I have been involved in the martial arts, in one way or another, since I can remember. My dad, God rest his soul, introduced me to Judo when I was about six years old. Since then I’ve seen a lot of different things ranging from the amazing to the ridiculous and bizarre. Over the years since I started teaching one question has been creeping up over and over again: “Which one is the best martial art / fighting style in the world?”
To me that’s like asking which is the best religion or which is the best car, the best food or the best composer. Is it important? Maybe not to you or me, but people still keep asking.
There is one story however that keeps popping into my head when I hear these and similar questions and I would like to share it with you. This story is well travelled and has many different variations.
“Long ago, in ancient Japan, a tea master learned an important lesson in self-acceptance – know who you are, where you are, and what you are doing. As the story goes, this tea master was the travelling companion of one of the greatest samurai. He was greatly honoured not only for his courage and skill but also for his wisdom and understanding. Wherever they went he was held in high esteem.
The tea master was in awe of the samurai, seeing the respect he received from all the people along the journey. Therefore, when they reached their destination, while the samurai was sleeping, the tea master slipped into the samurai’s armour and went about the city to feel what it would be like to be a great samurai. The tea master enjoyed his charade. The people honoured him, and he felt that it was possible for him to really be a samurai.
In that region lived another samurai who was cruel and dangerous. He heard of the wise samurai’s arrival and set out to find him. The cruel samurai soon found him, not realising that it was only the tea master. He challenged him to a contest.
The tea master was horrified. What was he to do? He had heard of the cruel samurai, and how dangerous he was as a swordsman. He knew that he would surely die for his folly. Ashamed, the tea master returned to where he and the wise samurai were staying. He took off the armour, and awoke the samurai and told him what had happened. He asked forgiveness for wearing the armour and dishonouring the samurai’s reputation. The wise and understanding samurai forgave the tea master but told him sternly that he, the tea master, would have to meet the challenge and that the cruel samurai would surely kill him, either for not being an able swordsman or for pretending to be a samurai when he was not one. The wise samurai then told the tea master to prepare a proper tea ceremony while he thought of a way for the tea master to defeat the cruel samurai.
For those who do not know, a proper tea ceremony, to be skilfully performed requires great preparation, concentration on details, and discipline. Preparing for the ceremony calmed the tea master, revealing him to be master of his art. The wise samurai was deeply moved by the skill of the tea master and in this he discovered how the tea master could meet the challenge of the cruel samurai. He explained to the tea master that the secret to his success would be not in meeting the challenge as a samurai, but in facing the cruel samurai just as he is now, as the master of the tea ceremony.
So, the next day, at the appointed time, the two met. The cruel samurai was dressed in his finest battle armour. His appearance was frightening. The tea master, on the other hand, wore his own ceremonial robe, carrying the wise samurai’s armour. Immediately, without even acknowledging the other samurai, the tea master gently placed the armour aside and began the delicate preparation for a proper tea ceremony for the two of them.
The cruel samurai laughed at this sight, but quickly became quiet on observing the skill, concentration and discipline of the master of the tea ceremony. Soon the cruel samurai himself became frightened as he thought how great this samurai must really be, wondering, “If he prepares a simple tea ceremony with such skill and precision, how great a swordsman he must be?” The cruel samurai, now thoroughly scared, prostrated himself on the ground, removed his sword, placing it at the feet of the tea master, and begged forgiveness for his arrogance.
The tea master, heaving a silent sigh of thankful relief, forgave the cruel samurai, who quickly left the city. The tea master then expressed his gratitude to the wise samurai for teaching him the secret of self-acceptance – know who you are, where you are, and what you are doing.”