My Daoist teacher, Master Meng, recently offered a beautiful metaphor for what it means to be a master of something. At the time, we were talking about people who understood Daoism. In retrospect, I think his analysis can be applied to any endeavor. In describing the various ways one can understand something, Master Meng used the example of making furniture. He said, ” If one looks at the making of furniture, there are people who know the theory and history of furniture making. They understand all of the different styles of furniture and how craftsmen made iconic styles throughout history. But many of these people can’t actually make furniture. They understand the theory. Then there are furniture builders who don’t know the history of furniture, but they have the skill and implicit understanding to make great furniture. Each of these two groups understands a part of the world of furniture. But there is a third group. This group of people both understands the history of furniture and all of it’s incarnations and are experts at making furniture as well. This third group has the deepest understanding of furniture. ” Master Meng argued that the second type of people, the furniture makers, could develop a deep understanding of Daoism as well as those who possessed knowledge of furniture theory and the ability to make furniture themselves. But true understanding of Daoism would escape those who traveled only down the path of theory and knowledge.
Becoming a master is an all-encompassing endeavor. It requires one’s complete attention. The path of a master is not for those who admire Leonardo Da Vinci, or Thomas Jefferson. These men who are often described as, “Renaissance People,” represent the Western ideal of excellence in many areas. Jefferson was an architect, diplomat, philosopher, farmer, politician, educator, etc. DaVinci was a painter, architect, inventor, anatomist. In the western world of Europe and America, the highest compliment one can be paid is by referring to them as a “Renaissance Person.” But this term is antithetical to the path of a master. Wikipedia uses the term “clever” when defining this phrase. And the Encyclopedia Britannica traces the origin of “Renaissance Man” back to Leon Battista Alberti who, in the 15th Century said, ” A man can do all things if he will.” From this developed the western obsession with two ideas: that the pursuit of all knowledge would lead to the evolution of humans, and to be well-rounded in one’s activities was the highest path for humans to cultivate. But what if those two ideas are based on erroneous thinking?
During my first two years at Davidson College, I enrolled in a two year “Humanities” class which taught myself and my classmates about the greatest achievements in science, literature, history, architecture and art from the beginning of civilization to the present. Since I took this class in 1980-82, nobody batted an eye that Humanities didn’t make any reference to the great achievements of the non-western world. I never learned about the invention of gunpowder in China, or that mathematicians in India developed the concept of zero way before westerners. It took me into my early thirties to find out that China actually developed a movable type printing press about five hundred years before Gutenberg! But back to my point. During the twentieth century, Davidson College wasn’t alone in creating courses which hoped to cultivate well-balanced individuals who possessed knowledge in many areas. As one professor cynically noted, the Humanities course created people, “who could sound intelligent at cocktail parties.” And he was right, I learned how to sound erudite at parties! Upon finishing the two year course, I and my classmates were conversant in the Western cultural lexicon. We could reference Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the ancient story of Gilgamesh. We understood the Greek antecedents to Renaissance architecture and the schism which developed between Protestants and Catholics in the 1500’s.
Looking back almost forty years, I still have fond memories of Humanities class. It really did guide me towards becoming a thoughtful person. But in some ways, almost nothing we read during those two years explained what it took to become a master.
The people I’ve met who were masters achieved this through an intense mono-focus, not by striving in many areas. They possessed a depth of seeing rather than a wide breadth. My judo sensei of thirteen years was two time Olympic coach, Yoshisada Yonezuka. I remember hearing a story from his time as Olympic coach which illustrates mastery. One day, while the U.S. team was training under his guidance, Yone became dissatisfied with their effort. He lined the entire team up and beat each one of them in a judo match. He was approximately 50 years old! Yone breathed judo every day. His approach was just practice judo and work towards improvement. His lessons were simple. While there are over 60 types of throws in judo, Yone repeatedly said, “Just master one or two throws rather than become mediocre at ten.” Yone was definitely not a Renaissance Man. He actually looked down on gathering more hobbies. He once said to me, ” Why would you want to be just good at many activities? The goal should always be to work towards excellence at one thing.”
The more I think about Yone’s comments, the more I’ve come to believe that the western fondness for amassing achievements in many areas is really a greediness of the soul. In my own life I’ve developed skills in several disciplines including: tennis, rock climbing, tai chi, judo, photography, scuba diving. Looking back on all of these activities, I can see they were often borne out of a spiritual restlessness or greed. Or maybe an unwillingness to fully commit to just one thing.
As my birth day moves farther and farther away from the present, I’ve developed an increasing appreciation for those people who have become masters. In a sense, these are people who have cut off a bit, or a lot, of their humanity. To pursue one activity so whole-heartedly is to ignore some of the basic elements of life common to most humans. Whether it’s the severing of most/all human relationships, refusing to accumulate wealth or property, or avoiding recognition, masters have cut off a part of “normalcy” and cauterized the wound with an intense focus on their one activity.
During my thirty years of rock climbing, I had many partners in the mountains and on the cliffs. One of them, Rich Romano, to me possessed the qualities of a master. While Rich wasn’t necessarily putting up the very hardest ascents, during the 1980’s, he was always in the same conversation with those who were the best. And he eschewed the spotlight, preferring to climb on remote crags away from crowds of people. Rich put up hundreds, if not a thousand climbs at the Shawangunks in New York State. I climbed with him for ten years. The way he climbed was always a mystery to me. While much shorter, he could ascend sections of rock which I failed to climb. One time, after he had ascended a 15 foot 5.12 roof crack(an expert level rating) I asked Rich for the best technique to use so I could also taste success. He told me that his unusual technique on this climb was derived from watching a Daddy-Long-Legs move across a ceiling. Rich admitted this happened in a public bathroom while standing at a urinal! Needless to say, I failed in my attempts to employ the same technique!
This story, to my mind, illustrates one key quality possessed by anyone who has become a master. They see the world largely through the prism of their chosen pursuit. The entire world becomes a place where they can learn more and more about rock climbing or judo, etc. This is why people such as Rich or Yone are so special. Most of us can’t see the world with their depth. Only varying degrees of breadth. But they have a deeper communication with the world, a deeper understanding which brings them in contact with the universal or the eternal. The Tao Te Ching says,
“Without stirring out of the house, one can know everything in the world; Without looking out the window, one can see Tao of Heaven. The further one travels, the less one knows.”(Chapter 47).
My grandfather was probably the first time I came in contact with mastery. He was a stamp collector of the highest caliber. His collection of Newfoundland stamps and letters won gold medals at competitions all over the world. In fact, Grandpa’s collection had even beaten the Queen of England’s collection on one occasion. He was always to be found in his library inspecting some new stamp or pouring over documents related to the collection. An engineer by training and a Colonel in army during World War II, Grandpa was a person who loved details. Stamp collecting for him had begun when he was a young boy suffering from debilitating illnesses who was often house bound.
In both China and Japan, appreciation of mastery is embedded in the culture. Having taught the history of both countries and visited China thirteen times, I’ve constantly seen people there who’s goal is mastery. Being a well-rounded person, is something to strive for in the U.S. But in China many people have a different approach. I love going to parks in China. You can tell a lot about the nation’s culture by what people do in these peaceful areas of cities. In China, there are certainly people walking, laughing and strolling, but there are also numerous areas where people demonstrate immense focus. Walking through the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, I see people practicing sword dances, pushups, gymnastics, whips, taichi chuan, qigong, music, etc. The people I know who practice taichi and qigong at this location practice for hours every day. They all practice in a very particular area of the Park because the energy is particularly good there. The Push-Up Gang, as I call them, are a group of men who do push-ups and pull-ups every day for hours. In China, therre’s a high value placed on achieving not just excellence, but mastery.
In a sense, there’s a simplicity one achieves while following the path towards mastery. One has eliminated many of the things which could serve as distractions. In my experience practicing Daoism and working with my teacher, Master Meng I’ve found that the mind becomes clearer because one doesn’t have so many options to consider. There’s just the one way to proceed. Maybe the push to become well-rounded offers up too many pathways to go down. All those options fosters that very cleverness which is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Renaissance Man. In Daoism, cleverness is not a compliment, it’s the insertion of human reasoning into a situation and thus moving further away from the natural way. My interest in people who are masters and mastery itself is because it’s the closest humans can get to a true understanding of the world.
One of my favorite stories from the great Daoist text, The Chuangtze is Butcher Ding. A king comes to Butcher Ding because people have reported that when Butcher Ding cuts meat off of a carcass, it falls off as if by magic. The king asks Ding why this is so? He responds that his knife is thin enough to move into the space between the meat and bones. Ding continues saying that when he hits a tight spot, he moves more slowly and eventually is able to pass his knife through space until the meat falls off. Butcher Ding tells the king that a bad butcher will hack at meat and dull his blade so that it needs sharpening within one month, a good butcher will carve meat and only sharpen his blade once a year. Because he follows the natural way (the Dao), his knife never meets with any resistance when carving. As a result, Butcher Ding reveals that he hasn’t sharpened his knife in several years! In this telling, Butcher Ding is the very embodiment of the Dao because he takes his knife along the natural way to slice meat and avoids resistance. This is mastery in its essence. Butcher Ding is that person Master Meng referred to at the beginning of this article who understands both theory and the actions.
I know that for most people, mastery isn’t an aspirational goal. But it’s good to have it out there as an option. And beginning on the path towards well-roundedness doesn’t mean one can’t switch paths. For the last ten years I’ve been gradually shedding myself of the accumulated knowledge summarized in that two year Humanities course at Davidson College. Confucius even talks about this path when he says, ” At 15 I set my mind to learning.” But later in his life, Confucius spoke of a different goal, “At 50 I knew the will of Heaven. At 60, nothing I heard upset me.” So gathering up knowledge as a young person aspires to become learned is fine, but later in life, this pursuit is dropped in favor of developing a deeper understanding. That’s why, to me, reaching towards mastery, even if I never reach that level, is a noble pursuit more intriguing than becoming good at several things. For my money, DaVinci isn’t the archetype to imitate, it’s someone like judo sensei, Yoshisada Yonezuka, or rock climber Rich Romano, or stamp collector Robert Pratt or Daoist, Master Meng Zhiling.