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On Mastery
by Ron Landis
presented to the Google Group
Isshin Shorinji Ryu Okinawa Te

About 6 weeks ago it was my very good fortune to come home one evening to a message on my answering machine from Russ Tippett.  I have to admit it took about 15 minutes of searching my memory bank to place a name that sounded familiar into a context that would bring it into sharper focus.  Then bingo, in a clutter of ancient images I remembered a karate cam padre with whom I studied in the '60s and 
'70s.  I couldn't wait to call him back because it had been that long since I lost touch with him and all of my other karate buddies and buddyettes. 

Russ was kind enough to give me phone numbers and email addresses so the next two weeks were dedicated to tracking down old friendships I had forged during my training under Sensei Murphy.  March's phone bills are enormous. 

Of course he gave me the very sad news of Sensei's passing.  What a horribly lost opportunity for me in not being able to reach out to my old teacher to tell him how much his lessons had sustained me throughout my career, personal growth, and life.  I hate woulda-coulda-shoulda's and shame on me for letting this become one. 

Around the early to mid 70s, I can't remember precisely, I expanded my martial arts studies from Issinshorinji-ryu to include Kendo and Iaido studying under Kan Sensei, a Hanshi in the sword and a Buddhist monk at the American Buddhist Academy in New York City.  Sensei Murphy had bestowed on me the honor of Shihan and was aware of my interest in the Japanese Sword so blessed it as a natural step in my further development. 

Then my life took turns that drew me away first from karate, and then eventually Kendo and Iaido.  They were choices that I had to make that were good for my professional growth.  First I went back to graduate school at nights getting my MBA at the same time I was advancing in my career requiring longer hours and frequent business trips to far off places.  I can show my progress based on three retired passports that customs insisted I renew making room for them to put a visa stamp 
without it disappearing into a collage of red, blue, and black ink. So you can see I had to make choices, trade-offs as some call it, and karate was my first sacrifice. 

But here's the thing about progress.  It wasn't a sacrifice.  I gave up nothing.  All that I had learned from Sensei Murphy and Kan Sensei (I change the order of the honorific in deference to each man's culture) was indelibly etched into who I am.  It can't be taken away and that's why now that I've established who I am, I'd like to humbly 
share with you what I've learned over the years about Masters and Mastery. 

It isn't definitive; only something I found that's served me well and if others might benefit from my thinking out loud you are welcomed to it.  I've been struggling to contribute to a thread of conversations I've seen on both this forum and the Fighting about karate masters and what does it mean to be one and who has rightful credentials.  I haven't done so until now because I needed to collect my thoughts so that they won't be trivial.  You all deserve that.

While in the martial arts I had vivid memories of practitioners who
had no equal.  Some I know by name and others I can't remember. One was a Japanese karate-ka from the Shotokan style.  He had one defensive tactic, and only two offensive moves. He used them with blazing precision and accuracy.  He didn't bounce all over the place, much like you might see in typical ju-kumite; instead rooted himself like a samurai in a Toshiro Mifune movie, springing out with a spell binding roundhouse kick or forward punch when he knew his opponent's motion, timing and vulnerability worked to their own disadvantage. His defensive tactic was patience.  Nothing more and nothing less; splendid efficiency and mastery of skill.  He was unstoppable. 

One of my dojo mates, someone who was a nidan when I made shodan, performed the Seiuchin at a level that was breathtaking.  He was Bill Bressaw.  When you did ju-kumite with Bill you knew you were up against a force of nature.  He was the best of us all, and during my two weeks of looking up old acquaintances I see he's 7th dan in Shukokai-ryu.  I don't doubt that he's Hanshi.  Bill did a Seiuchin at tournaments that won him regular acclaim from the judges despite being up against flashy acrobatic forms that were just starting to appear on the karate scene (yes even back then).  He did it classically, with intense focus, steely muscle control and perfect breathing.  It stopped those around him to just look at how Seiuchin ought to be. 

Another was a Judo-ka, one who wore the red and white checkered belt of a high ranking dan.  I remember thinking he was tall for Japanese, almost certainly 6 foot.  He performed kata with another dan from his school, then free form, and then debilitating ju-jitsu moves that only advanced Judo dans are allowed to learn and practice.  Everything he did was effortless, just the way Dr. Jugaro Kano intended even midstream adjustments he made to unanticipated moves by his opponent. I remember going home thinking no matter how proficient my karate had become, I didn't want to ever make him angry. 

I went to a Kendo tournament in Toronto with my school in which we competed for individual and team honors against American, Canadian, and Japanese private schools in the North American continent.  Two masters performed a prearranged form, one against the other, WITH LIVE BLADES.  Neither held back, both transcended ki.  I knew I was witnessing mastery unlike anything I had seen before.  Both completely 
trusted the other without hesitation, but both with complete commitment to this life-and-death dance that could have ended tragically if they were lesser swordsmen. 

But here's the thing about mastery; when I left the martial arts I
never stopped running into it.  I saw it in business, fly fishing, gardening, photography, teaching and many other places.  Outside of karate we all know they don't give promotions to Master or Grandmaster like we do.  Oh, sure we can attain degrees that entitle us to title 
such as MBA, JD, PhD, or MD, but the masters I speak of are those who would be more like the traditional Japanese Hanshi, a teacher of teachers, an exemplary person we can all model our lives after regardless of their area of expertise.  Robert Murphy was one of them. 

Sensei eschewed rank even back then, but he cherished insight and knew attaining it was a life long endeavor.  Sure he promoted us to different kyu and dan levels; I still have all of my belts.  I tried one on last week.  Funny how they shrunk just sitting in the drawer all these years.  Must have been the humidity. 

 I think Sensei gave out rank, at least back then, because it was a practical practice in an American culture, but I vividly remember him telling us stories how karate-kas of Okinawa gave little outward concern for rank, especially kyu levels who wore utilitarian white belts to simply hold their gi together.  According to Sensei they all showed up to the dojo much like American suburbanites show up at the 'Y'. It's just what they did.  It didn't lessen the significance of karate, but rather put it into the simple context of its Buddhist roots. 

That was clearly the way it was for me at the American Buddhist Academy.  You couldn't tell rank by the hakama or gi.  There wasn't a colored belt that went over the waist panel of your skirt.  All of our gis and hakamas were a dark blue.  The only exception was Kan Sensei who wore a white gi, but still the hakama was blue.  It was more than a year before I learned the dan ranking of some of the more proficient students, and when I learned of them my private reaction was, "of course they are."  During my studies there Kan Sensei presented me with two lovely kanji written menjos (diplomas) signed by our School's Kendo grandmaster back in Japan. To this day I don't know what it says or what my rank is.  At the Buddhist Academy you wouldn't dare insult Kan Sensei by asking him, and frankly I didn't care.  I knew there were some in the dojo that I could out fence, and then others who regularly handed my head to me; literally, because a well placed shinai even on a steel protected head gear really hurts. 

That's a lesson about mastery I've learned that I'd share with you. Forgive me for stating the obvious, it's not meant to condescend. 

Mastery is self evident or it's not mastery.  You won't need to have someone tell you "he's a master."  You'll know it. 

I remember another lesson I learned from a mentor of mine.  He wasn't a great man because of his extraordinary resume, but he acquired extraordinary credentials because he was masterful.  He had fought in the Korean War where he was awarded the highest honors for his leadership and bravery on Pork Chop Hill.  While in Korea, as an infantry officer, he started three orphanages for children who had been displaced by the ravages of war.  Back home in the US he became a Methodist Minister. Eventually he left the Ministry to study directly under Frank Lloyd Wright.  From there he went to work for Disney, that's Walt Disney as the Founder and Dean of Disney University in Orlando.  He's collaborated with Buckminster Fuller on several projects and befriended and advised Steve Jobs.  Sounds like I'm aking him up, but this is a real person. 

I remember during a coffee break at one of his week long seminars a conversation he had with me.  I was spell bound by his morning lecture, the incredible and unique way he saw things and his effortless ability to transmit these thoughts to others.  He was a gentle man, never yelling to make a point as so many charlatans do on the lecture circuit nowadays, and he had a wonderful sense of humor and used it to teach otherwise dry boring subjects. 

In our conversation I said to him, "Mike, I wish I could think like you." 

He just smiled a warm caring smile, gave his half laugh, half giggle and said, "Ron I can't make you think like me, but I can teach you how to have your own thoughts." 

This is a man that has given up all pretense and vanity of status, whose only concern is that he shares with others the ability to learn.  That's a Hanshi, a Grand Master.  If you ever met him for the first time and shared a cup of coffee, there would be no sign, no hint, and no indication that he's walked with giants, however you couldn't help but think you were in the presence of someone special. 

I think that's why masters, true masters, loose interest in rank, status and title, and I mean that in all endeavors not just karate. They have nothing left to prove, but so much more to learn knowing it's the pursuit of mastery that's more important than the 
destination.  When we think we've arrived we stop, stop learning, stop growing, and in some ways stop living.  I truly believe our Sensei knew that. 

Some of you might not care for what I've written, and others may. It's ok either way.  I hope for some it can help understand what our Sensei stood for, and what karate ought to mean to us through his teachings.  We all have to find our own way to what's important and we all take very different journeys to get there.  He knew that, which is why he embraced so many different forms from so many dojos never assuming that any single school or any single sensei had the definitive answers.  I remember a question on our Black Belt exam. You all might have had the same one.  It went, "What is the meaning of the phrase, 'Say you have found a truth, and not the truth.'" I wish I had had the insight then that I have now to have given a better answer. 

So Russ's call gave me another insight in my search for mastery.  No more woulda-coulda-shouldas! 

Chuck Cusamano (sorry Charles, I let the cat out of the bag about your nickname), was my very best friend back then and 35 years have gone by since we were in touch.  That ended three weeks ago and we've taken up as though we never stopped even though we live 7 states away from each other.  Richie Orkin (sorry to you too Richard) and I started karate together in college and I lost touch with him when he left to begin his career in the Airforce.  That absence ended three weeks ago too. I wasn't as close to Russ as I was to Chuck and Richie, but I hope in the near future I can remedy that as well.   There's one last person I was close to that I hope to hear from.  I lost my chance to reconnect with Sensei, but through his disciples I can still know him. Sensei, I will miss you. 

You can all go back to talking about katas now, who was what rank and where the origins of Isshinshorinji-ryu began, and so on, but "here's the thing" as New Yorkers are fond of saying just before they say it..  We're all members of a special fraternity that honors Sensei Murphy.  It will take every one of our lifetimes to fully repay the dues he's owed, so live it well. 

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