A young student was excited to meet a Kung-Fu master. Before his first class, he asked, "How long must I study before I become a master?"
The master replied, "You must study for ten years."
"But I will practice very hard!" said the young student.
The master replied, "Then it will take twenty years."
The young man said, "But I want to be your best student!"
"Ahh," said the master. "Then that will take a lifetime."
I love that old story.
If you've been teaching for any length of time, you'll be asked, "How long does it take to get a black belt?"
As if a black belt is something great. Once you earn a black belt, if you have any sense of reality, you understand that you have just begun. It's the same as getting a Bachelors degree in college. Advanced study is next.
It's always amazed me how many people talk about loving martial arts but how few have the drive or the commitment to reach even a black belt level.
I'm not sure when I realized that I would never become a master of tai chi, hsing-i or bagua. Perhaps it was around 1998 or 1999, when I met Jim and Angela Criscimagna. They were very good -- they became my teachers. And yet, Jim described himself as a "hobbyist." He and Angela held full-time jobs as teachers.
Through Jim and Angela, I began meeting members of the Chen family and their students, such as Chen Xiaowang and Ren Guangyi. Later, I met Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Bing and Chen Ziqiang.
It was a humbling experience and gave me a realistic perspective as powerfully as a roundhouse kick to the head. It woke me up. I saw what a real master is when I met members of the Chen family. I've met many Americans of different styles who call themselves master or wear a red belt. There is a huge difference between them and a real master.
Occasionally, because I've been at this a while, someone will call me a master. Their intentions are respectful and that's okay. But it makes me laugh, and I quickly correct them. They simply don't understand the real world of martial arts.
Let me tell you a simple truth. Length of time in the martial arts does not make you a master. And when you hold a sixth or seventh degree in any style, that does not make you a master. And if a teacher refers to himself as a master, that still doesn't make it true. Some people believe they feel mystical when they do the forms, and that makes them masters. Oy vey! That's generally a good sign that they have no idea what they are doing.
At some point in the 90's or in the early 2000's, I decided that I would teach what I know, and pass along what I've learned and what I continue to learn, and not worry about ever being a master. I also decided I would keep studying and practicing and getting better. At some point, the idea of being a master didn't matter anymore. Why let an idea like that spoil your fun?
One of the best feelings I've ever had -- and one of the worst -- is being in a class with teachers like Jim and Angela, or Chen Xiaowang, or Chen Xiaoxing, or Chen Bing, or Ren Guangyi, or Chen Ziqiang -- and being made to feel like you've been studying for about three days. They are so good that they make a guy like me feel like a total beginner.
And yet, when I learn something in a class like that, and take one baby step forward, it's the best feeling in the world. The real joy of this journey is the constant flash of insight that you should experience as you continue to look deeper.
I see students who want to learn more and more forms -- more and more techniques -- and I try to slow them down. Practice the basics. Practice silk-reeling exercises or one form. Don't stop practicing early material just because you have moved on to another form.
Look deeper. What do you see?
That's the beauty of the journey. Performing a movement or a form -- doing an application over and over for years -- and seeing something you didn't see before, such as how to better do the body mechanics, how to connect the flow of power through the body, and sometimes you simply realize a better way of grounding, using peng, opening and closing the kua, rotating the dan t'ien, and doing it all with proper structure and relaxed internal strength.
These little moments of insight are worth another belt, in my opinion. And sometimes, you are the only person who knows.
You will never master these arts. But it doesn't matter. What matters is taking one baby step at a time and getting better. It's a very, very slow process. If you are an American and work for a living, you'll never be a master. But you don't have to be a master to teach, and you can be good and not be a master.
So how long does it take to become a master? Ha! You don't have enough time. :)
Don't worry about it. Embrace it and enjoy yourself -- and the arts.