I have seen illness in the martial arts world probably more than I see illness in a clinic. In a clinic, bacteria, viruses, mental illness, trauma, auto-immune diseases and other factors lead to disease, but in the martial arts world, the most common diseases I have come against are ignorance, jealousy and egotism. Martial arts makes people strong and with that strength and ability acquired through the dedicated practice of it, it should also lead one to be a more centered calm, individual. Often, what I see is weakness of character come out in certain individuals, despite their training. Petty jealousy, rumor mongering, “one up manship”, thoughts of “we’re the best!”, silly challenges, violence, and threats run amok in the martial world. Is this what martial arts does? If so, it is better to study something else that is less contentious. Many people are attracted to the martial arts because they can derive a lot of benefit from the practice of it, but I think teachers should also teach a mental and spiritual side to the martial arts and avoid teaching people of low character.
When I was a child starting in the martial arts, I was often too restless to listen to stories of morality and spiritual strength, heroism and virtue. Now, I realize why I was taught stories like this. It was to help foster a positive mental image of myself and have an example to live by. Stories of Wong Fei Hung stopping conflict with his martial arts skills and tending to them if he has hurt them has stayed with me for a long time. Now I am sad to say a lot of these stories were not passed down with the teaching of martial arts in this country, as I can see from some of my fellow martial artists. To become a wuxia jun zi – a martial hero of chivalry, is the image we should strive for in the Chinese martial arts. That is, to be a gentleman and to cultivate a complete person of noble character to be an example in society is what martial arts should do.
Some have read my columns and think that I am criticizing unnamed masters for their deeds or telling about inside stories that haunt certain schools. I ask the reader to indulge me, I use these criticisms as a means of holding up a mirror to the person(s) exploiting prospective students and having a care to be real and honest in teaching the martial arts. My training brothers and I have often discussed the way our teachers taught. Sometimes we can see benefit, and sometimes, we say there can be better ways of teaching and making points come across. Early in my martial arts career, I was faced with some of the feudal methods of teaching behind closed doors, outrageous disciple fees, curtains, secrecy, and oaths. I also met some false masters who did not have the proper credentials to teach or were not honest of their own training. Some will say that my criticism is unwarranted and it goes against tradition. Some people will look back at my background and try to find out who these people are and then criticize that I am disrespectful to these masters. Actually it is not the masters I criticize, but some of the outdated teaching methods and time wasting methods that inhibit true learning and understanding of the martial arts here.
If you spend 29 years learning martial arts and someone could encapsulate all the important teachings in a shorter period of time, would that not be more efficient? Why don’t we look for that? Manufacturers do that all the time. Should we not also improve methods of training and do research and development in teaching martial arts? The traditional methods for teaching martial arts was steeped in having the student figure it out for himself and never telling the student too plainly. I have often said that if grade school were taught like the way old fashioned martial arts sifu teach, no one would ever complete their high school education. Perhaps because I grew up in the USA, it has led me to believe that one should feed a student as much information as possible and have them work it out and prove the principles and concepts. This way, a student wastes less time with theories and endless forms and techniques and ongoing unstructured classes. Following this way, we may revolutionize martial arts training for the next century. In our current lifestyle here in the United States, we cannot expect a student to follow a master here for 10 to 20 years to really learn his craft. A master teaching here should think of shortcuts and methods to shorten the amount of time to learn while still imparting important skills and attributes to a student and arrange the subject matter in a logical and easy to follow manner for students of all levels.
The late Xing Yi/Ba Gua master Kenny Gong once told me, “If a sifu really wants to teach a disciple everything, he can accomplish that in about two years, regardless of system of martial art, provided that a student is diligent in his practice and reasonably intelligent.” I believe that statement to be true. Should we teachers not all strive to teach as much important material in the first two years of a student’s education? To me, the advanced training is simply the basics applied. Even if a system of martial arts has a myriad of forms, like Choy Lay Fut for example, a study of the core forms and main principles and concepts of the arts are enough. If a student wants to learn more forms after this core training, they may elect to do so, but that does not add to the real core training. This is the same with Wing Chun, or other martial arts systems like Praying Mantis, Tai Ji, Xing Yi or Ba Gua. Throughout my columns, the reader may have noticed I have criticisms about secrecy and the student and teacher relationship. My point is to hopefully elicit a revolution to the training methods of an art and to have modern martial artists better systematize their teaching and training methods. What prevents a student from learning a particular skill – if it is terminology, make it simple to understand; if it is a series of movements, break them down to the simplest components to learn. This is the best way to learn martial arts. From here we can help create the next generation of practitioners and they will applaud our contributions to the arts.