see of Filipino FMA people in America is that most of us have bought into the commercialization of the West–we like money, nice cars, rank and things to show off. This is what my mother and grandfather never let us become… coconuts. It is no wonder that we find that many Filipino FMA people look down on FOB Filipinos and many FOB Filipinos look down on western Filipinos. There is a lot lost in these arts when you lose the culture. The practice of isolating oneself–the training and the secrets we hold–is a very old-school, cultural thing for Filipino masters. Many of the benefits from practicing the art of seclusion cannot be duplicated in a classroom or seminar.
If you look at my school, I have the windows boarded up and covered with a mural. We do not allow visitors during class times. We only attend tournaments and scrimmages, rarely social events. I do not put on demonstrations for strangers; in fact, I rarely even demonstrate for my own students. My personal training sessions are alone–as they were when I was younger–and I am usually only seen in uniform when I am fighting. If I ask another martial artist to train with him, I am only planning to spar (not show, explain or hang out). My martial arts are for my students, so I rarely guest-teach in other Guros’ schools… even in those schools owned by my friends. I do not post Youtube videos. My skill and my reputation are all I care about; I could care less whether I am a popular teacher, or if people like me in this community. To be known for skill, knowledge and teaching ability if all I care about. In my community, you will find three groups of martial artists who know me: those who have seen me fight or teach (competitors or former students), those who have never seen me but have only seen my students fight, or–the majority–those who have heard of me but never seen me or my students; you would be hard pressed to find folks in my martial arts community who do not know who I am. And of those people, they either admire me (whether or not they’ve met me or seen me), or they loathe me (whether or not they’ve met me or seen me). Me and my school’s reputation have traveled long and far, without the use of magazine articles or advertising. And this is with me being isolated from this local community.
I once ate with my family in a restaurant in San Francisco, when the waiter noticed my school’s name on my credit card. He returned with three fellow employees (all FMA students), asking to take pictures, sign an autograph and promising to visit my school 100 miles away. As usual, they commented on how young I was, thinking I was some old man with along beard, lol. I get that a lot, because my ideas are old school and my attitude came from old men. But I tell you, I would not be the man I was had I joined the rest of the community.
Being a hermit does not require you to go live in a mountain or in the marshes. All it does is have you focus on yourself and your martial arts 99% of the time, and reject everything that lends nothing to your skill and knowledge: publicity, rank and ego, affiliations, unnecessary attention. My students fight in tournaments every month, but I am almost never in attendance. Why? Because I am at the school teaching, and that is most important. It’s not even necessary for me to attend and coach, because the preparation was done in the gym. When I am in attendance, I am sitting with my family and school, not walking around passing out business cards. You must keep your arts in your school and keep to yourself when you are away. The time to get with other people is when it’s time to test out what you’ve been doing. My students are allowed to attend seminars and train in other schools, but we keep our information in the house. As a teacher, I cannot focus my attention outside our circle because it takes away from them.
I have rejected several offers to write articles about my school. We attempted to get some articles published years ago through Black Belt and Inside Kung Fu magazine, and all were rejected because my views either offended or were contradictory to what the rest of the community believed. While I originally thought my philosophy could help some in the community, I realized that most of them do not want to listen. I still have an email forwarded from my old student that he received from Inside Kung Fu magazine:
After reading your articles several times, I find that “I Am Now FMA”
would be too harsh for our magazine. While the points made may be true,
they are presented in a way that probably would offend many of the
Filipino styists. I still have not made a decision on the other article,
but I’m leaning toward not printing that one also. Sorry for the delay.
I guess as they say that the truth hurts. But what probably hurts more is if you piss off some their most consistent advertisers. Some folks really don’t want to know the truth, and this is why they don’t fight… it is better to sit back and think you can protect yourself than to throw on the gloves to see if you are right. After I had experienced this treatment from the magazines and even some of the forums, I decided that it was time to keep my martial arts close to home. I realize now that the magazines are not there to share knowledge or teach, but to advertise and brag.
But I digress.
The same way a husband is only here for his family, a teacher is only here for his students. I think back to when Bruce Lee was acting, his students must have felt neglected. Perhaps many of them were there just because he was Bruce Lee the actor, they are certainly benefiting from being able to say, “Bruce Lee was my Sifu” when in fact their Sifu was Dan Inosanto. And excuse me for making this observation, many of those students couldn’t hold a candle up to Masutatsu Oyama’s students. But Mas was there for his guys all his life, and there you have the difference. Did Oyama go out and politic? Sure he did, after a lifetime of hermitage. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a lifetime, but he preceded his teaching career with perfecting the art himself by training in the woods. By the time he was ready to take Kyokushinkai to the world, he had focused on himself and his art enough that it was perhaps the “strongest Karate” on the planet. And how many people around can argue with that?
So, my question to you is, are you in pursuit of making your martial art the “strongest” of the styles? Are you attempting to make yourself the “strongest” teacher? Training your students the “strongest” fighters?
I have once heard that if you can’t be the best, get out of the business. We should all be striving to be the best; at least if we are serious martial artists. Casual training should not be in the vocabulary of the Guro… we are training people to be able to defend themselves and their families. You can’t promise them protection with mediocre, unambitious martial arts training. But it all starts with you, the Master. This has nothing to do with who has abs, who can run a 3-minute mile, who holds the highest degree Black Belt, who is world-famous or not. All that matters is the knowledge, skill, and experience level of the teacher, and how he passes that down to his students. Isolating yourself from all that does not matter in the effort to perfect oneself is a good way to get started on that path.
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