Money Can't Buy Martial Arts

August 18th, 2013 | by Ben Der

Many people learn martial arts because they were verbally or physically attacked and didn’t feel strong enough to fight back. They want to learn to defend themselves without panicking. Most people don’t come to martial arts because they’re already confident or calm. Most get into it because they feel anger, fear, or something similar. If a person mainly wants just to learn how to fight, they don’t need a lot of technique. They mainly have to punch the bag a lot and practice a lot of kicking. To learn to fight, the student doesn’t need to achieve a very high level. For example, to learn self-defense with Wing Chun doesn’t require much more than a lot of practice on the first set, a lot of pak sao, and running to build up endurance; most real fights are likely to be with some rowdy who doesn’t know any high level techniques. Eventually all students have to think abut these things. If someone just wants to learn how to fight however, his or her martial art will be limited.

Although each martial art has its own unique qualities, the common thing to all martial arts is that they are not as mysterious as inexperienced people believe. Truly naive people might think, “All I have to do is learn from this or that famous person for six months, or learn from their books and videos.” Some people think they can learn tricks and gimmicks, and in that way become as good as some famous martial artist. That’s totally ridiculous. Real martial arts training means really working oneself. If a person doesn’t work on his or her self, that student won’t get anywhere–even with the best teacher in the world. The number one thing to avoid is having a lot of fantasies about martial arts. A martial art involves very realistic training. It’s just like any serious sport. For example, an Olympic competitor doesn’t become good in one or two months of exercise.

Success requires a lot of hard training with knowledgeable instructors to direct the athlete. Its the same with martial arts. Work more. Talk less. Stop daydreaming. All of us are aware of the technology of weapons available in this country, and no punch can stop a bullet, so why fantasize? Just start working. A conflict exists between authentic martial arts and a cultural belief that says people can buy whatever they want with money–even knowledge or friends. Most Americans think, “If I pay for it, I deserve to learn.” That attitude makes it a lot harder for them. The teacher might think, “Big deal. A hundred bucks a month doesn’t mean anything. Someone gives me a hundred bucks a month and they expect me to teach them everything?” the only way to gain martial arts proficiency is to train for it. That’s why I say money can’t buy martial arts.

Commercialization threatens the integrity of martial arts. A lot of people advertise, “I’m grandmaster this or grandmaster that.” They market books and video tapes, and they exaggerate themselves in different ways. It’s hard for an outsider to know who is genuine. The newcomer has to be very, very careful. Maybe its a matter of fate: if a person is lucky enough, they’ll find a good teacher. If not, they may waste their time and money and end up with false confidence. A good instructor has the ability and willingness to correct the student’s mistakes. That’s a crucial point for all students. To be a good martial arts teacher, a person must:

  • Have a thorough knowledge of the art.
  • Be skillful in communicating the art.
  • Have a good martial arts conduct.

In addition to the misconception about buying martial arts ability, another mistaken belief is that if someone studies a certain amount of time, he or she should lean a corresponding amount of technique. People mistakenly tend to measure their progress in time, not training. And it’s not just work but doing it right and doing it with intelligence and the right attitude of learning. The right attitude of learning means the student must be receptive not only to the technique, but also to the logic and purpose behind the technique.

I have to repeat things to my students constantly, until they finally get the idea. For example, from day one until sometimes ten years into a student’s training, If have to remind him or her to stay low on the horse and keep the head up. Receptive students don’t get bored with the reminders because the see their purpose. That shows the right attitude of learning. We must set aside pride and ego enough to identify the problems that affect all students, then honestly work on those problems.

The last obstacle to real training I want to mention is celebrity worship. The problem with celebrities in this culture is they aren’t really accessible enough for people to identify with in a positive way. The message of the entertainment media doesn’t promote real confidence. The messages from our society don’t say, “With proper training you can do this, too.” Instead, society encourages people to spend money to worship celebrities. The student needs to search out his or her mind and identify the weak, self-defeating attitudes, and eliminate celebrity worship.

No person can learn everything there is to know about martial arts, because ultimately, the depth of martial arts has no limit. When the limit is reached, there’s no more art. And yet, martial arts still isn’t magic. The mysterious things always break down to something simple and logical, like basic techniques, speed or endurance. If I make a clever move against a student in class, I don’t try to mystify it by saying it’s a secret move. Besides, if the student doesn’t train correctly, he won’t be able to use the move.

Mastery depends on training. Martial artists have to train their bodies, train their minds, and train their attitudes–and keep good martial arts conduct. There has never been a martial arts master who hasn’t thoroughly trained. This is the genuine way of true martial arts.

This article was originally written by Sifu Ben Der of San Jose California for publication in Kung Fu magazine (Fall 1993) and was edited by his student David Santen.