What makes a Master?

I’ve heard it said that “Master” is not a term one elects for themselves, but is applied by others. That custom is apparently not always followed. But what does it mean, anyway? In some historic martial application I’ve read of, it meant that the person in question had learned the full catalog of their system. In other words, they know all of the techniques. This, to me, seems a rather low bar though it may be quite an impressive accomplishment in itself. If we hold the word “master” in high esteem, it would suggest knowledge at a higher conceptual level rather than mere memorization by rote. Of course, it is my understanding that in some of the systems in question, mastery was barred from the masses through secrecy. Certain techniques were revealed only to the most deserving students. By the time they earned access to these hidden secrets, they were no doubt quite experienced and operating at a high level of understanding. So, in practice, the title retained its’ importance and rarity.

A master should be able to apply his body of technique in unusual and unfamiliar circumstances. He should understand those techniques on such a level that, if they did not exist, he could invent them himself. That level of mastery is rare indeed and would exclude the majority of those who have granted themselves the title. Many are still learning their ABC’s and would like to be revered as great poets. Furthermore, if these teachers are not fully mature, how will they transmit higher concepts? They fuel a continual quest for new letters. “Add ~.” “I’ve discovered the umlaut!” “Behold the &!” Knowledge accumulates without understanding.

Building blocks are definitely necessary. We learn our ABC’s then words and then sentences. However, in the martial world, the equivalent of one who possesses a large vocabulary, but is unable to communicate ideas effectively is all too common. Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham using only 50 words. Not impressed? Well, read some Haiku. In 17 syllables, a master poet can bring men to tears. It isn’t the number of letters, words, martial techniques, etc. It’s how they are put to work. He’s the violinist who still plays beautifully on two strings. Yes, he knows the catalog, but he can take the limited skills employed by the beginner and defeat the experts and their advanced techniques. If you find a master that can’t do that, maybe he’s no master.

He’s seen things. Done things.