Years ago, there was a certain mystique that permeated the martial arts. Whether your instructor was disciplined in Karate, Kenpo, Taekwondo, or Kung Fu, honorific rank advancement came at the hands of some ageless and timeless grand master who presumably knew ‘everything’.

As we grew in training, so too was the awe with which we looked upon these giants of the field. We knew that we were getting better. Believing ourselves growing even stronger. We watched countless others go by the wayside. Whether by simplistic events such as family, friends, and other hobbies taking root, or simply losing whatever spirit prompted them to attend in the first place. Sometimes it was reaching a goal. For many, that goal was becoming a “Black Belt”.

Black Belt Is Merely The Beginning

Those of us remaining did so for another reason. Maybe the peace that came from working hard and achieving. Maybe the realization that Black Belt was merely the beginning. For me, my grand master once said; “You will become greater than I ever could be, but may never be as good as I am.”

Over the years, that phrase has meant many things. As I sit and contemplate the passing of another great Grand Master, I realize something important. I was forever being prompted by my training to become the best “I” could be. Just as I hope to see students become brighter, better, stronger and more skilled than I have ever been. They now look to see me as someone never to be equaled. And so, to my horror, and new-found edification, words of these praise for my accomplishments come from the mouth of those who never had the privilege to know my grand masters.

I denied that prowess. I separated myself. I refused to take upon myself the name of “grand master”. Trying hard to find the point in time when I would be “worthy,” as disciplined as the men I chose to emulate. In my mind, I will never be as good as they… are. Then came the realization of words which one time confounded me so. Only in memoria for those who meant so much to me, could I give back.

In this day and age, there are those which have reached the rank of Black Belt. 1st or 2nd Degrees whose folly and impetuousness moves them to open a school directly across the street from someone whose 30 of 40 years has been devoted to teaching. No matter that it is the same style or discipline. No matter that these instructors have posted signage that states $35 per month, no contracts. No matter that they have no master to teach them, to assess their skills and provide them with the necessary acumen to move beyond their current place in time.

You see, there are now online schools. There are those that need never attend a class. They can order a video, CD or online seminar taught by nameless, faceless people who have credentialed themselves without ever knowing the true history of those pioneers who paved the way. They expect to line themselves up with some great grand master somewhere, sometime down the road. And in the meanwhile do not concern themselves with what could happen, accidentally, because of their naivete.

In the 1970′s the man who claimed prowess said he made it to “green” belt. The 1980′s it was “brown” belt. The 1990′s we had a number of people claiming they achieved a “Black” belt. And the 1990′s somewhere near 3rd Degree Black Belt. What now? Through the 2000′s we have people starting their own systems. Calling themselves 10th, 12th, and even 15th Degree “multicolored” belts. The tough man competitions, MMA and UFC demonstrate a variety of individuals with skills adapted from a number of different systems. Some have great skill. Some great presence. Some just like to brawl. It is entertainment for the uninformed, mostly. But it is also food for the initiated.

A Way That Is Now Paved For Others

The difference between training in the 60′s and 70′s has transcended the concrete floor painted black. But the “spirit” of a true “warrior” remains. Those who practice for the sake of the arts themselves. Those who hunger to help others achieve a certain enlightenment. Those who decide to take the next step — to “become” the grand masters of tomorrow. Those of ‘us’ who no longer fear or repel from the title bestowed because they have become greater than their instructors ever could be. They have embraced the men that came before. They seek to preserve the essence of those great ones. They have ‘become’ the men they sought to emulate. And they exist today because someone taught them the way, in humility. A way that now is paved for others. Those who will someday become the best of each generation gone before.

Hee Il Cho once asked me, “Are you a martial artist? (I nodded, yes.) Those who know you on the training mat will know the truth of who you are. The rest are unimportant.”

So when you choose a path, seek out those who will lead you to a discovery of yourself. Those who see the greatness in who you may become. Those who are rich in history. Those who refrain from demeaning others. Those who are not afraid to let them be the men, and women, they truly are. Then, when you have arrived, whether as a Junior Master, International Master, Grandmaster, or even Grand Master — you will be able to relish the knowledge garnered on your journey. You will be able to be satisfied in fidelity to a centered belief. You won’t need to boast of skills that are self-evident. Only the best of those Masters and Grand Masters who mentored you — to find whatever it was you were seeking when you first set out.

Don’t forget to listen to those masters along the way. Even when you think that you know better. Honesty, Principles, Nobility, Sacrifice, Friendship and Empathy will do more for you that you will ever realize.

One day it will be your turn. One day, it will be you takes of the mantle of… Grand Master. Only then may you be able to define the term’s meaning.