Book Recommendation: Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness. Graham Priest
Reading the above book I came across the subject of “Master.” Most martial arts amateurs and novices have a pre conception of what a “Master” is, looks like, how they act and so forth, mostly based on the chop socky movies of the 70’s and 80’s.
Practicing martial artists have certain expectations of what it takes to be a master based on their own experiences in the art.
However, there isn’t a single defined point or universally established standard at which one crosses over from being a martial arts student/practitioner to a master. There are too many variables involved. A discussion on the subject is a good thing.
Martial arts are culturally and continually evolving human activities. Codifying them puts them in the realm of history and causes them to lose contemporary validity.
For example, it’s commonly thought that a high degree of physical skills and abilities is necessary for mastery. Is this absolutely valid? Maybe not. In the old Asian movies the white bearded old sage can still fly through the air doing multiple acrobatic kicks, can fight multiple opponents with one hand while stroking his beard with the other. Idealistic but not realistic. Age, illness, injury, and handicaps would then nullify someone being a Master
However, in Western Boxing, and even in developing MMA some of the best trainers (instructors/masters) are substantially older men who would have a hard time fighting their way out of a wet paper bag. But, they are “Masters” sought after by the mega million dollar professional fighters. The fighters are the competitive athletes, the trainers are the Masters. So, incredible personal physical skills is not the singular bar by which to measure a Master.
An encyclopedic knowledge of the art is also expected; in the book the author calls this the complete knowledge account, which includes “secret knowledge.” A problem with that is that the arts are evolving and the secret knowledge of yesteryear is common knowledge today. Masters also often add and subtract techniques and teachings from the arts as they increase in knowledge as well. They don’t stop learning and developing either.
Honestly, I cannot teach someone everything I’ve learned in the martial arts to this day. I am no Master but that amount of material is measured in terms of a life time, my life time. One of the greatest things I can teach is for a student to learn as much as they can in their own lifetime! And their material does not have to match or mimic mine.
How do we measure mastery in other fields of study and practice?
Mr. Priest uses the philosophical position that mastery generally involves “knowing that,” knowing how,” and “having the physical ability to do.”
“I think that mastery essentially involves both knowing that and knowing how, but that it doesn’t essentially involve the physical ability to do.”
Part of the misconception with mastery is equating it with performance. If an expert kicker loses a leg is he no longer an expert? Can he not still teach and bring another person to mastery through his experience and instruction? I would suggest that he can, and his mastery is not affected by his lack of ability to perform the particular skill.
My own thoughts on the matter include a couple of other things. Age for one. The Japanese/Okinawan Karate traditions had some time and age restrictions concerning masterhood. I believe those are important.
Martial arts unlike visual arts become an integral part of a person’s lifestyle. Your martial arts infuse every aspect of your life, how you think, what you value, your disciplines, your perspectives. No so with painting or sculpture. No one under 50 should be considered a Master.
I remember in my early days someone who was called “Young Master.” He and his crowd were serious but I considered it a joke. This person was in their mid 20’s, and had some martial skills, but lacked some important life experiences. He could kick better than I, but I had been in the Marines and knew a few things about hurting people he didn’t. In a martial skill sense he might beat me, but in a whole life sense, he wouldn’t have known what hit him. Martial arts and whole life experience are symbiotic. You can’t be a martial arts master and otherwise be an insensitive, uninformed, inexperienced dumbass. You need life’s experiences on love, loss, uncertainty, challenges, and achievements. Those come with time and age. Did I mention I don’t believe in anyone under 18 being a BlackBelt? Black Belt used to signify maturity, not just physical skill level.
Then there’s also the matter of Humility. People I’ve known that I would call Masters in any field have been people very aware of their own frailties. These are people who are aware that the universe is expanding and what fit tightly in a box today has a lot of room for growth tomorrow. They learn more every day. They’re aware that art is a spiritual endeavor that has no end.
The “Masters” that I see, mostly obese, strutting around grasping their thick belts with tons of stripes for all to see, generally lack this quality of humility. They don’t appreciate that their skill sets are sloppy, slow, lacking power, and they have failing memory. They have banked on their past and not realized that martial arts are about the present, and try to impose their past as a qualification of their mastery. That is not humility and those are not masters.
I’ll resume reading the book, and encourage others to pick it up…