State Of The Art…

Once again, been awhile. My concept of time is somewhat different from most peoples…I have to be reminded of how much time has passed and even still I don’t get around to writing as often as I should. These trying economic times have kept me very busy teaching not only at the school, but at places like senior centers and assisted living facilities ( a curriculum of  Nei Qi { inner forms} and QiGong ) to keep afloat.  This post is going to address a single subject that has nothing to do with my concept of time. This post is going to address what I consider to be the state of the “Martial Arts” as they exist in the United States ( and most of the world.) Over my years of study – well over three decades – I was extremely fortunate to have teachers all of whom were near or at the top of their styles for the entire planet. All of them had been trained to be elite level fighters, rising to levels such as “All China Middleweight Champion” or Six Province Champion of China and all of Taiwan. I was trained by them as they were trained by their teachers. None of us learned ” an empty dance ” or ” flowery punches with embroidery kicks ” as the Chinese call the “arts” one see’s practiced by Opera stars or movie personalities. We learned and trained in ” Wu Gong “, that is ” Martial Work “…the proper name for the real fighting arts. We all suffered – or as the Chinese call it ” eating bitterness ” – in our training. There is a line spoken by Shih Kien in Bruce Lee’s ” Enter The Dragon ” during the welcoming feast hosted by Kien’s character ” Mr.Han “. He speaks to the attendees saying …” we forge ourselves in the fires of our will. ” That forging sometimes exacts a toll. Each of my teachers, me, and all of my old guard students ( you know who you are )  had the days training end in blood and bruises. I well recall practicing ” jishu ” ( technique ) using elbow strikes across the ribs with a fellow student or my Shifu and, arriving home to take a hot shower seeing my rib cage growing a rainbow of color as the bruising set in. I also recall being at class the following day ” eating bitterness ” as I worked through the pain across my upper body. I recall fellow students ( and myself ) suffering loss of wind when a throw planted them in the ground and their fall technique wasn’t quite good enough…we all knew to get up as fast as possible or the next throw would be harder. Shifu would be berating us…” Get up! Do you think your opponent is going to let you lay there???!!! Move!!! ” As I grew older and began to teach, I instructed as I was taught. For many years I taught to subsidize the income I was earning from a real job. I was teaching because I enjoyed teaching and because I also recognized that teaching is also a great learning experience for the instructor that has an open mind…nothing like having to dig deep to answer a students question to reinforce one’s own knowledge. In the circumstances of the time, I was not really concerned with how many students I had. I wanted dedicated, hard working students. We trained outside all year round in New England weather…103 degreees and dripping humidity, minus 15 degrees with the wind chill and 8 inches of snow, near tropical downpours of rain. We did it because the backyard was the only place I had to hold class. We also did it as training in all conditions allowed us to be prepared for any situation we could possibly encounter in a real self defense scenario. Many who train in a nice air conditioned school aided in their falls by a comfy mat and a loose uniform fold like rice paper in a rainstorm when reality intrudes in a violent manner. This leads me to the main point of this missive. As I presently teach full time for a living, I am more distressed than ever as to the state of the arts as they are taught and practiced here in the USA. Back in New England I had many show up at my class only to leave after one class never to be seen again. I could – to some degree – understand it. Practicing hard core contact martial arts is not for everyone. But now as I teach, I have a more difficult time understanding it. I have not ( and can not without putting my rank in severe jeopardy ) ” watered down ” anything I teach. However, as the school is my business and livelihood, I have  tamed down the level of contact what I believe is a substantial degree. I have an indoor facilty, air conditioned, and even have a mat ( only 5/8ths of an inch thick.) I thought that this would be enough to not have prospective students walk out the door – on several occasions in the middle of the class – telling me that the training is way too much. If only this were true! I have a number of students that studied at other schools in the area, some for years, that have told me ” I learned more here about fighting in 2 months than I did in 5 years at my old school .” I think maybe my favorite was the student who said his 12 years at a local school he considered to be ” men’s aerobic’s ” as the students would all line up in neat rows and practice punching and kicking drills for 45 minutes – all leaving at the end of the class thinking that they had really learned something. He left the school after telling his instructor that , if he was confronted by an attacker he would have no idea as to what to do to actually defend himself as the practice of technique was done only every several months and the student being attacked was dressed in a suit like the Michelin Man. I believe that this sort of so called martial art training is a hoax. Yet, as I have started to travel around a bit and clandestinely observe classes at other schools, this sort of thing is exactly what I see. Sure, my students go through the process of learning ” the basics ” and a drill of these basics is performed as part of the warmup for class. But not 45 minutes worth of basics – more like 10 minutes after the QiGong exercises have been completed. I move the students onto ” sticky hand ” practice and technique in their very first class…well supervised by me…and over time as the students develop understanding and control both speed and power are increased during technique practice. During this practice no protective gear is worn. This is not because I want my students to get hurt…this is because to wear all sorts of protective gear is unrealistic. The student unconciously relies on the gear…the strike doesn’t hurt, if a block is missed, so what? There is no consequence for the error. I have had so called black belts in my class that fall to the floor the first time I strike them. They fall not because I am hitting them with shuddering force ( I am not, at all )… they fall because it is the first time they have ever really been hit. They never knew what it was to be hit because the Michelin Man suit disallowed the consequence of pain to be felt when they missed the block or blew the technique. They would be destroyed in a real fight, yet they believe because somebody gave them a passing grade on a test that they are a ” black belt.” What utter nonsense. The old masters in China or Japan are rolling in their graves…none of them would recognize a rank given if the person wearing the belt could not actually utilize the knowledge they supposedly have. They would scoff at what pretends to be ” martial arts ” in todays world. I can just imagine the image of dumbfoundedness on the face of a 16th century Shaolin master or Myamoto Mushashi watching a class in the overwhelming majority of martial arts schools in the world today. The arts have become a business, a big business. I received a magazine recently from some Korean organization run by a bunch of supposed ” masters ” ( many are beer gutted fat men in their early 40’s posing in their many patches uniforms ) telling me how to turn my school into a martial arts factory, how I could join their ” millionaires club ” if I followed their advise ( and ,of course, purchased all of their instructional software and manuals.) The magazine was full of articles written by these guys saying that millions could be made teaching what and how they teach…and that anybody who believes that they will ever be ” successful ” teaching real traditional hardcore arts is a fool. I get solicitations for seminars on how to turn my school into a mega profit making machine if I would just be willing to do it their way ( and under their supervision.) The most offensive was a mailer from a guy who created his own style and was offering a special class where a student could achieve  master level ranking  in 5 disciplines in 5 years!!! Yes, become a master of Judo, KungFu, Hapkido, Karate, and Tae Kwan Do in 5 years. As this person had been trained in TKD prior to creating his own system and then electing to sell this 5 year program, neither the Kung Fu World Federation nor the Kodo Kan ( the primary group for Judo ) will ever recognize the certificates issued as being legitimate. As this person is issuing certificates under the auspices of his own system, nothing can be done to stop him from offering or conducting this class. Ahh, as P.T. Barnum ( the circus promoter ) said…” a sucker born every minute.” It sickens me to see this crap. Something that really saddens me is that one of the very few ” martial arts ” these days that does have contact is the UFC / Bellatore type stuff. This stuff is a sport. Period. Anybody who gets suckered into believing that training to fight in a cage will save them in a street fight, particularly a multiple attack situation, will very quickly find out how wrong they were. Just go ahead and take the leader to the ground and attempt to apply a triangle choke hold on him…and begin to feel the repeated merciless kicks of his compatriots breaking your ribs and tearing skin from your face. A sport is a sport, and this type of modern fighting has many rules. There is nothing ” ultimate ” about the UFC. A true ultimate fight has no rules and frequently ends with one opponent beaten either to death or close to it. There is no referee, there are no gloves, there is no cage or ring. There is only the attacker (s) and the person being attacked. Please understand that I am not advocating a return to the Spartan agoge here. But, please don’t insult my intelligence by trying , through marketing, to get me to believe that the UFC type of fighting is truly an ultimate fight or that I can become a real martial arts master in multiple disciplines in 5 years. Do not try to convince me that spending 45 minutes twice a week throwing punches and kicks into the air while watching yourself in a mirrored wall is going to turn a student into a master fighter…it won’t. Only years of rigourous training, years of analysis and guidance given by a competant instructor in the what, why, and how of every movement in every form, of combining basic movements into an infinite number of techniques, of practicing techniques and sparring in truly realistic environments…only after all of this can one hope to begin to achieve true mastery. So, to those of you who ever read this that want to learn real martial arts, learn all you can about the instructors in your area. Stay away from the ” empty dance ” schools that tell you they don’t encourage sparring or they only do ” point sparring “. Stay away from any school that will not let you either observe a class or, better yet, participate in the first class for free. Stay away from the ” fast food ” chain schools that are nothing more than ” blackbelt factories ” that will hit you with all sorts of fees right down to you paying for the stripe on your belt ( see my post concerning ” Rank “.) Find the teacher that has a handful of students that quietly teaches in some not overly fancy school, who keeps it as real as possible. Prepare yourself to ” eat bitterness “. Pay attention, observe, ask questions, and above all, work hard to reach your goal ( understanding that truly the goal is never reached as the journey has no end.)  And know that in the long run you will genuinely have achieved  something that very,very few actually do. It is to us very,very few that falls the responsiblity of  keeping the real ” martial ” in the martial arts, alive and well.

3 Responses to “State Of The Art…”

  1. 1 Shihan Harvey
    August 5, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    WELL DONE / WELL SAID ! Shifu you have done it again. You have spoken the truth. How many schools allow their students to ask questions,about “how and why” or “what if”, maybe 1% of schools allow such a thing. They just want their students to do as they say. (monkey see,monkey do) and don’t ask any questions. Also how many schools even heard of QiGong,never mind practice it.

    I thank you,and complement you for not watering down what you teach,for the sake of money.

    As we know ,once the student learns “he is his own best teacher” he will be able to apply what he is learning from you, to his advantage.What he puts into it , is what he will get out of it. All your hard work will some day, pay off. Thanks again for your words of wisdom. Your friend, and student for life, Shihan Harvey

  2. 2 Larry Theroux
    August 7, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Shifu, your writing on this blog is so true. I remember training in your back yard through any weather condition with the few students that were willing to spend Sunday morning in the rain or snow, whatever Mother Nature was dealing that day. Though I was the oldest student you had at that time, it was enjoyable for me to train with the “youngsters” and we always felt great at the end of the lesson. Yes their were no mats to land on if taken down during sparring, but that’s ok because an incorrect break fall is a great teacher in itself, and every now and then someone would go home with a black eye or bloody mouth.

    As you expounded on, even some of my training mates from years back, when training was much more physical, that did stay with their chosen martial art and now have their own training facilities have watered down or should I say softened up their training techniques probably more to avoid legal issues rather than to keep students in their dojo.

    Shifu thanks for the training I received from you. A friend always Larry Theroux

  3. August 17, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    “The arts have become a business, a big business.”

    How ironic. The martial arts are many things, however, a vehicle to shamelessly make money by offer training in hollow meaningless programs? No. The martial arts are a vehicle for the mastery of the self. Anything short of that is a corruption of the spirit of the arts.

    At some point in your training you stop consciously trying and you just “are.” Every aspect of the student’s training should be synthesized into their existence. When you go to work, the grocery store, exercise, etc, the martial arts are right there with you. Modern day McDojos would have you believe that you go and train…martial arts time…then you leave and you are not doing martial arts. This could not be further from the truth. Training surpasses the physical; arguably the physical is the least important. It’s the mental/spiritual/internal benefits that are forged through hard external training coupled with internal training. As Master Cook said, there were a handful of us that trained outdoors, year round, for years. We froze, sweat and bled. We hit each other for real. This served to heighten our awareness, develop our spirits and mental toughness, hone our technique so it actually worked in real time, and acclimate us to unfavorable and unpreferable circumstance.

    The image I have in my head that I found exemplifies the benefits of our training was performing a two man kata full force down a line of men, switching off repeatedly until everyone’s arms were red, brown, black and blue while the sun beat over our head and the dust from the worn out yard filled our lungs. At first glance all you would see is a bunch of guys repeatedly smashing each other’s arms. Upon closer inspection you would see the harmony of movement, the timing of foot and hand relative to the opponent, the subtle shifts in the waist to accent power, the coordination of gate, rotation, extension and retraction and most importantly the breath. The breathing through the technique that is so critical, not just for the martial arts but for life.

    Today’s McDojo will teach you none of this. You’ll learn to throw a punch, a kick, or how to execute a takedown but you will not learn the lessons behind those movements nor will you learn the proper concentration, breathing and attitude that are central to martial arts training. Your spirit will remain uncultivated. Those that attend that think they are getting top notch training from an instructor with a bunch of trophies are getting fleeced if they are not first taught why they train. If it’s a monkey see monkey do environment they learn nothing but purposeless movement. The spirit of the arts is not present in their training. At the end of the day they will not know themselves any better than the first day they walked in the door. Their training will be reduced to a collection of unconnected movement. By this I mean physically and mentally. The mind needs to be connected to our training to see that a punch is a punch and is not a punch. To understand that statement you have to train with the correct purpose and focus.

    As Sun Tsu ultimately made the point, if you don’t know yourself and your enemy, you will ultimately suffer defeat in all counts. Knowledge comes from meaningful, active, purposeful training…training that’s alive, that hurts, and that develops real character…not from the McDojo or training factory we see all too often today. These places, like any fast food restaurant, serve to cheapen and distort reality. McDonald’s doesn’t serve real food, it serves processed product…which is not a “whole” food, what man was intended to eat. Similarly the McDojo serves a processed form of training…a formula. Thus, the student does not receive holistic training. It is fake and eventually you’ll find it’s bad for your health…especially if you have to use it someday.

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August 2011

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