Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ranks and Titles, part 2

How does one become a grandmaster or a master? This has been debated in depth on forums, so this is essentially a synopsis. There is no single consensus or single answer.

First, one can evolve into the role. This was described to me as “family style” by Sijo John Wong, my late Tai Chi teacher, head and founder of the Wu Shing Tai Chi Academy. He called it family style because it is based on the organic model of family growth. One teaches, which is like being a parent. When one’s student becomes a teacher, that is like being a grandparent, and would be recognized as “master” or “master teacher.” When one’s student becomes a master in turn, one then achieves grandmaster status.

One can also be recognized by one’s peers, either those already of grandmaster status acknowledging one as an equal, or by other masters recognizing one has elevated oneself to another level. While one can be recognized as a master based on singular skill as a fighter, it seems to me that grandmastership in martial arts is generally tied to lineage, though the second criteria in the previous sentence might allow skill alone. In chess, for example, grandmasters are recognized solely by ability to win.

Someone like Angel Cabales gained recognition through both of these channels, devoting a lifetime to both teaching and perfecting his own skills.

Another route might be “family style” in which one inherits the title based on blood relation to the previous head of the system. Some well known examples of this type of succession in recent times include: Yip Chun in Wing Chun, Kissimaru Ueshiba in Aikido, Lily and Gini Lau in Eagle Claw (parallel, competitive successorships) and Vincent Cabales in Serrada Escrima. Historically this has had mixed results. Some lineages have remained strong through successive generations while others have seen the title inherited by name rather than accomplishment.

Next, there are grandmasters based on self-perception. This might occur when, in the previous example, there is a superior student who is passed over as head of a style for a blood descendant of lesser abilities. In such a case, the student may opt to go out on his own and found his own lineage. Whether or not such this is justified may vary according to the needs of one versus that of the larger organization; battles have been fought over such things. Sometimes it is necessary for the prodigal son to move on, whereas other times it might have been better to work from within. It depends on how various personalities get along at such junctures.

Finally, there are those who proclaim themselves grandmasters based completely on egoic self-aggrandizement. In other words, someone who is qualified neither by skill nor by being groomed for successorship, but is merely fueled by excessive desire for recognition. It is unfortunate that martial arts attracts a certain element who need to feel fulfilled in this way, particularly as the public might be conned by words and flashy uniforms. Reality often has a way of catching up to such individuals, in the form of a better fighter who decides to test the skills of this unknown grandmaster.

However one arrives at such an elevated status, it would seem there are a couple of basic, incontrovertible requirements. First, one should have deep understanding and mastery of the fundamentals of the style one practices, whether or not one is the premier fighter in the system. Secondly, one should have a broader perspective of what this rank entails. Essentially, the title lays claim to a fiefdom, which means having responsibility not just to oneself but also to those who look up to the position. Like parenthood, it means raising up of those who follow along the path. If a grandmaster does not do this, he will sit atop a tree that dies and the title he has worn will pass into oblivion.

Rank and Titles

Personally I am of the belief that titles are for politics, something GM Angel Cabales frequently said, and that while ranks and titles can be disputed or taken away, one owns one's own knowledge and that is a gift which remains throughout life (to paraphrase folks like John Wong, Wally Jay, Richard Bustillo and other elders I've met in the arts).

Anthony Davis has always said that he was the first to publicly call Angel by the title of "grandmaster" and I've never heard anyone dispute that. However, here is a little story that I heard Angel tell on a few occasions to myself and others:

Back when Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo were setting up shop on their own in the late 1960's, they approached Angel and asked if he would be grandmaster of their organization. Angel told them (and was quite fierce in his retelling of this every time) that he was already a grandmaster, and if he let them, his own students, "make" him a grandmaster, then what would prevent them in the future from thinking they could "unmake" him as grandmaster. In other words, he declined from a position of authority. This is allegedly why Angel appears first in Guro Dan's original book, being his original FMA teacher, but Villabrille is named as a grandmaster, having accepted their offer of the title.

Not everyone may accept this history, but it is one Angel stuck with through the years I knew him. This is not necessarily inconsistent with GM Davis' telling, because this was something done in private, whereas Anthony Davis promoted Angel to the public in ways Angel would or could not do for himself.

As for anyone else's titles, that is an endless source of discussion and debate in the MA community at large. I know people who dispute Vincent Cabales' claim, and I know people who dispute Anthony Davis' claim. There are others within the Serrada family who have also created their own organizations, and within them they are the grandmaster as it is they who teach the teachers and dispense ranks. If we are to show respect within the Serrada community, it means we should acknowledge that the art has grown and spread, and not just under one umbrella. We don't have unity, we have community, and that is a way we can come together in peace.

The martial arts have plenty of charlatans (I'm not referring to anyone I've mentioned herein) who claim rank and skill beyond their due. Rank is like clothing, and not all wear it equally. There are folks I know who are quite humble but as worthy as anyone gracing the covers of magazines. I prefer to acknowledge each person for who they are, and what they have done in terms of personal growth and contributions to the art and society in general. The measure of a man is not found in the color of his belt or in a piece of paper, but what is in his heart and soul.

Just my own opinions ....

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Matrix of Sixteen

My “matrix of sixteen” is a template for learning lock-and-block (numerado in some styles), which is a constant movement drill. The defender does continuous techniques against attacks, which are being practiced by his partner.

I teach four basic techniques for each of the first two angles. Angle #1 has, in specific order: outside, inside, cross and umbrella blocks. Angle #2 has: outside, shoulder, cross and umbrella blocks. I recommend sticking to a consistent sequencing of techniques when learning each angle so as to create a mnemonic device for remembering the material. Otherwise as one learns more material, there is a greater chance to forget to practice something.

In lock-and-block, the attacker will throw a #1 angle strike, then after the defender completes his full technique (as slowly as necessary, as cleanly as possible) the attacker will throw an angle #2 strike, which the defender will again counter. The initial developmental stage starts with just these two strikes.

Here is the map of the matrix in its most basic and straightforward progression, from the defender’s perspective. At this level, the speed is controlled by defense; the attacker merely feeds the strikes so the defender can work out the timing and movement.

Outside block for angle #1; outside block for angle #2.
Inside block for angle #1; outside block for angle #2.
Cross block for angle #1; outside block for angle #2.
Umbrella block for angle #1; outside block for angle #2.

This same sequence will be repeated, except substituting the shoulder block for angle #2.
Then same sequence will be repeated, except substituting the cross block for angle #2.
The sequence will be repeated once more, substituting the umbrella block for angle #2.

The defender will now have done a combination of every angle #1 defense with every angle #2 defense.

The next step past this basic is to have the attacker begin to lengthen the chain by throwing another angle #1 strike, then when that is accomplished, another angle #2. At this point, it can become a continuous sequence, with the attacker alternating angles #1 and #2. Next step would be to randomize these.

Competency at this level moves the student from seeing techniques as separate and discrete to becoming components in a larger holistic pattern of movement. When the student moves on into further angles of attack, there is now a framework into which the new defenses can be plugged, allowing quick progress integrating the system.

For those familiar with these exercises, what I am describing is not something new, except for formalizing a beginning drill to ensure everything gets practiced and students learn to flow from wherever they are to wherever they need to be. That flowing quality is one of the key principles of this art, and this drill creates enough sense of urgency to bypass the conscious mind’s ability to stop and analyze everything. In other words, it forces the subconscious to keep up with the attacker in real time.

Discipline and Growth

We all attract to ourselves the reality that we choose. Maybe the circumstances are on a larger scale, but how we respond is always choice. Your own view of reality is neither more nor less subjective than anyone else’s; "objectivity" always has content.

There are always limits to human perception, and so we can only know that which we have eyes to see. We create the potential for growth when we can see the limits of what we know.

Learning a skill creates discipline through perseverance. One endures periods of awkwardness, frustration and boredom, all steps towards completion of competency. Martial arts, sewing, learning to walk, all require that focus remain on achieving the goal.

“Courage is the greatest of all the virtues. Because if you haven't courage, you may not have an opportunity to use any of the others.” (Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English Author).

People come to martial arts for many reasons: self-protection, self-esteem and health are three of the main ones. The first thing the art must do is fulfill these expectations, or else a person will move on. Once that is achieved, however, the art must move to another level or it will stagnate. It must become somehow larger than ones initial attraction, for having met those needs, one has outgrown who they were when those needs were unmet. Right?

The purpose of a discipline isn’t immediate gratification, therefore, but is found in the long-term potential for self-growth and awareness. If the vehicle satisfies one’s needs, it becomes a road, continually leading one through a landscape that opens to new vistas. The need for self-defense may give way to self-gratification, which can become a pursuit of perfection, which can lead to self-awareness and acceptance.

It is when we recognize our own process that we can overcome the limitations of our perception, and at this level any art, any discipline, becomes something more than what it first appeared, reflecting a deeper metaphor of whom we wish to be.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Moving Past Basic Learning

More advanced students should start focusing on lock-and-block and sparring more. The chance to work out with different people at different skill levels is an invaluable learning experience, how to read opponents and remain in control.

Control doesn't necessarily mean hurting someone; superior control is not
hurting someone because you don't have to, though the capacity is there.
That's the challenge when working with classmates, to find the edge and not
step over it. Sometimes that's a judgement call, opinions differ. I think
the Dog Brothers motto at their Gatherings pretty much sums it up: Friends at the end of the day.

Lock-and-block starts with my "matrix". Using the "matrix of sixteen"
builds smoothness, accuracy, and lastly power, which cannot really develop
without the others. From there work in new angles progressively. This is
even good exercise when you are advanced. Use progressive feeds (1-2,
1-2-3 etc; both timing count and angles). Even if you are advanced,this is a good warm-up to "picking" ("picking your target" using feints, etc).

Sparring starts with counter-for-counter timing, allowing each person to defend and attack. The basic is "the box" because it teaches efficiency and directness of movement. It's a good place to drill in strong compact movement. With progress this opens up to incorporate everything you know.

Do not rush this process; improvise only when you have the basics in place. It is not "free" until it is understood, by both mind and body. Then the techniques simply become tools and you can create what you need. But always (always!) sticking to the underlying principles of the movement: compact efficiency and effective
leverage through good angles, footwork and grounding.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Fender Bender

I was getting ready to write a blog about training today when this little gem came along this morning to remind me about paying attention to the intuitive side of life.

I was driving my kid to school, which is about a mile away. I pulled into the center lane of the main street (one lane each way with a turn lane in the middle) behind a line of cars at the red light, then saw a car pulling out of a driveway on my right. There was a gap in the line of cars for him to make his left turn, so I stopped short of the car in front of me to let him through. However, the driver was looking to his right at traffic coming from that direction and drove straight into the front of my car.

No one was hurt (though I'm starting to feel soreness in my upper back), and replacing my bumper and turn signals and realigning the front end will run close to $1000, which is my insurance deductible, even before labor is included. Plus, I'll need a rental vehicle for several days. Of course, it turns out the other driver was a sixteen year old undocumented Mexican kid with no license, in an unregistered car belonging to a friend, so I'm stuck with the total costs. He offered me $100 for repairs if I didn't call the cops, saying a friend of his could fix my bumper (the mounts are busted off, has to be replaced, and the turn signals alone cost what he offered).

As soon as he (and all the people who came out of his house) started telling me not to call the cops, I knew I was screwed. Anyway, I waited on 911 hold for 10 minutes, then called the local police department through the operator, which told me to call Highway Patrol and switched me back to 911, where I sat on hold another 10 minutes. Finally, while hearing the recorded message not to hang up for the umpteenth time, a CHP officer just happened to drive by. When he said the other car would be impounded because the driver was not licensed, the kid's big sister started arguing that he shouldn't do that because "it isn't done this way in Mexico." I think they need to understand that this isn't Mexico, and the laws that apply there are not valid here. Sheesh!

I even had strong premonitions of trouble which caught my attention beforehand; I wanted to leave extra-early today, and those kinds of feelings often make me wonder what is out there. Before leaving home I put on some lightweight sandals instead of regular shoes, then wondered if they'd be sufficient if I had to walk home, and as I was pulling up behind the other cars in the turn lane, I was watching for the other car before I even saw him, sensing trouble through the gap in the line of cars to my right. This just goes to show you can't drive too defensively, as I saw him and was at a complete stop before he even pulled out.