Through his study of the martial way, a teacher spent years growing toward enlightenment. One day he felt very close to achieving his goal. He watched the moonrise over the nearby mountain. The beauty he beheld struck him. He was overwhelmed by the clarity of everything he saw: the mountain, the stars, the indigo night sky, the golden circle of the moon. Every sound seemed richer; every sensation enhanced. He was so touched by what he was experiencing that he gathered up his students and brought them to the mountain. When he had his students all around him, he raised his arm and pointed at the night sky: to the wonders of nature. He was overwhelmed and gratified as he looked into his students’ faces and assumed that they understood what was being offered. He saw how intently they watched his every move.

The next day, he went to the practice field to further discuss with his students the wonder that they had all experienced. He found them intently practicing how to “point.” Each one trying to outdo the other in developing the most powerful “pointing technique.”  

This parable briefly describes both the distraction and goal inherent in the study of the Martial Arts. The physical skills developed by students of the Martial Arts are very seducing. For some students, ultimate physical skill becomes the end in itself. Some students never realize that mastering the physical technique is only a stepping stone along the path toward achieving the true goal of the Martial Arts: Enlightenment.

The Martial Arts are a path not the destination.

Much like the process in other forms of Zen training, training in the Martial Arts proceeds through various stages intended to develop ever-increasing focus and clarity of spirit.

The initial steps include physical strengthening, building endurance, building flexibility. A strong physical foundation must be created to endure the hardships of the successive stages of training. The body must be healthy, strong and flexible to remove physical distractions as growth proceeds.

The next steps involve Mastering the Body. The punches, the kicks, the spins, the leaps require minute muscular control and balance within large and small muscle groups. Focus begins here. The proper student learns to screen distractions while mastering technique. The forms (hyungs, kata) that are an integral part of every Martial training system require substantial physical control to be performed, not only correctly, but also well. The forms begin the process of clearing the mind as greater and greater physical skill is required and developed. The proper student learns, and relearns, each element of a form even after the physical skill of a sequential set of movements is mastered. What appears to be simple choreography are in fact the building blocks from which, and the stage on which, personal control grows.

In the midst of this process, Mastering the Spirit is introduced as a new focus for training.  

A teacher brought a new student into his home to welcome the student into the school and to begin his training. The student was very proud to be invited to his teacher’s home. And, even though he felt honored in his heart he was gratified because he knew that in choosing him his teacher had chosen wisely. Because he was a student who already knew much about the Martial Arts and his teacher would only enhance what he already knew.

The student sat with the teacher at a low table and marveled at the teacher’s precise and artistic movements as he served the tea. The student was so momentarily entranced that he did not notice the teacher had finished his cup and was pouring tea into both cups, again. Suddenly, the student was horrified to see tea spilling over the edge of his cup and onto the table.

The teacher simply smiled, looked at the student, and said: “In order to be filled with new tea, you must first empty the vessel.”  

Throughout each element of training, distraction is the student’s persistent adversary. Distractions come from internal and external sources. Distracters range from fear to pride to simple physical discomfort. Over time the student learns that all distraction comes from within. Over time each distracter becomes a personal demon. Sparring becomes the arena in which every form of personal demon must be faced and mastered. Fear of injury, failure, embarrassment, loss of face become constant companions. As sparring becomes fighting, fear of death enters the student’s fantasy fears. Many students give up at this stage. They give in to demons that take them away from training, move them into facades of Martial Art. Such students perform shows without heart; become competent fighters but fight with a focus on the expected defeat rather learning anything new that will move them along the path. Such students with incomplete training frequently open “Karate” schools and pass their demons and their fears to a new generation of students, and the Path to the Way becomes even more obscure.

True focus develops as the student masters distraction and develops controlled focus. Demonstrations of breaking techniques and other exhibitions that seem superhuman become evidence of a student’s developing control over distraction and increased focus. Relatively few students pass through this stage and move into the realm where focus and clarity of mind become a way of life. But, for those who do, the Path becomes clear.  

A Warrior was walking in the forest one day. Suddenly, A TIGER CONFRONTED HIM. Quickly, he ran. Just as he thought he had gotten away from the tiger, he stumbled and fell headlong over the edge of a high cliff. Broken rocks awaited his body far below. But, he managed to grab some loose vines and saved himself from the fall. As he started to pull himself back to the top of the cliff, he noticed the head of the tiger peering down at him. As he hung there between the tiger and the rocks below, he noticed that the vines were beginning to give way with his weight. He began to slip away. Suddenly, he noticed a twig with one luscious, red strawberry on it. As the vines let go, he reached out plucked the strawberry and ate it. How good it tasted.


….  Robert F. Sawicki, PhD

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA