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Different And Better

By Jeff Brooks

There is a certain disease that is keeping martial arts in the dark ages and preventing civilian martial arts from developing and becoming the well of knowledge, expertise and personal achievement that it could be.

The disease is marketing and the specific strain of the disease is inclination to continually proclaim “We are different. We are better.”

Most martial arts schools and styles make this claim. It is so reflexive that when it is pointed out that they are doing it people usually respond: “Yeah, well we are.”

There is a problem there.

And it is not a problem solved by either simple formula: that martial arts should be non-commercial or that hey it’s a business, that’s life.

There are some teachers who are doing phenomenal research. These teachers are bringing the practice of martial arts a degree of depth and technical accomplishment that has been lost in the public presentation of martial arts – east and west – for generations. The great modern teachers like Evan Pantazi and Yang Jwing-ming – and there are many others – all run programs, all sell their services, and all seek compensation for their work. As they should. Anyone who wants to can benefit from their work, and they could not do their work if there were no compensation for it. And they know as well, that in a generation or so the cat will be out of the bag, the information they have laboriously gathered, practiced, polished and dispensed will be widely disseminated and no one will hold a patent on it any more.

That is the method used in science and it is a much better method than what is used mostly in martial arts. In martial arts there is a feeling of grudgingly withholding information – not because a rival tribe will steal your secrets and defeat your warriors – but because you will no longer get to feel special. In the walled-outpost version of modern martial arts schools teach suspicion, jealousy and a sense of betrayal along with a strong punch and a low stance.

Myths told about old teachers may come from a genuine appreciation for the mastery that old teacher had. But modern students may not actually know what if any achievements the old master had. He may have just been a sincere old guy who practiced for a long time. He may have been a martial genius. But repeating the lineage hagiography does appeal to need of the modern practitioner to say my way is different, and my way is the best.

I notice variations in the quality of schools and practitioners and even of styles. But more importantly I have noticed that there are sincere practitioners who train hard and really want to develop their bodies and minds through their arts. I have seen them stifled and bewildered by controlling teachers who prevent them from exploring in the name of stylistic purity or “so they don’t get confused” but who actually are fearful that the student will find out something they don’t know, or leave them for another style. Then their egos and their finances will be hurt.

As teachers we have to accept the fact that some students will be fickle and jump around out of insecurity or an insecure feeling that they are missing something going on somewhere else. We should let that kind of student go. Just like having a romantic relationship with someone who is fickle or wants to go off exploring. Who wants to hang on to someone like that? Let them go. Urge them to go.

If the student goes off to learn something new the teacher might use that perhaps painful moment to recognize that he or she does not know everything and that they can continue their own education. Or if in fact that teacher feels that they have a complete and coherent and vital system that they are teaching they should have the confidence to let all the people who want them to come study with come, and let all the ones who want to pass them by, pass by.

Sometimes when I give talks to experienced martial arts teachers, sometime s during my talk I ask, by a show of hands, Who here is fully appreciated for how really great they are?… silence… pause… no one has ever raised their hand. And although it is a light hearted moment, it seems the recognition of the fact touches everyone. We all want to be appreciated and recognized for the contributions we are making. Most martial arts teachers that I know of are sincere. Most do work hard. And most feel that others are not aware of it.

So to adjust their awareness we brag. We are different. We are better. Its on our websites, in our phone book ad, in our flyer, in our voice on the answering machine. And what effect does it have? Some might be persuaded. Others might be turned off. But it does not change the general feeling that we are under-recognized for our good qualities and the good work we do. How do you actually fix that?

Okay, by show of hands, how many of you praise all the people you know who do well, every time they do well? How many of you affirm the value of everyone you meet who deserves it? … pause… silence… no one.

I don’t. Of course you can get carried away with that too. But if you do tell people they are doing well when they are doing well it works to their benefit and yours… you actually begin to take note of the incredibly good things that people do for you, for each others, for their own lives… Stuff you have overlooked all these years… now you are seeing it… and the world, your world, begins to change… for the better…

My suggestion, tested in our labs for over twenty years on thousands of subjects, by trial and error (lots of error) is this: train hard, respect people, dig deep, be fearless, be tireless and generous in your teaching (that is a key attribute in the brilliant teachers I mentioned above) and recognize everyone in your life for what they do well.

Then you won’t have to worry too much about manipulating and marketing. Good, sincere people will find you.

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About The Author:

Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, US Shorin Ryu Karate, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993. He is author of “Rhinoceros Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror and other articles appear on

New! is pleased to announce its first book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do. Fast paced and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding read for any martial artist.

(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)


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