In teaching, you can only truly teach a few students completely. This is true in all worthwhile endeavours. As far as regular students go, and those that are truly disciples, you can easily spot those who stay with you the longest and truly embrace your teachings. There are some that just come for some information, some who want to strengthen a defect, some that just want to be part of the family, some that are just curious, and a very rare few that want true complete transmission. I have had customers, the curious, the clowns, the socializers, and a few looking and searching for the truth. I have been disappointed in some who just want information and give nothing back in return. Teaching martial arts is a craft and still requires a close interaction between student and teacher.
Teaching in the old days was very much being part of a guild. You wanted to learn a craft and had to find a master of the craft. In fact, that is what the title “Sifu” means – the sifu is a “skilled father of your craft”. In Chinese culture, you can take any one more skilled than you and refer to them as “Sifu”, if they are teaching you your craft. Some have rigidly thought that “I can only have one Sifu” as they take the “fu” (“father”) part of the term “Sifu” too literally. After all, one would not like to have more than one father, is their logic. Once you went through an acceptance (which may include fees, a ritual, an interview, and introduction) of becoming part of the family or guild, then you would be on your way to learning the skill of your craft. In martial arts, that would be your particular craft. You would initially become an apprentice, then become a journey man, then finally, after much time and hardship, develop the skill to become a master of your craft and eventually start to take on new apprentices to teach them your craft. The parallels between this and Chinese martial arts society is very clear. Too often people have romanticized the teacher-student relationship and looked at it as a form of a new adoption by a better parent, spiritual advisor, or healer, with divine powers being passed down from teacher to student. I think these are people with transference issues and may need to face a bit of the reality.
Some have called me up and suggested that they come out here to Los Angeles for private lessons and if I can teach them everything in my art in a weekend and if after that weekend, if they can open a school and teach in my name. I usually laugh and clarify that nothing surpasses true physical skill in martial arts and one may develop a strong theoretical basis and technical skill in a short time, but one really has to do a lot of work and prove the theories into principles and techniques into concepts of a particular system and do the work. Although one may be able to learn things in a short amount of time, it will still take a long time before the skills can be of second nature.
Some come to review the entire system with me and see if I could correct their weaknesses. I have tried to provide pointers on the martial arts way so that these students can develop eyes and “see” the truth and develop a means to keep getting better. In this way, they can train on their own. Sometimes all that is necessary is a few minor adjustments and clarifications with that individual in a way that person can understand. Sometimes, seeing things from another perspective can also help you grow.
Some contacted me to teach them a part of the system they were lacking, in my case in Wing Chun Kuen, where people ask me to teach them a weapons set because so few people specialize in the form and function of the weaponry. For these people, I try to show them many variations and give them a sense of aliveness with the weapon, as well as tie in the core principles of Wing Chun. I am happy to help these “Tong Mun” (followers of the same art), but I would not be as willing to teach outsiders of the system as they could easily mistaken and confuse the art when they lack a strong background in my particular system.
Some have paid much money in this process, and I always try to give the student the best that I can, and fulfil their desires with the best material I can present. There is nothing wrong in helping fellow Wandering Knights along the path of their self discovery. I have even had experts in other systems of martial arts visit me to supplement their training and to discuss various points of the martial arts in general. In these sessions, I enjoy the exchange very much as I can learn more of another’s art and get a perspective of an experienced insider of another system. It makes for a more enlightened practitioner to recognize that all martial arts are good and that we must understand the context of their use.
For the ones seeking additional information, there is nothing wrong to get seek it out, but be fair and willing to pay your dues. Ultimately, one must solve the puzzle of their martial arts for themselves and be able to piece all of the parts together. If you need expert opinions, you would do best to consult with a person more knowledgeable than yourself. If there is a fee, you should gladly pay it, as it will save you time and money in the long run. Some people think they can get all of my secrets in a book, magazine article or have suggested to me that I put everything on video for them so that they can copy my movements and learn my system that way. For example, I wrote a chapter in Complete Wing Chun on the Gulao Wing Chun Kuen system and had a few people contact me to learn the system via long distance and through videotape. Nevertheless, I have rejected these people and don’t really have an interest to do something like that as the art is relatively unknown here in the USA and I do not want people to think that they can take my system and teach it after learning the art through videotapes and especially when I have not reviewed the material with them personally, know the “instructor” personally, and have a relationship with them. In all martial arts, it is best to have a personal relationship with an instructor before trying to teach what you think you know. Nothing replaces human interaction and relationships. I will tell prospective students who really want true transmission that they should look into developing a close relationship with their teacher and really learn more about another’s personality and developing open honest communication. When you have a true relationship with your instructor, you can understand why he chose to teach you in a certain manner, and the instructor can tailor his teachings for your specific needs and learning type. When I accept a student, I typically interview them and find out what their goals are. I find out about their background, their experience, their profession, what have they learned in martial arts before, and why do they want to study my particular art. I also ask them if they have any questions of me, my background, how long I learned and other relevant facts. In this way, I can get a sense of who I am dealing with. One person asked if I teach tournament fighting and I told him that was not my emphasis in teaching. Clearly his goals were not in align with me, and I referred him to another instructor. Others wanted to study ground fighting and grappling, and I referred them to the Gracies and the Machados. It is important to be honest with the student in fostering a good relationship, so that there are no unexpected disappointments in what they learn. I may have been able to make a few months tuition on a particular student, but why deceive him? It would be a detriment to me in the long run. I never try to put myself up on a pedestal and try to claim something that I am not, or misrepresent what I am teaching.
An early instructor of mine was very secretive of the advanced levels of training and later I found out he was bluffing his way through teaching the system. The fact that my Si Hing (senior brothers) did not complete the entire system led me to believe that this instructor had not completed the highest levels of training. Sadly, some of his disciples are probably still propagating secrecy as tradition and ignore to teach the rest of the system to their students and grand students. What do we have here? A tradition of lies, cheating and deceit. I have often found that if a teacher is very knowledgeable, he is often willing to teach everything openly and generously, if he has a good relationship with the student, as he really wants to pass on a system to a worthy successor. Some teachers only want one successor, but I find personally that many students may specialize in different areas of the art and cannot master everything well. In this manner, I try to treat all students as a worthy successor, and find it perhaps going against tradition to select only one successor. I hope my fellow colleagues would share this open-minded thought.
I believe that a student and teacher relationship must be kept honest and this is the only way to grow strong. A martial arts brother of mine, Hendrik Santo, said “With strong roots one can grow tall. If one does not have strong roots, one can never stand tall on their own.” There is a lot of truth in that and it begins with the teacher and student relationship. Another martial brother, Andreas Hoffman in Germany said to me, “In the future, there will not be any secrets as there will be open communication, and more forms of media to teach the arts from. So all a student has to do is really train hard and master the art.” I agreed with him, but still find that the human interaction and relationship is the best medium to teach martial arts. Winning hearts is the best way, so I ask the reader here, what kind of student are you?