Lessons from a master

Our Aikido school took a field trip today to the Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco. Currently, they are running an exhibit called “The Lords of the Samurai” that had artifacts depicting the cultural and combative aspects of fuedal Japan. It was a beautiful exhibit and amongst many beautiful displays, they had a calligraphy piece from Takuan Soho, several paintings from Miyamoto Musashi and one of the earliest editions of the Book of Five Rings.

We specifically went for an iaido demonstration given by one of the worlds foremost masters of iaido, Sensei Seigen Esaka, Hanshi 10th Dan, who practices the Muso Jikiden Eishen Ryu style of iaido. The demonstration was very modest. Sensei Esaka spoke for about 50 minutes through a translator describing Iaido from a historical perspective, gave some insight of his own involvement and growth in his art, and spoke about the tenets he has found through his sincere and dedicated practice.

It is an interesting thing to have a master who has dedicated his life to his art offer up these thoughts. We tend to think that we are going to hear some secrets of the universe when a man of his caliber offers up his thoughts after so many years of training. In fact, we did hear them. I will boil them down to four (and paraphrase badly). They are very simple:

  • Live and let live
  • Strive to get along with everyone
  • be dedicated to your art
  • Chose to always grow in your education of life

This is a beautiful confirmation of what we learned as 5 year olds, as 10 year olds, as 20 year olds, as adults. It is a glorious fact that we do in fact have our answers right in front of us. We do not have to go to mountain tops and fast for 40 days, we do not have to dedicate our lives to practices. We have our answers and they are the same ones we were told when we were children.

Esaka Sensei’s demonstration was beautiful. There were only a handful of actual sword strikes he performed. They were not particularly fast, but there was something so beautiful about his expression of Iai. His movement was so fluid, so second nature, that his sword strikes are akin to how he breathes or how he walks. I was truly moved by the mastery of his movement, the distillation of his art and the simple essence of his sword.

Watching him reminds me of the prelude to the book “The Mastery of Music” where the author writes:

Isaac Stern was on the phone, speaking in advance of an appearance with the Detriot Symphony Orchestra in which he was to play the Bruch Violin Concrto. This was the fall of 1997. The great violinist was now seventy-seven years old, and it was no secret that his once impeccable techical command of the violin, purity of tone, and intonation had all deteriorated significantly from his prime. And yet Stern’s performances still often managed to startle audiences with a dpepth of emotion and intellect that put to shame many of the whis kids that populate the concert scene, whippersnappers who can breeze through the entire standard literature without many any mistakes – and without making any music either.

How, I asked Stern, did he do it? How did he manage to retain ihis artistry when the calendar had robbed him of his hard-won dexterity, stamina, and perhaps even some of his power of concentration? Stern, who could be as charming as a kitten or as gruff as a grouchy hound, sometimes in the same breath, paused for a moment. “Of course there’s a difference from how I once played,” he growled. “That’s not the point. The question is how I use what I can do.” Then his voice softened, as if he was about to share a secret. “Technique is not music,” he continued. “Music is the thousandth of a millisecond between one note and another; How you get from one to the other – that’s where the music is.”

Esaka Sensei’s performance, not the start or the end of his strike, but how he got from one to the other showed a brilliant, elegant mastery of his art. It was truly an honor to be able to witness such a wondrous display. The message he left us with today transcends cultures and history:

  • Live and let live
  • Strive to get along with everyone
  • be dedicated to your art
  • Chose to always grow in your education of life


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