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The Largest Obstacle

August 5, 2009
Fig. 5-2

Phillip Starr demonstrating Xingyiquan monkey boxing (from his book Martial Maneuvers)

The following is the fourth installment in Phillip Starr’s monthly column. A practitioner of the Chinese martial arts for nearly 50 years, Phillip is the widely-respected author of the summer 2009 book, Martial Maneuvers, which focuses on internal martial arts. Check out his other titles, Martial Mechanics and The Making of a Butterfly at

Like most martial arts teachers, I frequently subject my students – all of them – to various and sundry “tests.”  Administered without their knowledge (which is essential; if they knew they were being “tested” the results would be tainted), these small and sometimes seemingly insignificant character tests allow me to look into their personalities or, as my teacher would have said, “into their hearts.”  This helps me to better understand each of them – how and why they learn and fail to learn, why they think and behave as they do, what they fear, what they believe (especially about themselves), and so on.  This enables me to be a more effective teacher.

Over the many years that I have been involved in teaching, I have found one particular obstacle that is more insidious than all of the others combined.  It has ruined careers, destroyed countless relationships, and stunted the growth of many martial arts enthusiasts.  Of all the obstacles that are encountered by those who choose to follow the martial path, it is the largest.  It is also often difficult to see.

And what might this obstacle be?


Think about it.  Whenever someone fails to achieve something, they often think (or say), “I can’t do this…”  The actual translation of that thought or statement is, “I won’t do this…”  Now, the why of that statement can vary considerably.  Some of the why’s would include:

* I don’t really want to do it.
* I’m above doing that.  Doing that is beneath me.
* I’m too embarrassed to try.  Others will laugh at me.
* I’m afraid to try it…but I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m afraid.
* I don’t want to put out that much effort.

And so on…you get the idea.

Some time ago, I told my students at the end of class that we needed to clean up the training hall.  It needed to be dusted, vacuumed, and so on.  I watched to see who would pitch in and help.  Quite frankly, I was more than a little disappointed to see who didn’t!

On another occasion, a former student of mine (who was dissatisfied with training at my school) went to the school of another martial arts teacher.  His ego wouldn’t permit him to don a white belt and become a beginner again.  Instead, he told the instructor what it was that he wanted to learn!  Naturally, the teacher declined his request and when I heard of this incident I was very embarrassed and ashamed of my former student.

There was once a young swami who was training under a very well-known and highly-respected guru in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Part of his training involved traveling around the countryside and teaching the Vedas (Hindu holy scriptures) to the people.
The young swami visited one town and acquired a considerable following.  His students erected a platform for him to sit on and he could look down at them while he lectured.  His ego began to grow at an alarming rate.

A very powerful older swami heard of him and came to see him.  Sitting amongst the crowd of followers, he was barely noticed by the young teacher who treated him like one of his followers and ordered him around every day..  When the older man would pose a question that he knew the young man couldn’t answer, the young swami acted as though he knew the answer and would brush the query aside.

One morning when the young swami was at the river brushing his teeth, the older swami – posing as a student – approached him and began to ask a question.  “I’m brushing my teeth right now,” the young man said.  “Go and get me a bucket of water.”  The older man nodded and said quietly, “That’s alright.  You go on brushing your teeth.”

The young swami’s teacher found him by the river two days later.  His gums and jaw were swollen and he was still brushing his teeth with his finger although he was barely conscious.  After some time, his teacher managed to bring him around and scolded him for being so egotistical.  “The man who did this to you is a very powerful swami,” he said.  “You were rude to him and he has taught you a valuable lesson.  Be sure that you learn from it.”

I’ve met countless martial arts teachers over the years.  It has been my experience that those who wish to be addressed as “Master,” “Grandmaster,” “Great Grandmaster,” “Hanshi,” “Soke,” “Great Cosmic Ultra Poohbah,” and all other manner of eloquent titles…aren’t.  The same holds true for those who allow themselves to be addressed or introduced as such.  Their egos are strangling them.

I’ve met and trained with some of the greatest martial arts teachers of our time – Hidetaka Nishiyama, Seiyu Oyata, W.C. Chen – and none of them were ever addressed as “Great Master So-and-So.”  Known simply as “sensei” or “sifu,” they were exceptional men whose skill was of the highest caliber.  They weren’t interested in titles…only in developing real skill and in imparting that knowledge and ability to others.

One such teacher was my dear friend, Sherman Harrill.  He had trained in Isshin-ryu karate under the founder, Tatsuo Shimabuku, and had spent decades perfecting his skill and researching what he had been taught.  For years, “Sherm” wouldn’t wear a colored belt at all.  He’d wear a karategi (uniform), but without a belt.  I used to rail at him about it and he ignored me until I mentioned that a uniform without a belt just looked plain dorky.  I must have hit a soft spot because he began wearing a belt…

But…he insisted on wearing a white belt!  He said he was really just a beginner – and so began another round of me harassing him about not wearing the appropriate colored belt.  It took several years of loud complaining before he finally acquiesced and put on a proper black belt.
Sherm didn’t know the meaning of the word “ego.”  I don’t believe I ever heard anyone refer to him as “Master” and I shudder to think what he might have done to who anyone who did.  Sherm cared nothing for titles, or belts (obviously).  What he cared about was knowledge and skill and he’d go to whatever lengths he needed to endure in order to learn.

Another excellent example is that of another dear friend, Mr. Ron Christenham.  Known far and wide simply as “sensei” (I imagine there are many people who don’t know his real name – even other martial arts instructors, including me, refer to him as “sensei”…and everyone knows exactly who we’re talking about!), he exemplifies what a genuine martial arts teacher should be.  He doesn’t try to do it; he has simply become it and that’s what he is.  His unassuming, selfless, humble, and polite manner conceals his remarkable skill and extensive knowledge of the arts.  He is the perfect antithesis of the sort of teacher who revels in being called “master,” “grandmaster,” or other high-flying titles.  He doesn’t strut around with a puffed-out chest and his uniform is not adorned with patches that proclaim him as “instructor,” “master,” or anything else.  But if you were to walk into his class, there would be no question as to the identity of this man.  You can feel his spirit from across the room!

Martial arts is much more than learning some fancy punches, kicks, and throws.  It’s more than a pretty uniform with patches all over it (I’ve seen some that resemble a colored map of downtown Los Angeles) or black belts with half a dozen hash marks on one end.  At the end of the day, martial arts is learning about yourself – good and bad – and striving to perfect your character.  That means laying ego aside and that can be a very, very difficult thing to do.  Just when you think you’ve finally done it, the ego creeps up from a blind spot and returns.

Do you feel proud that you’ve finally eliminated ego?  Then you’d better look again…

Have you ever cleaned the training hall when no one else was around or watching you?

Did you (or would you) clean the toilets?

Remember, character is what you do and how you act when no one else is watching.

Ego strangles the development of character.  And everything else.  I have some former students (and some still consider themselves students although they never manage to attend class) who are truly unteachable.  I say that they are “beyond teaching” because they won’t jump into class with everyone else and pour sweat.  They don’t have the “beginner’s mind” that thirsts for knowledge and skill.  They are unwilling to push themselves (especially in front of others) and admit their weaknesses.  If they will not own up to their weaknesses and failings, how can they hope to overcome them?

Take time for self-introspection.  You might be surprised at what you find.

And remember…”If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

To read Phillip Starr’s previous columns and related articles, please click here.

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