So You Wanna be a Master – Sept 5, 2014, Kim Taylor, CI Sei Do Kai NanaDan

Well first you should figure out what a master is, because the term is a bit muddy. The best I’ve heard in a while is in relation to a champion. A champion is someone who achieves a goal once, a master is someone who realizes that you have to repeat that achievement many times.

Everyone wants to be a master, everyone daydreams. What I heard recently from one of my students is fairly typical. Sure I want to master budo but I also need to spend time with my family and work and do my other hobby too.

Good luck with that but my own pursuit of budo mastery didn’t work out so balanced. Over the 35 years I’ve been doing this I’ve missed a lot of birthdays for my kids by sitting on grading panels, I’ve missed a lot of work advancement by going to seminars instead of doing weekend overtime and I’ve built most of that on a rather peculiar urge toward singlemindedness. The most recent example of this trait was when I was mowing the lawn and backed into the driveway just as the neighbour was backing out of our shared lane. I hit the side of the truck with my butt and my foot slipped under her back wheel. Thankfully it was the inside of my foot she backed over and I did a rather easy breakfall onto the lawn before booting her bumper a few times to tell her to move forward off my ankle before she got out. She was understandably a bit upset but I just shooed her off and finished the lawn before checking out the ankle. Yes, finished the lawn because that was the job at hand, then I checked for injury. Stupid right?

But consider you’re in a fight for your life and your opponent gets a good blow in, maybe breaking a bunch of ribs or your arm. Do you stop and let him kill you or do you hide the injury and grin at him before counter-attacking? That sort of bloody-mindedness is necessary for being the top in any field, for being a master of budo or sports or chess or…

Top athletes are those who can push past pain most efficiently and do it while neglecting other parts of their lives. It’s pretty clear that you’ve only got so many competitive years in you, wasting them on hobbies like a home life or a job is counter-productive, you’ve got to eat, sleep and drink training.

Budo isn’t a lot different, but it’s not as competitive as snowboarding or running so you can spend less than 8 hours a day to float to the top. You’ve got decades instead of years to improve, but it still needs a nerd-ish devotion to training.

What is mastery? I don’t know. It might be something like this. Years ago I had a varsity wrestler in to show my self defence class how to resist takedowns. As he showed them this or that movement I was explaining to them what he was doing with his weight shifts and hip movements. Afterward he commented that I knew a lot about wrestling. I don’t, but I know balance when I see it. Is that budo mastery? I don’t know, it’s probably part of it.

Another part has to do with being a good mentor, and a devotion to something larger than your own ego. A certain warped version of the improvement of humanity by concern for your art. Recently I was talking with an old friend who has lived in Japan for a long time. The subject of a fellow who just received an 8dan in one art and has now mostly dropped it to concentrate on getting an 8dan in another art came up. I was mystified, while my friend was confused at my confusion. Obviously you have to concentrate for several years to get an 8 dan so of course you would neglect one art to pass the grade in another. We were thinking at cross purposes, he was talking about the mechanics of passing a grade, something that is very important in Japan. I was thinking of the waste of time put in on training in one art to get 8dan just to let it all go in order to switch to another training. My problem is that giving an 8dan to someone who just walks away to work on another art is inefficient. He should consolidate the gains he’s made in the first art, not let that peak in ability drop away just to collect another piece of paper in another art.

To explain my attitude a bit better we talked about my own progression through the ranks. I’ve been eligible for my next grade in Jodo for several years now and my instructors in Japan have been telling me (and my friend in Japan) that I should come over and grade. I haven’t done that because it would be an entirely useless rank, it would do our organization here absolutely no good at all since we need at least four others with the same grade to sit on a grading panel. What use the rank? None at all to me (no amount of rank is any good to me personally) or to others.

The only point of rank at the top is to allow others to rank, at least that’s been my experience. I was simply not taught to seek rank for its own sake. There was nobody to do gradings when I started my iai and jo training, so we didn’t slot into a system that says rank is important in itself. Rank, for my cohort, is something that allows us to fit into the wider organization and grow the art by doing gradings for the junior ranks who work toward gradings rather than toward the art itself.

When they switch from “getting a black belt” to “getting better” they are showing improvement in my eyes. Of course I have my doubts that switching into the sort of person who neglects family and work for training in an obscure sword or stick art from another culture, one that will never accept or admit mastery in a foreigner (if we will be honest with ourselves for a moment) is a good thing. It is, however, the most efficient way to mastery of the art. Most of the very good budo people I know have been quite selfish in their training, very few of them have heeded the caution I have heard from several of my seniors. Family first, Job second, Budo third.

It’s like when a very rich person is on their deathbed and says they wish they’d spent more time with their family. If they had they might not be as rich. The fact that they “mastered” the economy came at a cost.

Define mastery before you seek it, and make sure you are willing to pay the cost.

If you still want to be a master, here is one last piece of advice, again not from me but it makes sense from my viewpoint. Stop trying to be a master. Don’t daydream. One of the characteristics of those who have made it to the top is a daily setting of achievable goals. Don’t say “I want to be an 8dan”, instead say “I want to do this movement in this kata a bit more efficiently” or “I want to understand how to use my hips here”. Set yourself goals that have a timespan of years rather than a lifetime.

But if you want to be liked during your life and have no regrets at your death, maybe consider Family first, then work, then budo.

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