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.



A Young Man Desires to Learn the Art of Swordsmanship

Once upon a time there was a young man who desired to learn the art of the sword, so he journeyed to the mountain hut of a retired master and asked to be his disciple. The master agreed, and then put the young man to work splitting wood, cooking rice, drawing water from a nearby spring, and doing other chores to care for the house in general. There seemed to be no formal instruction in the art of swordsmanship, so after a while, the young man became frustrated. He did not come to this mountain hut be a slave to the master; he came to learn the art of swordsmanship. So he approached the master about the matter.

After that discussion, the young man still was asked to complete seemingly mundane tasks with no apparent instruction in the art of the sword, except that now he could not do any of his chores without fear–for when he would be cooking rice in the morning, all of a sudden the master would hit him in the back with a stick. Or when he would be sweeping the garden in the afternoon, he would suddenly  be struck from an unknown direction by the master. After a period of time time, the young man was sometimes able to dodge the blow, but he never knew where or when to expect it.

But when the young man saw the master cooking his own vegetables one day, he decided it was pay back time. The young man took a big stick, crept up behind the master who was stooping over the pot to stir the vegetables, and let the stick fall over the master’s head–but the master, just in time, had raised the lid of the pan just in time to block the young man’s blow. 

This act opened the young man’s mind to the secrets of the art, and he was filled with gratitude for the master’s kindness.

(Adapted from Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)