I was just approached by a friend asking about choosing a martial arts school he could enroll his child in. He lives out of town and had visited several schools in his area. His survey of schools went from teachers who only taught one style to those that claimed to have mastered several styles of completely different martial arts with all kinds of certificates to prove it. To his eye this master of many styles looked good to him. It made me wonder why when it comes to things ‘Eastern’ we lose all intelligent objectivity. I studied Shotokan karate years ago and in the first class Okasaki Sensei had a very interesting lecture. He asked the class, "If you read in comic book that you could learn tennis in 3 weeks would you believe it?" The class responded, "No." He then said, "How about learning guitar in three weeks, would you believe it?" Again we replied no. "What about swimming?" "No". And then he said, "So how about you learning karate in three weeks?" Here the class hesitated and he boomed, "It’s no different than any other physical discipline, it takes years!"
No one can have mastered several different arts particularly if they are less than fifty years of age; it takes too much time. Each style has its own logic and mechanics for the way it fights. It has developed over centuries to be what it is today. This is why we have a thing called the trades in this country like carpenters, plumbers and electricians because generally one person can’t do it all. They apprentice for years in their craft before they get their license. A lot of these many ‘degreed’ martial teachers have simply taken a few seminars or learned a few forms and thus think they have mastered a style. This is like learning a poem in French and claiming to be able to speak French. You can’t, you can only recite it. Have you ever walked into a group of foreign speaking people and said ‘hi’ to them in their language because that’s all you knew? Once in a Chinese establishment I walked in and said, "Ni hao, ni chitean le ma?" Which means "hi, have you eaten yet"? With that the manager got all excited and yelled out in Mandarin and I was surrounded by about eight Chinese all talking to me at once. They were so happy I could speak Mandarin. I can’t. I know phrases but that’s it. It took several minutes for me to convince them that this gwei lo does not speak Mandarin. So it is with many of those who claim to have mastered many styles. They may have a cursory introduction and a certificate but the true mechanics of the system, as it was intended, are lost to them.
I asked my friend who was looking for a school if he would go to a doctor that was both an ophthalmologist and a heart surgeon. He said no. I tried to explain to him that most people that claim to have mastered many styles are no different than that. Though there are exceptions it is rare. In the East it takes years if not decades to master a style and you don’t do more than one at a time. You devote yourself to that discipline; you can’t do it in weekend seminars by DVDs or online. For this reason it makes no sense to claim to have mastered several styles. Why not just master one style that is good and well-rounded rather than running from style to style? You can always integrate other things into it. One old Chinese sifu once said to me of these teachers, "they go from master to master, style to style and want to learn but they never will. We will never trust them enough to teach them what we know; they are never really family to us. You cannot have many fathers."
Since a beginner does not have experience they cannot discern between good teachers and bad. It is a daunting task. Of the good teachers I have known they have had one trait in common and that is they promote the art and not themselves. Though they may have a long and storied career they talk about the art and not their accolades. They are trying to communicate the rewards they got from their art and want their students to experience it in a similar fashion. Think of a great musician who wants to communicate the joy that music brings them instead of bragging about the concerts they’ve played. These other teachers promote themselves, what they have accomplished, how many belts they have and how great and honored they are. They generally have a slew of different certificates on their wall. Here it is about self promotion and not the art's promotion. Did you know you can enroll online and get a doctorate of martial arts from some bogus university? It’s true. You can buy just about any belt or certificate and there are plenty of weekend seminars that will take your money in exchange for them. I know of many teachers that brag about getting their black sash in kung fu. I clearly remember when I got mine; it was the first day of class. My sifu explained that the black sash signified ignorance.
Beware of teacher’s claims and timelines. In one school I was in years ago the teacher was twenty nine years old. Besides listing himself as the master of several styles he also claimed to be ex-military and to have been involved in the Olympics. There were dozens of newspaper articles he had on his wall involving interviews with him and his school. He opened the school when he was twenty one years old. When I did the math he would have had to be in the military when he was twelve years old to accomplish what he said and in the Olympics at eight. Without mentioning these things I politely asked him for a timeline; he refused to talk to me. When you look at a teacher do the math, it pays off. Check into his lineage and see if what he says is legitimate. You want to know what medical school your doctor went to and if it’s legitimate don’t you? He should have peers in the art that respect him. He should also have students that have been with him a long time. I have found that most of the senior students of the self promoting teachers generally catch on to their nonsense and leave them. Again, think about if you met someone in any other discipline who made so many claims would you believe them? "First I was in the Army Rangers, then I studied with the Seals for a while and then with the Israeli military….." you get the gist of this.
I have something I call the dinner rule. Simply put; is this someone I would invite to my house for dinner and would I be comfortable with them around my family? If you met someone at a business meeting and they bragged about all of their accomplishments and how they crush their opponents would you be likely to invite them for dinner? On the other hand if the person was amiable, open, at ease and comfortable with their self would you invite them for dinner? I think the answer is self evident.
I always suggest that one of the best books you can read about learning kung fu is "The Sword Polisher’s Record" by Adam Hsu. He is quite clear in separating the nonsense from the hype and self promotion.
So when you see a school with one teacher listing five styles of Chinese gung fu, karate, grappling and MMA beware; they are most likely a jack of all trades and master of none.
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