This is GrandMaster Ye Bong Choi. I have known him for over 40 years. He is a ninth degree black belt with over 300 black belts over countless countries. He is a Master.
To the left is GrandMaster Robert Zuczek. He is now a seventh degree black belt with over 100 black belt students that he has trained. He is a Master.
This is me with my most recent second degree black belt graduates. I am a sixth degree black belt. I have become a Master.
But what it is really? Does a master have to have disciples? Does a master have to be called, "Master"? Does it require a piece of paper? What does it mean to be a master?
In our style, we train for at least five years in the gup levels working through white, yellow, blue, red and red stripes to finally arrive at the first degree (1 dan) black belt. It feels like summiting the mountain, finally achieving the dream. And then we discover there is much more.
First through third degree are considered "beginner" or masters in training. A black belt does not gain you magical superiority in combat nor a sudden acquisition of skill. It is simply a marker in the infinite path in discovery and development of physical skill, stamina and drive.
When we reach fourth through sixth degree black belt, we are then called "Master". But what is that?
Many years ago, I remember asking one of the senior instructors in our school who had just attained 4 dan, the first master level. I was concerned that if I did not have a devoted class of students, I could not consider myself a master. I studied and thought about this a lot back then, oh so many years ago. I was in surgical residency in Newark with a class of 100 students. I was soon going off to fellowship in Brooklyn. I was going to have to pass on my beloved NJMS TKD class to one of my junior black belts and had no way of maintaining the connection. Moreover, after my fellowship, I was going to start a solo private practice with little time available to teach or have a class.
So, was I going to have to relinquish my training and give up on my lifelong dream of becoming a master of the martial arts?
So when I left the NJMS class that I had built up over nine years, I decided that even if I did not have a class full of white, yellow, blue, and red belts, I would still have myself to teach. I found a space at the university in Brooklyn (a racket ball court) to train in twice a week. All I had was my drills, jump rope and desire. I worked out exactly 55 minutes before the next group came in to use the court. I practiced my forms in the small room of my floor through apartment that I shared with my wife, two young toddlers, dog and cat. I would do my routines in my head as I held retractors in the operating room. And I dreamed of becoming a master one day.
Slowly I realized that mastery did not mean being able to tell people commands and teaching them what to do. Mastery became more a daily challenge for me to prove that I deserved the rank and belt my instructors gave to me. It dawned on me that the real mastery begins in the mind and body of each person, and has nothing to do with command of a class or having bowing students.
I learned that I had much to maintain and even more to learn. The road to mastery began then for me as a way to find peace within myself. I learned to find the limits of my body in the techniques I could do and then set about finding ways to exceed them.
It was not easy. I had (and still have) setbacks and doubts. But the master in me wakes me each day to strive to be the better man, an example to my self in the past, my current state, and my future self.