Forty-eight years ago this week -- on September 20, 1973 -- I walked into my first martial arts class at Grandmaster Sin The's "Shaolin-Do Karate" school in Lexington, Kentucky, my hometown.
I was a 20-year old student at Eastern Kentucky University. Asian martial arts were foreign to my generation. They were mysterious, and everyone said they were very deadly. The room was packed with new students inspired by Bruce Lee to check out the class.
At the time, I thought it would be really cool if I could become a "Master" of kung-fu, like Bruce Lee or the character Kwai Chang Caine in the Kung-Fu TV show.
But how long would it take me to reach my destination? How long would it take to become a "Master?"
Now, 48 years later, I have a different goal. I am 68 years old, not as physically strong as I was when I was younger, and when I think about my goal of being a master, I smile.
I was too young 48 years ago to realize that the journey I began that night was the goal.
There is a Vietnamese proverb that goes something like this: "There is no road to happiness; happiness is the road."
During the past two years alone, I have studied Baguazhang with Tina Zhang (disciple of Liu Jingru), I have studied Chen Taijiquan with Chen Huixian, and right now I am studying Chen Taijiquan with Nabil Ranne and studying Xingyiquan and Baguazhang with Byron Jacobs.
I keep finding teachers who know more about these arts than I do. It's exciting to discover these people, because I continue to learn. I continue to improve my skills.
And that, I have found, is the road to happiness.
What happens when you achieve the title of Master? Anyone can slap that title on themselves. Anyone can find an organization that will easily promote you to a belt-level that is considered "Master." And if you don't have silly things like ethics standing in your way, you could always start your own style and promote yourself to Grandmaster. I've known teachers who did that.
I see people on Facebook who actually put the title "Master" in front of their name. On Facebook! What kind of ego issues does it take to do that sort of thing and have that kind of need for recognition?
It is not someone I would want to study with. That is one thing I've learned in nearly five decades.
When I walked into my first class 48 years ago, I thought anyone with a black belt was a Master, a deadly fighting machine.
Now, I look at a black belt as only the beginning. Earning a black belt does not mean anything about your skill at self-defense. It does not mean anything about your knowledge of martial arts. I know a girl who got a black belt in Taekwondo at age eleven. She didn't know how to throw a good punch. You have a sixth degree black belt? An eighth degree black belt? Congratulations. Now get over yourself and keep learning.
From 1973 to 2021, the most glorious moments have come when I have gained another small insight into a movement, an application, or the body mechanics that make a movement powerful in self-defense. I continue to study, searching for those insights, and I get them each time I study with my teachers.
Sheer happiness comes from gaining one of those insights, practicing it and trying to work it into my movements. It is not easy, but it is my idea of happiness. It is satisfying to take one little baby-step at a time.
With age comes, hopefully, wisdom. I am not a Master and I will never be one. What once appeared to be the road to happiness turned out to be the wrong path. The Road to Happiness is the road itself -- the journey of learning, growing, and improving my martial arts skills.
--by Ken Gullette
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