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,
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
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
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!
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.