The Cult of the Guru – Type A Personalities and the Martial Arts

I’ve been thinking about this topic a great deal lately; my friend, and one of my most valued mentors, Wally Jay passed away at this time last year, and in a month or so I shall be flying off to Sacramento to teach at a celebration of his life that, were he to have lived, would have been in honour of his 95th birthday.

Professor Wally truly was an exceptional individual in very many ways, just one of which was that he both confirmed and confounded one’s expectations of the martial arts master, and knowing I personally fail to fulfil the first and hoping I do the second has been on my mind.

You know how it is when something is loitering in your consciousness; perhaps you bought a new car recently, and suddenly the world seems to be full of the same model as yours? In this case, I am continually confronted with teachers who fail to live up to the ideal of the oriental master while still exhibiting many of the more clichéd traits, and so they somehow seem rather two-dimensional characters as a result.

One of the most remarkable things about the Professor was what I’ve taken to calling the ‘integrity field’ that seemed to surround him; Wally Jay had an aura about him that, for the most part, made the people around him want to be…well, better.  Leon Jay talks of how, when his father entered a gathering of senior martial artists, many of them friends and peers for decades but often at odds as rivals too, they would all suddenly remember both their dignity and their goodwill and what they shared in common.  I believe, as does Leon, that they would be embarrassed to be seen bickering, or even displaying a little too much ego, by the Professor.

Wally Jay didn’t issue challenges, he didn’t tell you he was the best, he didn’t so much as imply that anyone was somehow less than he was; indeed, quite the opposite, he treated very ordinary martial artists like myself as if we were something special and he valued sincerity and honesty over prowess.

That generosity of spirit sometimes negated part of the effect of the ‘integrity field’.  He was not entirely surrounded by the ‘pure of heart’ by any means; he did attract many who hoped to climb higher by ‘clinging to his coat tails’, as the expression goes.  I can think of many individuals, though talented in themselves, nonetheless used their association with Prof. Wally to gain much greater credibility than they could otherwise possibly have generated solely through their own efforts.  More than one individual has attempted to trademark Small Circle Ju-jitsu, the Professor’s own creation; others have claimed to have helped ‘make him famous’ simply by uke-ing for him in photographs for books or articles.

I have a number of treasured photographs that the Professor kindly dedicated for me; their value lies in the sentiments they express and those they evoke in me.  By contrast, I’ve heard that on the day the Professor passed away, another teacher, famous in his own right, but oh, so much more famous – and credible – than he might otherwise have been, through his association with Wally Jay, was teaching a summer camp.  On hearing of the Professor’s passing, he first cried crocodile tears, then within the hour he was offering to sell multiple copies of photos he had been given by Prof. Wally!  Perhaps he was just ‘striking while the iron is hot’?  It might be this lack of sentiment as impediment to profit that prevents me becoming a multi-millionaire as the teacher in question is; if so, genteel poverty would seem a much more dignified option.

I’ve talked before in this blog about how the arts often attract ‘Type A’ personalities – it is unsurprising perhaps that a certain degree of self-belief is required to rise to the top of the martial arts tree and to promote one’s art, but this doesn’t sit all that well with the image of the dignified oriental master.

Perhaps it is impossible to fulfil that image in a Western developed world with its fast-paced living, and with ever increasing media bombarding us with hard-sell marketing, each product screaming at us in competition with every other?  My understanding of the psychological goal of the arts is that they should lead to ‘the death of the ego’.  Now this is a tricky concept; how are you to develop high levels of skill and confidence in that ability and yet to become more humble, more self-effacing?  My own answer to this is a growing awareness that the art is ultimately what lives on and is transmitted to the student – not you, the teacher, the personality however influential you might be, though I’m aware this might seem trite or facile as an argument.

If the art you promote or devise and develop is of value, it is the cleverness of it, stripped of you the individual creator, that will ensure its longevity.  And even in the battle between competing philosophies and approaches to the arts, we are led to believe that an aristocracy of talent will prevail, that martial arts are ultimately a paragon of meritocracy – our status and the respect we garner should be earned, rather than merely insisted upon.  I never knew Prof. Wally once stand on his dignity; he didn’t need to, you instinctively treated him with respect – and affection -because he was patently worthy of it.

Somehow though, Wally Jay managed that particular tight-rope walk – he was the ‘real deal’, a quietly spoken, non-strident though utterly confident exponent and proponent of his art.  He didn’t say, “I’ve got something better than Joe”.  He just said, “I’ve got something I believe is good”; and you know what, he really, really did!  He didn’t have to belittle anyone’s else’s art to make his seem the greater, he just taught, demonstrating and explaining quietly.  He didn’t hold back anything for fear of losing an ‘edge’ over others; he figured it was his job to work on his art every day of his life to make it a little better all the time, and if that kept him ahead of the game, it was appropriate because it was real and it was earned, not simply loudly asserted.

And he worked not just on his art, but on his relationships, concentrating much more on what he could contribute to your understanding while being entirely open to learning from others.  When you were Wally’s friend you didn’t feel like an inferior, even if, like me, you knew there was little chance you would ever equal his virtuosity; you might be junior to him in skill, but you knew it was the journey he valued, the striving, the becoming that counted with him.  And if you didn’t get any of these things by being around him, then you weren’t doing Small Circle, you were merely moving in ever decreasing circles, though you probably failed to notice at the time, and may not have yet.

If you were fortunate enough to have a relationship with the Professor, I would urge that you stay vigilant, never falling into the trap of ‘trading’ on it, but using it as a spur to your own development and to inspiring the succeeding generations – if you can do that, you’re a worthy friend.  I do take enormous pride in telling people he was my friend, but even more in telling them about who he was and what he taught me, and I hope the first and primary emotion that relationship will continue to fill me with for the rest of my days is simple gratitude.

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About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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