Archive for master

What is a ‘martial arts master’?

Posted in martial arts, philosophy with tags , , , on November 1, 2009 by serpentstaff

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?

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