Ground Rules


Entering the studio, visitors could not miss seeing the placard mounted prominently above the portal.

It read ...

            Ground rules must be followed.

            No exceptions, immediate dismissal for violations.

Below, the rules were listed by number:

          1. Pay on time.

          2. Sign in.

          3. Attend class, absences require prior day's notice to head instructor. Maximum of 4 excused absences per year.

          4. Be on time.

          5. Lessons are directed to the class.

Entering the studio, you find heightened focus and a general calm, somewhat alien to one reared in modern school culture.

A senior student greets you. You explain you are interested in learning the martial arts.  Could someone provide information about the school?

You chat with the senior student, who emphasizes the traditional nature of the program.

You ask, "What makes this school traditional versus the offerings at other studios?"

The senior responds, "This teacher demands you achieve a high level of focus. The premise is that your intent must flow unimpeded into action." Liking what you hear, you stand ready to launch a barrage of questions when the senior politely disengages and returns to working out.

Noticing your consternation and puzzlement, the master soon navigates your way.

"Are there questions that were not answered?"

You respond, "Yes, I'm trying to find out what makes your school different from the others, and your assistant indicated you place great emphasis on discipline and tradition."

"Not so much tradition, not so much discipline.  Just the ground rules."

The elder man pointed to the sign, almost expecting a reaction.

"But why the ground rules? What's so hard about following four or five administrative rules The real issue is whether a person can learn to punch, kick and move, all skills requiring far more commitment then compliance to trivial rules."

"Ah ha, but that is the illusion. My experience has always been that ground rules are seldom observed and even less frequently enforced. Every person who joins my class has my personal assurance that they will mind the ground rules, learn and adhere to them, or be gone."

"Mumbo jumbo" was your thought. In so many words, you told him so, and he studied your comment in silence. After a moment, he returned to class.

You lingered until the end, greatly impressed by the intensity of work out, complexity of technique and general level of execution.

Only afterwards does the master return to further explain.

"Please don't think I'm a silly old fool. I speak the way I do martial arts. Just as I don't waste motion, I don't like to waste words or time. Most people who walk through the front door are looking for something other than what I teach. I teach true martial arts. My knowledge is either 'yes' or 'no.' I am never in between. Take yourself for example. If I were to ask you what question you had on your mind as I walked away earlier, what would you respond?"

Your response is quick, "How long does it take for a new student to attain Black Belt level?"

The master's gaze bores through your own as he responds, "A most common question. In fact, it has no meaning, and no answer is deserved. In your case, I will respond that most people require four years, but those who ask the question usually take five."

"But why five? "

Before you can finish, he cuts in, "Now it has become six."

You stand silent.

"Good!  Thatís the best thing you said today!  You see my style is not like a pair of shoes that you try on, then throw away when they become uncomfortable or worn. You provide the raw material; I provide the art. Better yet, think of yourself as the computer and my teaching as the computer operating system. Together they become one, forever inseparable, but working more effectively together than either could as a stand-alone."

"But where do those rules fit into your scheme?" you ask.

"Simple.  The secret of martial arts is not mastery of hard things or impossible things. It is mastery of the most basic facets of life. Once those basic facets are completely mastered and integrated into your person, more complex chains of activity become ordinary endeavors. Secondly, each rule has a deeper significance, spiritual if you will. For example, underlying the rule pay on time is the ethical foundation or interchange of respect that each person must have for another. You pay on time because you receive on time. By paying on time, you reinforce the importance of what you learn, your role in the class and your intention to integrate that knowledge into your life. Free from having to chase you for the money, the master's skill is entirely dedicated to the lesson and improvement of the class."

"This is reinforced by Rule #2. Signing in is a declaration of your intent to participate meaningfully in class. You declare, over your signature, that you are there to learn.  The mundane details of your job and the struggles and frustrations of life are left outside the doorstep and are not permittet within. When you sign in, your mind goes from muddled to clear and focused. Of course, signing in derives from the platform that attendance is required. I can only speak for myself in this regard, but my experience has convinced me that the dedicated student who attends all classes achieves mastery, while the dedicated student who does not, usually doesn't. For that reason, students are dropped from the program for unexcused absences. The rule is, if you're not going to make the class, I must have prior day's notice.  For me, not so hard.  Many others seem to struggle with it."

"That means no excuses, no cars broke down, no grandmothers, aunts or uncles that have passed away. I have heard those excuses more times than I care to mention. I have never failed to teach a class for any of those reasons nor have any of my teachers beforehand. The clear sign of an embryo master is that there are no excuses. For a master in the making, problems are solved before they manifest and derail intent. The rule recognizes that situations will occur that prevent attendance, and so long as the notice requirement is met, understanding is given. However, more than four excused absences per year means dismissal. Same reason as above, same explanation."

"As important as the preceding is, the definitive test of discipline is to 'be on time.' That rule governs everyone in class, including the teacher. Great masters have repeatedly emphasized that timing is everything. Proper timing means when the emergency arose, your mind was ready. Proper timing is like descending a snow-covered slope. As you snake downward, trees blur by, but you pass safely. Your mastery of timing has relegated the trees and obstacles to dimensions that no longer impede you. Proper timing means while the attacker waited to spring the trap, you were elsewhere. If you cannot learn to command time, how can you ever hope to learn not to be caught off guard and victimized by anotherís timing of you."

"The final rule is that teaching is directed at the class. Every student is obliged to learn. The student who chooses not to learn, either by not showing up or not practicing or not striving for growth, inevitably drags against the progress of all. Learn or get out! Class is like a beautiful sailing vessel that will take you and each of your companions to exotic ports and destinations. But each must contribute and learn as they go. More than anything, that is the path to mastery. I too am nothing more than a student, always was and always will be. A student means one who learns, one who works to learn and one who seeks. If you can't do that, then go watch TV or play with your smartphone.  Thatís where you belong.  Not here."

Nodding your head in appreciation, you can only respond, "I've got much to think about."

"Yes, and think about one more thing. These rules are simple and any child can follow them, or so one would think. I could just as well call them the impossible rules or the hardest rules. For every student who joins the class, another is dismissed because these rules proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. Take note, my discipline is true. What is on the wall is what I will do. No matter what you think today, in time, you will be tempted to test those rules. Be warned, if I am your teacher, the response will be quick and as announced. That is the key to my martial art. Is that what you are looking for?"

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