Ethics in the Martial Arts

Ethics in the Martial Arts
By Shihan Bodhi Sanders, Ph.D.


As I begin to write this article, I already know that it is going to ruffle some feathers in the martial arts world. The congregation always loves the preacher until the preacher starts preaching about their personal sins; then, magically, the preacher has over-stepped his boundaries. I, unlike most preachers, am not politically correct; I simply call a spade, a spade. I write about what I see, without pulling punches. And what I am seeing today in the world of martial arts is, quite frankly, sickening.

There appears to be a massive lack of ethics in the martial arts world today. There is a disconnect between the way many martial artists conduct themselves, their obsession with rank, titles, and certificates, and the ridiculous lack of ethics in the martial arts. This is not what martial arts are supposed to be about! In addition, I am not the only martial artist who is seeing these issues and getting really fed up with the dishonesty and mockery of the arts.

Martial artists are supposed to conduct themselves with honor and integrity. There has been volumes written about how martial artists and warriors should conduct themselves; but it appears that very few martial arts have actually studied these teachings. I can give you example after example of martial artists who are anything but men and women of character, honor and integrity. This should not be the way it is, but as you probably already know, many things in our world are not as they should be.

I have seen case after case where so-called martial arts masters have conducted themselves more like criminals, cowards, and thugs, than martial artists. I personally know of one so-called martial arts “master” who brags about beating up 21 cops at one time. Well, even if this wasn’t a complete lie, which is obviously is, it would not be something to brag about. The fact that this is such an obvious, blatant lie, brings up another issue that appears prevalent in the martial arts world – delusional martial artists.

It would appear that so many martial artists exaggerate and flat out lie about both their rank and accomplishments in the martial arts, and do it so often, that they actually start believing their own lies. This is simply delusional! The word “delusional” is characterized by holding individual beliefs or impressions that are contradicted by reality or rational argument. This one guy stating that he beat up 21 cops one night is simply delusional. Oh, and by the way, he also claims that he picked up the police car and flipped it over too!

I have heard many martial artists make claims which are just as delusional as this ridiculous example. The claims touch on just about anything you can imagine. I have heard a guy say that he can stack up 20 bricks, and you call out the number of the brick that you want him to break, and he will magically only break that brick out of the whole stack. Another guy claims he was attacked by 30 guys in an alley and beat them all up. Still another guy claims he can levitate and actually make himself disappear. The fantastical claims run the gamut and they include just about anything you can image.

The point is that these are all lies. These guys make these things up, repeat them over and over, and soon they start to actually believe they are true. If this is not delusional, I don’t know what is! This may shock some people, but lying is not honorable; it is the act of a coward. These guys are trying so hard to impress others about their martial arts skills that they actually become compulsive liars. And the fact that they actually think that others will believe these outrageous lies, speaks to their own delusions and unrealistic expectations.

Whether you are just exaggerating a little bit to make your feats sound more impressive or you are just plain lying through your teeth, neither is the action of a true martial artist. Martial artists should be men and women of the highest standards. They should be honest, straightforward, and conduct themselves with character and integrity. They shouldn’t be delusional liars, who lie for their own gains and for personal attention.

This begs the question, “Why are these people conducting themselves in such a low manner?” The answer lies in one word – EGO! One of the characteristics of a martial artist is humility. The true martial artist should be humble. It appears that many martial artists were absent on the day that this lesson was taught in their dojo. The martial arts world today is filled with out-of-control egos.

Master Gichin Funakoshi taught, “True karate is this: that in daily life one’s mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility, and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.” Where has the spirit of humility gone in today’s martial arts community? Everywhere I look, martial artists are wearing flashier belts, awarding each other with unearned ranks and titles, and just plain stroking their egos. The humble martial artist is about as rare as an honest politician in America. This is not the way it should be!

Today, in the United States alone, there are 1,000 martial arts hall of fames. Let that sink in for a moment. We have 50 states in the U.S. If there are 1,000 martial arts hall of fames, that is equal to 20 martial arts hall of fames in EVERY STATE! How could this possibly be? How could so many martial arts hall of fames stay in business? Again, the answer is one word – EGO!

These hall of fames stay in business (and make no mistake about it, most of them are simply a business) because so many martial artists need their egos stroked. In fact, they are so ready to boost their egos that they are willing to pay big bucks to be “inducted” into these hall of fames. I have seen many of them where people can simply nominate themselves, pay the money, and voilà, they become a martial arts hall of famer. Many of these hall of fames are so lax in their vetting process that I actually know of one where someone nominated their dog for the hall of fame, and get this – their dog was actually inducted!

Let me make something perfectly clear. There are several legitimate martial arts hall of fames in the United States. I have been to several of them. They are run the right way. On the other hand, there are hundreds which are as fake as a $3 bill. I have been inducted into the martial arts hall of fame, and I have a couple of martial arts title. I appreciate them all. I never asked for any other them. I never nominated myself or paid someone to include me. That is a big difference. If you are buying your ranks, your titles, and your awards, you are simply stroking your own ego and in need of a lesson in the character of a martial artist. Where is the ethical character in that?

This brings us to another ethical flaw in the martial arts – buying your rank or your titles. I know of so many people who have simply bought their rank and their title. These people either are too impatient to earn their rank or they simply do not have the skills to do so, so they buy their way to the top. I have had many grandmasters tell me that they know of guys who paid from $5,000-$10,000 for rank promotion. The sad thing is that this is not a rarity.

I personally know a guy who does not train in a dojo at all, but who travels to Korea every year or so, and mysteriously comes back with a new belt rank. The guy also makes claims about his military experience which are also false and exaggerated. It is sad that someone has such low self-esteem that they have to lie about who and what they are. This same guy actively attacks others, accusing them of the same things that he actually does himself, but this is something I will cover later in this article.

What is even sadder is that there are martial arts masters out there, who earned their rank and are respected, but who have allowed the love of money to overcome their integrity. They are willing to sell anything for a price. If you want to be a martial arts master, all you need is to be rich enough and you can find a master whose honor and integrity are for sale. This is such a shame. So many of those who are supposed to be the teachers and masters of our arts, have sold their honor for 30 pieces of silver.

Let me make something perfectly clear. If you are willing to sell martial arts rank and/or titles to someone who did not earn it, you have no honor and no integrity, period. Furthermore, if you are buying your rank and title, you have no rank and title; all you have is a belt, which you could have bought on Amazon for $5, and a worthless piece of paper.

It appears that humility in the martial arts has been replaced with an unquenchable appetite for rank, titles, and awards. What happened to the ethical side of the arts? What happened to honor and integrity? What happened to working to perfect your character, to developing courage, and to morals?

We have a country full of paper tigers and fake masters. It is time to start calling these scam artists out for what they are. And it is not just in America. In some Asian countries, all you have to have is the money and you can get an official rank and title. These so-called martial arts master would sell their own mother for the right price!

Moreover, those dishonorable martial artists who pull these kinds of underhanded schemes to get their rank and titles, will go to almost any means to protect their secrets. They have sold their honor and integrity, so what’s to stop them for attacking legitimate martial artists in a malicious attempt to cover their own sins? Absolutely nothing!

It has become common place for these people to attack legitimate martial artists and try to smear their names. My dear friend, Sifu Al Dacascos, calls this transference of guilt. This means that what these people are guilty of, they accuse others of. They seem to think that if they did it, then everyone else must be doing it too. Also, they maliciously attack others in order to get the spot light on someone else so it never lands on them. In short, they commonly accuse others of the very things that they themselves do. The guy I mentioned above is notorious for doing this.

I have seen this happen over and over again. The guys who yell the loudest about someone else being a martial arts fake or fraud are usually the fakes and frauds themselves. It is all a game of smoke and mirrors. They constantly accuse others of their own sins, keeping everyone’s eyes so busy that no one sees how they have stacked their own deck. At least that is how they see it working in their mind. These people are simply a disgrace!

The other ethical quagmire of the martial arts world is the political side of the arts. Politics in Washington, D.C. has noting on the political atmosphere in the martial arts world. Walking through the world of martial arts practitioners is like walking through a minefield. I cannot count the number of times I have had some martial artist call me and try to convince me that this or that martial artist is on the wrong side of things. It seems that almost everyone is calling everyone else a fake!

If you think there are a lot of martial arts hall of fames, they have nothing on the number of martial arts federations and organizations. There are more than 1,200 martial arts federations throughout the world, and many of these organizations are at odds with other organizations. This has gotten so bad that being associated with the wrong organization can actually cause you to become the focus of an attack. Being associated with this guy or that guy can automatically raise questions about your authenticity with other martial artists. It doesn’t even have anything to do with you personally; it has to do with who you know or who you are associated with in the martial arts. Be careful – if you are friends with Peter, you may upset Paul. Good grief!

On the positive side, there are also many honorable martial artists who also see what is going on and who want to put a stop to this martial arts blasphemy. When someone buys their rank or title, they are hurting everyone in the martial arts world. They are making a joke out of the martial arts. When a martial arts master sells rank and titles, he has dishonored himself, his teachers, and the martial arts as a whole. Many martial artists see this happening all over the world and are getting tired of letting this slide. I know of several groups of martial artists who are starting organizations to help fight against these con men and frauds.

Hopefully, with so many legitimate martial artists joining the fight, we will start putting an end to these dishonorable actions and bring ethics back to the martial arts. After all, as Master Funakoshi taught, “The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”

True martial artists are not in the martial arts for rank, title, or awards. They aren’t interested in boosting their own egos or bragging about their fantastical feats. They are interested in improving themselves spiritually, mentally and physically. True martial artists are always interested in the perfection of character. To them, martial arts is a way of life, not fancy belts, fake ranks, or being a paper tiger.

We live in a free world where people are free to call themselves whatever they want. If you want to call yourself a martial arts master without earning the title, that is your prerogative; but that doesn’t mean you are one. If simply means you lie to both yourself and others. You are free to live in a fantasy world if you want, but it is still a fantasy world.

True martial artists live in the real world; they earn their rank, their titles, and their skills. When it comes right down to it, the real reward of the martial arts cannot be bought or faked. When your life is on the line, you either know how to survive or you don’t. When you look in the mirror, you know the truth. The real martial artist sees a man or woman of character, honor and integrity, who has earned his or her way.

The fraud sees fear, fear that he will be found out and exposed. He sees envy because he knows that his spirit is withered and does not hold a candle to the real martial arts masters. In the end, the fraud only hurts himself as he shames his honor and his name.

It is time to bring character training and ethics back to the martial arts! This is a decision that everyone makes for themselves. No one can take your honor from you; it is something that only you can give away. Make a decision today to live a life of character, honor and integrity. Walk the path of the true martial artist and warrior. Refuse to sell yourself short. Be a man or woman of integrity! Live with honor!

I could go on and on about the disappearance of ethics in the martial arts world, but I will leave it at that. I have given you plenty to see that the world of martial arts has become a maze of minefields, corruption, dishonor, and seediness. It is like being in the Wild West. There are many legitimate instructors and dojos , and even more unethical people who are looking for ways around them.

Bohdi Sanders is an award-winning and bestselling author of over 11 books. He holds the rank of 5th Dan in Shotokan Karate and has been awarded the martial arts title of Shihan and the honorary title of Hanshi. His books can be found on and on his website,

By Shihan Bodhi Sanders, Ph.D.

Shihan Bodhi Sanders, Ph.D. – Right