Martial Musings: A bonfire for those Titles, Belts and Scrolls

If you are easily offended, don't read this.

This is a personal meditation on a few things I see rampant in Martial Arts...a few things I disagree with. This is not aimed at any one person or system, but rather a self reflection on the artistic expression I hold dear.

This week, a young 30-something man introduced himself to me as as a Grandmaster of not one but two different systems. I was left speechless by this marketing of his martial accomplishments. Undeterred, he insisted on being called Grandmaster and to be respected for his self-given rank in the Martial Arts. I obliged with polite smile, bowed and then walked out.

Something inside of me had changed. Perhaps I got lazy, perhaps I had gotten a little too soft, perhaps I just didn't care anymore.

Because things are different here in the United States now than it was in Asia. There, people will want to "feel a master out." There was a time when my two buddies and I would routinely checkout new dojos and systems." In the arrogance of my own youth, holding some championships and that ever important black belt, I challenged many, and more than met my match with two world-class practitioners. These men could have killed me in one hundred different ways before I knew what was happening. Instead, with gentle ferocity, they "knocked some sense into me."

My first tryst was with a very reclusive , hard-hitting kenpoka who had earned his stripes post-war in the streets of Okinawa and Taiwan. "MS" had led a interesting life entirely in the black to grey zone. As such, he still keeps a low profile and seldom takes students. I stumbled upon him by chance. I remember asking to experience his cobra hands and boy, did I feel them for weeks on my body. Those few under him had needed to be ready to "give the dojo its quota of daily blood." It was an insane few years. We called him Sensei or M-San.

After becoming one of the handful "black belts" under M-San I ran into a man claiming to teach Jujutsu. My students know this story well. I was on his dojo floor, politely asking to feel his art (this is a very Asian thing to do, and is not play by any means). I thought I saw an opening to round-kick his face. I moved in and so did he to hand my ass to me. He continued to exquisitely toss me around the dojo and the only words being "dont break anything or bleed on the floor - I will make you clean it." That was over two decades ago, and I still call him Sastri Sensei.

So on my drive home after meeting this 30 something Grandmaster, I kept wondering what had changed. How is it that we have so many masters? Granted, I am blessed to live in California and this state attracts some of the greatest martial artists. Everywhere I go, there are masters, Master Instructors, Grandmasters, Senior Grandmasters, Supreme Grandmasters, Soke's...

Is it me or do we have an extraordinary abundance of masters and Grandmasters?

So many masters, but so few sensei/teachers. Fewer still are masterful students.

I am old school and had learned early on, "if one insists on being called a Master, then s/he probably is not." The title Master is not assumed by oneself . It is something conferred onto you by your peers. The respect is not demanded, but earned. Mastery is NOT a station one arrives to but a process one needs to embody. The Japanese arts capture this process with a beautiful concept : Shuhari.

Shu - learning the traditional wisdom from the wisdom keepers without digressing in any form. Ha - practitioner detaches from the former stage and from the illusions of self Ri - a full separation from forms with only natural moves that emerge in the moment

When I look at Martial Mastery, I see

A) Developing ones functional skill, not ones ability at a style of fighting B) A radical undoing of self images, and the arriving to experiences of the self in skill C) Forever becoming more natural, more oneself. D) Igniting the spark of discovery and pure expression in those around you so they too embark on their own journeys of mastery

This process is true Martial Initiation - forever uncovering and arriving at something new, sacred and awful. When one traverses this (somewhat lonely) path with honor, and bears the scars of these trails as insignia of humility, only then the possibility of Mastery may emerge.

It is not the fancy belts, glossy certificates, tattoos, walls full of photographs or flashy uniforms that maketh a master. It is the insignia within one's flesh and spirit other travelers recognize as signs guiding the path to mastery. Then, and only then, should they refer to this wo/man as master.

So I say, if you wish to get on with Mastery, create a massive bonfire. Burn those expensive gi's, burn those certificates you ached to receive, burn those belts you have earned, burn those affiliations that claim to give you authority. They will hold you back in image, in style, and only offer robotic imitation without true understanding. What was "given/bestowed" on you can be taken away, what is burnt into the soul remains with you regardless.

Martial mastery is not about becoming invincible, and beating a hundred in battle. Martial mastery is the process of finding one's truth and fighting those inner demons along the way. It is a journey into being a masterful student, embracing Shuhari as a continuous process with the goal of achieving Shibumi: the elegant unobstructive Truth. This is the path paved with humility where the quest is to "forever become an ordinary human in search of extraordinary knowledge."

Enough said on this, time to go train.

Mahipal Lunia, Sensei