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.



Thoughts from A Sunday Afternoon Visit to a Small Memorial Park

When people ask me how many siblings I have, I usually say we are five: I have 2 older sisters, a younger sister, and a younger brother. But this last weekend I went with Ryan, my younger brother, his wife Ju, and my mom to visit the graves of two older sisters that I never met because they died before I was even born. Here are pictures of the stones:

And as we stood there looking at the graves, a few lines of William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem came to mind:

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
‘Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

On Death and Life and Kindness and Respect

Well, friends, there’s no reason for us to lie to ourselves, so let’s be honest: someday we will all die. We’re by no means invincible or immortal. We feel pain, we get sick, and our bodies grow older and decay. And just as our life began with birth, so it will inevitably end in death.

Is this an uncomfortable topic, and if it is, why is it? I mean, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us, but I admit it is certainly an unusual thing to talk about–after all, who thinks and writes about these sorts of things? Death is (by definition?) a topic we tend to avoid unless its necessary (or unless we’re compelled to face it), and we want to write about things that people enjoy so that we can get views and hits and stats and likes. Right? Nobody is going to like an article or blog post on an uncomfortable topic. 

Maybe it was the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing that set this whole thing off. Or maybe it was any number of other news stories carefully written to tell some kind of sensational or emotion-evoking story under the guise of “journalistic objectivity.” Or maybe it was something else. I don’t really know. But whatever it was, the anger and violence and unkindness in the world is painful to watch, read, and listen to. Why do some people treat one another with disrespect? Why is there hate? Don’t we intelligent beings know better, deep down? And isn’t it a bit strange that all of us–all human beings–may come from different countries and backgrounds, we may speak different languages, eat different foods, and have different pastimes, but isn’t it a bit strange that all of us, no matter what we believe, may still–and must ultimately–define ourselves as human beings? Let’s admit it: there is something that transcends our differences and enables us to finally unite together as members of a human family instead of pretending to be divided as nations or races or parties or platforms. No matter what we believe or think, we must at least recognize and acknowledge that we’re all human beings, we’re all living out mortal lives on this earth together, and that we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. There is no argument that will justify any degree of hatred, prejudice, or bigotry–as human beings that value life, we know better. We know that these things don’t get us anywhere. We know that these things lead to a symbolic death.

This idea of symbolic death is an interesting one, but there’s more to say about physical death. (A discussion about symbolic death will have to wait until another day.) Far from being pessimistic or melancholic, these thoughts about physical death and dying motivate me to ask myself if I am doing the things that really matter the most to me: I know that my mortal life will not last forever, so am I becoming the kind of person I really want to become? Am I living the kind of life I really want to live? Who am I, anyway? 

Serious questions like that cannot be answered in a non-serious manner. They involve expressing what one really believes, deep down. But before I do that, let me say that I do not wish to impose my beliefs on others. Actually, I claim the right and privilege to believe what I choose to, and I believe that all people have the same right and privilege–let all people believe what they may. Let us all believe what is in our hearts and minds, and let us listen to, understand, and compromise with those whose beliefs differ from ours. We may believe different things, but we are also human beings. We can live together in peace. We can live together in harmony.

But I got off on an idealistic tangent again in those last two sentences. I was about to say a few things that I really believe. So who am I? The answer to that question depends not just on who I am today, but who I have been in the past. Where did I come from? Is death really the end, and was birth really the beginning?

The English poet William Wordsworth gives an interesting answer. He completed the poem in 1804, but it was not published until 1807. He wrote that 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
     Hath had elsewhere its setting,
        And cometh from afar:
     Not in entire forgetfulness,
     And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
     From God, who is our home (Ode: Intimations of Immortality 5.58-65)

In other words, Wordsworth is saying that there is some part of us that was not created when we were born. The poet says here that “our life’s Star,” or “The Soul” “Hath had elsewhere its setting.” Our birth may be “a sleep and a forgetting,” but it is not an “entire forgetfulness” because there’s still something that longs for what we might call our real home. I believe the principle Wordsworth is teaching. I believe that birth was not the beginning and that death is not the end. We lived before we were born, and we will live after we die. While mortal life is only a temporary thing and will not last forever, there is a part of us that existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we die.

This belief gives my life direction and meaning, and it also gives me peace. It gives me direction and meaning because I believe there is a purpose to my existence. It gives me peace because while I may be called “Jarron Slater” during mortality–and although I may have been called by another name before I was born and I may be called something else after I die–I have been, and I will still be, me. 

Let me be even more specific. My own personal belief is that all of us really are a part of the same family. But we are not just all a part of the same human family: as beings who have been created after the very image of heavenly parents, as beloved and literal spirit sons or daughters of those heavenly parents, and as sons or daughters with a divine nature and divine destiny, we are also a part of God’s family. I find abiding peace in believing that there is a God and that He, as a loving Father, has a plan for each of His children. And I find lasting comfort in believing that He wants to help us be happy now and in eternity. 

But whatever any of us believe, we must at least admit that we’re here on this earth to live out our lives together, and we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love.