The Making of a Master, pt IV: The Doubter

Which are you? Sleeping Lion, or Roaring Lion?

One of the qualities I have seen in a few of the Masters I have met, is a quiet, reserved man who can turn into a killer at the drop of a dime. Kung Fu movies have led to many people to think that the martial artist must be humble and quiet and never fight unless he is provoked or backed into a corner. While this ideal is valid, it is not the quality of the Filipino fighter. Our philosophy is more of the Roaring Lion, who emits his fighting prowess through his speech, his swagger and his reputation. Bragging, in the FMAs, is okay—even encouraged—among our fighters and Masters. However, it is not the only approach to humility and confidence in the Filipino arts. Many a great fighter has quietly solidified his reputation by staying to himself, and unleashing his skills on unsuspecting doubters at the right time. What a concept!

Some martial artists are content to remaining in obscurity. They do not need for the world to know who they are and what they can do. These men train their skills in private, and had done enough fighting in another life that there is no need to spar regularly to cement their fighting ability. (I have a philosophy about the use of prior fighting experience in today’s skills, but that is the topic for another post)  This is a quality usually found in older men, but is sometimes taken on by younger, less experienced fighters. Naturally, I do not feel this is best for the young man, as he must have had some kind of fighting career for this to be useful to him. Yet there is an exception:  Young men who do not wish to fight unnecessarily and are among weaker non-warriors should adopt this technique. I would recommend it for adolescents who are seriously training in the fighting arts, as they have other, more important goals—like completing their high school education.  But for the young adult who has decided to make the martial arts a way of life, it is best to sow one’s oats on other fighters and hone his combat ability on the path of fighting mastery. And you can’t do that while hiding in the shadows; you must put your name out in the air and at the same time search for opponents. Even when traveling, a young fighter should introduce himself to local martial artists and look for places to train and people with whom he can “exchange ideas with”.

At the end of the road of young martial artist lies the first few steps of the next road:  the teacher. If you find yourself at the age of too-old-for-fighting-but-not-yet-a-teacher, especially as a newcomer to a martial arts community, it may be a good idea to play the background for a while in order to observe your surrounding and formulate a plan for introducing yourself to the community.

Wait. What about paying one’s respects to the local Masters and building a reputation, you ask?

I am not saying to skip paying one’s respects. This is a necessary custom that has been long lost over the generations, and is even looked upon with a suspicious eye. What I am recommending here is to carefully put yourself out into the open, and seize the right opportunity. Just don’t “bum-rush” the community by hanging your shingle immediately and handing out business cards. That is for fools. The careful master observes from the sidelines and tries to understand the members of his new community because this will help him choose a good strategy in how he will present himself and which position in the community he will assume.

You probably have to hang around me a little longer in order for this to make sense. So let’s move on to the next point.

As a martial artist, it is not imperative for every person around you to respect or like you as a fighter. But it is important for you to maintain your skills and to believe in them. This is why some fighters will play stupid (including me) in order to get the next guy to open himself… in other words, to show his hand. My Dad use to say, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” There is a healthy lesson in that. We will keep our weapons sheathed in the effort to keep from having to use them, and that is the method of the quiet, Sleeping Lion. He does not need to project who he is or what he can do. In a way, you can say that the Sleeping Lion is actually “playing possum”, waiting for the curious antelope to come and poke and prod him, and foolishly attempting to show his courage. When Sleeping Lion sees the chance, he shows his cards and by then it is too late to turn back. And this reminds me of a story.

My Grandfather had traveled south to look for work. Because his goal was to make money, he did not want to engage in any fighting because he was not there for his martial arts. There was a much younger man who was seemingly knowledgeable in Eskrima and Karate. Every day my grandfather heard this young man brag about the training he had been receiving and fights he took part in. And every day, he fought the urge to tell the men he worked with that he was a martial artist. Being a fighter, my grandfather was borderline arrogant, and refraining from bragging was a struggle for him. The young man taught some people techniques after work, and occasionally would have matches—which really whet his appetite to test his skills. One day he got his chance.

While washing up for lunch, the young man noted my grandfather’s large forearm (his right forearm was much larger than his left—the effect of years of single stick Arnis practice) and the condition of the knuckles on his hands, and asked if he had martial arts training. He answered in the affirmative, and the young man asked him why he had not said anything. To this my grandfather answered something that is now a regular part of my everyday speech:  You and I are not in the same business, nor are we at the same level in the martial arts. This shook him and a combination of fear, anger and embarrassment welled up in him, but he did nothing. In the next few days, the young man would glance at him while talking about the arts, tease him about demonstrating his art, and even ask his opinion. But he never challenged him, which is what my Grandfather wanted. Papa always answered with sarcastic comments or laughed off the things the young man said. These things were always unanswered the way he wanted them to be, yet the young man became more and more emboldened. Finally, perhaps a week later, the younger man did it. He stated that surely, my grandfather was not well-skilled in the art because he was as quiet as a mouse. My grandfather told him that the empty can made more noise than the full can, and that if he played with the younger man, he might hurt him so he should go back to his friends. He issued a challenge, and Papa brushed him off, saying that he was making a mistake, but welcome to try. The young man insisted, and so my grandfather agreed to spar him, but only with the small thin reeds that grew nearby. If he were convinced after that, they could then progress to the sticks. (The reeds they used were green, hollow and very thin; sturdy enough to sting but not hard enough to injure.) After a very short match, which my Grandfather easily won using only our basic strikes and basic trapping technique, the young man conceded and became a student of his for the duration of his stay in that town. I apologize for not remembering the name of the town or the gentleman.

When I came to Sacramento , I did not advertise the fact that I was also a teacher of Kung Fu. In fact, the only two people I told of my Kung Fu training was the late Grandmaster Vincent Tinga and Wing Chun/Bak Mei Master Eddie Chong. To both men, I actually demonstrated my kung fu skill. Master Chong and I actually exchanged notes with a White Eyebrow form called Gow Tow Bui, 9-step push. But for about 5 years I publicly downplayed my Kung Fu knowledge while training a small group of students, until my then-student, now assistant Instructor—Charles Azeltine—convinced me to go public with it. So we added Jow Ga to our website, and I began to advertise Kung Fu. In doing this, I had those who doubted my knowledge. Some even called my classmates on the East Coast to verify my lineage (LOL), and one asked me for a demonstration when I encountered him in a restaurant. Not only was this advantageous for me to have 5 years of obscurity, it was actually pretty fun. Our presence in the same community, but now revealing a Kung Fu lineage has actually made waves here. Men who pretended to be knowledgeable in the Chinese arts are now acting as lambs—even asking me to teach them. One Kenpo teacher who invented his own “Kung Fu” style is now uneasy around me.

But my reason for doing so is not as calculating as it may sound. I simply did not want to teach Kung Fu to the masses, so I did not advertise it. When I began meeting Kung Fu people, I found many of them to actually be novices in the Chinese arts, and did not wish to waste time discussing CMAs as equals when we were not. I was here to promote my Filipino martial arts, and build its reputation—that’s all. This experience, though, taught me a lot about why some older masters remain in the shadows when we want them in the open. Not being a part of the mainstream community allows you to be an observer and engage only when you want to. It lets you focus on your own art and avoid distraction. It gives you time to reflect without ego and the dynamics of having counterparts to contend with. At the same time, it requires that you choose the right moment to end your hiatus. However, you must be content to being thought ignorant of a subject you enjoy discussing; you must even be satisfied not being recognized as an expert. You must resist the doubter as well as welcome him, because—if anything—you always have the option of dealing with him by uttering the words a doubter hates to hear most:  You’re welcome to try. And this requires you to keep your fighting ability sharp, yet the ego in check:  a combination of skills that are extremely necessary in the making of a master.

Thank you for visiting my blog.


Author: thekuntawman

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

3 thoughts on “The Making of a Master, pt IV: The Doubter”

  1. Jut a thought re your grandfather and the young man, why did your grandfather take the young man as a student? Your grandfather was under no obligation to teach the young man and by training the young man was he (your grandfather) not revealing/transferring power, or was he creating an ally, a long term plan?

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