The Masters Who Die Alone

I have been fortunate in my lifetime to have had the acquaintance of many Masters of the fighting arts. Not all of these men owned successful martial arts schools, and not all of them were FMA teachers. But what they had in common was a lifetime of commitment to practice and propogation of the martial arts. In almost every case, these Masters lived out their last days being taken for granted–poor, lonely, and eager for an ear to talk about their experiences. Sadly, in  few of these times, I was taught techniques from their art and asked to carry the torch of their systems. And equally sad, I have had to decline such a gift.

It would be easy to blame the students of these Masters for the death of the secrets of the arts and systems. However, lazy and uncommitted students is far too common to place blame on the students. Instead, the gamble of the life of a lifelong martial arts is that we will delve headfirst into the art, learn, master and develop our arts, and then fail to find a suitable student to pass the art to. There are four careers to the life of a martial artist:

1. The martial arts student – This is the stage that is taken for granted much to often. The student should spend a proper amount of time learning the art, so that he is not wasting his time in years to come learning new things when he should be developing and fine tuning what he has learned. “Always a student” is the fallacy created by teachers who have inferior knowledge and therefore take seminars, buy DVDs and correspondence courses while they have students who look to them for deep knowledge. When the student has fully explored the art and learned a decent amount of information, he will need to spend a good portion of his life developing this knowledge. If not, he will pass on shallow knowledge to his students of material he really has no expertise in. I always say that the path to “Instructor” status is not a race! But that’s not how martial artists today treat this very important stage.

2. The Martial Arts Fighter – In this stage, one is still learning. But the focus here is testing the knowledge you have acquired and forging one’s own preferences, fighting philosophy, and reputation… on the skill of other fighters. This is not so much a “stage” as it is a career. I would say that one’s fighting career should equal the span of years he was a student. So if it took 5 years to get your Black Belt, your fighting career should last 5 years. Call it sport, call it tag, whatever. But if you are to be an effective fighter–and TEACH effective fighting–you must have had your own experiences and enough time standing across from another fighter whose goal is to prove that he is superior to you. However you get it, you must get this experience and it must have been against enough strange fighters that you can truly call yourself “experienced”. Without it, you will be a teacher of nothing but theory. During this career, your training is mostly solo, and fighting is your mission. This is the most important stage you will draw on for the majority of your martial arts journey, most of what you say and do all the way to death will reference what you accomplished here. Trust me, when you are a 65 year-old Master no one will care what you did as a 21 year-old Green Belter.

3. The Martial Arts Teacher – This is the next progression from your fighting career. It can overlap your fighting career, but it cannot overlap your learning career. Your students, however, will benefit more from your knowledge if you begin teaching after you have let your fighting career run its course. During this time, you teach from experience and try to develop your teaching philosophy. You must determine in what way is your art best taught. You will have to develop a curriculum, decide what is learned when, and what method you will use to impart this knowledge. I would have to say that you should have promoted a minimum of two generations of students during this time to be considered a good teacher. This stage consists of three things:  development of the curriculum, development of the teaching style, and student selection. The third of these items, student selection, is one that is often downplayed–yet vital to the last stage of one’s martial arts career. It is the reason I have met these lonely old masters who lament the fact that they have no champion; they began with inferior martial arts students, and therefore did not have a good candidate to pass the torch to in their twilight years. Teaching involves more than just handing out business cards and issuing certificates. It further involves more than simply learning communication skills and learning how to explain concepts. Some of my best teachers did not speak the same language as I do. For example, I one learned an entire form, which included details such as rupturing arteries and veins, seizing nerves and dislocating joints from Chan Man Cheung–who only speaks Cantonese. Rather, a true teacher can impart these things without the use of skills like language.

4. The Martial Arts Master – This is the final career of one’s martial arts journey. It is not quite the same as the teacher, in that you are preparing for retirement. You must have taught at least 2 – 3 true generations of students (by the way, I consider a block of 4 – 5 years of students as one generation) before you may consider yourself a Master of the art. I would say that as a Master, you would have at least 200-300 people who consider you their Guro (past and/or present), others in your community know you as a Master, and you have successfully made it through all the previous careers–full careers. It is in this stage, that you become extra picky in who you choose to teach. You will begin to hold back information while waiting for your students to decide that they are serious about the art, and you anxiously search for the one or two students who will take the rest of your knowledge–the stuff you hadn’t shown anyone before–and carry it on to future generations. Get started on this as soon as you are ready. I have been working on it for nearly a decade, and the pickings are slim.

You could skip these careers and treat your martial arts as, well, a career. You could casually teach the art to whomever, promote whoever whenever you want, and act as if you will always be here on God’s green Earth. But you will die alone, with unfulilled martial arts students. But prepare for your retirement like you would your finances, and avoid such an undignified closing to your martial arts journey.

Thank you for visiting my blog.


Author: thekuntawman

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

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