DANGERS OF SELF-PROCLAIMED MASTERS
by Don Cunningham
Furyu: The Budo Journal
Edited by Wayne Muromoto
"Learn secret ninja fighting arts from
Soke So and So!"
"Increase your striking power seven times
with Master Such and Such ki development program!"
"Deadly street-effective grappling techniques
as taught to the Green Berets by Grandmaster So and So!"
You've seen the advertisements on the Internet
or in the back of movie star martial arts magazines, usually with
a bold picture of some guy in a colorful costume wreaking havoc
on a very tough-looking assailant. Although the names in the above
examples are fictitious, these type of advertisements often will
include a list of fantastic, even unbelievable, teaching credentials
or titles the "founder" of that particular martial arts
style has accumulated.
You may have wondered what motivates these modern
day snake oil salesmen to create such a parody of the classical
martial arts. You might even have felt slightly embarrassed at
the mockery created by these ludicrous advertisements and web sites.
Most serious martial arts practitioners scorn
such gross assertions as the rantings of egotistical, money seeking
impostors. Their fantastic claims are attributed to some desire
to appeal to an adolescent audience with little or no martial arts
experience. For the most part, the pretenders are viewed as relatively
harmless individuals who only cast a shadow of shame on those who
take a more serious approach to their study.
However, bizarre martial arts assertions may actually
reflect a paranoid individual trying to cope with their innermost
fears. Besides the potential harm that might be expected from training
with an instructor who has little or no real teaching experience,
these disturbed individuals may also be quite dangerous to others,
especially if their reality is challenged or they feel threatened.
The number of such "grandmasters" masquerading
as martial arts instructors seems to be growing every year. This
disturbing trend also reveals several other unique correlations.
First, these masters often claim to be founders of what might be
termed fabricated or synthetic martial art styles that are difficult
if not impossible to authenticate. Second, an increasing number
of these so-called experts advocate illegal responses to conflict,
even murder, as appropriate actions to their students. Finally,
there is definitely a gender bias, in that nearly all of them are
Let's examine these subject areas more closely.
At the very real risk of offending many serious and dedicated martial
arts practitioners, the martial arts can be generally classified
into one of three groups: classical, modern, and fabricated. To
the uninitiated, these three groups seem to have much in common
and it may even be difficult to distinguish any significant differences,
but the underlying principles and philosophies are very dissimilar.
The first group, the classical martial arts includes
those based on hereditary fighting styles that have remained virtually
unchanged for hundreds of years. It has only been during the past
few decades that any non-Japanese have even been allowed to study
and practice the classical styles, if at all. Perfecting the techniques
of a classical martial art often requires years of intensive training
and instruction, usually directly from an instructor who inherited
the right to teach the style from his predecessor.
Evolving from medieval Japanese warfare, classical
martial arts were designed to provide warriors with the technical
and mental preparation for using weapons in mortal combat. Essential
for the battlefield or in personal conflict, the classical martial
arts are intensely practical styles designed for an earlier era.
In more recent years, though, many of classical styles have evolved
to spiritual disciplines.
The second group, the modern forms are not strictly
combat systems like their classical predecessors. Through rigorous
mental and physical training, the ultimate goal of both physically
and mentally, modern form proponents believe their particular style
improves coordination and physical conditioning, while also benefiting
the practitioners on an intellectual or even spiritual level. While
modern martial arts like judo, karate, aikido, kendo, and kyudo
may be based on much older classical fighting styles, the teaching
approach is often structured on more modern educational methods
and the ultimate objectives rarely rise above competitive levels.
The confusion between the first two styles, the
classical and modern forms, may be attributed to their close relationship
and the adoption of similar attire and language. The clothing and
terminology used in the modern forms are frequently based on those
of their classical forerunners. Likewise, many of the classical
styles have embraced such modern innovations as the kyu-dan ranking
system and the awarding of black belts to signify achievement and
Within the modern variations, many differences
may still exist. Any first-year karate student probably understands
that his or her particular martial art style is vastly different
than practicing judo or aikido. Most people without any exposure
other than what they see in the movies or on television, though,
are usually unable to distinguish between the many modern martial
art forms or even the practice of the classical styles.
The final group, the fabricated or synthetic martial
art style is often the result of a relatively new trend in America
and Europe to nationalize fighting styles and usually a rejection
to some extent of the classical form requirements. These fabricated
martial art styles are frequently a hodgepodge of modern style
techniques thrown together along with some classical style philosophies
and principals mixed in for extra measure.
The explosion of fabricated styles in the past
few years is most likely due to the early success and attention
given to such innovators as Bruce Lee, according to Rob Olevsky,
who owns and operates Karate International, a commercial martial
arts school in Raleigh, NC. The rapid growth of this virtually
unregulated industry, though, has attracted a number of unethical
predators, as evidenced by the many cases of training injuries
and sexual offenses reported in the media. If continued unchecked,
the situation may eventually lead to government involvement.
"Martial arts organizations or senior instructors
have played a key role for many years in policing their own ranks," explained
Mr. Olevsky, who teaches karate, judo, and kendo. "But counterculture
figures like Bruce Lee and his disdain for traditional martial
arts has also created a niche for unverified or self-proclaimed
masters. The possibility of martial arts licensing looms in the
future for us all with such individuals causing harm to the public."
In the few first years after martial arts general
introduction to the West, several key groups were organized and
initially did a fairly good job of self regulation. The founding
associations were primarily interested in awarding rank and ensuring
basic teaching standards. Over the years, though, political infighting
and self serving interests frequently led to splinter groups forming
and increased competition for membership. Soon, anyone dissatisfied
with the existing organization rules found they could easily form
their own association and begin enlisting followers.
Fed on the hype of movies and television, the
majority of the general public is frequently still under the impression
that martial arts instructors are subject to some form of self-regulation
or organizational control. The popular image of the martial arts
teacher as an authority figure with high ethical values and good
moral character often lends credibility to this perception. Unfortunately,
as incidents of abuse or cult-like behavior in recent years indicates,
the lack of government imposed regulation has made it simple for
predators and mentally disturbed individuals to enter the fabricated
martial arts ranks.
While there are certainly many excellent instructors
pursuing the development of fabricated styles with commendable
intentions and a sincere desire for training excellence, there
is also a alarming number of these instructors making inane assertions
about their fabricated style's deadly effectiveness. Often, these
so called instructors also allege close ties with elite military
units, intelligence agencies, or special police forces. They usually
have grandiose oriental-sounding titles or flamboyant teaching
credentials to show their prospective followers.
These self-proclaimed martial arts masters openly
advocate extremely violent responses to perceived dangers. They
often talk about life on the street as if danger lurks behind every
corner. In their own righteousness, they frequently promote the
use of deadly force to any physical attack regardless of the intent.
While society generally views breaking another
person's bones or killing people as unacceptable behavior except
in very extreme situations, these masters often actively preach
the use of such force in street-level encounters. Because of their
inflated credentials and bogus backgrounds, they may be viewed
as authority figures by their more na´ve followers. As such, this
position of authority and power often lends a sense of legitimacy
to such excessive behavior.
In a strange twist of irony, deep-seated feelings
of powerlessness and inadequacy may actually be the reason these
self-proclaimed masters are drawn to the martial arts in the first
place, according to Dr. Mariam Cohen, a psychiatrist who practices
and teaches psychoanalysis in Arizona. Just like fear of atomic
annihilation spawned many UFO sightings amid hopes of salvation
from an advanced extraterrestrial race during the Cold War Era,
fear and powerlessness in the face of modern technology may force
others to seek assistance from powerful icons like the martial
"It's possible they feel powerless, weak,
and frightened in most other areas of their lives, and therefore
are attracted to the image of power," Dr. Cohen explained. "There
is also the image of the 'master' who is capable of defeating all
enemies and has incredible wisdom. If you're struggling with 'inner
demons' and fears of your own weakness, this is an incredible image
to connect to, to hope to be perhaps."
It is this fear of being powerless in their everyday
lives that often drives such martial arts masters to create or
claim ridiculous martial arts teaching credentials and absurd sounding
titles, Dr. Cohen suggested. They may also try to affiliate themselves
with organizations which they see as being powerful. Thus, you
see many of these masters claiming close ties to elite military
units like the Green Berets or Navy Seals or law-enforcement agencies
such as police SWAT units.
"They really need to be super-human," Dr.
Cohen said. "The fears they are combating must feel super-human.
So the image of who they are, and the power that the martial arts
provide, must be inflated. If your inner world is haunted by demons
the size of large dragon, which are projected out into the world
as incredible enemies and persecutors, then you've got to be bigger
than big to be able to cope with them."
Frequently, these so-called masters accumulate
or even create their own set of martial arts certificates or other
documents in an attempt to legitimize their credentials. Often,
these will include strange oriental characters or fictitious titles
to make them appear larger than life.
"If you can't earn grand enough credentials,
make them up," Dr. Cohen explained. "What you can make
up can always be greater than anything anyone else could have earned."
Even though the credentials or skills these masters
proclaim may seem silly to any with more than a basic knowledge
of the martial arts, they can often be quite convincing to the
inexperienced. Frequently, these individuals are quite ingenious
about their deceptions. However, some are so confused that they
may actually believe their own delusions.
Their fallacies may be so strong that they will
stick to it in face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For
example, one on-line martial arts master advertises on his web
site an unusual mathematical "proof" of his extraordinary
claims, even though the formula makes no sense in actual physical
"Since velocity is doubled due to the extending
of ki within the arm, we know that once the arm (hand/fist) hits
its target, the force of the impact is quadrupled. But since we
must also take into account the increase in mass, i.e., body fluid
through the arm (doubling the mass), you can now understand the
following: V x 2 = 4 + M x 2 = 8 or velocity doubled, quadruples
its power or four times greater power multiplied by double the
mass equals eight times the power," according to this expert.
While on the surface it appears to be a very convincing
proof of his theory, the average high school algebra student immediately
recognizes the formula is utter nonsense. Although his formula
is flawed both in terms of basic math and physics, this so-called
master insists this is the proof of the martial arts "secrets" he
shares with his followers.
"The capacity of the human mind to delude
itself is always astonishing," Dr. Cohen noted. "I have
dealt with some patients who believe things that can not be true.
Sometimes there is also evidence of more pervasive psychosis-hallucinations,
formal thought disorder, and such-but sometimes there is just this
intense belief in what is patently not true. And I am never sure
with them whether they know or don't know that they made it up."
While their obviously questionable assertions
often present a tempting target, challenging or arguing withm such
self-proclaimed martial arts masters can actually be quite dangerous
and should be avoided if at all possible. You may viewed as a threat
to their unstable reality and an opportunity to reassert themselves
against their inner fears.
"A challenge confronts them with the possibility
of their fears, of their weaknesses and powerlessness," Dr.
Cohen warned. "They have to constantly prove that they are
not weak or powerless. If you look like one of their inner demons,
if you challenge their self image, you can be the object of their
That the great majority of these self-proclaimed
martial arts experts are men may be due to existing cultural perceptions
and attitudes, according to Dr. Cohen.
"Our culture makes physical prowess a primarily
male characteristic," Dr. Cohen explained. "I think women
are culturally encouraged to deal in other ways with the sorts
of fears that martial arts help men combat. We encourage women
to be affiliative, to seek to merge with someone more powerful."
Even though their credentials may appear to be
questionable and the potential danger they pose to the general
public may seem obvious, it is better to leave these individuals
to their own fantasies. Dealing with these fears and immaturity
can take extensive therapy and qualified professional help. It
is unlikely that you will convince them of the error of their ways,
and you may find yourself the target of their rage.
Many of the modern-day masters defend their assertions
in that they are separating the spiritual dimension from the technical
aspects of the martial arts. Often, they claim the spiritual aspects
are nothing more than exotic paraphernalia. By stripping this aspect
from the original martial arts style, they believe they are revealing
the true essence of the art, thus making them more "effective."
While their arguments may be impressive, the emotionally
mature martial arts practitioners understands that the real strength
of the martial arts is not in dominating another. The real strength
of martial arts practice is how it affects the individual's spiritual
and emotional development and ultimately the quality of all human
life. Although this point may never be fully comprehended by the
self-proclaimed masters, it is well understood by those who take
the practice of martial arts seriously.
Don Cunningham can be emailed at
Visit his Web Sites
Tani Budo Kai (Fox Valley Martial Arts)