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When is a Master Truly a Master? (Part II)

Part I: What is a True Master?
Part II: More than a Teacher — The Path of Shao-lin

In the Shao-lin a black belt is called "laoshr," which simply means teacher. Masters will promote their students to laoshr based on the length of time in training and how much they have learned in Shao-lin. But it in no way indicates that the student has reached the level of self-mastery. I have seen students go to high levels only to fail because of character flaws.

grandmaster This is not to say that master levels are saints either. I am only referring to the wu-de (ethics ) of our art. If ethics are followed without question, then the art is preserved, and all that it stands for is also preserved. A master is a master when he/she not only teaches the art, but also lives it. Shao-lin has to be the criterion.

For more messages from Grandmaster, see the Archives.
In Chinese there is something called "lu shr di dz" which translates as the closed door student. The closed door students are the ones the master confides in. They are the ones whom the master trusts and counts on. They are the ones to whom the master reveals his skills. It is said: many enter the gate of the Shao-lin Temple but few enter the door of the master. Only when the laoshr level has proven his/her ability to teach correctly and follow the traditions and ethics of Shao-lin, will a master invite the student into the private chambers.

Master Ch'ang said to me once, "words come easily, action comes hardly."
My last master and father Ch'ang Tung Sheng was a staunch advocate of the old traditions and ethics. He was not afraid to ask anything of his followers. He simply waited to see who would follow and who would not. To paraphrase something that Master Ch'ang said to me once, "Words come easily, action comes hardly."

Ch'ang loved his inner door students, he trusted them to always do the right thing. If they did not, Ch'ang would lock the door on them. He came from the old school, where respect was the keyword. If you did not show respect for the code of conduct you were considered an outcast no matter how good your physical skills were.

I have seen Master Ch'ang turn down students who came to him to learn his kung fu, only to be told to leave. I have seen people begging at his feet to be accepted in the door, swearing their allegiance, only to be turned away. I have asked the Master why, and he indicated that those people had poor character and their own words meant little to them, and even much less to him. Ch'ang did not want to waste time teaching those who had no true desire to follow the old ways. That kind of person had little chance of fostering the arts intact to the next generation.

Master Ch'ang Tung Sheng's Students

When I first met Master Ch'ang I was surprised at how few disciples he had. I believe there was only five or six who came into the gate of the Master. Only in his later years did he become more liberal in his selection. I assume he felt it was time to spread his knowledge, so it would not become lost over time. So the Master made more teachers in his last ten years than he had made in his whole life.

I can speak more freely than most having lived with the Master for a short period of time, and having seen how carefully he considered a man's character. When I was awarded the level of 3nd Tang or 7th degree black belt by Master Ch'ang, he asked me, "For Ren, what rank do you think you deserve?" I said, "Pa Pa, whatever, you decide I am, then I am."

He made his decisions by knowing my character. He had already seen my fighting skills, as he was head judge in my fights in Taiwan. He made his decision based partly on my skills, but mostly on what he thought of me as a man of character. Just before the Master passed away in 1986, I spoke with him by phone. My heart was touched as he said his love for me was not wasted.

I am most proud of the fact that I have always stayed the path with each of my teachers. I may at this point sound as if I am bragging (well I am), but from what I see in the world today, I feel I have accomplished perpetuation of the Shao-lin ethics. I must say it is not an easy matter to do this, for in following the way we must all pay a price. We must be willing to give up many things to make way for the gifts of Shao-lin. I have lost many worldly opportunities by staying the path of Shao-lin. But in its place I have found something the world can not give me, that is: inner contentment in body, mind and spirit.

There is another Chinese saying that states "shing ming shuang-shiou" which translates as "cultivating nature and life together." Nature can be defined as the world we live in and all its forces.

Living in the world is no easy matter, as we all know. Although life itself is very beautiful, it is how we deal with it that causes all the problems. We must find a blend that will make our life more harmonious with nature. This is the secret we must come to discover.

Shao-lin is a way to find the answers. As Master Ch'ang said in his dedication to my book, Ch'ang Shih Tai Chi Ch'uan, "Constant Discipline Is The Only Key."

This brings to mind a question which was asked of me by a former student. He asked how he could attain this self discipline. My answer to him came from another old saying I have heard from my teachers, "hua xian bu yao gwo chu" which means, "you must draw a line and never cross it." You set your priorities in life, then make no excuses to break your vows.

Ch'ang knew this, as any good teacher would. Without giving something to your art, don't expect to get something in return.
They are still out there, the masters. I am happy to say they are not all dead.
These are the reasons why there are in fact so few masters. There are hoards of teachers who think they are masters, but they are like the blind leading the blind.

What makes a master a master is dedication to the arts and to all of their traditions. It is the never-ending search for improvement. It is the love and respect shown to our predecessors. When you see a true master you will see a man or woman who has drawn the line, and who has never steppped over it. You will see a man/woman who has a deep desire to spread the art as it was taught him/her.

They are still out there, the masters. I am happy to say they are not all dead. They do exist, and you will find them where they belong, in a Kwoon, teaching. They remain undaunted by the worldly interference. They cling to the ethics and traditions they claim to believe in, resolute in their approach to master-hood.

This is when a Master is a Master.

Part I: What is a True Master?
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