Friday, February 5, 2010

Masters, Masters, Masters


There is a constant raging debate as to whether the Masters Degree should even be allowed within the recently revived Chivalric Arts. The very definition of a Master ranges from the semi-divine second coming of Achilles to the more pragmatic highly skilled and experienced instructor (and on down to baser definitions by wishful charlatans). Though I have yet to see an instructor of the Chivalric Arts I think in any way worthy of the title, conversely, I have always maintained that the other extreme is a misguided form of ancestor worship and idolization. In reality, most martial artists views on those with the title of Master are the same now as they were centuries ago. Many were thought to be undeserving, though they earned their titles via the subjective criteria of their Masters before them. Therefore, the title has always been a subjective one; earned via the standards and context within their own unique schools and training environments. Despite this, many have been thought undeserving, then as now, because of a constancy of the degree of Master as being an ideal, as opposed to a practical title, within the overall Western cultural zeitgeist.

Shamefully, because of the nature of the revival of the Chivalric Arts, we have many a novice crowning themselves with the title, giving the Art as a whole a very poor start in this regard.

However, the issue has been a constant one, on one hand or the other. We actually have a great degree of context for the term despite the temporary extinction of these arts. The Asian martial arts have maintained the degree for as long as the West has, but in a constant martial lineage. This is not apples and oranges, but a very comparable status. This is particularly so as the Asian fighting arts have been adapted and absorbed into Western culture, therefore so has the degree of Master, which has been absorbed and adapted contextually into that constant Western concept, which has been maintained in all arts and sciences but the martial, from before its temporary extinction through now. Therefore, we are not lost, we do have a great deal of comparison and context, even if we do not have exact transcripts for any given schools specific requirements in their entirety. But this has not assuaged the issue. Make no mistake, a master's degree in the martial arts is the same as a master's degree in any field. To quote Wikipedia:

A master's degree is an academic degree granted to individuals who have undergone study demonstrating a mastery or high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice. Within the area studied, graduates possess advanced knowledge of a specialized body of theoretical and applied topics; high order skills in analysis, critical evaluation and/or professional application; and the ability to solve complex problems and think rigorously and independently.

The issue itself is mainly a split between the “absolutely not” and “why not” camps. The whynots are easy to address, as more of a negative, leaving the absolutelynots as the ones with the burden of proof.

The absolutelynots prime argument is that no-one really uses the weapon portion of the Art in life or death conflict now days. When presented with the obvious fact that life or death conflict was not a requirement of a Master’s Degree, they state that the simple familiarity with and witnessing of such conflict undoubtedly affected the way they taught and developed the Art. Thusly, without being at least able to witness death by the sword (at least not via mutual conflict), we cannot now condone any mastery, as we simply would not have a psychologically traumatic (or grounded, or contextualized) enough context in which to teach the Art.
The other facet of their argument lies in the notion that we do not yet understand enough of what they either taught or left for us in their works to have an art developed enough to claim mastery in, whether building the Art from the ground up as a novice, or from a higher platform as an experienced martial artist.

Absolutelynots will also sometimes cite respect as a reason for not using the title of Master. Out of respect for past Masters, they exclude it. Respect means not undeservedly taking the title. Therefore this is not an argument against using the title; simply not using it so long as no-one is thought to deserve it. Most are very unsure of just what “deserving” is in this case. But in any case, it is not an actual argument against the title, though it may keep the title in limbo indefinitely for these ones.

In one way or another, those former two points are what any absolutelynot’s position boils down to in its entirety. Now, it is obvious that with no surviving lineage, we lack the most obvious rout to contextualize what a Master of the Chivalric Arts should be. This leaves it somewhat different in the minds of individual practitioners, and within the collectives and context of any given school or acronym (aka any given Chivalric Arts organization). However, we do have the greater context and comparisons that should not leave us wanting, as I addressed above, leaving this only a ghost of an issue to be sorted out by individual schools if they are so inclined.

So, let us address the life or death aspects of the absolutelynot’s argument by parts. So, arguably the bulkiest of any singular aspect of our surviving Chivalric martial arts literature is on unarmed fighting techniques. These have as much applicability and use now as they ever did, and are often enough used in mortal combat today. The same can be said, with few reservations, about the fighting knife. So, we do not lack for life or death here. Those Masters idolized by this faction also claimed that said methods are the root of all fighting skill. Not every unarmed Art now is based in the context of life or death combat, which is painfully obvious, so it is inarguable that life or death necessity does play a major role in a fighting style and the way in which it is taught.

However, this is now (and was long before its extinction), a traditional martial art, leaving this point null and void. What that means is that it is, for the most part, obsolete and no longer used in life or death combat. Disregarding the fact that all other surviving traditional warrior arts keep Masters, what this also means is that we practice it while trying to keep it as intact as possible; unchanging by our understanding. What this tells us is that a Master may have very well developed the particular fighting art in question with a keen mind to realistic life or death combat, but the practice and teaching of the art by those without such experience is of little consequence, as they are mastering techniques which they themselves did not develop. These techniques and motions, principles and states of mind were developed for the crucible of combat by those who well knew the requirements of such (though still, not necessarily combatants themselves). Those to whom the techniques are taught, and re-taught are not required to have an intimate first-hand knowledge of the shedding of blood. They have only to know and trust that the techniques work, and pass them along, and master those techniques. In summary, to question one’s qualifications for mastery of a traditional art on the grounds that they have never shed, nor witnessed the shedding of blood by a given weapon is to question the Art itself, as it had been in all likelihood passed on by many Masters and Scholars who had not themselves killed or witnessed killing.

By the absolutelynot’s reasoning, the traditionalization of an art would therefore omit the title of Master.

Back to the concept that a fighting art is better taught by one with a first to third-person familiarity will the act of killing in combat. I disdain the misnomer of calling a weapon (particularly the sword) a tool, but here it suits my purpose. When we come to discussion of the use of the Art with a knowledge of pragmatic killing motion; of what will or will not work in actual combat, this becomes a pragmatism; a principle. A sword in the hand, like any other weapon, is simply a tool. It does not matter what you are holding; the person with the eye to functionality will be able to say what will or will not accomplish a desired result, so long as he is familiar with the basic functionalities of that tool; something which many of us now are in no way lacking, via simple experimentation, training and study.
One does not need to stab or cut a living person to know what their stab or cut with a sword could do; there are other ways.
I have had the opportunity of training, training with, and being trained by those who have engaged in mortal combat. In particular, those who have trained me certainly are affected by these experiences, both in the way they teach and the way they train. I believe, like the abolutelynots, that this focus is essential for the proper grounding of a true fighting art, but I also know that it is not required; it can be taught. Students of the Art do not require first-hand experience in mortal combat or the witnessing thereof, so long as they are kept mindful of reality and real cause and effect. I could be called biased, as due to my military and martial experience and research I have witnessed more deaths and been involved in more potentially lethal situations than I have cared to, but it has simply strengthened for me the truth that, in effect, this is something that is not required to be effective; it is simply a matter of teaching, training, mind and focus.

I have trained under one person, on occasion, with a degree of Master, and though he is far from perfect, I would say he deserves his title for his physical mastery and knowledge of his fighting art (saying nothing of his character; something arguably not required for a Master). I have trained under others whom I believe deserve the title for the same reasons (not speaking of the Chivalric Arts). But I have also met and seen others with the title whom I know do not deserve it (granting one’s self the title is another matter).

The mastery of an art is the mastery of a pre-developed set of physical motions and tactics, nothing more. The title of Master is for those who have mastered the art and, perhaps, can effectively pass it on as well.

In summary, (though arguable as the title can have any number of different standards) it is safe to dismiss the ideas of life or death familiarity as being a logical argument for the dismissal of the use of the Master’s Degree in any traditional martial art.

The second half of the absolutelynot’s argument was that we simply lack a full enough understanding of the art given us in the Master’s works, and/or that they did not even give us enough in their works to master in the first place.
This is far harder to argue, though opinions be no less stiff on the matter. It is essentially trying to prove a negative. Regardless of how much skill and knowledge can be demonstrated, the absolutelynots can continue to speculate about how much you may be missing. While a knowledgeable martial artist may consider himself to have a full technical grounding in his repertoire, a full set of basics, and an excellent knowledge base and see nothing lacking, he will not be able to fully put the lid on the negative argument. This one has to be left to personal realizations and knowledge for a decision, whatever side of the fence you are on; it cannot be proven in any other way but on a personal level. Nevertheless, it should be accepted that there will always be insights the Masters could offer us if we could speak to them. Whether you think that what they would have to say would be necessary for mastery of the Art they left us is another matter. A scholar who lacks so much knowledge of the Art that one thing cannot build upon and infer another has a very small art indeed. Master Fiore, for one, had enough to say on that matter.

-C

Copyright Feb. 2010, Casper Bradak