In the olden days, there was no ranking system in arnis-escrima – it’s either you’re a teacher or you’re a student. Originally, the art was taught one-on-one and though the very personal approach to teaching meant quality instruction, this resulted to a small number of qualified instructors to proliferate the art. The use of such titles as “master” or “grandmaster” to address an FMA teacher is but a later development. In traditional FMA setting, “manong” and “ingkong” were mostly used, which are titles for a revered elder.
A part of Dan Inosanto’s book “Jeet Kune Do: The Art and Philosophy of Bruce Lee” discussed the teaching credentials in traditional FMA, it reads, “As for any type of ranking system, Dan explains: The authority to teach is given by handing down a favorite weapon or pet movement; there are no credentials.”
Inosanto again mentioned the practice of handing down a favorite weapon from master to student in his book “Absorb What is Useful.” One passage in the book says, “Jack Santos later became an advisor to my academy, and until the time of his death was the oldest living Escrima Master in the United States. On his deathbed, surrounded by a small group of Filipino boys, he asked for his Kris shrouded in green scabbard. His final words were, “Make sure this gets to Dan…”
The use of formal ranking system through the issuance of certificates and colored belts in some styles of FMA was mainly introduced during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of popularity of Japanese and Chinese martial arts in the Philippines and around the world. The rationale of FMA teachers who have adapted this practice was that it was a necessary move to make. They believe that the act would render the FMA more attractive to the public because it now possesses the semblance of the more popular Japanese and Chinese arts.
The writer training with Manong Ignacio Mabait
The training in traditional FMA was very informal too, done while wearing everyday clothes at a location of the master’s choosing, which could be his home, his backyard or in an open field. Mark Wiley offers an interesting comment on this subject in his book “Filipino Martial Culture,” it says, “For the Filipino martial arts practitioner, where a physical door or even a room indicating sacred training space is the exception rather than the rule, other “intangible” thresholds exist. In the example of training held in “the Luneta” [the Philippines’ national park], coming into the established training time with the master becomes the threshold as it moves the student’s mental state from an ordinary person into a martial arts practitioner embarking on a warrior’s path.”
Traditional FMA masters are also reluctant to share their skills to people they don’t know intimately. To them, their knowledge of the FMA is an heirloom, which cannot be bought by money. For a student to be accepted, he must prove himself worthy to be entrusted with such a knowledge deemed sacred.
The late FMA scholar Pedro Reyes described the distinct traits of traditional masters, in his article “Filipino Martial Tradition” (Rapid Journal Vol. 4 no.1), he wrote, “When a student first approaches a traditional master, the master may say, ‘Yes, I’ll teach you the little that I know.’ He would then demonstrate his abilities and if the student likes it, he would stay for more instruction.”
The above-mentioned reminds me of my encounter with Manong Ignacio Mabait, an old-school escrimador who is a product of the juego todo [all-out stick fighting] era. I chanced upon him one early morning in 2000 while I was out to buy bread for breakfast – he was carrying a pair of rattan escrima sticks. He answered in the affirmative when I asked him if he was an escrimador. His reply though polite was brief and succinct and he seemed wary of my intentions for asking. Since our initial meeting, I would spent a couple of minutes of friendly chat with him, whenever I saw him on the street while I’m on my way to work or heading home. It took roughly six months before he opened up about his martial art.
Later on when we became friends, I discovered that he learned his martial art from his father. He plainly called it “escrima.” His father, he intimated, fought against the Spaniards and consecutively against the Americans. Manong Ignacio himself fought against the Japanese in Manila during World War II. Also a former eight-rounder boxer, he retained much of his strength in his twilight years. He was 84-years old when I met him but nevertheless can still pump one-arm push-ups.
How he shared his brand of escrima to me was also a unique experience. I’m not quite sure whether it was because he was aware of my past FMA training, language barrier or lack of verbal communication skill, but he didn’t taught me with the usual “this is angle one… this is angle two…” but rather by demonstrating combative concepts. Each contact of his stick on a surface serves as a springboard to launch an attack on another plane generating an explosive forward pressure. He was already half-blind when I last saw him in 2007 and had totally lost contact with him when I relocated to another residence.
Another unique characteristic of traditional FMA training is how one progresses from being a student to becoming a master. In the same article, Reyes explains, “But in that case, when does an arnis student becomes a master? Does he promote himself? Strange as it may seem to a Chinese or Japanese stylist, the answer in traditional arnis is, yes. The traditional arnisador begins to teach when he feels he is ready to teach, not when his master tells him so.” Reyes’ explanation could be understood better by examining the old traditions of arnis-escrima. In the olden days, a Filipino man does not flaunt his stick or blade fighting skills unless he was ready to be challenged. The decision to teach connotes that he was extremely confident of his fighting skills. The fact that he is willing to step into a death match was also the reason why he commanded respect regardless whether he himself or his teacher elevated him to the status of being a master.