There was a time that the martial arts “expert” was a fighting man. Regardless of age, size, style–he was a man who could hold his own against any opponent, armed or not. He was able to face and give trouble to any man or group of men. He was expected to have nearly superhuman physical ability, and had a martyr’s level of courage in combat. To call a martial artist an “expert”, you assumed that this man was among the best of the best; a warrior in every sense of the word. When among groups of regular men, the martial arts expert gave his neighbors the feeling of extreme safety while in his presence. Even strong men would be intimidated by his skill and potential. Other teachers of the martial arts would feel inferior to his knowledge and ability, because his aura oozed expertise. No one questioned his theories and his judgment, because it was apparent that this man was clearly speaking from experience. He did not need to quote bulletpoints from his resume, nor did he feel it necessary to announce his martial position. He did not name-drop his teachers and acquaintances. He did not associate with other masters for anything other than to feed his pool of sparring partners. He closely guarded his skills and did not show off his knowledge. He hesitated to allow others to get too close because of his need to keep his secrets to himself. He was a man who stood on the shoulders of his own exploits, rather than those of his teachers or his clan. He was not afraid to face the martial arts community alone, nor was he in fear of a challenge. On the contrary, it was HE who posed the threat to the community’s champions. Not only did this man not fear anonymity; he embraced it. His notoriety and his reputation derived from his ability and the trail of opponents he left in his past. There was no need to announce himself, because where the martial arts expert stood–everyone could feel his presence.
The so-called “expert” of today does not compare.
I am going to tell you how this expert of yesteryear came to be.
I’m referring the days that most martial arts training occurred within small groups and student-teacher relationships were familial and not a business arrangement. In these days, a man most likely learned from a family member or local master or champion. By comparison, today’s martial artist shops around for the most appealing schools and the teachers with the longest resumes. At worst, today’s martial art student shops around to see who will allow himself to be negotiated down to the cheapest tuition. The expert of yesterday, studied with whoever was closest to him. He learned his lessons when they were offered, and spent most of his time practicing and refining his skills. Rather than travel the globe (or the internet) looking for newer techniques and the coolest-looking drills, yesterday’s master-in-training simply learned whatever his master decided to teach him. His time with his master, when he was there, was fully focused, patient, and respectful. He did not spend as much time learning as one would think; the student spent as little as a few months at a time with his teachers. But he would spend his lifetime training and sharpening those skills. There were no advanced levels or certificates to chase; those students were only interested in learning skills. When training was complete, he was free to go.
And where did he go?
Out into the community. After learning his skills from his teacher, the student became a traveling warrior–not really a vagabond, but a freelance martial artist who refined his technique in practice and tested his theories in combat with other fighters. Some men literally traveled from town to town; others stayed in one place but frequented another fighter’s doorstep. When he heard a call for fighters to engage in a contest, the traveling warrior answered it eagerly. He felt he was the best fighter, and sought to prove it to himself and others. When defeated, he rarely asked for instruction or switched his methods. Instead, he understood that his own method simply needed more practice: he sought to refine his technique application, he strove to get faster, stronger, more accurate. He was never complacent because there was always another opponent out there–better opponents, untested opponents, doubtful opponents. He wouldn’t think of turning down a challenge. In fact, he was often the one who would go looking for a challenge. This was all in the effort to perfect his technique.
The traveling warrior did not have the protection of a clan or a school. He stood alone and knew his place as a result of it. And because of this position in the community, mediocrity was unacceptable. He was good, and he didn’t just say it–he knew he was good because he’d proved it to himself again and again. It was he who progressed the art–not the man hiding behind his popularity and school. The static instructor, unless he frequently engaged in contests, tended to fall into complacency and mediocrity. By comparison, the traveling warrior always had a something new to add to the dynamics of his martial arts experience–whereas the static teacher often felt compelled to preserve his system intact as he received it. The travelling warrior was forced to create his own version of combat and establish his own legacy, while the static teacher inherited his. Therefore, the static instructor rarely evolved, while the traveling fighter was ever-evolving. And many a well-known teacher had been discredited, by the traveling, unknown warrior.
The tournament fighter of today embodies the young, traveling warrior. Just like yesterday’s traveling warrior, the tournament fighter has had more opponents that he could remember. He is often discounted by the more well-known, but complacent, static teacher. He is dismissed as young and foolish, and his accomplishments are downplayed as children’s games, by men who could never prove their statements in a real match. And even when he is among so-called 6th and 7th degree masters and grandmasters, the tournament fighter can enjoy a level of position that few in his presence has ever experienced. He is not just talking the talk, he is walking the talk and everyone knows it. When the tournament fighter boasts, he is boasting about what he has already done. By contrast, the martial artist who puts down match-fighting can only boast about what he would do, but has never done. Just as a man walking a dog can “call” himself the “master”, that 100 lb pitt bull knows who the real master is. When people are around a man with proven fighting prowess–even high-ranking martial artists–it is the same feeling a Chihuahua has being in the presence of a calm, but potentially dangerous pitt bull.
In the real FMA tradition, it is only after several years of traveling and duels against many unfamiliar men that one can say he has acquired the experience and wisdom of a lifetime of fighting knowledge. And it is only after this experience should he consider undertaking the prestige of teaching. Men who do not have this knowledge will always discount the value of actual fighting experience. Instead of fighting experience, they say, you should have a “skill” in teaching students or transmitting fine details. I say, hogwash. (I once learned Chi Sao from a man in a bakery who spoke only Cantonese, and after about 4 hours of Chi Sao matches with him, my fighting improved 100%–so much for the need for “communication” skill) If you are to be an effective teacher–regardless of communication skills–you must have valuable information to pass on. If you have poor knowledge of fighting, a PhD in English will not help your students become any better as fighters. This has nothing to do with being able to give an oral presentation. It has everything to do with knowing how to stop, injure, or kill a man–and teaching others to use this knowledge in the dramatic event when a man can lose his life. If you want to help people learn to survive an attack, you must obtain this knowledge and experience yourself.
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