Meeting Master

Meeting Master

Frequently, would-be martial artists puzzle over how to find a genuine "master."  Like any good shopper, they want the best from the outset.  Unfortunately, many wrong turns and detours will divert their paths before they find what they think they are looking for (if they ever do).  Genuine masters may not be what they really want, but they don't know that in the beginning and you can't tell them so they'll understand.  Masters of the martial arts don't go around with neon halos floating over their heads.  If anything, they are like trees, very powerful, very balanced, and appearing so ordinary you wouldn't otherwise notice them.  They are sometimes riddled with foibles. Few are in the business of martial arts, all are in the business of life, and mastering its complex processes and responsibilities.  Their teaching is a labor of love, compassion and generosity.  They don't tolerate fools, arrogance, or selfishness, preferring to avoid them entirely. They can be remote, even aloof.  They make worthwhile friends, but will never be your proxy father, mother, brother or sister (even if you think they are).  They are not Santa Claus!  They will be your teacher, nothing more, nothing less.  Where they’re at, being your teacher represents a huge commitment.  If you ever get confused about the relationship, they will feel you are wasting their time, and deal with it summarily.  Lastly, when you have finally learned well enough to teach, don't expect your master to graciously accept your doing so on his or her turf (unless you wish to accept the status of unpaid staff).  Rather, you will be forcibly encouraged to start a school of your own.  It may even feel as though you’ve been kicked out. Why does that seem so bad to so many???

This account is a composite of several authentic experiences including some related to me by others.  I offer it as an aid in your search.

He gripped the stick in his hand...reminiscing. After a momentary silence, he passed it to me.

I knew it well, for in our group, it recorded our individual apprenticeships, the years of toil, discipline, challenge and growth. It was the gauge by which he charted our development. Etched onto its skin was his special shorthand, commemorating our progress with his peculiar array of scribbles, pictographs, slashes and notches. Some of his shorthand was nothing more than blemishes resulting from impacts against our bodies, which sometimes presented as targets to his admonishments. It fit the hand nicely, and once I even saw it stop the death cut of an attacker's sword. It weighed light, but projected strength. It made a fine weapon.

In training, I learned to use the stick, and a multitude of other objects as weapons. I should clarify. I learned to become one with my surroundings, and to translate objects from my environment into weapons.

But the significance of this particular stick went beyond that.

When we met, I was already established as a martial artist. Nearly half my life had been spent mastering the tricks of fighting, and I had more than "paid my dues." I held the rank of Black Belt in several respected systems.

Our first encounter was at a children’s Karate tournament in San Francisco. Now that I think of it, wherever he went, people seemed to gravitate toward him. If he walked into a room, the floor would seemingly tilt his way, and before long, people, as though standing on phantom bearings, would slide toward where he stood. That first time, I felt I was the only one present not aware of who he was. Everyone else seemed to be contending for his attention.

It would be fair to say he could be flamboyant. He was already sixty-five years old, but did not look a day beyond forty. His hair remained black, and grew in flowing curls, attesting to his heritage. The well-trimmed beard and mustache highlighted his time wizened visage.

There was always an air of cologne, and the ever present glasses. He was short in stature, his body habitus being perhaps as short as one could possibly be without taking on a disproportional appearance. At the same time, his weight ranged as high as one hundred and ninety pounds, though, because of his lifetime of training, he seldom ever looked to weigh more than one hundred and forty. Of course, this produced many startled expressions when he challenged strangers to lift him, then remained glued to the ground. When you expect to be lifting one hundred and forty pounds, one hundred and ninety becomes like a ton. He would call it a “trick of the mind.” Indeed, a trick of the mind manifesting as fact.

On that first day, he demonstrated his art to the children, their parents, and other instructors. He wore a black silk uniform in the Chinese style. It presented a rich and extravagant appearance in its sheen and rustle as he moved. Around his waist, he wore a red sash, signifying he was a master.

He performed a breaking demonstration. Of course, he did the usual bricks and boards, but it wasn't long into the demonstration that I knew this gentleman was special. To the awe of the crowd, and myself, his assistants brought in a bucket of rocks. These were of the type common to river beds. The rocks were passed to the crowd for scrutiny. There was no trick or gimmick to this man's art. A rock found its way into my hands and I studied the smooth structure which had been sculpted by the passage of time and water. It had the appearance of a flattened football, perhaps as long, but half as wide at its thickest part. As an experienced martial artist, I knew that breaking such an object would be a bone crunching challenge. I thought, "This can't be done."

He looked toward me and asked that I bring it to him. I assured all present the stone had passed my inspection.

Approaching, I studied him closely. Stunts like this were responsible for the countless broken wrists and hands of lesser martial artists. He, however, was quite nonchalant about the whole procedure, and if anything, appeared to be having a genuinely good time despite the obvious skepticism among the spectators.

I stood back, and lowered so my eyes were level with the stone, its ends now sitting on vertical steel columns. Silence enveloped the hall as he readied himself for the blow.

He directed his attention to the stone. Of all, I stood closest. I could see as he laid his hand on the stone to steady its position, his eyes, face, and demeanor took on a look far removed from the crowd of children, parents, curiosity seekers, and critics scrutinizing his effort. I wondered what story lay beneath his gaze. In an instant, he raised his hand and sent his knife hand crashing to the rock, pulverizing into fragments what was indestructible only seconds before.

He did the same, again and again, rock after rock, until not one of all present, could doubt this gentleman and his singular talents.

Later in the day, we had a chance encounter, and I complimented his extraordinary breaking demonstration. He extended his hand in a warm courteous fashion, and as we shook I noted the supranormal size and hardness of his hand. I was to learn later that in addition to his knowledge of many styles, he was a proponent of the "iron hand."

Being a Black Belt at that time, I took part in judging and refereeing the events which followed. As the afternoon progressed, he and I had opportunity to judge together in some of the competition rings. I didn’t know it, but I had become the target of his scrutiny, even when he, as he often did, ran off to play with the kids, or to wrestle with one of his many friends, sometimes rolling around on the floor like a playful cub. Other instructors were put off by these lapses of formality. I was bemused.

I once heard a famous martial artist comment, "Every Master is a surprise waiting to happen." If this is true, there could be no doubt Sensei fell into the mold. He was always "about to happen." At times, after we became close, his playing would make him seem almost childlike. There were occasions when I was the center referee of a ring and he was one of my associate judges. He would walk off, and I would physically have to retrieve him, and return him to his designated station so we could continue the matches. As I was to learn, within this same person was the mind of a martial arts genius, a consummate disciplinarian, and a master whose concentration, intention, indomitable spirit, and indomitable will were such that what was impossible for many, became ordinary for him. However, it was during the course of our playful exchanges, and "fooling around" that the seeds of familiarity were planted between us, and in time, he came to call me "friend."

Eventually, he tendered invitation to visit his home school and secluded work out area. I later learned that tolerating his playfulness was my first test, which, had I not passed, would have relegated me to the eternal company of those whom he reckoned to be lesser martial artists.

As often happens when meeting new people, one tends not to follow up on an invitation. It was so with me. In fact, he invited several times over again, and each time I assured I would come, but did not. Was it possible I sensed my many years of training were at risk? Would I find I could not measure well against his art? Frankly, I didn't know if I could deal with having invested years in martial disciplines, only to find my skills wanting as this man blasted through all that I had come to rely upon.

Nearly two years passed from the time of first invitation until I came to visit his school. Such are human foibles! I was literally transported to the site by an intervening common friend sent by him to commandeer my presence.

This is what took place the first fateful day...

When I arrived, his class was in session. It was a "camp" in the woods, containing a staggering array of machines, devices, training aids and tools which constituted the essence of what he hoped to transmit to his students through his art. I realized there was no room for my ego with these students and humbly asked if I could join as they went through their workout. He radiated an expression of sheer delight at my request and motioned with an ebullient "Sure!" for me to join the in-progress class. I did, and before long, became part of another demonstration of this man's skills. His students started working with weapons. One with a knife; another with a staff; still another with a sword; and so on as far as I could see. Extending his welcome, he allowed I should take a weapon and work some attacks against him.

Incredible as it may seem, we spent hours of me attacking with various weapons, and him disintegrating my attacks instantly.

In a sense, it began to feel as though he were reading my mind, or perhaps was even commanding me to come with certain attacks which he had already prepared responses for. The uneasy feeling in my gut conjured images of standing on the edge of a cliff, staring into emptiness.

As the formalities relaxed, we went through dozens, maybe hundreds more attacks and responses in rapid succession. Nothing I did could penetrate his defense, unless he allowed. Conversely, nothing I did could prevent him from penetrating my own defense. At times, he took on the demeanor of stone, and became an immovable object. Suddenly, he was a puff of air, instantly disappearing from my view, and reappearing over my head after I had been delivered to the ground and done in. The knowledge I carried within me was meaningless! I was discovering levels of personal humility I never knew would be demanded of me! Who was I to argue with harsh fact?

By the end of the day, I had to make a choice.

As we were about to part, he called me his "special friend" and assured I would be welcome to work with him "anytime," and that he would "show me anything" I wanted to know.

As I weighed his offer, I knew I was free to leave and pretend I had not experienced his art, free to continue wearing my Black Belts with the dignity accorded them by peers in the martial arts community. But if I were to acknowledge this gentleman as my teacher, I would have to go beyond my past training, which on that day seemed of little significance.

I chose the latter course, and the gentleman who was already my friend, became my teacher.

To commemorate the event, he pulled out a piece of roughly hewn rattan, cutting off a segment which later, I measured at twenty-eight inches in length. He said from that day, the stick and I would be as one, and just as he would shape, and carve the stick, so would I be shaped and remade by the things I was about to do, to learn, and to experience. He added when my time with him had run its course, he would deliver the finished stick into my hands, to commemorate our friendship and the path I had decided to take. He continued, "Colors as you know them can turn you into a blinded fool. The sounds you recognize make you deaf to the natural symphony. You will learn to empty your heart of the token passions that drive men to wildness. You will learn to see and to hear. In like fashion, the flavors and tastes that you chase can numb the tongue. I will teach you restraint. Out there, you live in a cyclone, which ultimately cannot fail but to cloud your heart and steal your ability to think clearly and decisively. I will teach you discipline. The pursuit of rank and prestige is a path that leads to no destination. There is no rank here, just student and teacher, and what passes between them. When you are finished here, you will be empty, and awake. From today, be guided by what you feel, and not by what you think you feel. Forsake causes and effects, and become the process."

Thus began my journey...

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