Before You Try Martial Arts
By Joe Sensei
There are different types of dojo to train in and choosing the right one is not always easy. A person is interested in Martial Arts because he or she is looking for physical exercise, a self defense program, or just wants to get a taste of what others are learning across the world. Whatever one’s reason for starting we stay for a longer time when the school and teacher deliver what is promised. Mostly only honest men and women are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to learn or teach martial arts, but there are those who mean well and those who don’t. One type of school will sign you to a contract and only provide a minimum of instruction from lower ranked instructors or higher ranked students. Then there is the school that charges the student for everything from mat fees to late fees. Some schools are run by people who don’t have the courtesy and respect for the art that is read about in the literature. Then there are the dojos run by a person who claims to be the ultimate teacher of the absolute best system.
Forget about the idea that somewhere in the world there is a great wizard of combat techniques who issues authority, only to those deserving masters, to teach the sacred ancient secrets to others. There isn’t.
Before selecting a martial art to practice or a place to practice we need to look at the facts. Any person may conceive and teach whatever is legal. In some cases governments ruled it illegal to teach anything about weapons or empty hand fighting.
Sometimes an ex-soldier would open a school, develop a system for teaching what he knew and recruited students. Many of these school founders were masters of their arts. Three hundred years ago, a person could prove his mastery in combat to the death of his opponent. These days of course that is not likely to be the case in most of the world. When actual fighting for honor or a worthy cause was less popular, fighting became a sport. Injuries would still happen by accident or deliberately when the opponent refused to quit. We still have professional matches that require the opponent to admit defeat or risk injury.
The originators would identify what they taught by giving their school a unique name. When the originator’s students continued to teach the same methods of combat to others, they usually called what was taught by the same school name. Some students would believe that improvements in the founder’s teachings had been made and called their schools by a new name. Thus, in modern times, we have many schools and systems of martial arts training.
Some systems include weapons and some do not. All traditional martial arts include a code of conduct. The code will include a commitment to not abuse the advantage of having superior combat skills.
When entering the study of martial arts one must guard against brain washing and cultism. There are schools requiring an oath to eat, sleep and date the opposite sex, only with permission of the teacher. This is a brain washing technique and has nothing to do with martial arts training. A true teacher of martial arts in this century would not make such a demand. Then of course there is the con-man who has mastered the art of deception and behavior control to the point of convincing his students to worship him. Anyone using one or all of these methods will find vulnerable people willing to pay for the privilege of being fooled.
When a school founder organizes a class, senior students are expected to assist with juniors as the class grows in numbers. When Jigoro Kano used belt colors to signify his students’ ranks in his school, it became the norm in many other schools. The darker the color, the more senior the student.
There is no ultimate martial arts rank but most schools use at least six junior and 10 senior ranks. The belt colors usually start with white being the lowest rank and progressively darker colors as rank increases. At the top most rank another belt is introduced that signifies senior advanced teacher, or contributor to the school. That’s right; one may contribute time, space, money or research to the art and deserve a high rank.
All ranks in a school or group of schools are determined by the school’s teacher, owner or directors. Whether a rank is earned by contest or not does not diminish its position in the hierarchy of ranks in a school. There have been schools that would only issue non-competitor ranks to females and some would train only those of a certain ethnicity. Let us hope those are all gone by now.
With the advent of explosives and long range firearms, countries establishing and respecting boundaries, and civilized people seeking to live in peace; hand to hand sport fighting became a way to prove one’s dominance over his fellow man or woman. Taking the Olympiad from the Greek coliseum to the world, some martial arts have become a political tool, to prove how well a nation’s best athletes can compete against others.
Most martial arts systems will have a national registry to supervise the rankings of their members. A student must become a registered member if competition in events sanctioned by that organization is desired. They may permit registered schools and teachers to issue certificates up to a limited rank in their name.
There is no one and only registry for the world, a nation, a state or martial art. We need to overcome the desire to accept what sounds like a myth as the truth. I have been asked some interesting questions by students beginning martial arts training. Once a man asked me if the world master of karate lived in China; and did he actually fight a death match to attain his position. Another person said “I saw this teacher push a student down without touching him”, is a comment really necessary here? And a student reported that a teacher struck his assistant with a palm. The assistant had a San Francisco telephone book under his shirt, and the energy of the strike went through to leave a red palm mark on his chest. Reputable martial arts teachers will not try to convince you that they are any more than teachers.
If a teacher claims to be from some ancient secret order, how can you check it out? You can’t. Trust your instincts. I worked for a man some years ago and he paid me with a rubber check. A very wise teacher said to me “You knew he was dishonest” and that was when it dawned on me that I did feel some darkness about the person when I met him. We don’t trust our feelings enough some times. I don’t know if it is an aura, scent or energy, but something tells us when truth is absent from a face to face transaction.
I have fought many tournaments and given many years to the study of Judo, Karate and Jujitsu and have never had a teacher who required any absolute obedience. In some cultures it is considered rude to disobey a teacher or elder even when you are right and they are wrong. There are teachers who feel that the belt they wear gives them some higher level of understanding and omnipotent authority over others. They will forbid or demand certain conduct as if it is their divine right and your divine duty.
The student in many schools is not to ask for a promotion in rank. I disagree; I side with O-Sensei Phillip S. Porter, and feel that when a student has made a sincere effort to learn the material, practices regularly, maintains decorum and respect; a promotion is due on a time in grade basis. No teacher is going to live forever, and what if that master dies leaving his students with no leader or teacher of sufficient rank and authority to lead? In order to preserve the customs and values we teach in a proper dojo, we must leave behind one or more teachers to continue the teachings for future generations.
Some great masters died while being the only one to hold the highest rank in their system and left any who follow to be thought of as less than a master. That is another reason why new schools had to be founded. In some schools the governing body, none of whom held the highest rank, promoted a member to the highest rank. This can happen only in modern schools and systems. Of course if a teacher starts with a new named school any rank can be assumed and that teacher will set the ranks and rank requirements for the school.
Most martial arts organizations are not for profit associations or corporations. Operating a dojo for a living has never proven to be a wise path to take. On the one hand selling lessons is necessary to stay in business. On the other, honor prohibits us from pricing the general public out of participation and if there is a third hand, on it we don’t want to lose the ability to turn away applicants of dubious character.
In days of old a martial arts student was satisfied that the techniques of his school would assure his survival in combat. He or she would be totally committed to using the fighting methods of the teacher. These days a person is more likely to show an interest in more than one martial art and may master several or contribute as a non-competitor. It is not unusual in The United States for a person to learn a self defense method that integrates several systems. There is no sportsmanship in a fight for life and limb, but when it comes to sport there are rules. A sports organization will schedule an event and determine who is eligible to participate. To arrive at a decision of who is the best in a given art, a tournament must be open to all comers. Otherwise we only determine who among a certain membership is best. A closed event only serves the organization not the art or the reputation of the artist. Many times I have witnessed a championship match that was fought between competitors of average skill. This reflects on the art and is shown by the disrespect for the art of the general public. My eyes are not the only ones seeing the lack of skill in an event. Young men and women who have seen what I have will say “I could beat that guy who won”, “he does nothing that I don’t do better”. I prefer an event open to all who are willing to sign a waiver of liability and agree to observe official rules of conduct in the dojo. There can be no claim, I feel, to a championship title otherwise.
The Olympic committees will determine who are the representatives of a sport in each country participating and that causes many martial artists to narrow their training routines to fit the rules of the committee that writes them. I know great teachers and fighters who do not belong to a national organization and seek no rank. They are excluded from most events because they lack that membership.
Some of the national or world organizations do not permit membership in another one, and some don’t mind. If a martial artist wants to compete for a title, membership may be required.
If a person intends to enter a contest of mixed martial arts, I recommend training in karate and jujitsu. For children and adults wanting something less violent, I would try Judo. Although any combat sport carries the risk of injury; judo is the one designed for sport out of jujitsu methods of self defense.
Personally I have stuck to martial arts originating in Japan but there are many fine schools of Chinese, Israeli, Africa and Brazilian origins represented here in the United States as well.