Somehow, in the martial arts in general, everybody is fond of purporting about their lineage and famous fighters and masters that belong to their system or school. In doing this, they feel that they invoke some kind of power or abilities that then are superimposed on whoever belongs to that particular system or style. Somehow, I don’t think it works this way. Just because you’re associated with something or someone famous doesn’t mean that their attributes, skills, understanding or abilities are going to be passed along to you. There are a lot of martial arts schools that purport that grandmaster so-and-so or professor so-and-so are teaching there or are affiliated with the school. That’s all fine and well. That’s great. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that those things will be passed along to you. Those skills, attributes and abilities belong to that particular individual and cannot be shared amongst the whole. It’s like claiming that your ancestor was someone famous. That’s awesome, but that means nothing about you. You yourself have to prove that you can do what needs to be done, be it in the martial arts or in any other area of life. 

I think a lot of times people join up with schools and organizations based upon their past deeds. But it’s like the disclaimer you hear when you buy a mutual fund: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” This is a caveat that you should be aware of. Just because your teacher is a world class champion doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be a world class champion. Just because you’re trained by a gold medal winning skater or gymnast doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be one. You’re going to be what you’re going to be, and you have to come to terms with that. What you’re going to be is determined by a lot of factors – your physiology, your psychology, your innate ability to do whatever you can do. 

Some people are born with god given gifts while other people have to fight for them. Even if you are born with god given gifts, you still have to train them. You may have a gifted voice for singing hardcore rock and roll, but if you don’t train it, it’s not going to be sustainable over a long period of time. By the same token, just because you have an awesome voice coach doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be an amazing singer. The artist can only work with the material that they have. If you’re a really gifted sculptor, but you have poor quality marble, you can’t really expect too much. Then again, you may train under Leonardo DaVinci and still amount to nothing. I give you a very good example. A disciple of mine is a five-star chef. He has four sous chefs under his tutelage, and yet none of them can compare or even come close to him, even though they’re with him every day. They may claim to work in one of the top French restaurants in New York City, but still, for all the claims they make, they can’t come close to his level of cooking. So regardless of what you align yourself with, it still has to come from you.

It doesn’t matter who your mentor or guru is. It depends on your own personal attributes and effort. Your great-great-grandmaster, or your immediate teacher, may be famous, may be a world class fighter, may be a world class performer, may be someone of high note and respect within the circle of what they do. This does not mean that you will achieve the same status nor will their skill level, notoriety and fame be passed along to you. A lot of people claim, “I trained with so-and-so, I trained with this grand master, I trained with that champion.” That’s awesome, but it still means nothing. How can we say this? Because it boils down to the individual. Can the individual make something out of it or not? 

So what does your Sifu have to do with this anyway? Just because he’s well known and well versed and comes from a highly regarded lineage still doesn’t mean anything for you. You still have to get down on your hands and knees and do the hard work. I can’t use the notoriety of my grandmaster, my master or my system to prove my worthiness. It is up to each individual to prove their own worthiness. You have to sit there and do the ten thousand punches and the ten thousand kicks repeatedly day in and day out. Even if you do this, you still may not get the accolades that you think you deserve. 

So the question is, why are you doing it? We have to think about that question. Maybe initially you were drawn toward whatever particular system – as I was – because of its world renown and its fame and its fighting techniques. There’s nothing wrong with that. But after the luster of that fades, what prompts you to keep going forward? I’ve said your Sifu has nothing to do with it. But, my feeling is, maybe your Sifu has everything to do with it, too. If he’s well known and he’s famous for his technique and his skill, this should inspire you to put in the work and the time that he has in order to achieve the best possible result for yourself. 

In essence, I think the teacher has everything to do with it in one way and nothing to do with it in another. You can use your teacher as an inspiration. You can use them to give you motivation, to spark you to move forward and stay true to the path, but you can’t use them to bolster yourself. On the playground, you might hear a kid say, “My daddy’s bigger than your daddy.” What does that have to do with you? If your grandfather is rich, what does that have to do with you? Are you waiting for your grandfather to pass away so you can inherit his riches or are you going to go out and create wealth on your own. 

Kung Fu skill is not like a cold. You can’t catch it. It’s not a communicable disease. You have to work for it. Even if you’re in the proximity of so-called famous masters, this still doesn’t absolve you from the hard work. Everybody goes around talking about their lineage. That’s great; that’s your martial art bloodline. You still have to prove yourself. How do you prove yourself? By doing the work every day. You can’t live on the laurels and deeds of a past generation. At some point the gas of that car runs out. You can’t say that a grandmaster who lived a hundred and fifty years ago somehow magically quantifies your martial skill and prowess. That individual and the system itself may be great, but you have to strive to make yourself great. 

If you’re waiting for a particular system of martial arts, regardless of its origin -- Karate, boxing, Kung Fu, Tai Chi -- to make you great, you’re going to be waiting a really long time. It’s probably never going to happen. You yourself need to choose the path and then make that path great. Your training is a vehicle that’s there to help you. Kung Fu is the vessel, but you need to supply the constant work that goes into it. Let’s use the analogy that your martial art is a gorgeous sports car. It’s a Maserati, a Porsche, a Lamborghini, but you still have to know how to drive. It takes a lot of skill to drive those cars. You’re not driving a Hyundai (no disrespect to Hyundai drivers). Sports cars require a lot of skill to drive, so you can’t be just a regular driver with a normal level of skill. Just because you have a drivers license doesn’t mean you know how to drive a Lamborghini.

Just because you learned the form doesn’t confer Kung Fu magic upon you, and just because you belong to a certain lineage means absolutely nothing unless you’ve put in the time and effort to acquire what we call “Kung Fu.” Then and only then do those claims hold any water. It is the duty of the present and future generations to uphold and make the deeds of the past generations that much more. They’re not there to make you something special; you’re there to honor their achievements and make them even more. 

If you want to have Kung Fu, you’re going to have to work for it, and no matter how hard you work, you still may not get it. This doesn’t have anything to do with your Sifu. He is who he is, and you are who you are. You can emulate your Sifu. You can follow him and study under him, but you still have to find your own way. You can learn from your teacher’s knowledge, from their experience, from their inspiration, from their motivation, but you cannot be them. You can shave your head and wear a pigtail and walk around in robes all day, but that doesn’t make you Wong Fei Hung.

So what’s your Sifu got to do with it anyway? The bottom line is this – the skill level of the master and school that you train under does not automatically pass to you just by association. Just because you paid the tuition doesn’t mean you get the skill. Regardless of what system, style or teacher, you align yourself with, their notoriety, their level of skill, their mastery, their understanding, really has nothing to do with you. You’re just part of the organization. And you may be very lucky in your associations, but that doesn’t absolve you from doing the hard work. You cannot infer or bequeath Kung Fu. You cannot inherit skill. You can inherit a form or a weapon or a technique, but you cannot inherit the skill required to execute it. You are allowed to claim nothing. You have to earn it. You have to deserve it. You only achieve the skill when you work for it. 

-Sifu Paul Koh