“I’ve been practicing Tai Chi an hour a day for 30 years,” he said, “but I’m still a long way from being a master.”
It was a beautiful, cloudless day in Golden Gate Park. I was 25 years old, and I had recently earned a black belt in Goju-Ryu Karate.
Tai Chi was completely foreign to me.
“How will you know when you reach mastery?” I asked.
I didn’t mean to be insulting, but the man clearly took offense. A quick scowl, and then he walked off.
I never did get his name.
I Want To Learn The Ways of the Force…
In the original Star Wars, there were obvious signs that Yoda was a Jedi Master. Levitating the X-wing Starfighter out of the muck, for example.
If I saw someone do that, I think I’d be pretty confident that they were a master.
But what about internal arts like Tai Chi and Qigong?
How can we tell when someone reaches mastery?
My question to the guy in the park was sincere, if also a bit naive. I truly wanted to better understand the concept of mastery, especially as it applied to the martial arts.
Although I was new to the martial arts world, I had already spent 2 decades in the classical music world. (Yes, I started playing violin when I was 5.)
In that world, no one really used the term “mastery”.
I never heard anyone at Juilliard say, “Dude, I’m getting so close to violin mastery!”
The whole “mastery” thing I encountered in the martial arts world has always been confusing to me.
After 24 years, I think I finally have a good answer.
I also know why that man’s comment in Golden Gate Park confused me.
Master Anthony, Jedi Knight
People sometimes call me “Master Anthony.” True story.
It always makes think of an earnest, young Padawan from Star Wars.
(Fun fact: Anakin Skywalker was never given the title Jedi Master even though he was more powerful than many of the Jedi Masters on the Council.)
Sometimes, I pretend to use the force to levitate nearby objects. I’m hoping it will magically work one day.
Until then, I’m not even a Padawan, let a lone a Jedi Master.
I’ll keep trying though!
Does NYC Have 13,000 Sifus?
Believe it or not, the term “master” is no where to be found in traditional in Qigong or Kung Fu (including Tai Chi).
The traditional title is Sifu (or Shifu in Mandarin, 師父), which translates literally to “teacher-father”.
Here’s the confusing part: the title Sifu doesn’t denote skill.
Confused? Just wait! The whole Sifu thing gets even more confusing!
In Chinese, there’s another term that is pronounced the same as Sifu, but uses different Chinese characters (師傅 ). This term is an honorific that is used for anyone with a special skill.
For example, this term is commonly used for taxi drivers.
Apparently, I was surrounded by Sifus when I lived in NYC! And that was before Uber!
To summarize: the Kung Fu version of Sifu does NOT denote skill, whereas the Taxi version DOES.
In other words, a Qigong or Kung Fu Sifu may be skillful, experienced, and wise – but none of that has to do with the title.
The Violin Master
All this confusion doesn’t exist in the violin world.
After 30 seconds listening to a violinist, you can tell if he or she is a master.
But with Qigong and Tai Chi, it’s trickier.
It might seem logical to measure the health of the Qigong master, and the martial skill of the Tai Chi master.
But is that enough?
For example, a person can be naturally healthy, and that doesn’t make them a Qigong master.
And someone can be an excellent martial artist without knowing a thing about Tai Chi.
So what’s our objective measure of mastery?
This brings us to something called the 10,000 hour rule. Personally, I love this concept. It works like this:
“Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.” – Malcolm Gladwell
In other words, to acquire world-class expertise in an art, you need to put in 10,000 hours of dedicated, concentrated practice.
This is not as easy as it sounds. If you practice 3 hours every day, it will still take you 10 years to reach 10,000 hours.
Not easy, but totally doable.
Am I a Master?
I know what you’re wondering.
“Is Sifu Anthony a master?”
It’s been hard for me to answer that question myself. I can relate to that man I met in the park 20 years ago!
On the one hand, I still feel very much like a student because I have so much to practice.
On the other hand, I’ve put in well over 10,000 hours of practice since I began this journey in 1992.
4th Degree Master?
If forced to give an answer, I would say this:
I think I’m a 4th Degree Black Belt in Tai Chi and Qigong.
There are no belts in Tai Chi or Qigong, of course. It’s an analogy. Let me explain.
In the Karate world, the belt system goes like this. You start at white belt, work your way up various colored belts, and then earn a black belt.
This process usually takes 3-5 years.
In terms of hours, it takes roughly 1000 hours to become a black belt.
But black belt is just the beginning really.
After that, there are 10 degrees (called dan in Japanese). Typically, these are harder to earn than the 1st degree.
I earned my 1st Degree Black Belt in Goju-Ryu Karate in 1995. I don’t do Karate any more, but if I did I’d probably be a 4th Degree Black Belt by now.
So to answer the question — yes, I think I’m a master of Tai Chi and Qigong. But no, I’m not done mastering these arts.
When people use the word “master”, they immediately think of the Super Ultimate Grand Mega Master. A state of perfection. A 10th Degree Master.
But that’s not how this mastery thing works.
You see, mastery is a process. It sounds trite, but it’s the journey, not the destination.
In other words, even Grandmaster Yoda is still mastering his art.
Do You Need a Master?
I’ve been thinking about this question for two decades.
Do you need a Master?
I’ve already written about spotting a bad teacher (and by extension, finding a good one).
Here’s the problem: a master is not necessarily a good teacher, and a good teacher is not necessarily a master.
I once learned from a famous violinist. He was, by far, the best player I had ever studied under.
But he was an awful teacher.
On the other hand, my best teacher was Louise Behrend. She was not known as a fantastic player, but she produced some amazing violinists (far better than me).
The lesson is clear: you might be better off learning from a good teacher rather than a high-level master.
If you can find someone who is both, if you can find Mr. Miyagi — good for you! Paint that fence!
I’m not confused any more. I think I finally understand what mastery is.
If you call someone “a master of ___” rather than using “Master” as a title, things get much clearer.
For example, Joshua Bell is definitely a master of the violin.
So call me a master of Qigong, or a master of Tai Chi, if you like.
But please don’t call me Master Anthony.
Not until I levitate that X-wing. Then you should definitely start calling me Master. From the heart, Sifu Anthony