There has been a clear and obvious downward shift in the average skill level of students, and even masters, of today compared to the masters and students of old. The reason for this is simply a difference in environmental conditions and circumstances. In ancient China, many villages were in constant fear of attacks by bandits or armies. Without focus, discipline, and intensity in their training, they were unable to develop the skills to survive. Even in the 1900s, extreme discipline was necessary to maintain order and control over the state of the nations amidst the global wars and civil chaos. During these times, discipline was not an option; it was an undisputed requirement of life. It was under this training regimen that our grandmasters were able to develop their skills and minds to such a deep and profound level of martial arts. Disobedience, liberalness, and failure were seldom tolerated and immediately punishable by execution, especially in the military. With these laws and implicit consequences understood, people were able to fully and unconditionally commit themselves to whatever task was at hand. Of course, today, we are no longer in a world war and most people can now live with less of this constant fear or pressure to behave in a certain manner. Students who seek out martial arts schools nowadays do not seek to train to acquire a means of survival against army raids, bandit attacks, or other enemy confrontations. The urgency of training martial arts is virtually nonexistent and that sensitivity to danger has been significantly diminished. Consequently, our discipline and minds today are much weaker. People of today are also less bound to the teachings of proper martial morality of deed (humility, righteousness, respect, trust, loyalty) and mind (will, endurance, patience, perseverance, courage). It takes a very strong and committed mind to accomplish what students of the past were able to, but without that instant “push-a-button-and-get-a-result” method that people of today's modern lifestyle are so used to, few students succeed in developing morality of the mind. Today, we are also protected by laws, regulations, and the government. In many cases, violating the moralities of righteousness, trust, and loyalty has oftentimes been reduced to more or less of a slap on the wrist, your own conscience, and guilt, which some are still able to comfortably ignore. Many modern day practitioners even seek out glory and fame, in direct contradiction of humility. It is in this fashion that some of the most essential components of traditional martial arts training has deteriorated.
Martial arts today means something quite different than what it did hundreds of years ago. A student today is far from equal to a student of ancient times, but we also live in an environment that offers many advantages over ancient times. With the advent of modern science and technology, we have the capability of better understanding and enhancing the performance of the human body. Physically speaking, our bodies are much better off than before, assuming we properly care for ourselves. However, we need to meet this advantage at the halfway point with a strong, clear mind in order make full use of it. Every time we step into a martial arts school to train, we should leave behind our distractions of everyday life and learn to discipline our minds, to completely focus in our training. Once we step out of the school, we can resume our day-to-day lifestyles, chores, and social lives. If we mix the two together, our modern-day lifestyle will tend to interfere with the progress of our training, or vice versa. We are also much better off today because we are not constantly living in fear of war and death, although it is still not completely nonexistent in some parts of the world. Although we are missing that motivational factor of training for matters of life or death, there is really no need to emulate a wartime, fear-filled, or poverty-stricken environment in order to reach a high level of martial arts. We should embrace the positive advantages of present day and use that to enhance our training in a modern way, even possibly exceeding what martial artists of ancient times were able to achieve. I emphasize, though, that we must meet these modern day advantages at the halfway point and do our part in the training. Modern day has improved much in the physical, scientific, materialistic, and logical aspects of life, but we still have a distance to go before our mental minds catchup.
I encourage you to never respect martial artists today for the number of medals or trophies they have won, what publications they have, what certificates or degrees they have achieved, what color belt or ranking they hold, or even what deeds they have done in the past. Respect and remember a practitioner for their experience, their knowledge, the quality of their morality and their character. True qualification is based on skill, dedication, and constant practice, never on the satisfaction of what has been achieved. Remain humble and do not ever discredit a practitioner, no matter what level they are at. A common saying is, “The best teachers are the ones who never stop learning themselves.” This implies having no ego and no dignity whenever you teach. It also implies that as a student, you will never be the equal of your master and should remain humble. I have always refused to adopt the title of “Sifu” or “master,” largely as respect to my father and because I feel that I still have a long road ahead of me in my training. Taking the title of “master” never made sense because I am far from the skill level of my teachers. Even my father avoids introducing himself as “master,” often calling himself “Dr. Yang” instead. Students, on the other hand, address their teachers as “master” as a sign of respect. However, because these terms are so widely and carelessly thrown around today's society, the modern day meaning of “master”, “black belt,” and “Sifu” has been significantly downgraded from that of ancient times, and it has even been ridiculed or exaggerated in the media. To me, this is no way to pay tribute and homage to to the history and legacy of the true masters of ancient China. I urge martial artists of today to help redefine the term “master,” back to its original roots and meaning by raising the bar, and to stay true and humble to our training and all martial arts lineages.
End of Part 3. Read Part 2 here.