The scene is in nearly every martial arts movie out there. The martial artist is alone. He isn’t wearing a shirt or shoes, so we know he isn’t on his way to the convenience store. He is training. He assumes the splits, possibly up on chairs or the railing of a balcony. He starts to make strange gesticulations with his hands, with a slow, almost dance type motion. He will contort his fingers into odd positions in an attempt to look cool. Every now and then his gesticulations are interrupted by a punch, leaving the image that most of what he is practicing are the hand positions and arm motions. The punches themselves seem to be the afterthought.
Exactly why this scene is played out in so many movies remains unclear to me. My guess is that it is supposed to add to the aura of mysticism that is supposed to be a main feature of the martial arts. To me, it just looks silly. But, the image is there, and I have known many martial artists who go through the ritual, completely ignoring the fact that it just makes them look like a doofus.
In the eyes of someone who only knows martial artists from what they see in movies, we must seem pretty silly. The typical martial artist in the movies has his head in the clouds. He can spout ancient wisdom at will. He has secret, super-powers, but he doesn’t want to use them until his loved ones are killed or maimed (never to stop the nefarious acts from happening in the first place). When he is brought to the point of action, he first goes off somewhere alone, to go through some version of the aforementioned ritual. After the ritual is complete, he fights the bad guy, often killing him by accident after beating him well beyond the point that a normal person could survive, and taking a much worse beating from the bad guy. He never seems to go to jail for these crimes either, so one must assume that the people who form Grand Juries wherever our hero lives must be very understanding people.
For a long time I never gave the stereotype much thought. Only after years of following the nonsense did I start to notice the problem.
The problem has nothing to do with spoiling our image. It has more to do with the real world, and who is watching and imitating the Hollywood myth.
Children watch our heroes aided by wires, trampolines, and special effects, and attempt to imitate what they see. In the eyes of a child, the thought that simply punching another person, and they die from falling and hitting their head on something just doesn’t seem possible. The idea that getting shot in the stomach and waking up in a hospital bed with a colostomy bag hanging off of their abdomen is completely foreign. The very real possibility that they could be sent to prison for a very long time for killing someone “in self-defense” never enters their head. All of this is because Hollywood does not show this. Hollywood produces films to entertain, not inform, and adults know this. But the kids don’t make this connection.
So, what is a real martial arts master like? Well, for me the discussion is simple, I don’t believe in martial arts masters, so that is where it all ends. But let’s change the word from master to expert. What is a real world martial arts expert going to be like?
While I am dying to take the easy road and start this with a list of what he or she is not going to be like, I am going to resist the temptation. Here is my list:
Knowledgeable. A martial arts expert is going to be knowledgeable. They are going to have a deep, thorough, and ever-increasing understanding of their style, its history and development, applications and meanings. A true expert is not going to have merely a superficial knowledge of any aspect of their art. To be a true expert in anything, this is surely a given.
Curiosity. The true expert is never going to reach a point where they are satisfied with their current state of knowledge. Every level of training comes with the understanding that there is still more yet to be discovered. An expert never thinks they have all of the answers, they know this because they do not have answers to all of their own questions. There is a certain sense of a childlike wonder I have found to be a common trait among those people I would classify as Experts in the martial arts. It is especially interesting when this childlike wonder has not diminished even in those who have trained in the martial arts for thirty or more years.
Physically fit. A true expert in the martial arts should be wise and disciplined enough to be the very essence of physical fitness. All too often, a person reaches black belt rank, and their waist size balloons. Mine did. I think is comes about because of the transfer most people make from earning black belt to teaching martial arts. Once you start teaching, it is very easy to begin calling the classes you teach “training sessions”, and overlook the fact that it was not you doing the training. I fell into this trap more than once. As part of the ongoing quest for “mastery”, we would all do well to remember that teaching is not training, and that our own training should hold more importance to us that our teaching. Eating right and exercising are self-defense.
Unassuming. I had quite a debate going on with myself as to which word I wanted to use here. I had originally chosen “humble”, but that word has been beat to death by Hollywood, so I opted for something used a lot less frequently. An expert in any field is usually going to be quite open about what they know, but they are also going to know how much is left that they have not even begun to understand. When a “master” boasts about what they know, and market and present themselves as if they are the only person on earth that knows what they know, it goes against all reason. At this writing, I have trained in the martial arts for 28 years. To some people, that may seem like quite a long time. But the fact is that many of the people I know have been training in the martial arts for much longer. Thirty and forty-year martial artists are not that rare.
With all that there is to be studied and all that there is to learn and practice, there is more than a lifetime of engaging study to be had. Not one person will ever master it all, or know it all or see it all. If that is not humbling, nothing ever will be.
And last on the list, to the martial arts expert, it is a way of life. To the expert martial artist, this is not something we do. It is who we are. The training permeates every aspect of our lives. We don’t stop being a martial artist when we close up the Dojo and go home. It is who we are.
There is my list. Please notice; there are no magical powers listed. For the record and to the bemusement of my critics, I do not meet all of the qualifications I have listed. So, no I didn’t just put this together to be able to define master as expert and then qualify myself as an expert, and therefore a master. I am no such thing.