Though good fortune allowed me to study with a master, some of what passed had nothing to do with martial arts. One
lesson, in particular, dealt with gifts .
Within our school, Sensei maintained a lifetime collection of memorabilia. Covering the walls were dirks, daggers, knives, Oriental exotica, paintings, collections
of photographs, certificates, etc. On entering the room, one resisted the temptation to gawk at surrounding walls. Not being mindful of training activity translated to accidents. Once orientated, visitors walked the
perimeter walls appreciating the vast collection before them. Typical were blow guns, halberds, middle sticks, battle axes, steel rods, fiberglass whips, ropes, and an occasional bucket of sand, crushed rock, or pebbles
for iron hand training.
Entering, one passed through the anteroom, which Sensei referred to as his office. Actually, he avoided administrative details, it's sole purpose was to store his decades collection
of photographs. Think of someone in the arts, and within the collection you'll find Sensei working with the person, sitting with him/her over dinner, or teaching the person. On the major wall, mounted behind Plexiglas
were his most treasured photographs, where he posed alongside his students of long-standing. Looking to the desk, you might see a collection of knives, or a display of exotic herbs. A jug of Di Dot Jaw was forever
brewing on the outside deck.
There was no end to what might materialize in this menagerie!
Early in my experience, I learned if I entered and stared at an object on the wall, or something new on
the desk, he would inevitably take it, and "gift" it to me. When this first occurred, I was taken aback, surprised, but delighted at having received a custom-made, ivory handled knife. One other occasions, I
received training shoes (new), reusable breaking boards, and ultimately, several of the custom art works from his walls. If he saw me look, he was compelled to give. The same applied to all his students. Though he was
not a rich man, Sensei felt it important for all around to have remembrances of their experience with him and this was accomplished by passing on his "treasures".
This ritual progressed for the
many years I knew him, and among his students (from white belt to black sash), satellite collections of memorabilia flourished.
The story could end here.
However, after receiving my black sash,
I began to notice just how frequently students would enter the dojo and gawk needily at the exotic displays. Only then did I grasp how frequently this happened. It pained me seeing how regularly Sensei reached into his
trove and passed out the goods. I never truly discerned the magnitude of his generosity until I ran the mental arithmetic and saw how several times each class, he passed gifts to random visitors, to students being
promoted, a child dropping by, a birthday mentioned, or even a holiday passing.
Sensei noted my unrest, but said nothing. Many of his contraptions were singularly unique, and could not be found anywhere, at
any price. It became difficult to spend any time in the dojo without confronting this reality. With each class, Sensei continued being plagued with this stream of unbridled greed, until one day, I made mention,
"Sensei, do you ever feel people are taking advantage of you."
He responded only, "Sure I love my toys, especially while they are here in my clutch. When I see someone else, a student,
visitor, or friend, completely captivated by something that has been so important to me, it becomes even more important to pass it on. I'm sure those objects I can do without are even more precious to those who receive
I realized as he spoke what he said was not the case. Though I had a significant collection of his artifacts, virtually all were sitting in closets, or simply stored away, rarely used, and seldom
If that was the ultimate outcome, was Sensei well served in making the gifts in the first place? If he was aware of the truth, why go through the exercise? Why fuel the greed of others? Why
relinquish his treasures?
Only then did it occur to me, what I witnessed was part of my continuing training. Sensei knew he was not Santa Claus, nor was he the good-natured benefactor others thought he was.
It disturbed him that people would covet the goods and possessions of others, but it was not for him to draw the battle line, at least not on this issue. Underpinning all his teachings was an unshakable faith in the
integrity of human nature. He understood we live in a society which bombards us with influences compelling us to forever hunger for sexier mates, faster cars, bigger houses, more prestigious jobs, fancier clothes,
louder jewelry, and just about everything else which you don't have, but feel you should. He taught a master martial artist has no interest in possessions, and can get along just fine without wealth and influence. Being
a realist, he knew his attitude was the exception, what surrounded him was the common, typified by a never ending surge of sycophants, students, visitors, friends of relatives, relatives of friends, researchers, and
even Black Belts, all of whom felt the need to be the center of his universe while in his presence.
In time, I noted the countenance on visiting faces as they passed through the threshold. They
would greet Sensei, then stare about, and in seconds, eyes would come to rest on some newly spotted object of interest. Sensei's response was always the same. "Take it!" Being the eternal optimist,
he hoped for the day someone would say, "No, Sir, but thank you anyway".
It took years, but in time, I was able to enter the dojo and give my attention fully to Sensei, without being distracted by
the objects in the surrounds. In time I learned also not to stare or covet the occasional catches, whatever they might be. Eventually, when asked by Sensei if I’d like something from his collection or anything, for
that matter, I could confidently respond in the negative.
"Sensei, I'm here for you, and to learn."
With a mirthful twinkle in his eye, he would acknowledge, "Good, let’s get to it!"