14. The Gaining of Wisdom

One of the notions that many people have is that martial arts masters are wise in the ways of the world. The appeal of the original “Karate Kid” movies, starring the late Pat Noriyuki Morita, or the “Kung Fu” series starring David Carradine lay partly in the fact that the martial arts teachers could not only kick butt, but they also dispensed wisdom as they kicked butt. (I can’t say what the “new” “Karate Kid” movie was like with Jackie Chan, since it came and went without me seeing it, but I suppose it uses the same formula of wimpy kid meets wise old martial arts master…I do miss the corny campiness of the Cobra Kai, though!)

That’s a nice positive stereotype, but not always true, unfortunately. And it is one we have to guard against as martial arts students looking for good instruction. Budo sensei are not necessarily good personal role models, those movies notwithstanding.

The basic concern of most martial arts training is becoming technically proficient in one’s art style. Of course, in budo it is hoped that by adhering to this long and arduous regime of physical and mental self-discipline, one’s spirit also is polished and refined as a matter of course.

That happens, I have discovered, only if the martial artist lets it happen.

To be sure, I’ve encountered amazing teachers who have served as examples to me of what it means to be the best gentlemen (and women) in the world. No matter their professional careers outside the dojo, they were decent, law-abiding citizens who offered knowledge and served as examples to us younger students for what it meant to be a contributing adult to society.

As a youngster, my judo teachers were blue-collar workers: auto mechanics, sugar plantation workers, the like. But they were family men, albeit rough around the edges, who served as examples of responsibility and public service. As I moved on to other martial arts, I always ended up with other teachers who were not only superlative in their martial arts, but also were successful adults in their personal and professional lives. In comparison, I find I fall short of many of their standards, but not through lack of trying.

You would think, therefore, that the stereotype is therefore true?

Not necessarily. For every mature, wise and knowledgeable teacher, I’ve also encountered so-called teachers who were shysters, loudmouths, arrogant abusers, sycophants and egotists. I’ve read of a local teacher put in jail for making side money trying to shake down people for a loan shark. A tae kwon do teacher is serving time here for killing a teenager in a fight in a fast food restaurant parking lot because the boy supposedly didn’t look at him with “respect.” Another teacher who had a string of martial arts schools with lots of young students had to serve time because he got caught dealing drugs.

And being Asian is no barrier to being a jerk. Ah yes, he may look like Master Po but may be just as devious as a Bernie Madoff.

I looked upon my iai sensei in Kyoto with deep respect and affection. After I left Japan, we continued to write and correspond in between my visits back. He answered my questions about the history, theory and techniques of iai, and encouraged me to dig further, to study the philosophy and spirituality behind the budo. To him, a person’s nationality was no barrier to budo training, even though he had suffered through a Manchurian prisoner of war camp under the Russian Communists before he returned to Japan at the end of World War II. As long as you were serious about training, he would teach you.

However, when he passed away, I was told that I was no longer welcome to train at the main dojo. One of my Japanese sempai was oblique as to the reason why, and I didn’t find out until I encountered several other people in the same situation that I discovered the real answer. The sensei who took over the organization hated anyone who wasn’t a native Japanese, myself included. He did everything possible to push out “gaijin” from the organization and he harangued and yelled at any teacher who allowed us to pollute the main dojo. Some teachers left the organization because of that. Others allowed foreigners to study in their own personal dojo without telling this person. One person said he had even seen this teacher physically abuse women and children, hitting them and slapping them in kendo practice, which illustrates a pattern of bad behavior that belongs to the nether regions of current budo training.

In addition, as soon as my sensei passed away, the sharks circled. A top student went to my sensei’s widow and literally “ripped off” (as one sempai told me, incredulously) all the iai DVDs, videotapes and books in my sensei’s library for his own self, before the widow knew what was going on. The widow now doesn’t want anything to do with the iai group. Could you blame her?

The really sad thing is, when I discovered the situation, I wasn’t terribly surprised. By now, I’ve come to expect such disappointments in the budo world. It’s a world of humans, after all, and humans, even in budo, are often flawed and full of human foibles.

That is why, if you find a good teacher, one who is not only technically proficient but also a decent human being, you stay with him/her. They are not the norm, just as excellence is not the norm in any endeavor. But in such a short lifetime, why NOT seek excellence? Anything less wouldn’t be worth it.

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10 thoughts on “14. The Gaining of Wisdom

  1. It’s funny sometimes how, when we see those that excel in the martial arts, we tend to just admire their skill and dedication to their chosen martial art. At the same time, we also forget that these masters are also engineers, doctors, factory workers and customer service reps and have the same human traits and concerns once everyone packs up their gear and goes home.

    I’ve done Kendo for 7 years, Iaido for 2 and I have some experience with Tang Soo Do for about 3 years back in the mid-90s (guess that wouldn’t really count for much). While it’s long compared to my standards, I’ve only just now begun to start seeing the variety in the people and situations that are involved. At its worst, I’ve seen embarrassing political spats and ineffective teaching methods from people you would think would know better. At its best, I’ve interacted with those that only try to rise me up (of course, I return the favor) and give me advice on anything from techniques and philosophy down to public speaking and more effective teaching and organizational methods.

    Obviously, you should only want the best for your training and formulate plans to stay or go depending on the training environment. But, we also musn’t forget that we are dealing with humans who have human emotions, personalities and mannerisms so we shouldn’t get too disappointed if there’s a flaw in a few spots.

  2. Wayne, I’ve had similar experiences over the years and thank goodness! … because I also had good experiences as well. I think we have to lose our expectations through direct experience and learn our lessons. None of us are perfect but I do think we should try our best and continue to learn and do better.

    It’s good to see you back.

    Best regards,

    Chuck

    1. Chuck, I think geezers like us (speak for myself?) have enough of a variety of experiences, good and bad, to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. And then we move on. Yep.

      Wayne Muromoto

  3. Do you think that some of the idea of martial arts = wisdom might be how a well-adjusted teacher uses martial practice as a lens for analyzing and integrating experience with the world, and can therefore use it as a teaching tool to do the same for others?

    This is of course requiring that the teacher be well adjusted, and be somewhat able to draw those analogies.

    Folks say sports “build character.” I think there is plenty of evidence that they can help build both people of fine character, and those of poor character.

    It isn’t the sport or art, per se, but how it is taught and practiced. Even how the teacher himself views it and makes use of it.

    1. Kit,
      Of course. I overplayed my disappointment in some teachers, but the hope is that we encounter teachers who can see the broader picture, who are not “just” technicians, but who can give us insight into other aspects of our lives, but I think the truth is, there are as many kinds of teachers as there are people. When I played high school football, I had the good luck to have had some very fine coaches who taught me values like teamwork, discipline, endurance, and so on that applied to the rest of my teenage life. We won our fair share of games. Then our staff was lured away to a bigger school and we got a group of coaches fresh out of the Canadian Football League…high on pro technique, but very low on scruples or personal integrity. To them, all that mattered was winning, humiliating opponents, and bullying as a way to be top dog on the team. The experience with those coaches turned me off to organized sports for a very long time. Needless to say we lost nearly all our games because we couldn’t manage to work together as a team. The coaches were technically skilled as former pro players, but lacked integrity or character. I hope they matured. I know of at least one of them who went on to coach NFL and Division I college teams. It would be sad if they didn’t learn from their early coaching experiences that in the long run, at least for kids, character development is as critical as technical skills development.
      –Wayne Muromoto

  4. Wayne,

    is good to have you back. Thanks.

    as for my experience in judo, a teacher has to be or should be someone that helps you going trough a long journey. and as a person will have his or her flaws, like everyone. But as long as these flaws are not more than 10-15% of the character of that person and you have 85-90% from him to learn good things, that should be ok.
    Kind of like a marriage.

    Regards,

    Javi

    1. Javi,

      Exactly. You can’t expect a teacher to be a saint. As long as they’re decent human beings with reasonable flaws, that’s about the best you can expect, and you go from there. “Kind of like a marriage.” That’s interesting. I was just looking at student comments about my teaching at a college here and I started to think, “Boy, it’s like I’m a parent and they are reacting like kids; some like you, some don’t, some like the regulations and clear expectations, and some seem to rebel for the sake of rebelling…”

      Wayne

  5. Wayne,

    I’d love to hear more (in a private email) more about your Kyoto experience. I too, had a bizarre time with iai there.

    Back in 2003, while prepping for my iaido sandan test, I lived and worked for two months in Kyoto. Despite being from the MSR, the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu gang at the Butokuden were very gracious about my training with them, even with my lack of introduction. But one high ranking teacher surprised me by the extent of his overt nationalistic opinions. I paid pretty dearly for my foreign birth. One night, he invited me to train with his regular students in his own dojo where he demonstrated great skill in praising my technique while simultaneously insulting my race. A bizarre situation. I naturally said nothing, and simply continued to train. The iai world being small, I figured he knew my own sensei in Tottori, which turned out to be true. But I’ll never go back.

  6. Thanks, well-put! I have found that with teachers in general (martial arts, university professors, etc.) you generally get two out of three of the following: excellent skill in their discipline, excellent skill in teaching and sharing with others, and generally a nice person you’d like to hang out with.

    Some have excellent skills and are good at teaching but can be complete tools – egotistical, loutish, what have you.

    Some are nice guys who are very good at building a class and leading others, but their personal level of skill is not as high.

    Some are really good at their chosen discipline, and are very nice and decent people, but they have no grasp of what it takes to teach those skills to others.

    I’ve been really lucky to run into two or three teachers that have all three characteristics, and I remain their faithful student. But I have no problem learning for a short while from a highly skilled asshole. I find that sometimes a complete and utter dedication to developing your skill can make you insensitive to the needs of others. Think John McEnroe or Miles Davis – both huge assholes who were completely devoted to their skill. If I were a musician I would jump at the chance to jam with Miles, but I wouldn’t invite him over for Thanksgiving dinner.

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