Monday, August 24, 2015

Martial Arts and Spiritual Combat

Imagine a martial arts program that promised to teach the student the greatest fighting system. The greatness of the system is proven in combat. The system is demanding. Knowing that the system leads to the highest excellence in martial arts, students follow the stern yet compassionate authority of the master. They endure the training, the sacrifice, and the frustration. They endure it because they know it leads somewhere; it is worth the effort.  Let's call this martial arts system Champion. Only instructors certified by Champion are permitted to teach Champion.

The standards to progress are high. It may take 10 to 12 years to achieve black belt status. Few make it, but all are pushed to achieve it. The master knows every one has the potential to achieve it. Even if the student fails to achieve black belt, they will be better off for the try.

When after a decade Champion has spread across the world and has solidified its status as the dominant martial arts system, a few of its teachers decide to challenge the ancient teachings of the Champion organization. These break-away teachers argue that the system has become too difficult for the average person; the belt system is too cumbersome and lengthy for modern students who want immediate satisfaction; few students actually want to be champions and to excel at the martial art. Thus some argue that what is needed is a system that promises competence, recreation, and physical exercise, rather than the promise of mastery in the art.

There is now great conflict in the hierarchy of the Champion organization, and these debates continue. The break-away masters argue that the organization's goals are set too high. The curriculum is too demanding. The masters need flexibility in determining when a particular student is ready to progress upward in belt rank, rather than using the uniform high standards of the organization. Some break-away masters even argue that success is relative. In other words, a black belt can mean something particular to one student, and something else to another student. Finally, they argue that the martial arts studio is too focused on the higher order black belts, ignoring the common student. The practices need "to be more open to all," in the sense that white belts should not feel alienated by the masters who use advanced techniques and demanding instruction. Thus, the curriculum should be changed to be more focused on what all students share: a desire of community, a sense of personal value, and exercise. The martial arts studio, moreover, needs to lessen its formalism, which scares away potential beginners.

The majority of masters reject this line of thinking. They argue that a high standard gives all students something to aspire to. The curriculum is demanding, but it is demanding because the goal is to make all students a champion and nothing less. While not all achieve champion, the high standard is expected because it makes all aspire to greatness. Masters know how to tailor instruction to a particular student without sacrificing standards and demands for excellence.  Flexibility in belt promotions means flexible standards, thus distorting the signal of quality given by a belt, lowering its value as a credential of excellence (similar to grade inflation). Changing the curriculum will change the goal from excellence in martial arts to something else, such as fitness. Orienting the class towards the white belts will make the practices less valuable to the master students, whose presence inspires the younger students and have their own needs.

Formal behavior in the studio fosters respect for the teacher, the fellow students, and the martial art. It communicates that the discipline required of all in the studio is different than the lack of discipline required at a casual gathering. Moreover, it signals that the art is greater than any individual, since all submit to this formal authority. The behavior enables progress to the goal of champion by instilling in students a sense of hierarchy, and thus respect for the master. Those who have achieved more deserve respect and deference. By submitting to the authority, students can learn humbly from the masters.

Ultimately, these masters argue that fewer students would embark on the path of the black belt knowing that its value has been reduced and its respect lessened in the martial arts world. At one time the black belt meant something, whereas now its meaning is uncertain. Even the debates about the black belt have caused harm, they say, by making all students fear that their hard-earned black belts will be devalued. Others are loathe to start the path, believing that standards can change on a whim and any achievement will not be lasting.

The effect of this curriculum change will be immediately twofold; those who want excellence will be unable to achieve it, and beginners will see the program as just another exercise program that competes with the local gym for business. Why would anyone spend their time doing tedious martial arts drills when they can just go to cardio boxing, which is more fun? They go on to point out that potential and advanced students will see that Champion's value has been lost. It will produce no martial arts masters, and the hard work required will not seem worth the prize of mediocrity. In addition, practice is now boring and not even a good work out. When the goal was excellence, everyone worked hard. Now that the goal is fitness, the best are not challenged, the blue belts get a work out but are not getting fitter, and the beginners quickly leave for another class, not seeing much value in Champion.

The debate continues and the issue will be decided at an upcoming meeting of the masters. All parties agree that the decisions made at this meeting will significantly affect the future of Champion.