Hidden Masters

mancuso_hidden2I live in a little town about 100 miles south of San Francisco. It’s not as small and quaint as it once was but it certainly isn’t metropolitan. It’s definitely no Beijing. I’ve been practicing martial arts here for over thirty years. And, here’s the interesting thing, within about eight miles circumference I can think of at least five people who are authentically masters of their individual arts. Masters pretty much in the sense of what people think in the movies: the real item. But only one of them has a school of his own and that not a very big one. The others don’t even have that. In fact they are each one of them are what might be called a “Hidden Master”.

(To be fair, the entire Bay Area has drawn from some top people—particularly in the art of Kung Fu—for well over 100 years since the Chinese laid the railroads in California. This area SHOULD produce masters because we’ve had fortunate access here to a disproportionate number of top notch teachers and also some fakes but, after all, this article isn’t entitled Hidden Misfits.)

As I noted in the paragraph directly above, it MIGHT be that being on the Pacific Rim we’re blessed with so many fine martial artists that we are bound to have a certain percentage of reclusive geniuses. But I don’t think do. The impression I’m getting over and over again on the phone talking to long time experts who order from us is that there has been some sort of sea change. I’m often shocked by the depth of knowledge of some of our customers and—at the same time—the authentic reticence of these people. “Yes, I used to have a school but I only teach now if someone is referred to me. I hardly take anyone on any more.”

mancuso_hidden3This sort of thing isn’t restricted to my neck of the woods. There is a splitting going on where those who “know” are backing out of the limelight. By the same token many of the more commercial schools, all reasonably successful, are often run by competent but not necessarily gifted teachers. I’m not saying every one of these is a McDojo. We have a world-renown jujitsu teacher in town, for instance, who is successful and supposedly very good; but still there is a strange pattern going on here.

Being a some time writer I know patterns. One of the classics occurs when you work and work and eventually, just as everything is coming together, you may find that no one is interested. For some long work makes for success. But for most people of this long term determination, the reward can only be personal satisfaction and a deeper understanding of what you are doing.

The problem is that a deeper understanding doesn’t necessarily sell. People often don’t have time for the whole story. Sometimes the most they can absorb is a very simple rendition. In the United States we have the token system. There’s just enough room for the most basic perception: one Bruce Lee, one Steven Seagal, that sort of thing. It’s a bit sad.

Meanwhile the great just get better and more obscure. One of the locals I know was so good in his prime that respected Sifus like Tak Wah Eng told me that he was “as good as any Chinese he had ever seen” and he was right. He’s still a top notch instructor after serious surgery. He has a school but with only a handful of students.

mancuso_hidden5Another, a good friend of mine, is one of the top Kung Fu spear people on this continent. Through sheer force of will she has gone from a good, middle level Kenpo black belt to a fine Kung Fu stylist. If you ask her how to stand in a horse stance she might take up forty five minutes of your time. You will be dropping your kua, tucking your hips, lengthening your spine and internally rotating to beat the band. And that’s if you already have a couple of decades in the arts. She never teaches. She never demonstrates. She works out.

Here’s another one. This practitioner has the striking power of a bulldozer. His movements are precise and beyond. His punching is so effortless he fools people. Once challenged by a student saying “that’s too soft to work” he had him hold up a chest protector then “stroked” him. After the guy fell to his knees and vomited he was asked to leave. This is not a Robert Smith story. I know this man and his technique. His movements are extremely subtle, precise as we said and effective as all get out. But the young potential students who watch his classes shake their heads because he’s not “going to the ground” and think that he doesn’t know how to fight. He has a few dedicated students—many others walk away.

Another top notch practitioner I know of, whom I never met, lives here and works out with maybe one or two people. Though he ran a school around here at one time he no longer does. He was considered one of the top picks as the inheritor of his style, one of the very few who “got it” in a style that has thousands of students.

mancuso_hidden4I’ll be honest. The martial arts often encourages the reclusive or anti-social facets of life. People who spend their time working out in a school aren’t necessarily the best representatives of highly social behavior. This is in part because only the EXTERNAL aspects of martial studies have been successfully imported into our culture. The inter-personal camaraderie still isn’t there. The sense of self discovery beyond the fighting is still missing for most though they pay lip service to it while talking about the gross. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is the impetus behind the acceptance of “mixed martial arts”. That intense sense of isolation when you are trying to puzzle out this or that particular system or transmission just became too much for most people. It’s like the net; easier to scan things than to read them.

But there is something even beyond this. I think, to put it simply, this is the sad part of the love story. The simple truth is that their art has become almost untransmitable. You can believe it or not but there’s more to martial arts than kicking ass. If there weren’t it might be classed as the stupidest human pursuit of all time since, in the time of the gun, it is a completely ridiculous bad investment of effort. And yet… and yet people who really try to track down this elusive art find that not only do they get better as the years pass but it is often the case they change in other ways, especially perceptually. As their sensitivity, their range of awareness, their depth of understanding about things outside the arts increases they find the study ever more fascinating, more involving and just more.


Ted Mancuso, the head of Plum Publications and this web site, runs a school in Santa Cruz, California. His new instructional text on Qigong: Blossoms in the Spring, had just come out.

Readers say:

Mr. Mancuso,
That last paragraph… “The simple truth is that …”

I have searched long for a way to explain why I still study.  After 23 years this piece of writing covers my feelings best.  There is just so much MORE to learn about life and being a part of it.  Great writing and thank you for taking the time to write.

Thanks, Willie, I thought I might try a piece that talked to those long timers like you who know there is something more than even your friends and family can ever understand.


4 Responses to “Hidden Masters”

  1. Craig says:

    Wow, Ted. Excellent article, and unfortunately I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen the exact same trend here in Atlanta. I was overseas for about 5 years and when I got back I was stunned – most everyone had disappeared.

    I really like your points about Kung Fu being about much more than fighting; to me, becoming a good fighter or confidently being able to defend self/loved-ones is an added benefit to the practice – but not the goal. Granted, every class I teach my students involves partner work, applications, etc., but truly it’s not about the “Hey – he tried to hit & take me down…And I kicked his arse!” No, even in working with partners, it’s about more than that.

    Keep up the good and honest writing!

  2. Terry says:

    Great article, Mr. Mancuso. I hope that the future brings that additional richness you spoke of once things begin to seem plain or commonplace. Right now I feel there’s still so much to learn & discover alongside all I have to work on & refine. Your article paints a picture with a ray of hope -for personal training at least- in what I often hear as a bleak situation.

    Thanks for posting.

  3. Zopa Gyatso says:

    Yes, a good article. It’s timely. Good you’re saying this! Your experience is unlikely to hit the “mainstream martial arts media” because the mainstream worships illusion, delusion, the quick-fix, and marketing myth. It’s wonderful for martial arts that there are still “real deal” masters here and there. But, they ought to teach just one or a few selected students to preserve genuine gung fu in this era of sport and commercial focus.

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