Gatekeepers of the Lineages (Bahala Na, Serrada and Presas)

Some feelings might get hurt on this one.

I decided to tag the four systems in the title of this article (Presas, meaning Remy as well as his brother Ernesto) for a reason:  I know people on several sides of the debates in these systems and have some insight. Because I am not a player in these situations, I decided to classify this article as an “Observation/Insight”, so that no one can shake the “mind-your-own-business” finger at me. It is, however, a little more than an opinion piece. My view of these situations are rooted in the cultures I was raised in from my own grandfather and his martial arts philosophy, my Jow Ga kung fu teacher, and a few others. So I am speaking as one who has my own lineage of martial arts, and understands the philosophy and culture of the arts quite well.

I happen to know several grandmasters of the same system. Is that confusing? The phrase several grandmasters of the same system can confuse a few of us, depending on your definition of “Grandmaster”:

  • The founder of a new system of fighting
  • The oldest, senior, or highest ranking master of a system
  • Your teacher’s teacher–your martial arts grandfather, if you will
  • A level of rank in a system
  • The oldest, senior, or highest ranking master of a system in a geographic area
  • A title one is bestowed by the community or given to onesself

So, which one is valid?

Surely, you jest. Martial arts systems and corporate cultures are as varied as fingerprints in this community. How dare any of us use our own as a standard to judge another man’s culture and practices by? As martial artists, we should be respectful of all. There is room for all of us in this martial culture, and the only walk of life, the only title that really matters, is the one called “Better-than-me”. In this industry, unlike most, every man practicing their art is endeavoring to become more knowledgeable and skilled than every other man calling himself a martial artist. I respect almost all martial artists. However, I do not respect the martial artist who cannot beat me–and does not strive to build his skill until he can beat me. In my opinion, any martial artist who is not training to beat the next guy needs to get out of the business. The business of martial arts has many different angles and specialties–and all of them are involved with self-improvement and self-preseveration.

And despite what you may believe of the martial arts, it actually is about fighting, and the bottom line of martial arts styles is “Can you beat me? Or can I beat you?”

We must toughen our bodies, toughen our minds, toughen our emotions, and strengthen our character. One way that we can do such a thing is to become better men, not just better businessmen and better showmen. Fighting, in this part of the conversation, is irrelevent. When I say that we should become better men, I am referring to a man who is:

  • Truthful
  • Reliable/Keeps his word
  • In pursuit of self-improvement
  • Selfless
  • Kind
  • Righteous
  • Courageous
  • Empathetic

In An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, he relates that the Prophet Muhammad (saw) stated that no one is a true believer unless he wants for his brother, what he wants for himself. In other words, a man who is striving for improvement is not a good man, unless he is also striving for his brothers to improve as well. When we apply this wisdom to the martial arts, it is not enough for me as an FMA man to strive to become the best if my skill does not help other FMA men become good as well. If you are a Master or leader in a particular martial arts system, training to become the BEST teacher of that system is good. But it is better if your improved knowledge and skill also benefit the other teachers of your system. I am not suggesting you take your valuable research in the art and share it with the world. On the contrary, you should actually keep those secrets secret. But if you withold that information from your own system brothers, can you actually call yourself a leader of the system? Are you in fact promoting the system if others in your system do not benefit from your research–or are you just promoting yourself?

If a martial arts system’s leader is on the right path, he is not a divider, but a uniter. He does not look to separate himself from his system brothers. Sure, he can have his own school, maybe even his own identity as a member of that martial arts family. But in order to be an effective Master/Grandmaster of that system, he must be looking for a way to bring his wisdom to the rest of the family even if it is only through associating themselves with his work. Martial arts styles are brands. Their uniqueness are trade secrets. You cannot have more CEOs than workers, and some will have to be satisfied promoting the interests of the system as a lower level manager, as a third and fourth man in charge, even as a foot soldier. If everyone in the system is preoccupied with trying to be the admiral and no one wants to man the boiler room, the ship will surely sink. The first step in determining if you have what it takes to be a Grandmaster is first finding out if you love the system more than you love your position in it. You must want this art to become bigger than you, and you cannot love money, recognition, power and influence, or yourself more than your desire to see the art outlive you. And you must be willing to allow a better man to lead, even if he is less skilled, has less time-in-grade or lower ranking than you. Not everyone is qualified to sit in the captain’s chair.

When your grandmasters taught you, they didn’t always communicate their desires for who would be in charge when they passed away. Sometimes, Masters were more focused on teaching. Sometimes, they were more focused on developing a particular student. Sometimes, they intended for the senior/ranking position to go the senior student, his son or daughter, the best fighter, the best businessman, or a favorite student. You won’t always like or understand that decision. The question is, do you want the system to go on–or are you that disgruntled with your Grandmaster that you no longer wish to be affiliated? If you decide to leave and break ties, there is nothing wrong with that. Just don’t drop your Grandmaster’s name to establish your credibility. One great Master of our time, the great Mas Oyama, did just that. He broke away, established his own and actually improved better than even his own masters. And when those masters died, Oyama did not go back to Japan to claim leadership of his master’s systems. He moved on.

Many masters leave behind their legacy to a student who was disliked by his peers. Perhaps that student was not the best fighter, but was a good PR man. Maybe he was a junior student who spent most of his time with the Master in his last days. But when that Master is dead and gone, every student who loved him and loved his system should not discredit one another–especially when concerning leadership or “Grandmastership”. It’s silly. You all want to be Grandmasters? Then so be it. But don’t put down the next guy, especially if you know he put in his time just like you did, and wants to see the system grow–just like you, just like your teacher.

Inheritors of a system are gatekeepers to that system. Many of us are inheritors by birthright. Manong Leo Giron’s son, Michael Giron is such a person. Grandmaster Angel Cabales’ son Vincent Cabales is such a person. GM Ernesto Presas has Jan Jan, GM Remy has Dr. Presas Jr. But other gatekeepers of the same systems are the highest ranking, active students–in Bahala Na’s case, Antonio Somera. In others, a member of the newest generation of students who is outranked by everyone older than him–for example, in Remy Presas’ Modern Arnis it was a group of students he called his MOTT (Masters of Tapi Tapi). Another gatekeeper can be the best of the group, the most active of the group, the ones closest to him before he died. Another one may be the student who keeps the Master’s original organization going after he died, and then after his successor died–like (and he doesn’t call himself Grandmaster, but I’m calling him GM) Joel Juanitas. The system’s members may not call a man Grandmaster, a man may not call himself Grandmaster, but from the strength of his own skill and that of his students may thrust a Master into that leadership role, like Grandmaster-who-doesn’t-use-the title-Grandmaster Darren Tibon. There are masters who left to found there own organizations who come back after certain deaths to stake claims. Other Masters who were around in non-leadership roles, but decided after some time to assume (sometimes by asserting themselves) leadership/Grandmaster roles. And then you have masters who stayed out of the limelight, but get up on stage after being unhappy with the way current leadership is handling business. There is a place for you too, guys. Just don’t try to push anyone off the stage while you’re doing it.

I get it. I am not one who cares to sit in the driver’s seat. In my Jow Ga system, I was the guy who spent the most time in my Master’s presence during his last years on Earth. I learned his personal stuggles, learned things about the system he had not shown other students. But I was the youngest member of the “Sifu” class. I will never be the “Grandmaster” of US Jow Ga. I even stopped teaching Jow Ga for two decades and got back in the spotlight when I saw some things I disliked. With the exception of one Sifu/”Grandmaster” of Jow Ga, you will never hear me discredit any Jow Ga Sifu, and I am satisfied leading from a few rows back. But I love that Kung Fu system like a family member, and this is why I don’t hurt the art or anyone else in pursuit of my goals. You cannot lead a system unless you love your art’s longevity more than you love your own legacy within it.

Like I said, I understand everyone’s position. I didn’t meet my paternal grandfather until I was 11. Only a few years later, I returned to the Philippines until I was an adult, then I came back to the U.S. and enlisted in the service. When I found myself back in DC, he was sick, and I took care of him daily until he died two years later. In his last days, he shared many stories. He gave me memorabilia from his life, gave me names to look up, told me things about my own father that perhaps my Dad might not know. And guess what? The day after my grandfather died, I became the gatekeeper–keeping out cousins who came over to claim Grandaddy’s favorite watch, pictures, suits, his cars. My emotions were out of control. Where were you when Grandpa couldn’t bathe himself? Did you know where he went to high school? Well I have his diploma. Tell me what his favorite meals were.

But I was foolish. Each of my cousins had a separate relationship with my Grandfather. They had their own stories to tell, their own memories, and each of my cousins felt just as connected to him and his lineage as I did. I became close to him in his last two years, but they had decades. I fancied myself his closest and youngest grandson–but to them, I was the foreign grandson with the accent who ate balut. Here we were, thinking that we knew this man better than the other, that we loved him more. This family would have been ripped apart if we did not recognize and respect the other’s own–perhaps selfish–claim to his memory.

To an outsider it may seem strange that a system would have many Grandmasters. Is the true leader of Manong Leo’s Bahala Na Dexter Labonog? Michael Giron? Joel Juanitas?  What about Master Kirk McCune?  Is the Serrada King Cabales or Tibon? This is a valid argument for many, but the truth is that it is one that will never be resolved. The world is big, the FMA world is big. Serrada is in competition with Bahala Na, just as it had been for half a century, and those two arts are in competition with Modern Arnis, Kombatan, even with my own Gatdula Fighting Eskrima. If you get focused too much on the leadership argument, other systems will pass you by. As the adage goes, five fingers make a hand, but if you ball them up tight into a fist, you can strike a mighty blow. With each grandmaster working closely together, they can make water cut a diamond. But working apart, a system can disappear as easily as a mist. Once you recognize everyone’s claim, a system can become even stronger than it was when the Grandmaster walked the Earth.

Thank you for visiting my blog.


Teaching Patiently (Straw vs. Waterhoses pt II)

This message is just as much for my own student-Instructors, as it is for my readers. It is a continuation of this article, entitled “Straw vs. Waterhoses”. When you get a chance, check it out.

An important vitrue in learning the martial arts is, of course, patience. What few know is that patience is equally vital to the transmission of an art for teachers–if not more important. I am no fan of the “waterhose” philosophy to learning and teaching. Rather than drink from an excessively fast flow of information (like a waterhose)–you increase the value and impact of your learning by sipping through a straw. Don’t let most of your learning waste onto the ground because you were unable to retain it all; sip in periodic, ingestible amounts. Drink, absorb, enjoy. Drink, absorb, enjoy. Wash, rinse, repeat.  Do not drink more until you have fully absorbed what you’ve taken in or you’ll just piss it all way. Take your time; the knowledge won’t go away if you’re dedicated and diligent. Better that you know what you know thoroughly and fully, than know what you know barely and can’t do anything more than regurgitate it and spit it out for others to “not-ingest-completely-either”. This is how martial arts gets watered down.

Studying the martial arts and testing for instructorship can be a lot like the difference between a guy who studies and reads all semester long, a few hours a night for the entire term. When the final exam is given, he is confident. He can relax and watch TV the night before–all of his lessons are burned into his memory. He can apply his knowledge in almost any situtation he finds himself in. There is no jumbled, classical mess in his brain. He understands concepts as fluently as he understands his first language. When the questions are asked, he immediately has access to the answers.

On the other hand, we have the student who did not study and read all semester. We don’t know what he was doing–perhaps reading material from other subjects, skipping ahead into next semester’s curriculum, or just pretending to be a diligent student while looking for a shortcut. Speaking of which–in the few days prior to the final exam, he burns the midnight oil, and crams all the lessons from the entire semester into as many hours he can in a few days. He does this with flash cards, word association memorization techniques, notes scribbled on his hands, visualization–whatever he needs to. The day of the exam, he has memorized the material and can answer any question if you give him a second. During the exam, each question gets answered after he searches his memory for the answer. And guess what? He also passes the exam.

The difference is not just how the second student was able to memorize the same amount of material in 10% of the time. After all, did they both pass the exam? If “passing” is all that mattered to you, then this discussion ends here. The big question is, did both men actually learn the same material? Perhaps years later, the student who crammed can still recite his lessons just as well as one can recite lyrics to a poem. The second difference between both students is that one memorized and the other learned. Learning, my martial arts brothers and sisters, is not the simple hands and feet “reciting” the lessons. It is not in the ability to recall the material and memorizing terms and definitions. “Learning” is in the application. You can “learn” 500 vocabulary words of a foreign language and still do not “speak” that language. You can understand how to conjugate a verb, phonetically pronounce those words in the perfect accent, know male and female nouns… and a three year old child who is a native speaker of that language with 300 words can “speak” and communicate better than you. You have memorized words, phrases and rules of grammar, but the child with a more limited vocabulary speaks this language better than you do. And this is why the Jujitsu Blue Belt student with three years of training can destroy the seminar-certified Black Belt teacher who “knows” the entire curriculum. One has memorized moves while the other understands the moves.

As teachers, we are responsible for the quality of learning that our students experience in our tutelage. If we are impatient in getting them through the curriculum, for whatever reason, the students will know the curriculum without really knowing it. Students must be given material slowly enough to fully grasp it, absorb it, and to think of combat and self defense as though those techniques are the only options he has. Exhaust all the possibility of a technique and its variations before moving on to the next. This is why students choke when fighting and sparring. Too often, a martial arts student can recall counters and defenses, but none come to him naturally and as a reflexive response. The main reason is that we have given the student more in his tool box than his thinking will allow him to use naturally.

Sometimes, we worry about retention, so we rush the student to the next level so they don’t become discouraged or bored. But what will discourage more–not progressing as quickly as he’d like? Or losing a fight because his Black Belt wasn’t really earned?

My grandfather was still teaching me techniques when he died. I was his last student, and one of only three grandchildren who taught since most of my cousins chose other careers and my uncles all died. There was a short period before he passed where I learned quickly before it was too late, and that information is not a part of my curriculum. My grandfather was prepared to let that information go, but I insisted on learning it. I recently began teaching it to my son, and I see the value that I missed because I never absorbed it. My grandpather was 78 teaching it to me, I am 45 and teaching it to my 15 year old boy. Seeing that rushed learning being practiced and absorbed slowly has given me a new appreciation for it.

Must admit though, that I have a selfish reason for promoting this theory:  In learning and developing something slowly, you will be less inclined to just give it away for 100 bucks. As one who reveres the Filipino art, I hate to see our systems sold off in seminars and video. I value this art as I do a family heirloom. Some see the art as a commodity to generate income. When teachers take their time while imparting the art, you allow your students to learn and develop properly and their skill will be three times the skill of one who crashed coursed. Better for all FMA people.

In many systems there are 6, 8, 10, 12, 24, 48, 64 strikes. Regardless of how many, those techniques should be taught only a few at a time. Allow your students to see fighting as if only those few strikes exist. They will see those few strikes as the only options in combat and will mentally fit them in to all situations. Give them plenty of time to experiment with them, develop them into instant weapons when the time comes. When the students have those techniques in their arsenal as second nature–give them a little more. This is teaching patiently. A student with weak wrists and poor coordination will not make good use of half your curriculum. Develop them as they learn. Many teachers are just teaching them. As the proverb goes–do not cast your pearls to swine.

And withold your techniques for those who are really ready for it.

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