In this article I want to examine the grandmaster phenomenon that has become an epidemic in the western world of martial arts.
As always when I start one of these treatises I like to qualify myself by sharing my resume. I am looking at this trend with sixty years of study and teaching the martial arts. If I wanted to pad my resume I could claim sixty five years in the arts but that would be stretching the truth a little. My father was a WW II marine and served most of his enlistment in Hawaii which as any serious martial art knows was and still is today a Mecca of the martial arts. My father became adept at the Marine Corps early version of what they called combat judo or H2H combat. He also brought back whatever knowledge he accrued from the people he came in contact with there. I don’t claim those years because though I picked up a bit I was really too young to understand what he was trying to teach me.
When I was ten years old I became a member of an informal class in judo and boxing. Like any of the kids in the neighborhood I had developed a rudimentary knowledge of boxing and wrestling. Those were basic survival skills in the inner city. A couple of years later I became part of a formal dojo, I learned judo and jiujitsu. Several years after that I began studying karate with the first Shotokan karate instructor and to my knowledge the first karate instructor in Chicago and probably the Midwest. I stayed with him a short time until I had an opportunity to study Shorei-Goju karate with Douglas Dwyer and later with John Keehan (Count Dante).
In those days there were no fifteen or sixteen year old black belts. In the fifties and early and mid sixties you couldn’t make shodan or first degree black belt until you made sixteen. I didn’t know any child black belts but I knew of some teens who sported worn and frayed brown belts like you see on old sensei and masters today. Most of those were the children of the sensei (s) of the schools who had probably began studying before they were potty trained. Consequently I had been studying the martial arts for almost a decade before I made shodan and it was in neither in Judo or karate. It was in a combination of Indonesian and Chinese martial arts. I was in the military at the time and studied from a ship steward on a destroyer on the navy base in the Philippines.
When I began studying there were no grandmasters in the U.S. or in the Asian countries. I believe that the grandmaster was more of a Western Creation. Because of where I served in the military I had access to martial arts in some of their homelands. I didn’t study with any one individual to gain any mastery of what they taught but I picked up a few tidbits along the way.
When I made it back to civilian life I resumed my studies. I basically studied a year or two here and the same with any of a number of instructors. Martial arts still weren’t popular then though schools would crop up here and there. Most didn’t last more than a few years. My schools were included in that situation. In order to continue my teaching and my training I taught in the YMCA, the Chicago Park District, neighborhood and social centers and in churches. Because of that my schools had a longer shelf life than many. In those days most instructors weren’t quick to accept children. Very few parents would have put up with what we tended to put them through. The hand few of women and children who did study were taught just like the men and in those days training was brutal.
Today, sixty years after studying with some well known and respected instructors and some who few would know, I am a part of that Grandmaster phenomenon. I was awarded a tenth degree black belt after fifty two years of continuing study in the martial arts. Personally, I don’t feel that I am a master of anything much less a grandmaster though I am considered such by my peers. I know a number of more skilled and gifted martial artists than myself who are years from attaining my rank but if nothing else I have longevity and where I lack some of the natural ability I’ve accrued some level of knowledge and maybe just a tiny bit of wisdom. After sixty years I am still a student and I’m still learning though at this late date I learn more from my students than from old grizzled practitioners like myself.
If you go on Face book and on YouTube you’ll probably find over a thousand grandmasters. You find almost as many doctors and professors. I get questioned by some because I occasionally use those titles but I have two doctorates that I got the hard way and I’m a provost professor at a local university here. Unfortunately many claim those titles who have never darkened the doors of a college or university. Likewise you have sokes, shihans, hanshis and of course grandmasters coming out of the woodworks.
Some of these individuals have come up through the ranks as have I and came by their titles the same way. Others have studied maybe five or ten years and founded their own style or system to which they became self proclaimed grandmasters. Amongst the serious martial artists of advanced age and rank it is generally agreed that it takes about forty five to fifty years to attain a legitimate tenth dan.
When I wear my rank on my obi (belt) which by the way I seldom do I have enough sense to know that I’m not going to go to Okinawa or Japan and have all of the eighth and ninth degrees fall kowtowing at my feet. The rank I own is recognized only by my peers. Most of them have been in the arts as long or longer than myself.
So, Hoppa Grass, you ask me, how does one attain that (not so) rarified grandmaster status. Well there’s the rather dubious route. Study for a few years and form your own system Crown yourself the tenth degree grandmaster of your own Hop up and down in the air ryu and have the two or three clueless individuals who hop up and down with you to undersign you or better yet go to similar founders like yourself and get them to award you rank.
Another way is to find a real reputable master and study with him until he keels over from old age and inherit his system and rank. By then you would have probably been studying with him for from anywhere from thirty to fifty years. Even at the lower end of the spectrum it would be hard for anyone to question the authenticity of your rank.
Another way is to train with several individuals in several systems as availability allows and stay with one or two arts long enough to earn advanced rank in them and then if you want to mimic my path to sainthood, I mean grandmasterdom earn mid to low level black belts and teaching systems in several others and synthesize what you’ve learned into a logical eclectic system. Put in about ten or twenty years trying to teach others what you’ve patched together and learn how to make something sensible through trial, era and many tweaks and minor adjustments. Do what you do quietly until you come to the attention of some old veterans in the arts who think that what you do has earned you the right to be crowned a grandmaster of your system. Keep in mind you would have already have been awarded renshi and maybe even masters rank in some existing system before you attain that lofty status. Please keep in mind that this will only earn you recognition and acceptance of likeminded individuals like yourself.
I acquired my rank by learning a lot about a few systems and a little about many more. I even discovered a few techniques only to find out later that they are neither new nor unique. Some old Chinese master had the nerve to discover the same thing a hundred years ago. Since I can’t sue them for reverse plagiarism I just have to sooth my offended sensitivities with the thought that great minds think alike.
I have been taught by some fabulous people and have trained with many reputable martial artists from various systems. I have even picked up knowledge and techniques from books, old 8 and 16MM movies and more recently from knowledge rendered to the VCR and DVD formats. Trying to stay on the cutting edge of technology I even try to garner a few new techniques and ideas from YouTube. Like any real serious martial artist I am still learning although in my advanced years I just catalogue much of what I learn away in my mind to try to pass on to one of my students. Like most of the old martial art geezers like myself I have reached the point that I know a whole lot more than I can do. My days of spinning around like a Whirling Dervish or flying through the air like an eagle are long past me. In my youth I was a devastatingly effective street fighter and in my day I was a hellafied martial artist. These days I live vicariously through my hand full of students. I have a few kyu ranked students that I would put up against the black belts of some systems. I have to admit much of that has to do with their innate athleticism though since I trained them from white belt level I will take some of the credit for their ability.
To you young and not so young martial artists who endeavor to reach that advanced level I will advise you put in the time. Train in more than one system to give you a varied perspective and then experiment and challenge what you discover against what is already out there. If it is good enough to stand beside some of the better established systems consider yourself successful in your endeavors. However I advise you not to rank yourself. Go before your elders and your peers and let them make an assessment. Chances are they won’t award you a tenth dan unless you’re already an eighth or ninth dan in an established system. Unfortunately there are no quantum leaps in the martial arts.