Studying with a Master ( Not Your average Mr. Miyagi!) and Eating Bitterness

While there are many lies/illusions which become common tropes in Hollywood films, maybe the most damaging is the myth of how one becomes a master. The basic storyline narrative moves like this: young ingenue is an outcast who has no friends or suffers personal loss. Befriended by a seemingly crazy/irritable/ old person, youngster eventually becomes their student, works and practices hard(under a time crunch to create more tension) and develops mastery under the tutelage of this hidden expert. Finally, hero demonstrates mastery in some very public fashion; often in a competition of some kind. To my mind, the pinnacle of this genre is The Karate Kid. I first saw the movie when it came out in 1984. I totally bought in to film’s mythology. It contains all of the elements listed above. And the master is the now famous, Mr. Miyagi( this film is so famous that “Miyaged” has become a verb). A hotel repairman who is a karate expert (and also bonsai master) in his spare time, Mr. Miyagi trains a clearly un-athletic actor in the space of one month to become a tournament champion overcoming much more experienced (and more athletic looking) opponents in the process. That this is a fairy tale is fine, but over the last 35 years it’s misrepresentation of the process fostered certain expectations of how long, and what it takes to become a master.

Karate Kid propagated the idea that there’s a simple recipe for mastery: a pound of physical hardship, a cup of personal crisis, another cup of excellent but eccentric teacher and finally, a huge dose of sugar coated ending complete with a first place medal. And all of this has to take place in a very short time frame-maybe a month, at most, one year. On the CW’s The Arrow, that protagonist becomes the best archer in the world in 5 years ( he doesn’t even practice that much!). In Netflix’s recent, Iron Fist, Danny Rand becomes a warrior of legend in 6 years. All of these sell the dream that the process of becoming a master takes no more than a few years of hard work and quite often, only a matter of months. But in fact, my experience is that becoming a master takes decades to achieve. Maybe even then it won’t happen unless a number of key elements fall in to place.

I’d like to explore the concept of mastery over the next two blog entries. In this entry I’ll present three stories which provide rich illustration of what mastery is and isn’t. In the next entry, I’ll delve into my own definition of mastery with some further insights from the people and experiences I’ve had living in China.

Story one is a mythical one and begins in a small village of China four hundred years ago where a young man decided he wanted to become a sword master. His parents were farmers and so was everyone else in the village. The young man asked everyone if they knew where he could find a master swordsman but of course no one knew such a person. Then one day, a traveler walked through town looking for some food. The young man asked his question to the visitor who said that there was such a person living far from the village( about 100 miles) in a different valley. With this new knowledge in hand, the young man made plans to travel to the master’s house. He walked for several days, enduring hunger and bad weather in the process. Eventually, he arrived at the given location only to find a ramshackle house. Out in the fields was an older farmer planting rice. The young man knew in his heart that this man was the sword master. After bowing before the farmer and expressing his desire to learn the way of the sword, the boy asked if he could live in the farmhouse and study. The master said yes and told the boy to clean up the kitchen immediately. By the day’s end, everything in the kitchen had been put a way and cleaned. The next morning at 6:00 am, the young man was awakened and told to chop the nearby pile of wood. The next day it was pulling weeds in the fields. The day after that it was patching holes in the house walls. And every day after, the master had some household task for the young man to complete. After one year of this, the boy was frustrated. In the space of one year he had learned nothing about swordsmanship and merely become a servant for the farmer. So he went to the master to express his frustration and ask when he would begin the process of becoming a sword master. The master responded that his training would begin the very next day.

The following day started with more mundane tasks to complete around the house. The young man was washing the morning dishes when all of a sudden he was hit in the head by a rock. Rubbing the sore spot, he looked around to see the master quietly leaving the kitchen. From that day on, the young man was hit by various rocks, pieces of wood, even the occasional plate! They always came from outside of his field of vision and when he least expected it. He had to be on guard constantly, never knowing where the next attack would come from. This went on for two years. Every night the boy would tend to his bruises. While he didn’t understand what was happening, he trusted that the master knew what he was doing. By the beginning of his fourth year at the master’s house, the young man realized that he was sometimes able to avoid the master’s thrown objects. He could now “feel” when an object was coming at him and avoid it. Finally, by the middle of the fourth year, the master was never able to hit the young man.

On the first day of seventh month of the fourth year, the master woke the young man and said it was now time to practice with swords.

The second example of mastery also demonstrates what it takes to become the student of a master. This is the true story of a young man I know from France who wanted to study Daoist internal cultivation arts with a master in rural China. It shows what happens when the student doesn’t have the patience to wait until the master says it is time to begin formal study.

Just finding a master was not so easy. Jean was fluent in Mandarin and a highly educated young man. He also had a strong understanding of Daoism. After engaging in a long search to find this master, Jean went out into the countryside of China where the old man lived. The master lived in a run down temple very far from any large city so it was a difficult journey for Jean to arrive there. Finally, he made it to the home of the master. Jean was very happy and even more pleased when the master agreed to teach him. The next day, Jean accompanied his new master out in to the fields and worked a long day farming crops. At night his hands were bloody from broken blisters and his entire body hurt. The next day was the same thing all over again. Jean struggled every day with the physical hardships of his new life. And his teacher didn’t show any willingness to teach him about Daoist cultivation techniques. Even worse, was the psychological hardships. A woman lived at the temple who cooked for Jean and the master. And every day she complained to Jean that his mere presence(officially, foreigners were not allowed to live in temples) was a danger to the master. She often asked Jean why he wanted to stay in the temple and told him it would be better for her and the master if he left. After about three weeks of this, exhausted and mentally stressed, Jean left the temple believing that he had failed.

I thought that was the end of the story and told Jean that he had put in a good effort. He let me finish and then explained that his experience at the temple was a failure on two counts! Surprised, I asked why. Apparently, the entire experience, including the woman complaining about his presence, was set up to test Jean’s resolve. He had failed his first test before even beginning to study with the master. Jean was left to wonder what could have been if he had only shown more perseverence and commitment to the teacher.

Accepting suffering and physical hardship is common enough in Chinese culture that they have a term for it. To accept the suffering and pain that life brings you and to endure is called, “eating bitterness.” This is an essential part of following a master/becoming a master yourself.

Along my own road to follow a master, I’ve encountered “eating bitterness.” What it really means is withdrawing one’s own ego with the understanding that this is the beginning of a long process. The key is to put one’s trust completely in in the hands of one’s master. The problem is this philosophy is in direct opposition with a fundamental characteristic of American culture which is, to quote Socrates, ” Question Authority.” I’ve seen this quality appear so often where a master gives direction and the western student challenges their thought process. Some of you might say that an unquestioning attitude is antithetical to the American way of doing things and I would say that therein may be the reason why we don’t value mastery as a nation. We value fame and fortune.

The Hollywood version of ascension to mastery trope is so problematic because there’s no mention of real sacrifice in The Karate Kid. The term is tossed around, but not with any true understanding of what it takes. Real mastery comes not just from hard work or from physical pain, but from accepting that the life towards mastery is filled with “bitterness” or suffering. Failure basically. The longer one holds on to the idea that they know better than their master, the longer the process will take.

Witness the path of Master Meng Zhiling. Recognized within the Chinese Daoist community as a practitioner deeply skilled in internal cultivation techniques, he now resides in Beijing holding the positions of Vice President of the Chinese Taoist Association and Head of the Taoist College at White Cloud Temple. However, elevation to this position did not come easily. He left his family, in his early twenties and has never gone back. Wanting to pursue life in a Buddhist monastery at first, Master Meng traveled to the famous Shao LIn temple where he applied to enter. His application was refused, many times. He rented a hotel room near by and pressed his case to the Buddhist monks over the course of one month but with no success. Traveling to another Buddhist temple, Master Meng was again repeatedly rejected. Finally, a female Buddhist nun accepted him as her student at a remote monastery.

However even that was short-lived. One morning after he had settled in, the nun informed Master Meng she had had a dream the previous night where it was revealed that he was actually a Daoist. Again, he had to leave a temple. The nun directed Master Meng to a small Daoist temple near by so he dutifully went there and began studying with the resident priest. However, he realized within a few weeks that the monk possessed a shallow understanding of Dao. So Master went on the road again where he finally found a Daoist temple and teacher which were right for him.

After two years at that temple and several others, Master Meng decided he would go into the mountains because it was there that the highest Daoist practitioners lived as hermits. But Master Meng knew that to live in the mountains and cultivate Dao required a clear method. Otherwise he was just living and not cultivating. So he spent the next five years traveling all over China in an effort to find the proper cultivation method. On his travels, Master Meng met many people who were, or claimed to be Daoists. He decided to treat them all as if they were masters. Because often times high level practitioners will hide their abilities so Master Meng kowtowed to every person on his path. After 5 years of traveling around, Master Meng found the proper method. Only then did he journey into the mountains. He lived there for over five years. He made his own cave house by digging into the wall of a hill and grew his own vegetables and he meditated for hours every day. When Master Meng emerged from the mountains, he was recognized as a master by leaders in the Chinese Taoist Association.

I can only guess why Hollywood hasn’t gotten the journey towards master status right. A big part has to do with impatience. In America we often think in the short term. Just one personal example. For the last 19 years I’ve been practicing the Japanese martial art of Judo. About ten years ago I earned my first degree black belt. I was so pleased until my sensei told me what the Japanese term for first degree black belt means. Shodan actually means, “beginner.” The term indicates that with the rank of Shodan the individual is now able to learn the real way of Judo. Everything before this has been to get one ready to learn. This is why I’m always a bit concerned when somebody overly celebrates upon earning Shodan status. Also of concern is the number of people who drift away from judo after earning their first degree black belt. Why leave when you’ve just begun the real journey? If Master Meng had spent five years searching for a proper method and then quit, he never would have become a master. To reach this level means abandoning the importance of time. This is antithetical to the prevailing thinking in Hollywood where “time is money.” As a result, the world of almost every Hollywood movie stresses the importance of time.

This ends Part 1 of the topic. I’ll introduce a definition of mastery in the next blog entry and talk about other masters I’ve met over the years. Please feel free to comment or offer thoughts.