“Secrets” of the Filipino Fighting Arts
Words from a Modern-Day Warrior

To Master or Not to Master

What type of Filipino martial artist are you? How far do you want to take this thing? What are your goals in the arts? Is it necessary to complete curriculums, teach the art, fight in matches, cross train, or aim for mastery?

And that, today my friends, is the question. This question is not one that you need to answer aloud, but is one you should be answering to yourself so that you can navigate the martial artist lifestyle. “That” being the why of your martial arts journey–not so much the eight questions I posed.

You see, we tend to filter everything we see in the arts through our own eyes–and our eyes tend to be discriminating eyes. If I have an insecurity about my actual fighting ability, I have been traumatized after becoming the victim of a crime, or perhaps I am a natural scrappy guy who likes to fight, I might be guilty of seeing all study in the martial arts through the eyes of a fighter. If I aspire to be called some lofty martial arts title, or maybe grew up feeling pushed around or held back, I may see the martial arts as a journey that begins with a low rank and ends in a high rank. If I am a community oriented man, have an infatuation with Filipino culture, or an interest in Filipino history, I might look at the Filipino martial arts as a way of preserving, practicing, promoting, or rediscovering Filipino culture. There are many reasons for studying the art, and we must consider why we undertake this lifestyle as well as decide what we would like to do with our knowledge once we have it. Even if your purpose is undeveloped or as simple as you simply thought it was “cool”–each reason to study is valid and has its nuances. Your journey won’t be the same as someone in the same art with a different reason for study and a different plan for his acquired knowledge. Because of this, the question does not have a simple answer. Rather than try and answer for everyone, I will answer when I believe mastery of the art is necessary. You can then decide if you fit this category, and if this path is for you.

Studying by Seminar, Distance Learning, and Long Term Discipleship

The first part of answering this question is to state emphatically that mastery of the art can only occur after one has committed himself/herself to long term discipleship under a true master of the art. If you wanted to learn to become a master mechanic, you will not be able to achieve this goal under a man who has never worked on cars for a living. You will not learn it from a book. You will not achieve mastery of automechanics from YouTube clips. You will not be able to find a weeklong workshop anywhere that will give you the tools, I don’t care if the seminar was taught by Henry Ford himself. You can tinker around in the backyard and learn a few things on your own about cars, but that is nothing compared to the guy who spent ten years under the tutelage of the master mechanics at a car dealership. There are many lessons that, while may be revealed to you through trial and error–are not going to be learned like you will learn after repairing thousands of vehicles with all types of problems 40-60 hours a week for a decade. There simply is no comparison.

Yet, the Filipino martial arts community is heavily populated by men who have absolutely no actual combat experience, no sparring experience, have 20+ teachers (and fewer than 10 actual lessons with 19 of them), and learned from the same source as hundreds of thousands of other FMA students… who consider themselves a “master” of the arts. Preposterous.

If one is a “dabbler” or wishes an introduction into the FMA, then distance learning, seminars/workshops, and extracurricular classes in a school specializing in another art will suffice. These environments, whether the intensity is casual or whether the training is difficult, can do little more than introduce concepts and give moderate explanations about techniques and theories. However, for building an actual foundation in an art, a consistent and regular, regimented and ongoing program is needed. Just as you cannot expect to take 5-6 “seminars” in learning to speak a foreign language fluently, what the average FMA man is doing very similar to the old retired Navy veteran who can say “Please”, “Hello”, and “Thank you” in 10 different languages–but can’t hold even a basic conversation in any of them. Even most “veteran” FMA seminar jocks, who can ramble off Tagalog and Cebuanu terminology as a regular part of his speaking vocabulary and transition from drill to drill, showing a plethora of escapes, disarms, takedowns, and other wonderful demonstrations–cannot hold a “conversation” (i.e., sparring match) using 90% of his knowledge without a feeder or otherwise cooperative partner. Keeping the analogy of language going, a martial artist who can “flow” his techniques through demonstration but cannot fight with those same techniques has the fluency of a 6 year old child. That 6 year old can speak as fluently as the Eskrimador moves–just as quickly, just as clearly–but is no “master” of the English language. Bottom line, dabbling for 20-plus years does not a master make.

Defining Mastery

I’m glad you asked. In conversations like this, a common question is brought up. It goes like this:

To each his own. Who are you to decide what a ‘master’ is to me? We create our own path. We look at things our own way. My definition of ‘mastery’ may not necessarily be your definition. Who do you think you are? Master So-n-So has been in these arts XX years, and has taught hundreds–maybe thousands–of guys. He has world champions/Dog Brother members under him, I guess they’re wrong, huh? Blah blah blah, quack quack quack…

Rather than engage in this debate for the umpteenth time, let me throw out my very simple, short answer. And then expound on that short answer.

Plainly put, A Master is one who has left no stone unturned in his study and development of his art, and anyone in his presence dare not challenge his worthiness of the title.

Is that easy enough to understand? Notice that this definition has two parts:

  1. A Master is one who has fully studied and developed his art, and
  2. His skill is visible enough that no one would argue that he has, in fact, mastered the art.

We must demand more from ourselves besides simply learning techniques, drills, and new arts. I could learn all the mathematical equations in the world–but if I cannot apply those formulas in the real world and use them, that knowledge is of no use at all. Too often, FMA practitioners can demonstrate the art beautifully. They can look as deadly and impressive as ever. But if they cannot use this knowledge to stop a simple aggressive, unfriendly attacker, his demonstration was nothing more than slick choreography. At the same time, we have men who can fight. They can crack a skull, they have the pain tolerance to endure all types of stinging slaps from the stick, broken fingers, etc., but most of the techniques in their arsenal is not used in those fights because he has only developed 10% of what he knows–he is nothing more than a good fighter, not a master. He could be friends with the guy from Ong Bok, he could have hundreds of pictures with GMs and celebrities, he could have certified tens of thousands of students. But if his art has not been fully developed, investigated, absorbed into his reflexes, and can be/has been used against hundreds of opponents, he has not mastered the art.

And once all that research has been done, the sparring partners have been trained with and beaten, the art has been revised and reduced and concentrated and renamed–he should have developed his skill to such a high degree that most people who encounter him cannot name ten men with the same level of skill… or he is no master. You cannot call yourself a master when most people know plenty of people with better skill. Age is irrelevant here. If you’ve ever encountered a master musician (and I have) a master artist, a master mechanic, a master physician, a master of academics, a master chef–then you would know exactly what I mean. Many of us just don’t know what a true master is, so it is easy to call a likeable, older fellow with mediocre or above average skills as “Master”. I get that. But once in a while, you encounter a true master of the arts–any art. One who seemingly has no peer. One with nearly perfect technique. One who can answer every question, not from his opinion file–but his been there, done that file. To bring it home, at a bare minimum, and this is not mastery but the first step towards achieving mastery–you should have developed every strike in your arsenal to the level that you can shatter bones with it. I have met many so-called masters who tell me that they don’t do backhand strikes and abaniko strikes “because they aren’t destructive enough”. Telling that to a guy who can break objects with every technique in my curriculum is actually telling on yourself. Let’s be blunt here; very few men in these arts have full investigated their art. And very few have developed their physical skills to a destructive level, and this is just the ground floor of the uphill climb to mastery.

But of course, there are men who feel that fighting with blunt weapons and blades do not require physical fitness and therefore knowledge is sufficient to combat effectiveness. If that were true, I could put a razor-sharp blade in the hands of a determined 16 year old and none of these “combat experts” will fuck with him while empty handed. There is a higher level to this martial arts thing, and that path is not for everyone. Most guys don’t even know that the path exists. Let me drop a few tips that will help you get started on your path towards mastery:

  • perform every technique in your system–attack as well as defense–at least 5,000 times
  • face and fight 100 opponents
  • develop and train at least 3-4 defenses for every attack 1,000 times
  • regularly work with 500 repetitions in training
  • impact training and testing; you should be able to break wood, bricks, coconut, baseball bats with your skills
  • have a specialty, that if you used that skill, weapons or technique–you know you will defeat 90% of your opponents
  • you can actually BEAT 90% of your opponents and have done it regularly
  • accomplish and then revisit a technique that you have used 10,000 times–and do this regularly

To most people reading this blog, this section ^^ above will sound unrealistic. However, if any of you know my personal students, anyone who has studied with me more than 4 years has already done this. Plus I know several other martial artists who train this way and these numbers do not sound unreachable or unreasonable to them. If you truly want to explore the possibility of achieving mastery, give it a shot. It is a simple, but difficult goal to achieve. Anyone with the will, and anyone with the guidance and motivations can do it.

Depending on your goals in the martial arts, this may inspire you. Others may thing it’s overkill. Plenty of folks have ridiculed me for saying these things. But only those who have been to the summit of this climb know how real and lonely this journey is. This is not for the dabbler, and it is not for the guy who lacks the vision and stomach to make it happen. Achieve it and you will have few peers, but you will understand how silly awarding a “Master” certificate in a weekend seminar actually is. Yes, this is a physical goal and we did not touch on the nonphysical benefits of such a training regimen. Perhaps next time. Either way, there are many benefits to fully developing an art as far as your body will allow you to–and during this training you will find that your brain’s creativity will come up with much more material than even your teacher gave you. Understand that there is another dimension beyond simply knowing a martial arts, and another past being good at that arts. Few will understand, but take the nonconventional road to proficiency and that other dimension will be revealed to you. I hope this article sparks your curiosity to digging deeper than most of your peers will.

Before I let you go, I would like to introduce you to a FMA Vlog I recently came across:

His name is John, and he just started making videos such as this. Make sure you go over to YouTube and subscribe and support his channel. I suspect that there will be some great topics being discussed over there! Thank you for visiting my blog!

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One Response to “To Master or Not to Master”

  1. Great article Guru Gatdula.
    Thanks for shareing.


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