After Thoughts

Sky Dive

No, that is not me. I am the one with the camera.

I received a comment to my previous podcast, History’s Synergies, that made the wheels in my head turn. In the podcast, I make a comparison between the modern martial art school and the legendary history of what martial art schools were. I use the word ‘legendary’ with intention. It is important to note that martial art schools were probably never what we really imagine them to be, nor what movies tell us they were.

The prevailing idea is that schools, or more accurately martial art instruction, grows out of something like a Shaolin Monk tradition. An individual enters the temple to live a life of nothing but martial arts. The master takes a student, or a few students under his or her wing, eventually passing on to them the sacred keeping of their art.

Granted, in the podcast I outline conditions that did exist that were fairly similar to that idea, as I described the early days of a fledgling industry of martial art schools as business. However, it is important to note that many of the histories that some martial arts cling to, as well as the movies that base themselves on those histories, are contrived as a marketing ploy.

Most martial arts trace their roots back to the Southern or Northern Shaolin Temple. Many of them, such as Hung Ga, Kung Fu, and a variety of other arts trace their roots to the Southern Temple. The general concept is that the Temple was burned down as it was overrun by an oppressive government, during which masters fled and began their schools.

The truth is the Temple was never burned and was never oppressed. It fell into disrepair, and was revived by a government that treasured its historic value. So where did the masters come from, but more to the point, where did the schools that follow come from? Where did that history of the master handing down an art originate?

I suspect, as suggested in my podcast, it originated as much from the fledgling school industry. As instructors tended to provide martial art instruction as a side business to some other more stabilizing job, student numbers were low, leading to close-knit associations. As schools grow, those more personal associations become difficult to develop or maintain.

Here is a snippet of the comment that I referred too. I feel certain the individual who wrote the comment will not mind me putting this forward. “. . . Your comments on the MA turning into business is spot on. . . . But with so many popping up what will be the third generation for their prospective arts ( or schools )? . . .”

My first reaction is that I do not believe the legendary concept of an art being passed down is valid. Due to the structure of the early days of martial art schools, there was a purist approach. As I mentioned in the podcast, style mixing was considered inappropriate. That, however, was probably more a function of trying to keep the few students that an instructor had. The instructor did not want them wandering off to some other school. In modern terms, it would be called “contract locking.”

As diversity became viable, contract locking was broken, allowing students to become free agents. This, in itself, is enough to eliminate the idea of an art being passed down in a pure form to a third or fourth generation of instructors. Who is the instructor’s instructor, in a pure sense, when most notable individuals may have studied many different arts, styles, and approaches under many different instructors? Can we identify a pure BJJ, when there are both Machado and Gracie, and countless others? If a third generation instructor studied under both, what becomes the lineage? Rather than the passing of a baton, lineage becomes more like a web.

When we consider business pressures, third and fourth generation art curators will become even harder to identify. Successful businesses are often handed down to children whose primary concern is the continuation of the cash flow, and may have no real interest in the product or service. In the early years, it may have been easy for an instructor to single out his or her best student, announce retirement and suggest that following students train under that senior individual.

It is doubtful, should a martial art school become large enough to survive in today’s economy, that a retiring owner would simply hand the school over to a select student. The school and its students would be assets, something the retiring instructor and their family would wish to profit from. The senior student may not be in position to purchase the assets, or may not have the desire to enter into business on that scale.

I am not laying all the blame for this on the industry of martial arts. The customers are to blame as well. Just as modern jobs do not provide the security and leeway for individuals to carry out routine side businesses like instructing a few people in a martial art that same job insecurity affects the potential customers for any business.

Customers do not want locking contracts. Due to the pressures of work, as well as the quick gratification of our modern culture, customers do not want to train for three or four hours several days a week, often spending a year or more for their next belt color. The withering wallets of the middle class cause customers to look for the business that can provide rapid results, often seen as the belt, at the lowest cost. It might be possible for a school to exist with only 50 students who train for several hours each day, going for years to achieve a rank, but few customers would be willing to pay the financial cost that such a school would need to stay in business.

The modern customer, lulled by the lure of 99 cent or even free apps for their iPad, and almost free socks and underwear created by slave-like exploit of China’s population, thinks that everything should be cheap. With instant movies on the tv, and meals in less than three minutes, the modern customer believes that everything should be fast.

When I learned to sky dive, there was a training class, and the student was required to make a minimum of five tethered jumps, with the chute automatically deployed almost as soon as they left the plane, before they experienced their first true free fall. And even after that, the first free fall was for only a few seconds. More training was required to work up to long duration free falls. Now an individual walks onto a drop zone, gets a 15 minute preparation talk, is hooked to an experienced skydiver and rides up to ten-thousand feet, experiencing 30 seconds of free fall on their very first jump. The idea of having to wait and work up to that goal is unappealing to most folk.

Perhaps it can be argued that finding rapid advancement techniques, whether for sky diving or a martial art, is a good thing. People accomplish more with less. But there are some very old cliches at play here. Good things come to those who wait, and if it is worth having, it is worth working for. After all, if it can be gotten with a lick and a stamp, what is its real value to begin with.

About Sifu Keith Mosher

My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge". I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager, and I am currently an Author and a Martial Arts Instructor.
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