What is a ‘martial arts master’?

While I’ve been too busy to write these past several weeks, a certain news story has been preying on my mind. Many of you probably read it: “Judo champ jailed in train station beating.” The Striking Thoughts blog made mention of it, if you didn’t catch it in your local paper. Here’s the opening sentence from the article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Horseplay between a martial arts master and a Menlo Park amateur at a Peninsula Caltrain station turned into a full-blown assault and put a national judo competitor behind bars, authorities said Friday.

This ticked me off so severely that I almost… wrote a letter to the editor. What got me was not the thuggish behavior of the judoka; no, such assaults by young men on one another are so run-of-the-mill in our society, it’s hardly worth a letter to the paper, I’m sorry to say. What angered me was the journalist’s use of the term “martial arts master” to describe this 23-year-old judo-competitor-slash-thug. It struck me as emblematic of the kind of ignorance about martial arts that characterizes so much of what we see in the media, and gives us all a bad name.

Then I began reflecting on the term ‘master’ and what it does or doesn’t mean. It’s not so clear. There are two senses of the term in common understanding, and its usage in martial arts has elements of both. This is probably the cause of some problems.

First, there’s the sense of ‘mastery’ of a set of skills or area of knowledge. In that sense, it’s not unreasonable for a layperson to believe a champion competitor must be a ‘master’ of a sort. Surely they’ve mastered some martial arts skills in order to win those judo tournaments; ergo, ‘martial arts master.’ This might be analogous to ‘chess master,’ where the title is determined by ratings earned over time through winning matches. But we martial artists, besides knowing how transient tournament wins are, believe the title means something broader and deeper than that, so much so that we actually find it offensive if some twenty-something gets called ‘master’—no matter how many tournaments he might win.

Then there’s the sense of ‘master’ that’s associated with ‘underlings’ or ‘followers’ (not to say ‘slaves’). Here in the egalitarian West we are uncomfortable with this title—as well we should be. Besides underlings, it brings up the notion of cults and abuse. Yet in martial arts we do use the term in a related sense: The master is indeed someone whom we are meant to “follow,” at least to the extent of trusting his or her teaching and obeying instructions in class—and obeying with a greater depth of intention than we have when following instructions, say, in shop class, or from the boss at the office.

Put the two meanings together, and you can see where we get the romanticized, Yoda-like concept of a Master: someone whose skill and understanding are so great, and wisdom so deep, he (or she) is worthy of being followed and emulated like a guru. We have to mention wisdom and understanding here, because they are what raise the concept above plain technical skill. That’s important to us traditional martial artists, because we like to believe we are pursuing something greater—polishing our character.

Now, when I began training, I started with a simple, unromantic understanding of the term ‘master’ as a bit of jargon not unlike other foreign terms encountered in the dojo. It was simply a title applied to people who had reached a certain rank. I remember being told by a fellow student that anyone who reached (believe it or not) the rank of third degree was called ‘master.’ (Back then, in the school/system I was in, there weren’t many who reached third degree. Nowadays they are everywhere.)

If we accept it as jargon, we can avoid ‘master/guru’ concerns, and leave it up to styles and organizations to decide what requirements must be met. It becomes more like ‘chess master’ again—but not entirely. That’s because traditional martial arts are about more than technical skill, and do bring in hard-to-measure concepts like depth of understanding, wisdom, compassion for others, ‘mastery over oneself.’

In this picture, there are no 23-year-old masters; such a notion would be ridiculous, because those intangibles are reached only through maturity and reflection on many years of study and teaching. And in this picture, an individual who uses his skills to assault people in train stations is self-evidently not a master; he’s instead an offense to masters everywhere.

But that’s just one point of view. What do you think, readers? What is a martial arts master?


18 Responses to “What is a ‘martial arts master’?”

  1. Leave it to a journalist to sensationalize a term like “master”. It’s what sells copies.

    A martial arts master should possess excellent technical ability and a willingness to impart these abilities. Character, wisdom and even compassion are not only the hallmarks of a true master but qualities every person should strive for. But like everyone else even so-called masters have their flaws and foibles.

  2. […] What is a ‘martial arts master’? « American/Traditional serpentstaff.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/what-is-a-martial-arts-master – view page – […]

  3. A 23-year-old “master” is as preposterous as an 8-year-old “black belt.”
    A master is someone who has devoted a lifetime to the art, studying, teaching, practicing and living it.

  4. I think that a master has “mastery over oneself” and in martial arts this is one of the first steps towards becoming a master. And the fact that a journalist is referring to a 23 year old as a master is just ridiculous. Not only does this martial artist show that he doesn’t have the maturity to be considered a “master” but though his actions he clearly does not have mastery over himself and his emotions.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Yams, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. And I completely agree. This young man’s behavior so reeked of a lack of mastery- of self, emotions, maturity or common sense- that’s why I couldn’t believe the journalist would use that term.

  5. Hello,

    Your post makes me think of what Goodin Sensei wrote on in his Karate Thoughts Blog on March 27, 2006 about not wearing the gi outside the dojo. Why was this judo “master” wearing his gi outside the dojo? This action invited confrontation in the first place.

    Please see: http://karatejutsu.blogspot.com/2006/03/wearing-gi-in-public.html

    Thank you!

    • serpentstaff Says:


      Thanks for your comment, and for the excellent link.

      I took it that our judo guy was wearing, not a gi top, but a jacket with the word “judo” on it like what one often sees at team competitions for different sports. But either way, you raise a valid point. I am 100% with Goodin Sensei on not wearing the uniform outside the dojo. I am even ambivalent about wearing martial arts logo t-shirts and sweatshirts in public for the reason of drawing attention. This is a personal decision: I don’t wish to draw attention. However, for some students, it’s a matter of “team spirit” or “school spirit” – which can be a positive thing.

      I wonder whether the demeanor of the person wearing the jacket or t-shirt determines, to some extent, how people react to and interact with him. Consider, for example, an ordinary humble person going about his business wearing “Judo USA” across his back, versus a young tough with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove wearing that same shirt.

  6. I have been researching what it means to be a master and I found this blog through my studies. I can’t tell you how glad I am to have found this. I have studied the martial arts for 20 years and have seen what happens to those who are given a “master rank” too early and children who are given blackbelts when it is obvious they neither have the skill nor the understanding necessary to hold such a rank, most of the time they just fulfilled a set of requirements for it.

    Now like the others who have commented on this blog I agree that the judoka in question CANNOT be a true master, not because of age, but because of his actions. I don’t care if he had perfect technique a master is one who tempers technique and ability with wisdom. I heard a saying recently that went, “He who knows does not say, and he who says does not know.” In other words a true master doesn’t go around flaunting their ability nor boasting about their rank. But this isn’t exciting to most people with that rank (or media) and so they bring it up in conversation somehow in order to impress their audience.

    I guess I will end with my take on a what a master is through my experiences in the martial arts, if anyone cares to read it. I feel that a master is one who isn’t just technically skilled in the art, but know’s how to use it for what it was meant too, to them it isn’t just something to show off with and get trophies it is a very real device that is used to protect life. They are also someone who seeks wisdom and its application on a daily basis and teaches their students and others in general to do the same because at the end of the day they know that wisdom is more powerful than the fist. And lastly, a master is someone who can pass on their art to the next generation, they may not teach now or they may not have taught for years, but they still retain the capacity to pass the information on to those that genuinely want to seek it.

    Great article, thank you for writing it.

  7. serpentstaff Says:

    Just saw in the paper our Judo thug was convicted and sentenced:

  8. I found this article via Brian Hagen on Aikido Journal.
    After 54 years (yes, fifty-four) in various Japanese (and a tiny bit of Chinese) martial arts and Ways, the last 44 in Aikido almost exclusively, I would say that I am primarily an Aikideshi (or Budodeshi), a *student*. Surely the primary requisite of any Budoka is shoshin, “beginner’s mind”.
    “Master”, like “sensei”, is something given, never claimed. I have had the misfortune of being called “shihan” by some and reject the term entirely. I will accept “sensei” from my practice partners but from anyone else only by virtue of my being a priest (and having been given the title by one of my Masters).
    Show me your title by your works.

  9. “On the surface” the term master seems to imply some finite end to some course of study – in this example a martial way. In other martial blogs it has been stated that a person who calls himself “a master” – isn’t. Whether it be mastery of some discipline, or even oneself, there is no end. It is a day-to-day work in progress tht terminates when you die – and still unfinished. I agree with the length of time, study, and life experience neede to become a “master”. I also chuckle at 8 year old “black belts”.
    It’s like the definition of an “expert”. An “x”is a has been, and a “spurt” is a drip under pressure. Thanks for llistening

  10. kseniya Says:

    Master for me would mean someone who cares about well-being of his or her students more than his or her own. Someone who is so well grounded in life that nothing shakes this person from stability. Someone who doesn’t betray your trust no matter the circumstances. Someone who inspires you to be a better person than you were before meeting him or her.

  11. serpentstaff Says:

    Sensei Skoyles – thanks for visiting, and for your wise words.
    I should also thank Brian at Aikido Journal for linking here.

    Mark – I’ve never heard that definition of “expert” before – good one! and thanks for commenting.

    kseniya – You have very high ideals for a master. May you find a worthy one to study with.

  12. kseniya Says:

    I believe I have found someone who so far passed most of my “requirements”. Time will show if i am right. At this point I trust that teacher of mine.

  13. Since I lack the time at present to write a more comprehensive reply I’ll leave you with one of my sensei’s favourite quotes on the subject: “Anyone who calls himself a master, isn’t.
    A master is someone who was a student in the past. But both have still to learn!” In short you could call a master a more advanced student but anyone who stops learning (even if he continues to train) clearly doesn’t care about his art and the people that kept it alive before him so he loses all right to this title. A master is one of superior knowledge and skill, willing to teach others while treating them with respect: this definition can be applied to anyone, even a yellow belt helping out a complete newbie. I am clearly not a master in the sense of superior in skill, wisdom and knowledge to most of my fellow practioners (clearly the title in its conventional sense implies an elite status) so I lack the experience to judge who is and who isn’t a true master… All I know is if someone’s better than me or not and even then I can’t phantom the depth of knowledge of some people.

    My sensei is such an individual: almost every class I stand in awe as to how much he knows and how graceful and effortless he moves and he freely admits there are people much better than him. To me my sensei is a master since he trains hard, knows a lot, is always looking to learn and experience new things and is a good teacher who genuinly cares about his students. What more can you wish for in a teacher? If he keeps training it’s unlikely I’ll ever surpass him in knowledge and skill and even if I get to a truly high level myself (at the moment I consider myself slightly above mediocre) I can still learn from him and cherish the lessons of the past which helped me reach my goals and continue on the right path. Perhaps I’ll fan out later and study with other sensei/sifu/guru’s but I got my base from him and without his teachings I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even if there are people who are much better than him (hard to imagine though): he has earned my respect and I will always proudly call myself his student. Btw: he never, ever calls himself ‘master’, treats anyone with respect regardless of belt level or experience and always downplays his own skill, insisting there are people far better than him and explaining ad nauseam the way is never ending and self perfection a work of a lifetime. Hai sensei, very true indeed.

    Damn, now I did elaborate 🙂 Time to go do something useful…

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