Path to Mastery: Everything Is Effortless

I want to share a secret of the Masters with you, and I hope you do not misconstrue it. This is not slight-of-hand…

The Masters train like mad. Even the old men will practice when you’re not looking. My grandfather use to tell me that a good teacher does not sweat in front of his boys, and this is something that I disagreed with for a long time. After reaching my late 30s, I began to understand what he meant in many ways. I would like to break it down in very simple terms, so try and keep up with me.

  1. The path to mastery involves a long, slow, uphill drive to skill. It is not something that you can develop as a “second” art. For example, I do not have a “second” art. Each art I studied has had its turn being my “primary” art. Each time I studied an art, I did it full-time with a master, and trained like a fanatic day in and day out. I almost neglected my other arts while pursuing the other arts I knew at the time. Those who remember me as a boxer, they only saw me as a boxer. They remember me talking of the martial arts, but do not recall seeing me train or study. When I was around my Jow Ga brothers, I was only seen doing Jow Ga. When I on the tournament karate circuit, I was seen as just a point fighter. When I kickboxed, people only saw me kickbox. This allowed me to fully understand and develop as a Kung Fu man, as a Kuntaw man, as an Eskrimador. And each of these arts, I can do equally as well. When you undertake a second art–as most of our FMA men in the West do–seminars and superficial won’t make you a master. A good litmus test for whether your training is superficial? Look around you while training. Is the teacher/assistant still teaching someone his basic strokes? Are you learning/practicing stuff that the beginners are learning at the same time? Then yes, you are scratching the surface. The beginners have their time, the intermediate guys have their time, and the advance people should have their time. Seminars–regardless of how deep you think the training is going–only scrapes the surface of the art you are learning. Most of the things you need at the higher levels of the art cannot be taught in groups. Training the right way takes humility, patience, and focus on what you are doing and mastering it, not to be taken on the fast track to “apprentice instructor”. The path to mastery does not have an “apprentice instructor” level. That is reserved for the seminar/crash course guys.
  2. You must make what you do seem effortless. Masters practice to maintain what they gained as students and young experts. But they also understand the need to continuously develop and improve. Even the older, fatter, balder master needs to have a few tricks up his sleeve that amazes the young guys. This is not something you just learn and have. It takes a lot of work, and you have to be able to perform this skill on demand as a master. When my grandfather was in his 70s I still saw him practice early in the morning, and he never ceased to amaze me. He would do literally hundreds of strokes with his cane, a kitchen knife, even hitting the fence post out back. And every once in a while he would demonstrate something–a skill, a technique, that I had both never seen him do before as well as was unable to duplicate. Some of those things I do now:  rattan breaking in 1-3 strokes, brick/board breaking, piercing fruit with the fingertips, accuracy strikes (machete vs. 1″ space under the bottom of your grip on a stick), power strikes, sparring skill. There are many things I can do that my students have not seen me do, and I practice them frequently. What do they have to do with fighting? Nothing. But as a Master of the art, you must have these tricks that demonstrate your proficiency. A man who can do what 90% of his peers can’t do can call himself a “master”. But if he possess nothing (screw knowledge, martial arts is all about what can you do) that his peers can’t do, he’s just one of the crowd. Master, kiddies, is not something you automatically get just for hanging around long enough or gaining enough certificates. There are lots of people who do call themselves “master” with rank and no skills, but they are quickly forgotten. But no one forgets witnessed skill. And you must work on these things a whole lot more often than people realize.
  3. If people see you sweat, and make tons of mistakes, it takes away from your sense of “mastery”. Yes, it is perception. But do not make the mistake of betraying your position in your community trying to be human. Masters are not human, they are experts among the experts. That’s why you have “experts” and then you have “masters”. Arrogance, money and pride is what causes every Joe Blow with a little money and influence to want to call himself a Master. And this cheapens the idea of what a Master is. So then, you get some fat ass certificate collector on the internet saying stupid crap like “there are no Masters/there are no secrets” in the martial arts. Yeah, in your 20 or so seminars that you’ve attended you know better than the guys who have been doing this as a livelihood and passion for their entire lives–feast or famine. Well, put on this headgear and let me show you something… I will admit, there may be a little “slight of hand”, or gimmick to the whole master thing. But every master must be a true master of the art, and can show anyone up, any time. If you cannot do that, stop calling yourself a master. But if you want to have this skill, it takes a lot–a WHOLE LOT–of work. Those little tricks I mentioned earlier? Well they cannot be easily duplicated by the masses, and that alone qualifies you as a master.
  4. The Master cannot be shy. I was a young man meeting masters in Makati, Manila, after meeting a group of Kung Fu students in 1989. There were a few, who had the “humble” thing going. But that was because those men (one Hung Gar teacher, and a Hung Fut teacher) had a student who was their life, and they simply were not interested in more students. I respect that. But the other men? When I confessed to being a kung fu teacher at 19 years old, they couldn’t wait to have me step on the mat with their students. And most of the guys I fought were actually not that good! But they were hard-core, confident, and determined not to let me leave until I had been whipped. (I learned about respect and true confidence, as I had learned to lose purposely to allow a master to save face. It is a lesson very difficult to accept at 19 years old) In each of these cases–the humble guys as well as the aggressive ones–the masters were not shy:  what do you want, why are you here, would you like to have a match, how do I know you are a teacher, let me see your skill. When I was around these men, I knew they were masters. You could feel it in the air.
  5. The true master of the art must know his craft in and out, and you must know it far better than the average guy calling himself an expert. So, what I’m saying is that you must have superior knowledge in addition to the skill. In order to get that, you must have had a longer period of time as a student before calling yourself a teacher. Using my kung fu as an example, I have forgotten more forms than many teachers have even learned in their lifetime. This is because I was a student longer than most people before teaching–9 years–and my teacher was himself a young master. And guess what? My training had me in the gym at least 5 days a week for a majority of that time. So some guy does the long-distance “shaolin by mail” course comparing himself to me? Fool, please. (Like I said… you earned this knowledge and this position, no need to pretend that you don’t deserve the respect and authority that came with it)

This article may have sounded boastful. But it was supposed to be. The man calling himself a “master” of the craft should be insulted if he is referred to anything short of it. What would you call him? “Somewhat knowledgeable”? “Pretty good”? No. He is the best of the best, so if you shut up and listen to him, you might learn something. And he didn’t get there overnight. He is not self-made. He did not take the path that most people can complete. And he has earned the right to call himself as such, and how dare you question his knowledge. He does not have to be likeable. But he is undisputably good at what he does. Not what he knows, but what he can do.

So, put your egos aside when you’re in the presence of a man who knows more than you. Shut up long enough and know your place, you just might learn something. Thanks for visiting my blog.

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Size Is Everything

My father use to say that martial artists were the biggest assholes he ever met.

My grandfather used to call martial artists the biggest cowards.

One of my teachers, Boggs Lao, once told me that martial artists had the smallest (manhood).

I have found that all these men were right. There is a certain level of confidence, cockiness, ego, and “big balls” that is supposed to come with the territory of being a fighter, but it isn’t always true. I’ve been called to task because I am a trash-talker. And as one who is supposed to be a senior teacher in the martial arts, I’m not supposed to trash-talk. I don’t think so. I believe that a martial artist who has trained with all his heart, paid his dues, and earned his scars has earned the right not to be humble. Now, please don’t confuse confidence and cockiness with arrogance. I believe that a martial artist should not be arrogant, but he should certainly not eat crow because he doesn’t have to.

When you carry a sharper sword and possess stronger skills than the next guy, there is no need to act as if you were a lamb. On the contrary, you should be letting folks know for their own good that they are making a mistake by messing with you. I am not a big man, nor do I look intimidating. However, I am fully confident that some guy without enough training should look elsewhere if he wants to cross paths with me. If he is a so-called teacher, I’ll oblige him. But some fool walking in my school, will just get an invitation to join in on fight night. It’s like the big guy who accepts a challenge from a 4’9″ 120 lb challenger… what’s the purpose of fighting and beating this guy? So, when you are the bigger man (size, skill, weapons, whatever) it would be an injustice to pretend to be a lamb and allow some unsuspecting idiot to talk his way into an ass-whipping.

Now, if you warn him and the guy thinks you’re bluffing and fights you anyway? Well, that blame lies on him for not listening.

Scenario. I am at a Denny’s and the manager tells some young guys to quiet down or leave. The guys get belligerent and start to threaten the manager. I am a gun-carrying man who then speaks up to the group, asking them to respect the establishment… and the group turns on me. I respond by pretending to be scared, which encourages them to gain confidence and ultimately, attack me. I whip out my gun, and then….

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I ask the group to respect the establishment, and they turn on me. I respond by warning them, that unlike the manager I won’t lose my job if I fight. And by the way, if you want to get into some ganster stuff, I hope you kids got more fire power than I have in my waist band right now. Why don’t you quiet down? Problem resolved (most likely)….

Which of these is more ethical?

I had a guy come into my school one time and insult a friend of mine who owned a school nearby. We were having a Kuntaw class with my then intermediate group. Now, let me say that “Intermediates” in my school have a minimum of 4 years training and by this time can easily perform 100 pushups, 1,000 strikes and spar very well. Well, I informed the boy that one of that teacher’s expert students was present and he was welcome to test his skills on him or anyone else in my school. He politely declined. My response? Get your ass over there and apologize (or spar and prove his point) before I get a chance to call him, and never repeat what you just said to me again. That, my friends, was an ethical way of dealing with that type of situation. The wrong way would have been to notify my student and try to trick him into having a match. Or to call my friend and get him ready for the next time he saw the gentleman. It is always better to at least attempt to let someone know they are walking into a bad situation.

But what of the teachers? Do we give them the same respect? NO. I say this because as a teacher, he should know better, and I believe that experts should learn things the hard way. It is the best way for them to learn. Because if they haven’t learned by the time they were so-called experts, writing checks that your ass can’t cash can be very costly and dangerous. I have found that the smaller the teacher’s ability, the larger his ego-boosting. And as I stated earlier, there is a difference between being arrogant and being confident–excuse me, cocky. See, if you are good, you say you’re good and you can prove you’re good, that’s not arrogance, that’s being cocky. But if you’re not that good and you want to act as if you were better than you were, or you’re somewhat good but you try to act better by putting people down, well I call that arrogance. And arrogance is a very dangerous thing, because the higher you perch without belonging there, the more hurtful the fall. You follow me?

When you are the big Guro, then act like it. It is a matter of preference if you decide to act like just some shop owner with a “little bit of training”. But if that’s the case, you shouldn’t be soliciting matches. Because in my opinion that’s the cowardly way of fighting matches. My grandfather use to say that the best fighter puts out the word that he is the best fighter, since he needs doubters and opponents–capable, confident opponents–to prove that he is the best. And it keeps the empty barrels from making noise because as they say in America, put up or shut up. But if your goal is not to prove that you are the best, or not to even be the best, then maybe you shouldn’t act like a big guy. Because acting like a big guy should only be reserved for the actual “big guys”.

Thank you for reading my blog.