Masters Pt. 1 Who Is A Master?

A master is a highly skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity. The title is not so much a rank as it is honorific, in recognition of a standard attained, when we are discussing traditional Chinese skills.

Of course, not all teachers can be masters, and not all masters necessarily teach, though most do. (There is a school of thought, not exclusive to martial arts or Qigong, that in order to become a master you have to become a teacher first.) Teaching pushes younger masters to work harder to remain ahead of their students. Teaching forces them to think deeper and differently about the skill than they might otherwise have done. Sometimes they need to deconstruct and “reverse engineer” the skill when helping students with learning difficulties, or when asked uncommon questions that they may not have encountered, not having been taught or even considered before.

My Tai Sigong, Grandmaster Ip Man, for example, was initially a reluctant master though he grew into the role. He began Wing Chun Kungfu around age eleven, and though he loved his studies, practice, and fighting challenges, he had no desire or intention to really teach, at least during the early stages of his life. He dismissed several requests by people and friends to teach, over the years, and certainly did not need to teach to earn a living, having come from a very wealthy family, and having held various jobs in other pursuits. (He may have shared a little skill casually during this time but he did not teach formally.) It was not until much later in life, in Hong Kong, and after much hardship caused as a result of the Japanese invasion, that he came to change his thinking and begin his first formal class, at age fifty-seven. He went on to exert enormous influence throughout the world and produced many famous masters, most notably Bruce Lee.

While she may not have been a “reluctant master”, my Sigong, Grandmaster Yang Meijun, despite beginning her Dayan Qigong studies at age thirteen, did not teach until much later in life, due to the oath she took not to teach the skill until seventy years of age. This had been the tradition of those hand-picked as inheritors in this lineage. (The reason for this being that if one could not attain longevity in good health using the skill then the skill had been devalued and not fit to be passed on.) Mao’s Cultural Revolution, during which time all cultural skills including Qigong were forbidden and outlawed, thwarted her plan to find a worthy successor, and pass it on when she turned seventy. Once the Gang of Four was overthrown, and Qigong masters no longer had to be concerned about imprisonment or death, she began using her skill to heal the throngs of people that lined up every day in Sun Wu Man Park, Beijing, to see her. She concluded that she could help far more people by teaching them some of the basic Dayan Qigong skills so that they could heal themselves and remain healthy, and also expend less of her own vital energy in the process. In the end, she did not begin teaching until she was almost eighty! For most of her adult life she kept the skill hidden (for many years even from her own husband!) and those that encountered her would have had no idea they were in the presence of one of the highest-level Qigong masters at the time!

In the past (and in some cases still today) masters carried the filial duty of preserving a family skill on their shoulders. Selected as children, it would have been their destiny to carry the skill forward. They had little to no choice in the matter, and family reputation and pride were at stake. So, they simply had to practice every day, and practice hard (far harder than the average student in today’s world with its myriad distractions). They dared not fail. They may also have been pushed to excel by their Sifu (generally father or uncle) who also would have had a stake in their development. So, in a sense, while the amount of effort and time necessary to attain mastery always remains the same, perhaps by being pushed and carrying this responsibility, it is easier, in a sense, to reach mastery. It is fated and almost a foregone conclusion. Those with no such responsibility must possess greater self-motivation and passion or love for the skill to drive them on. They need a clear direction and goal, to remain focused consistently and eradicate the obstacles (especially laziness, impatience or ego) that plague the majority of students, preventing them from ever realizing their full potential.

The term “master”, in the West today, is frequently self-appointed by more low-level teachers, so much so that it has lost some of its relevance. Some “masters” today appear suddenly, out of nowhere, with no transparent background. They are not known to others, and are less than forthcoming about their history, certifications, or accomplishments. They may claim their skill to be rooted in some obscure, unverifiable “secret” system, or claim to be the founder of some new eclectic skill with roots in ancient traditions. Perhaps having undertaken some nominal study, some claim to be the close “indoor” student of some famous master, and the only one with the “secrets” to the skill taught only to him and not to others, yet the master may not know the person or even remember him because there is no relationship. There is no public acknowledgement of them or any record whatsoever within the genealogy or family tree. A true master has no need of such deception or obfuscation.

A true master has to have been trained by another master, just like a master carpenter or sword maker passes on his skill to an apprentice. Even the most respected pizzaiolos (artisanal pizza makers) all say that you must learn from a master pizzaiolo! With chess, in order to become a Grandmaster you have to have played and beaten a Grandmaster. It is possible with certain arts and crafts, or academic subjects, to be self-taught, and perhaps with great application and talent to go very far indeed, all by oneself. But, in the case of Chinese martial arts, it is really not possible to be a master if you have not even trained with one because a master does not just impart the physical skill, but teaches, through example, how to become a master, and how a master comports himself. This can only be absorbed, like osmosis, from being around masters, and knowing their heart and character, thinking, behavior, responses, and actions, not only in the class, but socially, over tea and meals. Today in martial arts qualities such as loyalty, dignity, compassion, courtesy, humility, gentility, and exercising self-control etc. seem outdated, but these are the essential qualities of what makes a true master, beyond merely possessing the highest standards. One not having personally trained with a master simply would miss so much and know nothing about any of this. Without character training and philosophy, a student with even a modicum of skill can easily become conceited, arrogant, and deluded. The greatest masters throughout history were known equally for their character as much as for their skill. Only a master knows how to forge a master out of a diligent and talented student, to help him reach his full potential.

Inferior, self-titled masters may possess vast textbook knowledge on theory and philosophy but remain unable to adequately apply or demonstrate high-level skill. They cannot lead students to the top of the mountain. Some deliberately keep students in the dark, in a perpetual state of uncertainty and unknowing, always second-guessing themselves, and they hold back skill, for the fear of being surpassed. A true master genuinely wants to be surpassed as it means he will have succeeded in his responsibility to pass on the skill to the right individual(s).

Self-appointed masters spend more time and energy on their marketing, advertising, public relations, and social media, to build their “brand” than on developing or maintaining their skill or educating students. With hype and an aura or mystery, their students or devout social media followers can believe them to be far beyond their true level. Eventually, these masters can even come to believe their own publicity and become legends within their own minds. If they are challenged outside their cadre of students, by non-compliant opponents determined to win, they are often dispatched in a most humiliating fashion. There are now scores of viral videos on the World Wide Web titled “Fake Masters” exposing them. Sadly, these individuals only succeed ultimately in damaging the credibility and reputation of the arts they claim to represent, for the simple reason they are not good, let alone even highly skilled.

The difference between a master and beginner is that a master makes the difficult look easy, while the beginner makes the easy look difficult. The reason being is that not only does the master know the skills intimately and performs them in the most fundamental natural way without even having to think about it, he lives and breathes the skill. Body, mind, and Qi have become integrated, inseparable, balanced and in perfect harmony. His movement is flawless, smooth, and natural, free from any, and all mental, physical, or energetic impediments. The beginner, or even intermediate student, after many years, may perform external movement adequately but will not have integrated and mastered the breath and relaxation, stillness of mind, deep internal awareness, and mindfulness. In this instance, the student’s form can be considered “empty”, because it is lacking Qi, Jin (power) and Gong Lik (strength), not (yet) truly internal. Because of this the full potential of the martial capabilities are not realized, and because the acupuncture channels have not yet fully opened, the full health and healing potential of the skill, including vitality, greater resistance to disease, and longevity, also are not fully realized. So, even after decades, there are no quantifiable or lasting results from studies and practice. Some can even remain fundamentally unchanged physically, internally and mentally since the day they began

There is a saying, “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried”. No master is born with skill or even special abilities, otherwise they wouldn’t need to practice at all. It is only the amount of practice they undertake, over time, that distinguishes them from the ordinary student or mediocre long-term practitioner. The entire process from beginner to mastery is to make the crooked become straight, by gradually and systematically reducing the number of common errors that everyone is apt to make. Fixing the errors means to reduce the blockages so that the Qi flows better or optimally.

Masters tend to be driven, focused and highly motivated individuals. I know one master who, during his first years, would train a set number of routines of the long form before breakfast and if he failed to accomplish this he would simply not eat. Another shared a room with his Gongfu brothers and in order to stay ahead of them he would get up quietly in the middle of the night, furtively go outside to practice while the others were sleeping and return to bed without anyone noticing. My Sigong, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, delayed construction of his own house as it was interfering with his practice. Contrast this with mediocre students that offer myriad excuses for subsequent lapses in practice, missing days and even entire weeks, citing that “life gets in the way”, or face long periods away from class, especially during periods of illness and injury. Ironically, it is exactly the inconsistent practice and irregular attendance that accounts for the fluctuations between health and illness, and frequency of injury occurrences. Consistency is the “key” to mastery. Conversely, it is laziness and apathy that accounts for why a great number that practice these skills will not make much progress internally, if at all, other than accumulating an array of external forms

Masters are not just exponents that have reached the pinnacle of proficiency. This is really just one aspect. Chinese internal skills, ultimately, are Life and Character skills. “Eating Bitter” (Chi Gu) is often discussed, which means to accept physical discomfort and mental hardship, and endure this while maintaining a positive attitude. It is not possible to achieve mastery of the skill without Eating Bitter. Masters must be masters of themselves, which means exercising moderation and self-restraint in all things. There are no addictions, like gambling, alcohol or substance abuse, or sexual excess. They live their lives just as skillfully, with dignity and integrity, in balance and good health, and they apply the principles of the skill to life itself. A true master becomes an embodiment of the skill and its philosophy, like an ambassador. Ultimately, masters must endure the same hardships and difficult circumstances in life as everyone else. Sometimes, the wisdom developed from the meditation and philosophy can help prevent and avoid bad situations altogether, and sometimes we cannot avoid karma. But, it is their character in the handling of these tests, both externally and internally, that defines them, and distinguishes them from ordinary people that can make poor decisions in crises, or collapse under stress, or become dependent on substances and vices as crutches, or lose their health due to emotional extremes. “Eating Bitter” prepares them mentally, physically, and spiritually for life’s trials and tribulations.

Is it possible to tell a master of Chinese skill from outward personal appearance? This is not so easy, as masters appear in all shapes and sizes. Looks can be very deceiving. Some are skinny, which can be mistaken for weak, and while they may lack bulk, they can possess inordinate Gong Lik (internal strength) or immovable Zhong Ding (Rooting or Grounding Power). Others that are portly can be mistaken for being unfit, yet despite their girth may possess a light body (Qing Gong), agility and superior flexibility. A case in point is stocky Hong Kong movie actor Sammo Hung, star of 90s CBS show Martial Law and seventy-five films. He can perform gymnastics and flexibility beyond athletes half his age. Often though the master can resemble their skill. For example, White Crane Kungfu masters tend to be tall and willowy. Chen Taijiquan masters tend to be solid and sturdy in appearance. But, professional Western martial artists all tend to look very similar in build. Their bodies are bulked up with the same training regimens, and weightlifting, producing huge biceps, barrel chests, thick necks, and bulging veins. Some abuse steroids to become even bigger and this can affect health over time. Because they do not work with Qi, and good health is not a priority or goal for them their art can even lead to health issues. Masters of Chinese skill, through their internal training, should be healthy, both physically and mentally, while Western martial artists may be at “Olympic” fitness levels, but not necessarily healthy! (An extensive documented list of professional athletes that have dropped dead during peak levels of “fitness” exists in the public domain, so contrary to popular thought, fitness does not equal health!)

Most Chinese skill masters do not possess the physical bulk of Western martial artists, essentially because bulk equals stiffness which affects speed, reaction time, and agility. They do, however, possess a “presence”, a certain assuredness that comes from knowing their capabilities. Consistent practice over time equals Gongfu (skill). (This should become a mantra for students!) And, Gongfu brings unshakeable confidence. Natural power exudes from the inside (Bone Qi), and they possess vitality (from the cultivation of Qi), and Spirit (Shen) that literally shines through the eyes, giving a youthful appearance that belies their true age. Because their Qi is full and higher than the normal person, people are attracted to this (as the stronger Qi always passes to the weaker Qi) and they may absorb some of that energy, if only temporarily, and feel more vital, simply being in the master’s presence.

Some masters, however, can seem very ordinary and one may not be able to guess outwardly at all. For example, my Sigong, Grandmaster Ip Chun (who just celebrated his 100th birthday!) has always been of slight height and build, has a relaxed and open nature, and a positive disposition, always happy and smiling. To meet him, those not connected to the martial art world would not automatically assume he even practiced Kung Fu, let alone realize he is famous throughout the world in martial arts circles, and people used to travel the world to study with him. Nevertheless, no-one can penetrate his defense because of his sensitivity and superior position through footwork and structure. When he senses an opening in the opposition, it is impossible to stop his attack. My other Sigong, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang (aged 78), by contrast, possesses a powerful build, solid back and trunk, with legs like oak trees, and he moves like a panther. When he issues power you can feel it. The room almost shakes. Even in stillness, as he sits or stands, you can literally sense his strength and power. While he displays a playful nature, and enjoys a laugh, he can sometimes appear quite formal as he holds a very upright posture and a dignified bearing. Though very different, in every aspect, it is clear and obvious, at least to those with the eyes to see, that when they demonstrate their movement and applications, both are exceedingly high-level masters

Masters are, after all, only human, which means they are not perfect, and capable of mistakes, misunderstandings and over-reactions. Traditional Chinese internal skills are founded upon the philosophies of Daoism, Buddhism, or Rujia (Confucianism). These all included moral codes governing thought and action. So, for the skill to be complete morality and character are integral, and necessary on the path to spiritual awakening, cultivation and enlightenment. The high-level master is mindful of maintaining the virtues and constantly guarding against vices. Masters that focus purely on the physical skill, or their skill as business, may even teach the philosophy to students yet neglect it in their own lives and interactions. In this situation they are no different than the masses that exhibit common human faults and foibles such as pettiness, bullying, controlling, insecurity and jealousy, avarice, hubris, arrogance, narcissism, hypocrisy, mistrust, disingenuousness, duplicity etc.

Some masters can end up becoming victims of their own success. Without a moral core, from upbringing or education, and/ or personal spiritual attainment as their focus and goal, the newfound fame and fortune, and adulation can exacerbate inherent character flaws, and a master is truly capable of turning into an ogre. Many years ago, I was informed about a known Wing Chun master who would frequently gamble and borrow money from students, and never repay them. There are some that abuse their position and habitually pursue relationships with their female students like a predator. There is a Shaolin fighting monk in NYC who has been arrested on domestic abuse charges, and his alcohol-fueled parties, attended by celebrity students, including music industry rappers and screen actors, are the subject of gossip pages in publications. I have met individuals that sought out masters and made great personal sacrifices to travel and study with them only to be psychologically abused and taken advantage. So, not all masters are cut from the same cloth.

Students can be biased in their views. Some may believe their teacher to be the epitome of the skill, and in some cases, this may be true, but in other cases this can be far off the mark. The internet highlights this diversity of opinion and the lack of discernment amongst the general viewing public. Commenters on video content heap praise upon “masters” that clearly never even formally studied traditional Chinese movement or even demonstrate minimal understanding of postural requirements, body mechanics or internal working, while those on the opposite end of the spectrum fail to recognize the true greatness that is in front of their eyes and criticize the technique or question the veracity of some of the most renowned and venerated masters.

Often, it is only other masters that are truly capable of recognizing a peer, having “climbed the mountain” themselves. Possessing a greater perspective than ground-level view, knowing true Gongfu themselves, they know exactly what they are looking at, far better than the average student who might appreciate high level movement and technique, but not fully understand it, in the same way we can enjoy good music, but only a professional musician listens and immediately comprehends the complexities and subtleties and level of technique involved, because he has been through the process himself. They are better equipped, equally, to immediately spot the pretenders and fake masters; those that possess only “Empty Form” (external/ superficial movement), bereft of Gong Lik (trained strength), Bone Qi, and Jin (trained force). These genuine masters are not swayed by hype, or Public Relations branding, or false claims within the self-promotion, or other’s misguided opinions. They are able to see with their own trained eyes or, even better still, sensing from “touching hands” in “friendly” exchanges of skill, which was customary, and provides no greater means to really know for sure.

By Adam Wallace