The Scott Shaw Blog

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Humbleness Verse Prestige in the Martial Arts

This piece may be a little too acutely focused for the non-martial artists out there but I hope all can hopefully gain a few new ideas from the understandings presented.

I earned my black belt in Hapkido 1969 when I was eleven years old. I had worked towards in since I was six. I had a Korean instructor and when it came my time for promotion he simply removed my red belt, tied the black belt around my waist, and shook my hand. I was, of course, ecstatic. There was no big ceremony, no certificate, or anything like that given to me. It was just the belt and the knowledge that my instructor believed I deserved it.

My father, who earned his black belt in jujitsu during his military service in World War II, also never had a certificate. At least none that I knew about.

What I am saying is that times were different back then. A student studied, learned, progressed through the ranks, and was awarded a belt based upon their developed understandings. It was based upon an instructor to student relationship.

When I was studying the martial arts as a young boy, through adolescent, and onto becoming a young man, none of my instructors, (who were all of Asian descent), ever asked to be called, “Master.” Yes, it was a formal relationship but the students simply referred to them as, Mr. (Whatever their family name was). This idea of, “Master,” was not a part of the equation. From this, I and my contemporaries, were taught and learned to respect the teacher without being forced to place an idealized image upon who and/or what they truly were.

It wasn’t until the time when a large number of Koreans began to immigrate to the U.S., in the early 1970s, that things begin to change. With the large number of newly opened Taekwondo schools, that was taking place, somewhere/somehow this ideology that your instructor was a, “Master,” came into play.

It must be noted, that my first Taekwondo instructor, who was also a newly arrived Korean immigrant himself, (that I began studying from when I was about twelve), never asked to be referred to as, “Master.” Mr. Kim was fine with him.

But again, somewhere along the way, the newly arrived Korean teachers, particularly those out of the schools of Taekwondo in South Korea, decided they should be referred to as, “Master,” or the Korean equivalent of the word. With this delineation, everything in the modern martial arts began to change.

I always would downplay this titling to being more akin to British English, where a school teacher is sometimes referred to as, “Master.” This being said, this was not what was in the minds of these martial arts instructors. To them, they were a, “Master,” and they deserved that labeling.

As the U.S. is where these people relocated and opened their schools, their primary students were Westerners. Through time, and rank advancement, these Westerners rose up through the ranks and became the next generation of instructors. Thus, they too took on the title of, “Master.” But, were they/are they? Or, are they simply perpetuating an ideology based upon ego but not accomplishment? In fact, what actually constitutes a master?

Having been at the source point of a lot of the evolution that took place with the Korean-based martial arts in the U.S., and being located at one of the central cities involved in the expansion of these Korean martial arts, I witnessed a lot of the hidden undercurrent of what was taking place among these new schools of self-defense and the people who owned and taught at them. And, a lot of it was not pretty, honest, or honorable. There was a lot of lies being told, and a lot of deceptions put into place, which have now become solidified and believed truths due to the fact that these fabrications were spoken so many years ago. The fact is, these newly arrived instructors needed to earn money so they found a way to do so, oftentimes this was at the expense of their students.

As Western martial artist rose through the ranks, became instructors, and opened their own schools, many of these, less than ideal, trends of school ownership and the need for external validation came to be the hallmark of these expanding systems of self-defense. As some of these Westerners decided that they were, “Good Enough,” and no longer needed the support of their Asian instructors or organizations, they founded their own associations. As many of these instructors also believed that they were progressing faster in their understanding of the arts than their instructors believed, they looked for ways to accelerate their movement up through the ranks outside of their original student to instructor relationship. From this, from this belief in the Self, the rank structure of the modern martial arts became so convoluted that everyone began questioning everyone. But, it shouldn’t be this way.

Rank is nothing more than Ego. It is a name and a number on a piece of paper. But, what does that even mean? What does it mean when so many people are claiming so many things and so many organizations have arisen giving recognition to someone who simply believes that they should be referred to as, “Master?” From this forced evolution, no matter where or whom that certificate comes from, it no longer has any absolute meaning as there is no solidified standard for rank promotion.

My primary focus, through my many years of involvement with the martial arts, has been the Korean systems of self-defense. This being said, as I have spend a lot of my life in Japan, I have been lucky enough to have also trained in the Japanese arts. No one there, none of my instructors, ever asked to be called, “Master.” “Sensei,” which means, “Teacher,” is the respectful title which was assigned. And, that was that.

One could argue that this goes to the cultural identity of Koreans verses the Japanese. And, that may be the case. But, like I have long said, “If you are referring to yourself as a Master that probably means that you are not.”

First there was, “Master,” then there became, “Grand Master.” But, what do any of these titles actually mean? What makes a person a, “Master,” or a, “Grand Master?” Isn’t it simply a name and a number on a piece of paper?

I fully understand that there are a lot of Asian and Westerners that have devoted their life to the study and the teaching of the martial arts. I applaud all of these people. But, how many of those people have forgotten the primary principle of the martial arts; humbleness?

If you feel that you must proclaim what you are, then what are you? If you feel that you must be referred to by an exalted title, who are you? Where is your humbleness and is what you are doing, (studying and teaching the martial arts), truly based upon helping others and making this world a better place or is it simply a means for you to fill an internal lacking within yourself?

As for myself, yes, I did earn some certificates. As I say, “I thank all of the instructors and the organizations who found me worthy.” And, even I, when I was younger, fell prey to the ego of being, “That Something,” when I was teaching the martial arts on a full-time basis. Thankfully, I caught myself and woke up. Now, my certificates are all in a brief case in my storage unit. At least I think they are? I haven’t looked at them in years. When I am teaching seminars, I only have the students refer to me as, “Scott.” I know this sometimes upsets the school owners who have invited me. But, I refuse to be dominated by a title that has become so convoluted in this modern era.

In closing, I believe for all of the true marital artists out there, we really need to return to a simpler, less ego-filled time, when the martial arts were an instructor teaching a student in the refined levels of physical and mental awareness without the need for all of the glorifications.

Humbleness should be at the heart of all martial art training. Isn’t that what all of the ancient sages have taught us?