The “PETER URBAN SYNDROME” 2
This post is also available in: Italian
This is the second in a series of articles titled, “The Peter Urban Syndrome”.
The late GrandMaster Peter Urban was not only a Pioneer originating one of the 1st Martial Arts schools in the USA in 1959 but he was an innovator and somewhat eccentric, eclectic propagator of newer and more modern approaches to the Martial Arts.
During a period when most martial arts teachers were enamored with “tradition” and committed to following established “traditions” of their oriental predecessors, Master Urban initiated what many considered a “Sacrilege” as he began to openly deviate from much of the “traditional” mindset and practices that where at the heart of oriental culture, society, and previously had formed a major part of the foundation of oriental martial arts.
To this day, the results of this “Rebellion” are still lauded by some, lamented and criticized by others. However, this PARADIGM CHANGE began a transition in martial arts that is still in progress today; reflected later in many of the “radical” anti-tradition concepts presented by the late Bruce Lee in the 70’s, exemplified in the multiple variations of the USA GoJu style initiated by GM Urban and further advanced by his most prominent students, and has become part of the mantra that helps fuel the present “Mixed Martial Arts” phenomenon currently popular today. In contrast, many of Urban’s more radical practices have served to set problematic precedents that have resulted in serious questions concerning credibility in the MA belt ranking system.
As with any prominent figure in history, Grand Master Urban had his remarkable accomplishments along with his “demons”. With the greatest respect for his many accomplishments, and as one of his closest, long term Senior Students, I have no illusion that this man was a Saint or was without fault. It is the opinion of this author that only through candid, honest, and critical examination of history will we best move our martial arts forward. As Winston Churchill stated, “Those who do not learn from the history are destined to repeat it.”
It is not my intention to dwell on the past whether by romanticizing “war stories” and/or “heroes” or by condemning questionable past actions and activities. It is, however, our responsibility as adults, as Senior Masters, and present leaders of the martial arts to view all with a “critical mind”, a mind open to all possibilities but cognizant that not everything is probable, and/or profitable. Ultimately, I wish to honor one of the valuable principles taught to me by this great martial artist, “KEEP THE GOOD and DISGARD THE BAD”. It is in this spirit that I continue to examine and share, in humility and truth, “THE PETER URBAN SYNDROME”.
During a recent online discussion, one of the Master instructors with years of MA experience made a valid and important point when asserting that the Okinawans and Japanese founded their own “styles” and have no monopoly on creativity. To paraphrase his opinion, based on this precedent there is no reason why westerners could not do the same.
The following discourse is an edited version of my response to this current and relevant subject. Please consider my perspective and feel free to submit your personal findings, opinions, and/or share the facts of your own experiences via the interactive “Comments” at the end of this article.
First, I agree with my MA brother in acknowledging that no country, culture, or race has a monopoly on intelligence, creativity, talent, and/or the potential for advancing any area of the human experience including the Martial Arts. Beyond that, let’s examine this in the context of the PAST (history), the PRESENT (activity and interaction), and the FUTURE (vision, achievable goals, and inspiration).
A common observance is the fact that in each system (new or old), begins with very similar basics. The differences come with how each “Master” prioritizes, emphasizes, varies, and/or interprets these basics within their martial arts experience and then transmits those interpretations to their students. What follows in that process is simply further progression along the direction set by following those tenants selected and preferred by that particular “Master” teacher. It is significant to remember that William Shakespeare began with the same 26 letters of the alphabet as you and I. However, no one would argue about what a profound difference there was in his understanding, use and interpretation of their application.
This phenomenon of individual interpretation is not limited to new “style” or any one “Master”, regardless of how prominent he is or is not. It is something that occurs with every serious teacher of the MA. In my opinion by observation, the potential confusion and sometimes abuse seems to happen when any one of these “interpretations” identifies itself as a “new system” of “unique style”. Therefore, it is prudent for all of us serious students of the MA to clearly define the parameters that distinguish between fact and fantasy, reality and illusion.
Well document in the history of the martial arts is prominent evidence that those “styles/systems” that have definitively been verified as unique, “new systems” are those which have stood the “test of time”, not simply those instructors who proclaimed themselves to be unique and/or chose another name for their MA.
The Test of Time
What I specifically mean by the phrase, “test of time” is not merely counting the number of years any “Master” has spent from the day of his first White belt lesson to the present. Although the total time passed during these two dates can be relevant, this can also create an illusion. This is because the reality of “experience” is not the number of years that have passed but is best verified by how any individual has filled those years! In this manner one examines the QUANTITY, QUALITY, and CONSISTENCY of one’s MA “experience”.
Please let us recognize and agree that “experience” is not realistically measured in “years” but in moments, minutes, hours, and occasionally, days. Abraham Lincoln once said, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Twenty to thirty years, two-three nights weekly in your garage practicing the techniques you learned in a 6 weeks summer course at the YMCA is distinctly different from 20-30 years impregnated with regular, consistent, and serious training under the direction of a seasoned and credible Master teacher before we even begin to measure other MA activities.
Test of Verifiable MA Activities
Further yet, years of activity teaching, leading, inspiring, mentoring students through multiple levels of MA skills, competitive interaction with other martial artists, social interaction with juniors, peers, and seniors through martial organizations, administrative responsibilities within a credible martial organizational structure and with guidance from senior accomplished leaders, and personal contributions such as written and published material, audio and video productions, martial arts demonstrations, presentations, shows, and/or productions are all indications of a full range of “experiences” that are indicative of a career Martial Arts Master. The participation in the full range of these activities, the consistency of such participation, and the verifiable quality of the same are the only valid criteria that justify any of the mid and higher levels of Black Belt status.
The common error and rather widespread illusion is that one’s advancement in status to the higher Dan levels is merely a matter of counting the years since one began MA training and/or perhaps if he/she knows the moves to more kata or the “accepted” kata list and/or technique list commonly taught within that system. I’m not certain if this discouraging trend has been caused by deliberate “inflation” of the belt rank system or simply because of the ignorance of those who have inherited or independently proclaimed themselves as the present “leaders” of MA.
“Dumbing Down” of MA Standards
It is clear to me that anyone who has not walked the path described above is already handicapped when attempting to use teaching methods and or standards that he/she has never been taught himself/herself. Subsequently, one might not be surprised at the “dumbing down” of quality in some of the present day martial arts schools. It brings to mind the phrase, “The blind leading the blind.” Also, the “dumb” don’t always know they are “dumb”. “The knife cuts, but it cannot cut itself. The eye sees, but it cannot see itself.” (Click the link referencing the previous article on this BLOG site.) Oops, I forgot that it’s not “politically correct” to refer to someone as “dumb”. Perhaps, “rationally challenged” may be a kinder term.
When looking around I don’t see any lack of talent in the now generation. And wherever there is active interaction we see skills increase simply by such interaction, however, there is a distinct difference between what is learned “by accident” and what is learned by design. The only legitimate justification and value of Senior Master instructor status is in our ability to create an environment that allows the now generation to move beyond our own quality levels. In essence, they learn from us so as not to have to redo the same research, reinvent the wheel, repeat the same errors.
Regardless of the cause of this “dumbing down”, it is my sincere belief that a greater benefit to the MA in general is better served by sharing this valuable information and perhaps offering a “hand up’ to those who are less aware for whatever reason, than in acting pomp and superior or degrading anyone who seriously wishes to grow in their MA experience. It is for this reason I take my time and effort to share these views and values. All at the risk that these long monologues may bore some of my MA brothers and sisters and/or offend the enemies of truth.
To continue further, if one has “created” his own “style/system” without the benefit of such “experience” it is likely that such a “style” would potentially be more limited than one formed after such a broad and rich career described above. This is common sense and not intended to take away from any serious creative effort. The result is not greater than the sum of all the parts, this is one of the laws of reality. In modern techno speak, they say of computers, “Garage in, garbage out.”
Subsequently, to be realistic, we must acknowledge that the “credibility” of any “new system” does not begin by that “Master” proclaiming himself “Soke”, Grandmaster” or any other title, nor does it begin with him proclaiming a style name independent of his former teachers. If he has done much of the previously mention activity under the direction and supervision of his seniors and then chooses to separate, forming a new entity, the scrutiny legitimately begins anew. If he has initiated such a bold step but hasn’t experienced and/or accomplished with those seminal activities listed previously, then there is likely to exist a serious “credibility gap” from the inception of any such “new style”.
Politics or Accountability?
One somewhat common observation has been that many of those who have not done their “homework” and/or established the broad foundation necessary for success prior to any independent move have often times been the ones who attempt to cover any scrutiny of their deficiencies by crying “politics” or portraying themselves as “victims” that the established Masters or Organizations are trying to “keep down”. Although “politics” is a part of the “human condition” and exists in every walk of life, any ethical individual must bring the focus on his “real time” actions, activities, and accomplishments rather than affiliations. Actions speak louder than words.
Only after the amount of time and work necessary to establish that someone, in fact, has a uniquely new system of performing and teaching his martial art, will this then be recognized as a new “style/system”. Until then credibility and recognition of MA social status rightly should remain in question. Legitimate proof and verification is not attained merely by any diploma whether issued by a credible teacher or even a group who wish to acknowledge the new “founder’s” rank or status. Unfortunately, as much as these types of “recognitions” give us a “warm and fuzzy” feeling toward our MA brothers, they represent little more than “mutual admiration societies”.
The proof of credibility is in the actual performance, skills, character, and subsequent activity of this “Founder’s” students, his assistants, the instructors he develops, the Master teachers that originate from his teaching and leadership, the organizational structure he creates, inspires, and administers, the quantity and quality of the interaction between him, his students, his representatives with the rest of the MA community, the caliber and character of those martial artists that represent his “new style”, etc.
A Rome Built in one Day, Falls in one Day
This is something that is impossible to accomplish overnight and/or behind closed doors. Therefore, any credible claim to the status/titles such as Soke, GrandMaster, Hanshi, Shihan, Renshi, ad infinitum, comes only after the time necessary to accomplish such things, CERTAINLY NOT AT THE BEGINNING! And the clock measuring this credibility does not start at the beginning of the “Founder’s” MA career, but at the beginning declaration of his alleged, “NEW STYLE”. Still further, as explained above, the passage of time although a necessary factor must be measured relative to actual activity and verifiable accomplishment. The fact that one may have accomplished the foundations needed to likely accomplish these standards now performed independently, only opens the door, but is not a final indication of having fulfilled the ongoing qualifying tasks.
With this said, I admire anyone who is sincere and has the talent, insight, creativity, and courage to embark on such a path. However, please don’t expect to receive the acknowledgement of legitimate achievement until those milestones have been accomplished. Just as we would certainly admire anyone entering college to begin the education and experience to become a “brain surgeon. However, no one would expect to acknowledge that he was a World Class Brain Surgeon while he was a premed student simply because he declared that one day he would arrive at that point and had begun his “research” on finding “new methods” of brain surgery.
It is discouraging, embarrassing, and delusional that some of our MA brothers believe that they can appoint themselves the head of some imagined “NEW STYLE” and immediately identify themselves as “Professor”, “Doctor”, “Reverend”, “Most Supreme POOH PAH”, blah, blah, blah, blah. Let’s get real here. Are they “Founders”? Perhaps yes. The obvious question remains, “founders of what?” Do they have a “New Style? Perhaps yes, or perhaps they simply have a variation. Only the test of time as described in part above will determine that. Until then, it must prudently remain questionable.
I hope this long dissertation helps to clarify this subject and to more thoroughly explain that the questions posed concerning credibility are not personal or political, but are primarily legitimate and reasonable questions regarding understanding, defining, and qualifying specifics and then applying the appropriate ethics and integrity.
When trying to understand why these issues continue to be a such challenge within the MA community I keep being reminded and am drawn to repeat again the quote from William Shakespeare, “THERE IS NOTHING MORE COMMON THAN THE WISH TO BE REMARKABLE.” If, in fact, we wish to truly accomplish something “remarkable”, let us not be known or remembered that what was “remarkable” about our activities and accomplishments was how “remarkably” we exaggerated, distorted, inflated, conned, and/or defrauded others with the description of our MA activities and accomplishments.
Let us be known and remembered for how “remarkable” was our commitment to the developing and maintaining the substance of our skills, the quality of our character, and the integrity of our values. To achieve this goal, we must walk the walk, not just talk the talk; we must be wary of the differences between those around us, and in our industry, of who are the Champions of Integrity and those who are the Enemies of Truth, Transparency, and Accountability.
“…AND THAT’S THE WAY I SEE IT!” ©
Copyright © 2010 R.V. PASCETTA, All rights reserved