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.