The Making of a Martial Arts Master

I am writing a book by the same name as this article, and I hope to have it completed by the end of this year.

The title “Master”, I believe, is simultaneously overused as well as undervalued. There are too many people who lack the dedication to even excel in the performance of the art (which I consider a basic requirement of mastery) calling themselves “Master”. The man who wishes to master the martial arts must truly dedicate himself to the study and practice of the art in more ways than simply saying, “I am dedicated” or by teaching the arts. In my own personal opinion, you must practice and teach the art professionally (whether full time or part time) for many years. Naturally, the more time you spend with the art, the faster you will reach this level. Some people believe that simply being involved with the art for 20 years or more makes one a master.

But, no–you will not be a master simply by association alone. There are many stages to martial arts mastery, and here are the basic stages and levels you must strive for:

  • Superior performance.  Before we can talk about one who has mastered the art as a teacher, he must have mastered the art as a student. In the seminar industry, there is a bum-rush to leap from student to teacher. Very little to no attention at all is devoted to developing the student’s skill to proficiency. Hell, the teachers don’t even hang around long enough to ensure that every member of his flock excels at the art. By the time the students start to “get it”, he’s on a plane to the next town. As a student, you must excel at everything you’ve learned. This means hundreds and hundreds of hours of practice, thousands and thousands of repetitions in training, and hours and hours of fine-tuning and more practice. I do not agree with those who contend that because of the few exceptions to the rule–mediocre fighters who became master teachers of the art–one does not need to excel as students. Sure, this lazy excuse is like telling a kid to drop out of school in order to become a millionaire–a la Bill Gates style. While it may be true for a very small minority, it’s a bad idea. Learn the art, become good at it, idiots.
  • Full understanding of the art and its intricasies. You would be surprised how many people out there do not fully understand the art they are teaching. The knowledge they possess is barely skin-deep, and what you see them do is what they know, and not much more than that. This is why so many teachers take on many other styles through seminars and make up drills and prearranged give and take/defense and counter sequences; their knowledge is just not profound so they add quantity rather than to the quality of what they know. A big part of this is due to the knowledge level of one’s own teachers. If he does not know much, he does not have much to pass on. Therefore, the student who finds that he cannot dig deeper into the art must pursue more knowledge under the tutelage of one with more knowledge. Either that, or he must reflect, meditate, and experiment on his art, as superficial knowledge is not enough.
  • Develop fighting prowess to a high level. A martial arts expert must have fought many opponents and executed his techniques in order to forge his theories into facts. The words of a novice:  I think….  The words of an expert:  I have found…  Often you will have novices who talk like an expert; they will swear that they have fought and defeated many men. They will refer to unrelated experiences as “proof” that they know what they are doing (like being a cop, military member, etc.). Regardless of what you say–as the saying goes–your behind must be able to cash the check that your mouth writes!  At a bare minimum, you must have been known to have superior fighting ability. Now, I am not interested in arguing “what type of fighting?” with anyone. If you believe that a man’s fighting experience is somehow a disqualifying factor (like me and ring fighting), you are welcome to try these skills out. But you see, most critics and naysayers are men who will never throw their hat in the ring. However, if you are out here calling yourself a Master, you’d better possess the skills to show them what you’re talking about.
  • Hermitage. Not everyone will agree with this, but I do not consider fame-seeking masters to be true MASTERS of the art. A master will treasure what he possesses and will be searching for the appropriate student to whome he will bequeath his knowledge. He will also take his practice of the art serious enough that onlookers and less-committed students alike would distract him from his focus. I have met many men who call themselves Masters, and the ones I have respected the most teach out of small holes in the wall, and are very selective about who-gets-to-study-what. Seclusion is the place where the true Master can truly focus on his art and protect its secrets. FAKE masters sell them on the internet. For more information, check out my article on martial arts hermits.
  • The reputation. Don’t confuse popularity with reputation. Many teachers spend all of their time trying to be well-liked and popular. Therefore, when people speak of these masters, they are offering respect as repayment for their aimiability–not due to to knowledge and fighting skill. Many of the best masters around were not well-liked. A good example of this is pre-stardom Bruce Lee. He was not popular because of his unorthodox views concerning the martial arts. Chinese teachers did not like him because of his focus on teaching Americans. Others were jealous of his skills. Yet, to everyone who knew him, his reputation preceded him, as his skills and physical prowess spoke for itself. Your reputation turns you into a Master, as it is your martial arts community who promotes you–or validates your self-declaration of being a Master.

This is all I will say about this subject. I hope I have given you a lot to think about.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

4 thoughts on “The Making of a Martial Arts Master”

    1. i think most people dont like it, because its used too much in the martial arts. and used by unqualified people. but we have master mechanics, master plumbers, even masters of a game… but they all talk about people who are not just good, but “master” at what they know.

      in the martial arts, its too easy for somebody to call himself “master”. but this art is not like other jobs and activities, in the martial arts, there is a lot of people who will challenge them or the fact that they say they are qualified. as long as we have those people, it kept the rest of them on their toes.

  1. When I began to spar evenly, and even best people who were my teachers, while they were masters, it greatly confused me.

    You see, I easily fit your description of the youth who bounces from school to school, yet the first school I attended I reached the rank of 3rd dan (though of course, I was still young, and to this day, do not think I deserve it) and after over a decade there, moved to a nearby studio to learn the next style of Tae Kwon Do.

    Tae Kwon Do is one of those unusual styles in which it is not only composed of different branches of styles, but some of these have such different roots that they actually look entirely different. I have met MANY tae kwon do masters of one of the styles of Kwan, but I have never met a master of all of them, not even among the founders. It seems ambitious to me, but I intend to learn at least 7/9, and 9/9 if the opportunity ever presents itself and I can travel to Korea. I feel if you are to be a master, you must master all aspect of the styles.

    And that is where it becomes relevant that I have been to SO many schools. More than I can count. I have dabbled in so many arts. But before I began to cross train at all, I had a firm foundation- one which I completely gave up for 3 years, not doing a single technique of my original Moo Duk Kwan. I swore I would not until I was able to perform Chung Do Kwan, and its mechanics, as well as I had Moo Duk Kwan. And from there, I added. Elbows and knees from Muai Thai I received in passing, Bagua to learn how to redirect.

    While I would not say I know those arts, each time I have studied them, be it with a teacher, or on my own through scholastic style research, and then attempts, is that I look at that style, in regards to what I know is lacking.

    I know that the Taekyon and Moo Duk Kwan techniques I employ are strong in kicks, but terribly weak in hands, so practiced Wing Chung, Xing yi, boxing, kick-boxing, and chung do kwan to better it. When I realized the style, as I had come to know it, lacked suitably strong groundwork, I adopted techniques from jiujitsu, and hapkido.

    A lot of the arts I dabbled in, I was fortunate to have been able to, because the teachers of the primary arts I studied, also taught those as a supplement. I have always been gifted in my ability to copy, to the point I can see a kata once, and then repeat it.

    I was challenged to learn the Oh do Kwan system of tae kwon do in a week, by a very gifted teacher who I left a Mcdojo not unlike you described. I did it, too, learning every form, technique, hand position, and continued practitinc it until it became as natural as Chung do Kwan and Moo Duk Kwan were. But I am not an expert in it, nor even ranked. That does not mean I could not see in what I practiced, what would work however, for what I already used in me repertoire.

    I… worry this article gives the message that masters are something as a concept to take lightly and scoff at. To a degree you are right, but it is only because others have watered down what master means, as others have being a black belt, and even more, a martial artist. But we men of honor, real martial artists, know true martial artists, teachers, and masters when we see them.

  2. My apologies, I did not mean to hit submit. Ah, well.

    What I meant by ‘lacked’, is what I lacked in myself, not the art.

    When I say ‘I don’t know an art’, I mean it in the sense of a black belt saying they know their art. However, that does not mean that I do not know a technique from that art which I have added to my complement, and can wield as efficiently as any other I have.

    I am very big on taking from other styles… but only if it works, and only if it works for me. After all, I have only myself to go off of, and the running theory that ALL martial art techniques work- but only in the right context, and our bodies are also a very important part of that equation.

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