Mastery in the martial arts is an elusive designation for which there are many definitions.
One definition I like is that a master is someone who has internalized the training to such an extent that it is in their body right down to the cells.
Recently, I ran across a description of such a master in a book I wanted to share.
The book is Bushido and the Art of Living: An Inquiry into Samurai Values by Alex Bennett. He has a remarkable background including 2 PhDs and high ranks in several Japanese Martial Arts. This particular passage was about his experience with a Kendo Master in Japan.
“I remember training with a grandmaster of kendo a few years ago. It was the height of summer in Japan, mercilessly hot and humid. He took on each challenger one after another. When each of them conceded defeat, they would “let go” in one closing death frenzy of relentless attacking. The grandmaster allowed the barrage of strikes to connect as he corrected their form along the way. Each bout would last an average of five minutes. We challengers would end up exhausted and panting uncontrollably after two or three minutes. But his breathing was even from start to finish. We were excited and our hearts were suffused by the four illnesses of surprise, fear, doubt and hesitation. There was no way we could win against this old master. Even young kendoka at their absolute physical prime were ground into the floorboards like wet mops at cleaning time.
Being at the very bottom of the dojo totem pole, I had the job of packing up the master’s equipment at the end of the training. When I picked up his kote (protective gauntlets) to stretch out the leather palms for drying, I found them to be dry as a bone. For ninety minutes straight, in midsummer, this man had dealt with a constant succession of rabid challengers attacking him with everything they could muster. His gear should have been soaked with sweat. I just could not get my head around it. I realized that he was going with the flow, completely in the zone and not ruffled in the slightest by our dogged attempts to land a lucky strike.” (pages 134-135)
I had similar, if less dramatic, experience with Hiroshi Kato Sensei on one his visits to teach in Palo Alto a few years ago.
He would teach a class on Saturday and Sunday morning and another one in the afternoons. In the break between, one of us would give him a massage before the afternoon class began. I was privileged to provide the massage on several occasions.
I have been doing massage and healing work for over 50 years and have done massages on many hundreds of people in that time. When working on Kato Sensei I noticed something in his body I have never experienced before or since. The space in his upper back between the shoulder blades is usually a place with a lot tension and knots.
Kato Sensei’s body including in this area was as soft and supple as a baby’s with NO sign of tension or tightness whatsoever! As I said this was an unprecedented experience for me.
If mastery can be defined as internalization down to the cellular level these are two examples of mastery that is that deep. Good to know it exists even if only rarely.