Humility in the Martial Arts by KJN Ronald Stone
All the world’s religions and certainly most of the legitimately recognized martial arts styles include the concept of humility somewhere in their core concepts. Unfortunately, like so many of the traditional principles we were once taught it seems that this concept is often forgotten due to time constraints or overlooked in the ever-increasing number of motivated- by- profit -only centers of martial arts instruction.
Those of us old enough to remember having to travel more than a block to find a martial arts school, or who remember when extra instruction meant searching the public library for books may also remember that students back then were instructed not to discuss the martial arts outside of their school. (God forbid we were caught bragging!) Uniforms originally came in two colors, all white and all black (okay, I know they’re not really colors), and years ago when I started in the martial arts, I never saw anything sewn on a uniform.
At the last tournament I attended I couldn’t help but notice participants who wore more patches than a Nascar driver, not to mention all the flashy uniform color combinations of red, blue, and purple etc. It’s not that colors weren’t available back then, (one only must look at the beautiful kimonas available for centuries) it’s simply that they had no place in the practical martial arts.
Back in the day, as the legend goes, black belts were merely white belts that had grown dirty with time. (it is tradition not to wash one’s belt) The dirtier the belt the more time and experience the practitioner had. I’m sure it wasn’t until someone realized the psychological effect that receiving awards has on Occidentals that the awarding of different colored belts at promotions became popular. (Or perhaps someone realized the profit incentive that existed. (More tests= more money.). From simply white, brown, and black belts we now have ten colors, and if that isn’t bad enough some schools now have colored stripes on belt tips to boast of half rank testing???
One might perhaps ask if stripping the belt isn’t in essence really a form of bragging, like notching your gun. The only true hero I ever heard of who had a right to and did notch his gun was General George Patton, and certainly nobody who knew him would ever accuse him of being humble.
In Korea true martial art black belt masters to this day still don’t stripe their belts. If you want to know someone’s rank you either, ask them or are told by someone else. Frankly with the way the belt flaps around I can’t really tell the difference between five stripes and nine anyway unless I ask the owner to stand still long enough to allow me to count. I don’t see what all the fuss is other than personal ego.
Humility means practicing what you preach. There is an old saying that goes: How can I believe what you say when what you are speaks so loudly?” So, how can instructors preach humility when so many strut around like peacocks in heat?
Sooner or later, I expect to hear a lecture sounding something like the following:
“My students, you need to learn to be humble like me, your one and only true Sensei. I started being humble twenty years ago when I trained with the great Won Flung Do. Humility takes years to develop and doesn’t come easy. I didn’t win all these humility patches on my uniform here and here and here by bragging. No, I had to demonstrate my humility over and over by putting up with blowhards from other styles until the time came for me to put them in their place with an amazing technique which I will someday teach you when you are worthy. Or if you wish you can buy my award-winning humility video and study at home.”
To a certain extent this loss of understanding of what true humility means has spilled over from the promotion race into the creation of false certifications. Remember, the first time the Karate Kid asked Mr. Myagi what belt he had his answer was classic. “Cotton. JC Penny’s… In Okinawa belts are used to hold your pants up.” That is true humilty. Except for monetary greed or ego I fail to understand the increasing trend toward falsifying certification and rank in the martial arts.
I have heard of schools in the U.S.A. displaying Chinese firework receipts as if they were Shaolin certificates or Korean Army discharge papers framed to pass for Taekwondo master’s degrees. (After all how many of us speak fluent Madarin or Korean?)
I ask you, what’s so humble about that? I don’t really think a fake certificate will help them avoid getting whooped when threatened.
When I last discussed this concept of authentic certification one of my friends asked why certification even mattered if they liked their school. Grandmaster Richard Hackworth once provided a good explanation: “How would you like to study for four years but instead of receiving a legitimate state certified High School diploma you are instead handed a letter from one of your teachers saying that you did a nice job?” Learning multiple techiques doesn’t make someone a martial artist. Not deep down. Understanding the how, what, why, and when does. True certification from an internationally recognized organization is a universal reassurance that the instructor has studied long enough to know not only the techniques but the meaning and application of those techniques.
Even so you might ask what difference does all that theory make? Why not just study the techniques? The answer is self explanatory: regardless of the science or the occupation, “Monkey see monkey do” is a lousy way to learn. Those who learn this way eventually end up performing in a substandard manner when compared to someone coming out of a legitimate course of study.
Besides, if we do not insist on qualifying from a genuine certifying organization, who wil judge the instructor’s capabilities? Certainly not the students. After all, anyone can impress the ignorant and uneducated. In practical terms, studying martial arts from an improperly certified instructor is like learning baseball from someone who never learned how to bunt and doesn’t know the curve ball exists let alone knows how to throw one. Surely there must be a reason that Cooperstown has a Hall of Fame for Major Leaguers instead of the Buffalo Grove Little League team.
I like westerns and have written a couple. In the western genre there exists the theme of the young fast but inexperienced gunslinger who meets an older and more experienced shootist. The older man may no longer be as agile or even as fast, but he knows when to shoot and what to react to. More importantly he has the self confidence that comes with knowing that he is capable of succeeding, not the cocky youthful arrogance and mere desire for quickly getting a reputation. Inevitably when there is a showdown the kid doesn’t even clear leather.
So, why would someone in the martail arts knowingly falsify rank or teach above their “pay grade?” I think it boils down to financial gain or ego, or both. Such instructors fail to understand let alone follow the concept of humility so essential to all martial arts.
Several years ago, at a master’s exam for Hapkido I met one of the most ethical and honest martial artists in our midst. I knew him to be a fifth dan from another organization and promply asked him if he was now testing for his sixth degree. I was puzzled when he replied that he was instead testing for first dan in the new organization that he had joined. When I asked why he would drop down so far in rank he replied that he had reviewed the curriculm and realized he wasn’t truly qualified to be at the higher rank. Nobody else would have known that or said anything, but he knew the truth. Once this man realized the diffence between getting and truly earning rank it made all the diference in the world to him. I’m sure he would have looked a lot more impressive at some tournament wearing five stripes on his belt rather than just one (or better yet none) but he wasn’t in the martial arts to impress others. That my friends is true martial arts humility.
Instructors should all realize that ethics are carried in one’s heart, not worn on one’s waist. Those who forsake humility and ethics in their lives are not only hurting themselves, but also their art. Consequently, and anything or anyone they teach will also be tainted.
About the author: R.W. Stone is currently a practicing veterinarian in Central Florida. He is an avid horseman, a master ranked martial artist, a best-selling western author, and a firearms enthusiast. After joining a martial arts school in 1970 Stone started studying Yudo with a Korean grandmaster. He eventually became a member of the Judo team of the University of Illinois. It was at the University that a Korean classmate and friend introduced him to Tae Kwon do. After graduating veterinary college, he found the martial arts becoming too sports oriented and eventually after moving from Miami to Central Florida he sought out a Hapkido grandmaster. Currently Stone is ranked 8th dan in Haemukwan Hapkido, 4th dan in Daehan Yudo and a second dan in Kukki Taekwondo. He is the Hapkido instructor at the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies.
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