For several years, the student trained and toiled. Long days of rigorous training. The student's goal was to become the best.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
An old master lived at the edge of town. She was the best fighter in the land; beating all the men who challenged her.
Then, one day, a young girl appeared at the door of the master's hut.
"Please take me as your student," the girl said.
Having never been asked to take on a student, the master asked, "Why?"
"I want to learn from the best," the girl answered.
Not to be hasty, the master took a long time to think. It seemed like an eternity, especially to a child whose duration has been so short and untextured by experience. But just as in a fight, whatever the master decided, she would mean and stand by.
"I am not the best, but I can teach you," the master said. "Though I will warn you, just as in my techniques, I am precise in what I ask and exact in my words."
The young girl nodded and agreed. She was now the student.
For several years, the student trained and toiled. Long days of rigorous training. The student's goal was to become the best.
To track her progress, after every technique, she would ask the master, "Is this good?"
The master would think for a length, not rushing to judgment. And without variation, the master always replied, "No."
More long days of training passed. Without praise, reward, or recognition.
And with neither fail nor adjustment, the student insisted, "Is this good?"
Always with consideration, the master said, "No."
Then, one day, without a word, the young student, who was now a young woman, left the master.
The Lost Wayfarer
The young woman roamed the countryside. To be female and unaccompanied was a strange sight. Life was dangerous. In her anger and disappointment, she fought all challengers and comers. And she always won.
Years passed. Having lost much of her youth to rage, she missed out on many human experiences. Tired of fighting, the warrior retired to a hut at the edge of a small village. She spent her days meditating and reflecting on her past — on the teachings of her master; the one she once held so much resentment toward. To end her suffering, the warrior released her self.
Then, one day, a young girl appeared at the door of her hut.
"Master, please take me as your student," the girl said.
Having never taught or been asked to teach, the old warrior, now the new master, asked, "Why?"
"I want to learn from the best," the girl replied.
Having to consider teaching another, the new master's mind was flooded with perspective.
"Good" is a moral judgment. What good is there in fighting? That is subjective and unknowable. In fact, fighting, itself, may, more often, be "bad" than "good."
Thinking back to her old self, the master thought, When you don't know, you want to understand. When you understand, you realize there is nothing to know.
I was training to be the best at fighting, whatever that means. But my master was teaching me clarity. And is that not the job of the martial artist? To make clear the effortless ways of nature? My master made it so clear when I arrived at her hut. That she would be exact and precise, not praise or criticize. I nodded, but I didn't understand because I wasn't listening. I was not in the moment but in existing in my own mind, only in my self. Only thinking about what I wanted.
A technique is neither good or bad, that is up to the user. Is the technique correct, could it be improved, was it satisfactory, was it lacking, was there any wasted movement — these are the things I should have considered.
Just as my master responded without variation, I asked the same question without exception. Her response was the correct one. Is what I did good? No. It is neither good or bad. It is not a movement of morals, it is a movement of precision. Just as a leaf falling or the wind blowing? Is it good? No. That is the wrong question. Is it hard or soft, strong or weak, push or pull, this is the Way.
The Way has no value-judgments, just objective observations. And I wanted to be judged. I thought I hated judgment, but that is not true. I only wanted positive judgments. Perhaps even negative ones. My love of self could not handle not being judged because my ego needed to be acknowledged, fed, and recognized.
I wanted my master to judge my value, that I was good, I was worthy. What should have mattered was, was I doing well in my studies.
My master answered appropriately based on the question asked. What I didn't do was change my question. Or quit asking. I couldn't yield to the process nor to my master. I didn't want to make myself clear. My opinions and ego were too important.
Though it was always the same question, my master gave it her attention. It was I who asked without consideration. She gave it the same concern as if it were being asked for the first time. And each time, independently, based on what being asked, she came to the same conclusion. But now I understand, any question I would have asked, she would have given it its own proper consideration, without assumption.
My master never lost patience. She gave me no praise, but also no criticism. All those judgments existed only in my own mind.
Then, what is a master? Why did I seek one? A master is a bit of achievement. Not based on quality but based on a score. How many men did she defeat? The "best" being the highest score. And it makes sense why that interests children so much. But, eventually, I must take off my childish skin, and shed all my skins, all my old selves, until there are no skins left.
Like a child, I was misguidedly seeking the highest score. I have defeated countless men, but it is meaningless for one who does not care about praise or fear.
Drinking water comes without praise, and no one counts how much water they drink in their life or how often they expel that water. You would me mad. Yet if it were alcohol, it would not only be acceptable, but it would catch our interest. And it's interesting because it is unusual. Then that can become a kind of best. But it is also unusual to eat dirt. Yet that is not a desirable best. You would me mad. Then what we care about is subjective and confusing, best is subjective and confusing, and ultimately unattainable. And when we say best, are we being specific, in one activity, like best in fighting or drinking alcohol, or best in general? We do not know. We use it and say it without ever knowing what we mean. Without clarity, it can neither be defined nor reached. But a martial artist is an artist of clarity.
What was the best? I did not know yet I insisted on tracking it, yet I did not get any closer. I blamed my master, but I should have blamed myself. And even if I had blamed myself, I doubt I would have let go of my self, I would have only reinforced it. Given it more attention. Criticism or praise, acknowledge my ego. Judge it one way or another, good or bad. Based on my worldview, I was set on a path to suffering.
My mistake started from the beginning. In what I judged to be a master. I expected and insisted my master teach me what I wanted, as if she was my servant.
Rather than being the student and allowing myself to learn the master's teaching, I set the curriculum. I should have been open-ended, but I came close-minded.
I was never the student. I thought I was the master. I thought I knew what was needed, a tool to get me to my goal. It was never about the excellence of my master, it was always about me, about my self-perceived greatness. And my master was a means; my master was my tool. And when my tool didn't listen, like a child with a toy, I threw it away and moved on.
I should have been goalless. I should have yielded. I should have let go of my self and opened myself up to wisdom.
My master asked me to contemplate, but I refused. Like a machine, I refused thought or consciousness — just do, never consider, do what is automatic. I denied my humanity. To be human, I would have to turn my self off. My self being my programming. A stone mill that grinds, to be the best at grinding. Allergic to contemplation. Goals limited me to goals. My self limited me to my predictable routines. This was my programming, and I was self-limiting myself to them. I was limited by my lack of imagination — to see another way of being.
In my time alone, my mind had time to daydream. Given the space of the woods, I had room to grow and expand. My time alone was just as valuable as my time with the master. If I fill my days with the expected, what room do I have to grow? What time do I have to learn to be human? To study the humanities? There is always a pressure to know, but what about time and space to explore not knowing? How will I gain a new perspective if I never look away? How will I gain insight if I always look with the same eyes?
The gaps from here to there is where we suffer because we refuse to accept the gaps. But in the gaps is where the magic of meditation occurs. What is here and there? Paying attention to what I pay attention to. Asking myself, what do I care about, and why do I care?
And only through this maturing have I regained my soul. I could have died without ever being aware, no different from the plow or the sword. I am aware I am not a sword but a thinking-being. What is death to a thing that is not aware that it is alive? That is not aware that it thinks? That does not know it can think about thinking?
With great struggle and difficulty did I overcome the talking animal to become a fully-developed human being. We mistake talking for thinking, but clearly, we have proved we can speak without thought — just as the trees make noise when the wind blows. It's physical in nature, not intellectual. The air pressure shakes the branches, which makes sounds that our ears recognize. Some still consider this a form of intelligent communication. In the same way, the air pressure from our lungs through our vocal folds and mouth makes noises our ears recognize. Some also consider this a form of intelligent communication. Though it can be contemplative and thoughtful, it can more easily be physical and biological — a set of routines and scripts that shuffle in order.
Rational means something has been reasoned. How many of our behaviors, actions, and words are reasoned and how many of them are automatic and impulsive? Then by definition, it is irrational. We are irrational animals who have the ability to be rational human beings. And that journey, though painful, is a worthy undertaking. Along with compassion, it is one of the few worthy undertakings.
I came to the master thinking I already knew everything. I thought I came a blank slate because I bowed to my master, but that was a mindless ritual. I did it because that's what was expected. It was not a sign that I was pouring all that I knew out of my head. I fooled myself with these habits, but my intents never changed. And habits without intent are shackles for the soul.
I was too lazy and arrogant to dive deep within myself. Since I was not overt, I did not consider myself arrogant. But arrogance is not in the expression, it is in the framework of thinking. Why should I change to expect change? I'm fine the way I am, I just want new results. And even still, this deep diving within myself seems like a lot of work without any payoff. I want achievement. My ego, my sense of self, wanted achievement, and it stood in my way. It was my worldview. So I let that go. I let success go because I didn't care about it. And I can't remember why I ever cared about it. Once I see the meaninglessness, it's hard to imagine what it was like to find value in the trivial. Just as adults find it hard to understand why as children, they once valued a trend that was so trite. Perhaps the only value came from the perception that others valued it. Maybe it's about fitting in. But if you no longer care about it, you no longer care about it. Period. Rather than fitting in or nonconforming, you blossom without competition.
And sometimes we fool ourselves because we only compete with ourselves; yet we are our own worst adversaries. There is some sense in competing with others, but to compete and scrutinize yourself to best yourself — we are the only living creatures who would do such a thing. Children are free from this until they are given this as advice, to be the best, even when there are none around to compete against. Whether you are given the task of being a doctor or given the choice of picking your task, the expectation is always the same, be the best. Then both paths are one and the same, there is no choice for the child but to live up to that expectation, and die trying.
And now, being considered by some to be a master, I know I am not a master but only a student. And as a student, I can only show her how to learn.
In the moment of taking on a student, the woman finally understood the hidden lessons of a master to her student. She nodded and said, "I am not the best, but I can teach you. Though I will warn you, just as in my techniques, I am precise in what I ask and exact in my words."
The old student made peace with her master.
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