Scott Be Positive

Is a Master Truly a Master

By Scott Shaw

I want to talk a little bit about the evolution and the practical development of the modern martial arts, particular focused on their development here in the U.S. This may be a bit obscure for you readers out there, not involved with the martial arts, but hopefully you may gain some general life understanding from what I write.

First of all, at the outset of their piece, it must be understood that the modern martial arts have become a very egocentric system of human development. People are very-very focused and orientated on their style, their school, and their teacher. From this is born an enormous amount of criticism directed at other practitioners, other styles, other instructors, and other associations. In fact, from my experience, some of the martial artists I have encountered have been the most petty people I have ever interacted with in my life. It’s sad really. And, the truth be told, all any martial artists out there reading this has to do is to look at their own thoughts, their own words, their own behavior, and the words and the behavior of those other martial artists they know or have encountered to confirm this fact.

This has always really bother me. Even when I was a child and adolescent practitioner, it really distressed me that other martial artists would so vehemently go after practitioners from other traditions and schools. Even within specific schools, students would go after other students. But, how does this style of behavior help to make anything any better?

I remember when I was about twenty-one, I was asked to help judge a promotion test at the school of this one, then very famous, Korean-born Taekwondo instructor. The man himself was a very good practitioner. One of those guys with just beautiful kicks. Anyway, one of his students, testing for a blue belt, did not do very well in the kicking segment of the test. You know, some people just do not have the potential to be a great kicker due to their body design and things like that. The instructor just ripped into him, really putting him down. It had to be very embarrassing for the man as there were a lot of spectators in attendance. My thought at the time was, “You’re his instructor. Isn’t his technical ability, or lack thereof, at least partially your fault?”

Later on, during that evening of testing, an old-school Korean, “Master,” gave a small demonstration. The man, obviously older, was just not technically very good. But, did this young instructor rip into him? No. So, you see there’s all this interplay of personality and projected desires in the martial arts even within a specific school. I just never believed that the martial arts was the place for this style of behavior.

One of the other interesting, and very illustrative of an era, things that took place during this same time period was that there was this one, also very well-known, Korean-born Taekwondo instructor, here in the L.A. area. This was during the time when the names and the rank on Korean certificates were handwritten. His black belt certificate, which hung on the wall of his studio, looked to show that he was a 7th dan black belt. But, if you could read Korean, you would see that his rank number in Korean was one. Making him a 1st dan black belt. He had simply added a line to the top of the one, on the English portion of the certificate, making it into a seven.

Another interesting illustration is that I think back to when I was in my final year of college, earning my B.A. in Geography from California States University, Northridge. One of my required courses was this group project class. For us, we were doing a spacial analysis and demographic study on the then up-and-coming community of Palmdale, California. Each Saturday we would drive out to Palmdale and do our required part of the study. At one point, I was walking through the old downtown section of the city and I saw this martial art studio. By this point in my life I was operating my own studio so I was obviously drawn to the place. I look in the window and this school owner had his certificates clearly displayed. He was a seventh degree black belt of Taekwondo, a seventh degree black belt of some brand of Karate, a seventh degree black belt of some style of Kung Fu, and he held high ranks in a couple of other systems of self-defense, as well. The certificates we all issued by the same organization that I had never heard of. Anyone who understands anything about the martial arts will know, that yes, an advanced practitioner could readily learn the techniques and the forms of another system. But, to hold such advanced legitimate ranks in all of these highly differing system of self-defense is simply impossible. The point being, this style of deception has been going on for a very long time. People bought into it then and they buy into it now.

As a journalist, I have been asked to write articles about so many schools and practitioner’s business methods that it is not even funny. I can’t even remember how many articles I have written. Most of the people I spoke with are nice. Some are just flat out liars. But, more than a couple of the school owners would discuss the fact that they had students who when they rose to level of the black belt would leave their teacher, open their own school, and siphon many of their previous instructor’s students away from the school by bad mouthing their teacher. I mean, if where you learned all that you learned was from that man (or woman) how can you criticize them? But, that’s what is done.

For better of for worse, I was alive, a part of, and a witness to, the birth of the modern Korean marital arts here in America. I was there and present when the first wave of Korean marital arts instructors arrived from Korea. Back then, simply because a person was of Asian descent they received preferential respect simply because they were who they were. Some of these newly arrived instructors were very-very good practitioners and nice people. Many, however, were not. Even myself, I got taken advantage of and, in fact, cheated by some of these so called, “Masters.” The stories I could tell…

The thing is, many marital art instructors, no matter how technically proficient they may be, see the martial arts simply as a business. From this, they do dishonorable things, make unscrupulous comments, and even lie about who and what they are. I personally know that a number of the first-generation instructors lied about where they learned what they learned and who they learned it from. You don’t have to just listen to me, ask anyone else who was there and knows the truth about the history of the modern Korean martial arts. The fact is, now many of those first-generation masters are no longer with us. Thus, their truth, or the lack thereof, will never be known. Their fabrications died with them. But, why did they do any of this? It was all based on money, ego, and outward notoriety projection. And, this style of behavior is still going on.

Some, even famed founders, saw money as more important than the tradition of the art they laid claim to. They believed they were so technically advanced that they could teach a student in weeks or months what was understood to take years to have actually comprehended. With this ideology as a basis, they would rapidly award some of their so-called student advanced rank that took those who followed the traditional path years-upon-years to achieve. Thus, rank became the focal point of the martial arts in America, which led to an untold number of lies begin told and certificates being sold. Combine this with all of the bad mouthing that went on, and still goes on, and what are we left with? I don’t even have an answer for that but it is not good.

What should be a true pathway to physical and mental enlightenment has been denigrated into an ego and money making machine. The fact is, it does not matter who is better at what. It doesn’t matter who can do what technique better than someone else. It doesn't matter what insult and criticism one practitioners throws at someone else. It certainly doesn’t matter what rank a person holds when ranks are bought and sold on the open market. What matters is that the martial arts should not be about criticism. The martial arts should not be about judgment. The martial arts should not be about ego. The martial arts should be about a pathway for the betterment of all.

I don’t know how any of this can be corrected because all I see is a mess. Yes, there are some great technicians. Yes, there are some great teachers. But, more than not, mostly what is there is a lot of low-level human behavior and ego-driven individuals claiming, “I am this, you are not.”

For you martial artists out there, how do you behave? Really think about this question. What do you say? What do you do? How do you refer to and/or discuss other practitioners, styles, schools, and organizations? As I say time-and-time again, all life begins with you. What have you said? What have you done? More importantly, what have you said to undo the negative things that you previously said? What have you done to undo the negative things that you previously have done? If you don’t critique yourself first—if you don’t tell the world your flaws first—if you don't right your own wrongs, what gives you the right to cast judgement onto someone else? If you are claiming to be a master but you base your life upon negativity, on any level, are you truly a master?

The martial arts should be a bastion of goodness and positive instruction. Is it? I don’t know? I guess that is defined individually by each practitioner, each instructor, each school, and each organization. What I can say is, it all begins with you: what you say, what you do, and how you behave. So, (and not just for your martial artists out there), if you want to make anything better, be the source point for that betterment and stop all/any of the negativity. Turn off your ego. Turn off your criticism. Let all things be as they are. Then all life gets to exist in its natural state of perfection.

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