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The #1 Zen Principle That Will Guide You To Martial Art Mastery

Once upon a time, there was a Zen master who–er, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

This grey-haired-yet-never-grouchy man offered wise words to those who came seeking him, regardless of who they were. One day, a scholar came to him for counsel, however, it became painfully obvious that the visiting scholar wasn’t truly ready to receive advice. He would interrupt the master with his own stories and failed to properly listen when he did give a chance to speak.

Not cool.

Rather than losing his temper, the master suggested they sit down and have tea.

The master gave his guest a teacup and began to pour. And pour. And pour even still. He kept pouring the hot tea until it completely filled the scholar’s cup and, even then, continued to pour into the overflowing cup.

Aghast at the spilling hot tea, the scholar leaped up and cried “Stop! The cup is full!”

“Yes,” The master said calmly with a knowing smile. “You are like this cup–so full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back when your cup is empty.”

Mic drop. There is a powerful lesson to be found in that story and it is about much more than customer service.

In Zen Buddhism, there is the belief–one that is often adopted by Japanese martial arts–that the beginner has one of the most powerful mentalities.

The White Belt Mentality

The poetic view of a martial artist whose black belt has been worn down white once more represents an important idea; we start as white belt novices and then begin to stain our minds with opinions and ideas before finally resolving to accept new knowledge again. Essentially, the true masterworks himself to become a white belt once more, ready to again learn from any source.

It is unfortunately easy to close your mind off to new ideas after reaching any level of expertise. When we learn one way of doing something, we can easily become married to the first taught method.

It is better to be an accepting beginner than a closed-minded expert, however. Whoever holds an open-minded perspective is going to be able to grow much, much further. After becoming proficient in our art, we must actively work to dissolve our ego and expand our minds again.

Even martial art legends like Guro Dan Inosanto continue to study and have conversations with martial artists of varying backgrounds.

The first step to learning something new is admitting that you didn’t know it before. When we release the tight reins of ego and accept new information from seemingly “lesser” sources, we can better appreciate interactions with our students and even begin to learn from them. The sensei who believes lessons are a one-way street is a fool indeed.

As martial artists, we ought to view ourselves as scientists; experimenting and exploring the boundaries of what we currently understand. True failure doesn’t exist in science, only consequences with unexpected lessons. With every loss, you gain insight. If we begin to fear the act of making a mistake, we will be frozen in trepidation impeding our progress.

The Beauty of Curiosity

Close your eyes and viscerally imagine this. The warm colors from the setting sun melt into the horizon as darkness comfortably settles in. Stars begin to peek into the darkening sky and the moon glows knowingly on the earth. As the nocturnal life awakens, you feel your body heat gets cooled by the dropping temperature in the air. With every inhalation, you feel the night air flow deeply down to your lungs.

Sounds like a beautifully idyllic moment, right?

This isn’t a unique moment pulled exclusively from someone’s memory though. This is the type of beauty that can be found in every sunset and, more importantly, every second of life.

I’m going to blow your mind; by the time we are twenty years old, we have already lived over seven thousand days!

Heck, I would start to zone out if I were to watch even my favorite episode of Friends that many times!

By the time we become young adults, we are often on auto-pilot each day. We wake up, we eat, we go to work, we train, then we go to bed. Rinse and repeat. Though many people–especially those working a 9-5 job–long for adventure, there is something extremely important to keep in mind before booking a voyage to the Galápagos Islands.

Every day is an adventure.

Yes, it sounds uber cheesy, however, it’s true.

When you stay present and remove the daily fog of habit and routine, you’ll see the beautiful nuances of each moment. This is a great reminder to better enjoy each day, however, it is also essential for martial artists seeking a high level of skill.

To advance our art, we have to be able to critically analyze it in an unbiased manner. We have to be ready to look at new skills with new eyes. To hastily jump to assumptions–be they positive or negative–is to quickly curb our understanding.

Here’s a challenge: strive to listen more than you speak. At least for one day. There are certainly very powerful reasons for teaching and speaking, however, beware. It is easy to devolve into only regurgitating knowledge exactly as it was passed to you, leading to stagnating progress for your art.

When you listen, you learn. The key is being willing to listen and willing to learn from anybody. From a rich man, you can glean how to build wealth. From a poor man, you can study how to avoid losing it. An open mind will provide many opportunities to grow.

Martial arts training is often designed to temper out the weaknesses of its practitioners–we strive to become stronger and skilled as well as more confident and disciplined.

As we grow in these attributes, let us not forget the positive traits we may have begun with–for example, our acceptance of new knowledge and lack of ego.

At the end of the day, we can glean lessons from the expert and the novice. To become a black belt master, we mustn’t lose our white belt mentality.

Justin Lee Ford │

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