A Pupil Desirous to Learn is Already a Master

There was once a great swordsman and teacher named Yagyu Tajima no kami Munenori. Tajima no kami was renowned and even taught the Shogun himself. 

One day, one of the Shogun’s personal guards came to Tajima no kami and asked him if he would teach him the art of the sword.

The master looked at the guard and then said slowly, “As I observe, you seem to already be a master of the art yourself; pray, tell me to what school you belong before we enter into the relationship of teacher and pupil.”

The guardsman said, “I am ashamed to confess that I have never learned the art.”

“Are you going to fool me?” the master said, “I am teacher to the honorable Shogun himself, and I know my judging eye never fails.”

“I am sorry to defy your honor,” he said, “but I really know nothing.”

The master thought for a while and finally said, “If you say so, that must be so; but still I am sure of your being master of something, though I know not just what.”

The guardsman then said, “If you insist, I will tell you this. There is one thing of which I can say I am a complete master. When I was still a boy, the thought came upon me that as a samurai I ought in no circumstances to be afraid of death, and I grappled with the problem of death for many years. Finally however, the problem has entirely ceased to worry me. May this be what you hint at?”

“Exactly!” exclaimed Tajima no kami. “That is what I mean. I am glad I made no mistake in my judgment; for the ultimate secrets of swordsmanship lie in being released from the fear of death. I have trained ever so many hundreds of my pupils along this line, but so far none of them really deserve the final certificate for swordsmanship because they cannot master this one lesson. You, however, need no technical training–you are already a master.” 


Adapted from Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press,  70-71.



One thought on “A Pupil Desirous to Learn is Already a Master

  1. That's a really interesting perspective – I wonder whether this applies just to fear of death? Or if it more generally applies to the fact that fear is really the greatest enemy we can face? And if we can face our fears – we have defeated an enemy larger than any placed before us.

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