Don’t drink the Kool-aid.
By Garry Parker
The Guyana tragedy. November 15, 1978. Cult leader and self-proclaimed prophet Jim Jones mesmerized his followers with tales of an unbelievably perfect afterlife, a paradise of perfection and happiness to all that would prove their faith by following him to the other side. He brainwashed his followers, confined them to his colony (Jonestown) and forbade anyone to leave. As his facade deteriorated during a visit to the colony by U.S. political leaders and members of the media, Jones lashed out against them, ordering their murder at the airstrip in Guyana. Later that day, he told his followers that they would be invaded, captured and tortured, and that the only solution was mass suicide. To prove their loyalty, 909 men, women, and children willingly and drank a beverage laced with cyanide, knowing that it would lead to their death.
The martial arts community is diseased with people like Jim Jones, that is, they teach that their methods are the only way, and everyone else is wrong. Their students/followers become brainwashed over time to believe that their teachers are indeed the ‘only true way’ in martial arts, and that everyone else is a fraud. How do these teachers continue to get away with their legacy of lies? In our generation of advanced electronic technology, one only needs to spend a few minutes of research online to find verifiable facts, history, and lineage on almost anyone. Yet, these cult-like martial arts ‘teachers’ still manage to attract a loyal base of followers. Again, how do they do it? Like any cult leader, they are charismatic, controlling, and secretive, with just enough charm to pull it off. Their followers are almost always isolated from the rest of the martial arts community for fear that they (the teachers) will be exposed for who they truly are.
You have probably met or heard of someone like this in your town, I know that I have. How do you identify them?
Here are a few ‘red flags’ that should get your attention, and lead you to research the teacher further (or run away!)
- Old in years – Young in experience.
These are the older generation of practitioners that have been quietly training or teaching the same way for decades; sometimes 30-40 years, or more. They may have spent a year or two training at a legitimate dojo, and perhaps they were even promoted to a legitimate dan ranking 30 years ago. I’ve met a couple of these. When a martial artist has a few years of legitimate training experience, and doesn’t continue to develop their skill, they are stagnate. That is, a 60 year old that was promoted to 2-dan thirty years ago, and hasn’t sought instruction since..is just a 2-dan that has stagnated. The growth has been stunted, and he/she has very little to offer his/her students after a few years. The most recent photo of the teacher and his/her Sensei is a old as the 2-dan certificate hanging on the wall. When asked why they didn’t continue to train with their teacher, the answers will vary, but the question will usually be dodged, and parried with a nod to their many years of experience.
- No verifiable proof of claims.
These types are disturbingly common. The instructor has dabbled in a few martial arts since childhood, and has ‘taken the best of everything, while discarding the unusable.’ Of course this explains why there are 4 different sho-dan certificates from 4 different styles next to the soke-ship certificate hanging on the wall behind this 30 year old ‘master’ and creator of a ‘new style’. These types will often claim lineage to a master of a secret art that ‘was only taught to me’ or the master has died, and the name is unrecognized because ‘he was very secretive.’
Three terms to remember: Shu. Ha. Ri. Too many people get their ‘SHU’ stuck, and attempt to hop right into ‘RI’. Fortunately, these types are exposed quickly enough when they are cornered by the average brown belt and asked to demonstrate real self-defense skill.
- Abnormal gaps in between promotions.
This can be from both ends of spectrum, that is, small gaps and large gaps. The small gaps are a flag especially when dan ranks/teaching titles are from several different teachers and organizations. You know the type, the rank chaser, paper tiger, kami-bushi, etc. These are the types that just can’t get enough paper on their wall or stripes on their belt, and they don’t care where they get it…as long as they get it. They have no loyalty to their teacher or to any one organization, yet they require/demand loyalty from their own students.
NOTE: This does not refer to promotion timelines; that is a separate topic altogether, and one that is best addressed between student and teacher.
- Cross-training is discouraged or forbidden.
This one is fairly simple. These types are hiding the truth, that is, they know that what they have to offer is limited, but they don’t want their students to find out for fear of losing them to more qualified teachers. The excuses will include: ‘Our style/school/association has all you need; if we don’t have it, you don’t need it.’ ‘You aren’t ready yet; when the time comes, I’ll let you know.’ ‘I don’t want you to get distracted/I don’t want your karate to be contaminated.’ The truth: Their skills are rudimentary at best. Basic kyu level kick-punch-block karate with a limited or non-existent understanding of bunkai, oyo, concepts such as gamaku, chinkuchi, kyusho, and tuite. What they lack in actual karate based knowledge, they tend to make up for with physical fitness centered classes, and not much more.
Over the years, I have invited scores of teachers and their students to train with me at our events, camps, and gasshuku, and I have been disappointed to find out many years later that former students of those invited to train were denied when they expressed interest in cross-training.
- The black belt is unattainable.
In Okinawa the black belt is no big deal. Yes, it is an accomplishment, and no-one can take away the feeling of earning that first black belt. In the grand scheme, sho-dan is simply the rank that comes between 1-kyu and 2-dan. That’s it. Sho=beginning. Congratulations, you’ve proven that you have a firm grasp on the basics, and now you’re ready to begin learning karate. There are no brutal, marathon, two day black belt tests, at least not in Okinawa – the birthplace of karate! There are no superfluous movements or actions that have nothing to do with your karate. Think 500 pushups, running 10 miles, fighting for 3 hours every person in the dojo from white belt to sensei. This is a western invention, and usually comes with bragadocious claims such as, “Hardly anyone passes their black belt exam on the first attempt” or “In our dojo, it takes at least TEN years to reach shodan” as if these claims serve to add legitimacy to their art/school. In reality, they are either suggesting that their students are extremely slow learners, or they are confirming that their teaching skills are severely lacking quality!
On the rare occasion that one ‘passes’ their black belt examination, they are celebrated as a rarity, and reminded that ‘unlike other karate schools, you will always know that you earned your black belt here.’ Ironically, these are the same schools that rarely have senior dan ranks (because it’s too tough for mere mortals). Often these teachers and students are arrogant, obnoxious, and unwilling to receive logical information. They will publicly question or condemn anyone with a high rank that is not Asian, simply because they (or their teacher) hasn’t attained a high rank, and of course, because their teacher told them so.
These ‘red flags’ are by no-means absolute. They are simply common indicators that invite the student to research more diligently their school and their teachers. As human nature will always be rife with those that are less than honest and sincere, these types of teachers will not go away, and we – the karate community – can help by educating the next generation of karate practitioners through open dialogue, constant research, self-improvement, and cross-training.