Got your attention? I know this is controversial. Some of you may have a knee jerk reaction, of, "Of course martial art training makes one a better person." But does it? There are claims that martial art training makes one a better, noble, spiritual, or ethical person. I would like to see the evidence for claims that are made. If you know of any research that demonstrates that idea I would like to see it. My premise is that the arts themselves are not ennobling. How they are taught is another story.
A doctor, professor, painter, martial artist, poet, love storywriter, actor, accountant, dentist, etc., can be a virtuous, good and honest person or they can be an evil, unethical, or just a bad person, or like most of us walking the line in between trying to live a good life. Practicing an art, studying anything really, is an amoral activity. T'ai chi is an exercise. It may make you feel better, be less stressed and think more clearly, but it does not substitute for moral or ethical training or conscience. I know several very high-level t'ai chi ch'uan, karate, and kung-fu masters who I do not want to associate with, because they have an evil side to them, i.e. "bad vibes". I prefer not to be around their "Energy". If they, the epitome of the art, are not virtuous then how can the art make one virtuous?
Football was once said to develop character, but how many pro ball players are in jail right now? Is the idea that "the sport makes you a better person", just an old saying that has no basis in fact? If it does not hold true for Western sports, then why should it be true for Asian martial arts where the idea is to learn to fight and in the old days, kill?
I once read an article that extolled Miyamoto Musashi as a spiritual man. The author told of people praying at his shrine. Musashi was the ultimate tactician and swordsman of his culture. But the reality was that he was a sword fighter, a gunslinger of his time. He killed people for the reasons of ego or revenge. Is that noble, ethical or spiritual? Not for me.
I believe, until proven otherwise, that there is no relationship between doing an art form, being excellent artist, scholar or athlete and character. I believe there is no relationship between being a martial artist and being a virtuous person. Training in how to fight, learning to hurt others on one hand, or to defend oneself on the other, does not necessarily instill moral lessons. Only moral training does. Many of the martial arts at one time had (or claimed to have) some kind of supplementary ethical/moral study or emphasis, but that was secondary to the physical training. They read religious texts, philosophical works, meditated, prayed and had spiritual counseling. There was also an expectation of correct moral behavior. There was a societal expectation for their behavior. One must strive to be a good and honest person, to be one.
Action is more important than intent. If you do good deeds, for whatever reason, you are doing "good". If you do bad deeds but are thinking about or talking about being good, you are still doing evil. Your Actions are important and determine who and what you are. If you lie about what you teach to fool students, try to mystify students, or just act in an unethical way, are you being an ennobling person? I have heard of masters who sexually harassed, abused or intimidate their students and others. I have heard of masters who took advantage of their students sexually, emotionally and financially. I have seen black belt competitors threaten Judges at tournaments because they did not like their call, and none of the officials did anything about it. Does that show the self-discipline we are told the arts produce? Teachers have told me gleefully about their black belts who go out looking for fights to beat people up. They like to try out their well-rehearsed techniques on the unsuspecting public. Is that ethical? There are teachers who use their students or people they know they can beat, as punching bags (and the students pay for the honor?) While there is a place for this in martial training process, as it may be appropriate in some cases, usually it is not. If they want to get into a real fight they should fight someone close to their skill, maybe someone they do not know they can beat easily? What in the old days was called a fair fight. They are the Black belts and "masters", if they do not act ethically, after all the years of training, then how can anyone claim that the arts magically cause students to be better people?
"Put your evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice." Isaiah 1:16-17. Schuck and Jive Artists? Less of a problem, but a real common one is that some teachers misrepresent what they teach. For example a teacher I knew of many years ago claimed to be a master, but it turned out he was an advanced student and was only a few lessons a head of his students. His students were learning real kung-fu technique, but they were training with essentially a green belt claiming to be a master, but who was really a master manipulator. Other teachers claim their style is a "Secret Ancient Method", when it isn't and is that important anyway? I have heard of at least three secret or closed door t'ai chi forms and none resembled the others. Being a Secret method does not mean anything, except as a marketing gimmick.
Another common ploy in Kung fu is that some teachers have their students hang on for years with the carrot on a stick concept of they "will teach them secrets if they stay long enough." For example on teacher told his students they had to stay with him for 10 years before he would teach them pushing hands or sword. Maybe he had a valid reason, maybe the students were really incredibly slow learners, but it sounds like the carrot on a stick idea to me. As most students can learn pushing hands after learning the basic form. There is no reason why a teacher cannot be honest about what his/her art is, and leave it at that. Unless their aim was to scam students? Or maybe they are just boosting their own egos. Hucksters are out there, as one master told me a long time ago in San Francisco, "You have to watch out for the Schuck and Jive Artists."
The shame is many people know of this type of thing going on and don't speak up about it. It is accepted, tolerated even by many real masters. Often those who speak out are considered the bad guys, that is a shame. If we want to raise the standard, first we need standards. Maybe there needs to be an ethical board to deal with martial art teachers? Possibly the major organizations can formalize ethical standards for their members to follow. If martial art instructors are to claim the arts make students into better people, the teachers need to live up to that expectation and lead by example. If they are not interested in ethical behavior then maybe it is time to stop making those claims? End (Sifu) Harvey Kurland is an Exercise Physiologist and teacher of t'ai chi ch'uan, ch'i kung and pa-kua chang at the University of California Riverside and is certified (Sifu) by the Chinese Tai Chi Chuan Association.