What a Master Does Not Teach

You may have noticed when looking at Masters and their students, that there seems to be a disparity between teachers of equal rank under the same master. Normally–and dare I say this–a real master will not have a well-defined curriculum. This is because the path to mastery does not involve a lot of thought about “what will I do when I teach this art”. Most real masters of the art were more concerned with learning and perfecting the art as young men, and simply spent their time developing, testing and learning. Paper masters, on the other hand, spent their time playing Dojo and community politics; rubbing elbows with the right people, writing press releases, and getting seen in the media and pursuing rank and recognition. For those paper masters, they have had plenty of time to think about who-learns-what-and-when, because the whole reason they pursued the upper levels of the art was to turn around and teach and become well-known. These Masters most likely will have highly detailed curriculum, easier requirements to the next level, and most of all–more graduates.

Listen well, because I am going to give you some very special information you’re “Super-Guro” isn’t going to share with you.

Real masters always have a bunch of stuff you haven’t learned, let alone seen. But this is not on purpose or by design. The answer is very simple. Your master has actually forgotten more than he has taught you, and what you are learning from him are the remnants of what he has learned from his master. I will give an example. In my youth, my grandfather once told me of a technique he learned from a man who had somewhat beaten him in a match, which was called the “ice pick” technique. This is not a knife technique, but a close ranged stick style of fighting. Papa taught me the basics of the style and then we immediately began sparring with it. I only spent about 20 minutes or so sparring with my grandpa and had to stop because my shoulders and chest were beginning to cramp. Over the next few practice sessions, Papa and I sparred with this technique, until the techniques he taught me disappeared and all that remained was the skill I had at using the technique. I have since forgotten most of the tricks and basics (as he informed me that he had forgotten a lot himself) I learned in those few days of practice. But, like my grandfather, I was left with the use of the technique that is burned into my bones and muscle. I even lost the name of the man who taught him and the style he taught–all I remember was that he was from Cebu.

In turn, I have yet to teach this style in its entirety–or what I know of it in its entirety–to my own students. Not that I am witholding information or waiting for the right moment; I have simply forgotten to teach it to my boys. In playing, I have used it many times. There may be times I show a piece, but do not go into detail because I am teaching something else–and never return back to teach the rest of it. In fact, a week ago while reviewing video of me playing with one of my students in 2007, I saw myself utilizing this technique against him. He then asked me about it and I informed him of what I was doing and began to explain a little of what it was all about. He will be coming by my house tonight and I will show it to him.

But the unique thing here, is that I use the Icepick technique all the time. However, I have absorbed it into my close-range fighting style and it is nothing more than a skill now. When I teach those skills, I may spend a few weeks on one skill and once it is learned I will not teach it again for a long time, unless someone asks about it. I know perhaps about 100 strategies and style, and it would be nearly impossible for me to list each one in the effort to “standardize” my style as one has “standardize” Tae Kwon Do or Krav Maga. Each of my students have walked away with a different set of skills and techniques from my arsenal and none have it all. None, not even my baby brother–have ever seen it all. For my Jow Ga students, I “know” 46 forms and weapons. Yet, I know many more that I have not listed, performed, practiced… in years. I once spent about 2 years exchanging with a late Praying Mantis Sifu named Bernard Chong Warren. I know his foundation forms and even how to fight with his style, yet none of the forms he taught me are on my curriculum.

But why allow so much information to go untaught? Because each Master has a set of skill that he wants learned to a specific standard of proficiency. And each student’s training time is usually spent developing those skills. And most students drop out before that level of skill is reached. So, the few who hang around long enough will eventually receive most of it because of mere luck; you happen to be there on the day Master decides to teach it, or you ask the right question at the right time.

And something I am beginning to experience:  You get to a point where the frustration of students coming-and-going sinks in, and you no longer feel like teaching. I saw my Sifu go though this in the early 80s, where Dean Chin would walk in and fuss at the students about being lazy, go in the office to puff on his cigar and watch us on CCTV. And then an hour after class ends, he would approach the few students remaining in the school to practice and he would teach us something not on the curriculum or so far down on the curriculum one would have to be there 10 years to reach it. As a very young boy I learned to linger for this very reason. It is one of the reasons I had a special relationship with my teacher, and why I know forms that most of my seniors had never even seen. My grandfather tired of teaching in the early 70s, and then when we were old enough decided to pass what he knew to me and my brother in order to preserve his art. He told us a very profound saying that only the old masters beyond the retirement age understand:

A Master would be lucky in his lifetime to have the one perfect student.

His advice to me about this? Do what I did, and take your sons and grandsons, take control of their lives and teach them in the manner you see fit. No one else will submit to the life of a true warrior. Sadly enough, I understand why this is true. Each master has loyal students, but they are lucky if one student will stay long enough to get the last of his knowledge.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

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

6 thoughts on “What a Master Does Not Teach”

  1. Many grandmasters will hold back for the right student. That is the same thing you say here. The best thing a student can do is have patience, loyalty and discipline. Very good write up.

  2. Before I write anything else I just want to say/write that I enjoy your blog very much.

    I have trained under both types of instructors mentioned in this entry. I have used detailed plans and used the more day to day approach as well. I finally got to the point where each student has to be trained differently because of their own skill set. I guess you might say I am supporter of spontaneous structure.

    I agree totally with the remarks about the pr hungry instructors. It is my feeling that instructors and martial artist in general have to be aware of the all too common effects of the art on our egos. In my opinion, I have only trained under a few masters. In my eyes a master is aware of his ego and much of what you mentioned here. A true master teaches with the idea/concepts of training the feeling of a system not just a list of required techniques.

    The family connection is great, my son is 8 and we are starting some simple training from time to time. You are very lucky.

    Keep up the great work. CW

    1. thank you! and your son is 8? then he is almost ready. with my kids martial arts is art of there life, just like cleaning the room and washing dishes. i expect my kids to learn everything i know, and to become better than i am.

  3. Because of the four martial arts styles I hold ranks in, I have a difficult time remembering everything I know besides kata and standard curriculum tech’s. I would think that a sixty-plus year old master who has had half a century of learning would find it doubly difficult recalling all he knows than I would too. Disciples who are either impatient or “busy” are sure to miss out because like you point out, the GM needs time to exhaust all of his knowledge. Sometimes we are in a big rush to get out there and teach, run to the next art, or just allow life to distract us from learning the heart of an art. I visit my teachers as often as possible because I realize that even with 15 years under my belt, they still have more to teach me.

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