Why Teachers Die with Their Secrets

I would like you to do a little homework before reading this article. But chances are that you won’t, so I’d like you to do the homework after reading this article. It will make much more sense if you do.

The homework:  do a search on my articles about martial arts “secrets”, so that you have my definition of what a martial arts secret is.

Masters dying with their secrets is a really sad thing. Once a master and the knowledge he has to pass down have gone from the earth, something that comes once in a lifetime that may not return for several lifetimes had just been lost nearly forever. Our job as carriers of the torch is to make sure that as much martial knowledge is preserved as possible. Especially when that teacher is your own master, how sad is this, that he would rather die and never pass on the techniques and strategies so dear to him… when there are students in his circle?

Would you like to know why this happens?

This is one of those cultural things that many Western martial artists do not understand about Filipino FMA–and I’m not speaking in racial or ethnic terms, I’m referring to the culture–that are often lost in translation from East to West.  To many Filipino masters, that information they possess is not something you can buy with money, or impart in exchange for magazine articles, seminar tours and things that jingle and fold. These things are family heirlooms–and many many masters have passed over their own sons to teach a more deserving senior student. The kind of art you can’t buy with money is the best kind you can find. Show me techniques that you see on 90% of the DVDs on the Filipino martial arts market, and I will show you garbage FMA. If these things are readily available on youtube, it’s there because it’s worth is paid for by everyone who sees it. The kind of knowledge you should be looking for won’t be found in Black Belt magazine ads or bought with your Paypal accounts… it must be paid for with your blood, sweat, tears and loyalty. They are the unique applications of common techniques that only certain masters know. Perhaps it is a number one strike and you’ve seen it on Master Presas or Inosanto’s video… but what this master has is a small twist you’d never seen before, and you better not put it on youtube. I am talking about a special way to attack the opponent when he has the weapon and you don’t. The method of putting a guy on his ass when you’re at a disadvantage. That striking combination he used to successfully in umpteen matches; although it looks so simple and common, he has a reason why it’s so unique…. and he’s going to share it with you.

There are those who will ridicule this kind of knowledge, and dismiss it. How many times have I been laughed at by infants in the FMAs who say that my assertions of FMA secrets are hogwash. Those who think that if it’s not taught in a seminar or sold on the internet, he doesn’t want it. Ignore those guys, they are a dime a dozen–as is the McScrima and Burger Kali he’s practicing.

The masters who hold on to their secrets do so because they came across this knowledge after a lot of effort. Some traveled to study with a master, others had a chance meeting. And others came up with these techniques themselves after reflecting on a match or while contemplating “what ifs” during practice. These are, in fact, original ideas and techniques–although others may have come up with the same thing–and they are as unique to each master as his own fingerprint. Some of the knowledge is extremely profound, while others are just slightly unique. But all of it is held very dear to these teachers, and they are looking for the right person, the right situation and the perfect time–to share it.

And sadly, many of their students are present, but absent.

They have students who have potential to be great, but they are distracted away from their martial arts. I know a man who is the grandmaster of his teacher’s art after his passing. His master lamented to my uncle once that even his student (who would be grandmaster) is too awed by another style to carry the torch once he passed on. He thought this student to be too weak, to easily impressed, and too distracted by the world of the martial arts. Yet he still crowned this man with the title, “grandmaster”, although he thought him to be unworthy. Without a doubt, the late grandmaster did not show everything to him, as he most likely felt the information would be wasted on one who was so fascinated by someone else’s art. How sad.

In my grandfather’s last year, he made me vow to come to my mother’s house every Saturday for sparring with him. He had some techniques I had asked about in the past, but never showed me. However, at 21 years old, I was working full-time for the first time, had bought my first sports car, and had started teaching classes on a military base which paid pretty well (at least it felt like I was making money). I failed to come every Saturday in the beginning, and as the summer went on, my grandfather lured me to the house with more and more techniques that I had never seen before. He was explaining more of what he had been doing over the years in our sparring matches–where in the past he would just scoff and tell me to practice, he was now telling me stories about how he came up with these techniques and who taught him others. I realized that I was getting something valuable, and adjusted my priorities, and began becoming more consistent–even staying at my mother’s house days at a time to learn as much as I can. He did tell me that he had more, but to visit my uncle when I could, and within a few months of his return to the Philippines, he died. I am not satisfied that I had learned all I should have, and I lament that I took my training for granted and failed to take good notes. I know, because he told me himself–that my grandfather died with some secrets that I will never be able to recover.

Today, I have the same situation. I have been wanting to leave Sacramento, California for about two years. Because of this, I have been planning a trips to Latin America, West Africa and the Middle East to take my martial arts abroad. At the same time, I have been prepping my senior students to learn the rest of my art and my knowledge, and getting them ready to move forward without me. The sad thing is that I can barely get students together at the same time to share. So what we end up with is two or three guys with this knowledge, another two or three with that knowledge, and so on, and everyone has different pieces of my styles. I must admit, that if I am expecting 6 guys and two show up, I am not interested in teaching what I planned to teach. The rest that I have left can only be taught one way, which is the way I was taught this knowledge–in sparring. I cannot video tape it for them. I cannot “write the techniques down”, as I am often asked to do. I teach my art hands-on, and if the mood is not right–no one will get it.

And I’m not crazy. Teachers all over have to have the mood right, if they are going to pass this stuff down. ‘The valuable kind of knowledge they hold on to until the very end is not going to be taught in a Wednesday night class with everybody else. And if the student doesn’t seem like he’s giving his full attention, or dedicated to the knowledge, or appreciates the teaching–the master will clam up.

At the same time, Masters need to know that the art they are imparting will have done with it what they want done with it. If they have sometimey students, or students who are just trying to pad a resume, or students who are a weak example of that master’s teaching, he may not be willing to share.

Bottom line, when you are in the presence of a true master, you have to slow down and take the time to dedicate yourself to the training. It may not be the flashiest stuff seen on the net. It may not come as fast as a two-hour kung fu movie. But these old men’s eyes have forgotten more in their lifetimes than you have ever seen. If you bypass them to chase after something that is mass-marketed, you just might miss the kind of martial arts that comes along once every few lifetimes. Don’t take your masters for granted.

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 “Why Teachers Die with Their Secrets”

  1. Read his entry. Reflect on this oft-quoted saying: “When the student is ready, a teacher appears.” See the connection?

  2. This is an article I think we all can relate to. At least those who study from a real master of the martial arts… Superficial teachers are full of tricks and anecdotes and fluff, where real masters are less entertaining and more difficult to figure out. They make you learn the hard way, they are patient, and sometimes, just boring when compared to celebrity gurus and celebrity guru connected gurus. Think of all the ex-students of the real grandmasters who quit and then regretted it when they realize what they lost. True teachers are hard to find and we usually take them for granted. Can you imagine being a random student of Bruce Lee in the 60s and 70s (before he was famous) who quit after a few months because classes got too hard or monotonous?

    This article especially sets home with me because I have failed to stick it out with a few darned good teachers, and now in my town all we have are inexperienced teachers who couldn’t hold a candle to the masters I’ve seen in my life. And boy, do I regret it! Thank you sir. Great write up.


  3. Once again you’ve nailed it. I’ve known grandmasters who admittedly did not inherit their teacher’s full art. Your points about students’ motivation and willingness to show up, and how that affects what the teacher decides to train that day, are also spot on. Now sometimes it works the other way, that those few who do come to class get to experience things the others will never see. It’s a rare teacher who has the time and willingness, and dedicated students, to pass along everything the best he can.

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