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What is a Master?

By Sara Aoyama

I know this defining of a Master is a popular subject of debate, but it seems to also be a very individual thing, be it by rank, organization, etc.

As a kyu rank (various levels below that of black belt), what I've learned from the internet is that rank doesn't necessarily translate aptly outside of the system that created it, and that different styles emphasize different qualities all making it difficult to create a definition of universal significance. But lately I've come up with my own hypothesis, which I'll put out here in the interest of having it torn apart so that I can learn more and re-define as necessary. I don't expect to come up with any definitive meaning, even for myself, but this is kind of a "stop along the way" for me.

First of all, I was reading a tai chi book that mentions an old Chinese proverb that neatly describes one aspect of it for me:

"If the wrong person uses the right means, that right means work in the wrong way."

That makes sense to me in a definition of "master." Because it gets away from the physical sense and implies there is more. In other words, it speaks to character.

Then I started thinking about people I've been impressed by--people who are the "right people." Even though I live in a small town and haven't been studying long, I've been fortunate to meet a few folks who themselves would cringe at being called a master, but who have inspired plenty of hot diggedy dog thoughts in me.

A few months ago, one of them was a guest in my kitchen over green tea, and at 5 am we were STILL GOING, much like the energizer bunnies (kind of old bunnies though). As I was complaining about a certain move in a certain kata which wasn't making any sense for me, he pushed his tea cup aside, and stood up to demonstrate his point. And I noticed something interesting.

We were pretty mellow there by 5 am, but when he stood up and moved into stance I saw a visible "relaxing" (for lack of a better word) that went through his whole body-- a kind of settling into himself. And I also thought to myself... hmmm... I've seen that before. But it took a few days and some sleep to remember where.

As it so happens realized I've seen it twice before. And another time was in my kitchen as well. A noted karate-ka (karate practitioner) was playing with my son, and at some point what looked like two kids wrestling started to look like karate, and I saw this very focused and intent martial artist also visibly "relax" and "settle" as he moved.

The third example I thought of wasn't in my kitchen, but it was also at an unusual time... at about 8 am. We had a guest instructor visiting our dojo for a weekend of seminars, and on Saturday morning he was scheduled to start a kids seminar at 9 am.

You know it is a strange thing, but I've noticed there is something like "Sensei Standard Time (SST)" where guest Sensei (teacher in Japanese) arrive late a lot. Maybe it is just here in Vermont, where Senseis miss turn-offs, get stuck in leaf traffic, or just can't find us. And there are those Sensei who have to e-mail me three times to ask if I'm sure the closest airport is in Hartford and how could that be and could I possibly check again to see if there is one in Vermont that I might have missed (???).

Okay... I'm digressing, but, anyway, they are usually late. So, when this particular Sensei visited us and was set to teach at 9 am, I figured I'd arrive at the dojo at 8 am, check to make sure everything was clean and ready at the registration table for the seminar, and that I'd have PLENTY of time to eat my bagel and drink my coffee. In reality, I pulled up to the dojo at 7:50 am (operating on PSST--Perfect Student Standard Time, i.e., an hour and 10 minutes early).

But much to my surprise our distinguished guest Sensei (with my "not really a morning person" Sensei) actually showed up a few minutes after I had, and I had to scarf down the bagel in the car, and hide my coffee and take surreptitious sips in between going about the job of setting up the table. But it was that same thing with this Sensei--he just wanted to get out there on the floor. And again, I saw that visible "relaxing."

I realize that the "relaxing" I was seeing meant is that these three karate-ka actually are more at home in their skin when they are doing karate than when they are not. That must come with years of training, but maybe even more than training itself, from just years of "being" a martial artist. In other words, doing karate is a more natural and happy state for them than not doing karate.

By this definition, I figure that I myself might possibly be a master in coffee drinking!

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About The Author

Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, majoring in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other Arts such as Ikebana (flower arranging), Cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she started training in Shorin-ryu Karate at the Brattleboro School of Budo in May, 1998 after watching her son train for three years. She is a free lances as a Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD.


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beginner, beginner's mind, rank, master


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