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The Master and the Student

     Let your mind wander back to 16th century Japan and read this story told by an old zen master.  
This master's name was Konto-Okuda.  Now, Konto was said to be the greatest Iai-Jutsu master of Japan during this time.  Many students of the art tried to test their skills against him but none is said to ever have defeated him.  Most were beaten long before their hands ever touched their swords.  Konto was a man of about fifty years, not excessively large, but about average in build.  He kept his head shaved to the point that the skin almost shined.  He seemed to have an air of humility about him but a close look into his eyes sent a chill down your back.  The thing most distinctive about him was the two swords that he carried.  The saya were not of the high gloss we would expect, but more like the color of black charcoal.  The sword guards were little larger than most and the handles were wrapped in black cord.  They engendered a mysterious feeling as did the man himself.  And yet, deep inside, you could not help but feel a warmth of understanding in him.
     One day as the sun was slowly declining behind the mountain and the chill of the evening was crawling upon the little monastery where Konto lived, a young man in his teens appeared at the outer gates.  A Zen priest was lighting the gate lantern, when the young man asked, "Is this the monastery where Master Konto-Okuda resides?"  Not stopping his duties, the priest pointed to a small door within the gates.  The young boy bowed and started towards the door.  Just as he was about to let his presence be know, the small door slid open.  The young boy was startled for a moment, not knowing what to say.  Then dropping to his knees the lad spoke, "Oh, please Master, you must teach me to be a master of Iai like yourself."  The man in the door remained silent for a moment, which seemed like an eternity to the young boy, but then as quickly as the door had opened, it shut.  As he stayed in the kneeling position, the boy could not believe his ears,; the master had shut the door on him, Soto Mamoto, who had given up everything to seek out this Iai master.  Well, this just would not do; no one was going to shut the door in his face, master or not, without at least answering the question he had come so far to ask.  Jumping to his feet, the young man quickly went up the two small steps and , knocking on the door, proclaimed in a loud voice, "You in there, who so rudely shut this door, I demand you come back out here and speak to me.  I have but one question to ask you, and you will answer it before the night is through or my name is not Soto Mamoto."
     The door slid open, as if by mysterious powers of its own.  And there, out of nowhere, stood Konto-Okuda.  As Soto looked into his eyes, he felt his knees starting to bend a little, and he knew it was not for the purpose of bowing.  Looking deep into Soto's eyes, almost as if he were looking through him, not changing his facial expression or raising his voice, Konto said, "I hope your question is worthy of the answer."  As Soto's head started to clear, he found himself on the ground in front of the small closed door.  Lying there slowly moving his head from left to right, looking about, was convinced that he had been hit from behind.  But to his surpass he was all alone, with nothing but the flickering of the candle in the lantern at the front gate disturbing the stillness.  He just could not believe it: One minute he was on the step and the next second on the ground.  Now more than ever, Soto felt compelled to become the student of this man.
     As the dampness of the evening dew crept into Soto's kimono there on the ground, it occurred to him to open the door and confront the master.  But as he started to rise, his head hurt terribly and the thought of opening the door vanished.
     Taking up a kneeling position in front of the steps, Soto waited.  "The master has to come through this door sooner or later,"  Soto surmised, "and when he does he will see how humble I have made myself.  He will have to accept me as a student then."
     Minutes turned into hours, and the hours brought the could mountain night.  Slowly his eyes started to close, and he fell into a deep slumber.  When he opened his eyes, he felt the warmth of the morning sun on his back.  Quickly looking up at the door, he saw that it was still shut.  "Good", he thought, "he has not yet left and when he does I will be waiting."  Morning turned into afternoon and his legs began to ache.  His back felt as if trampled on by oxen, and his throat was parched.  "Why does the master not come out?" he thought.  "I do not know if I can stay here much longer."  All at once there was an indescribable pain across his back.  Again and again he felt a stick come crashing down upon him.  As he tried to get to his feet to deflect the blows, he found his legs would not cooperate and he tumbled, falling flat upon his face.  Then the blows changed from his back to his buttocks.  He pulled with his arms using all the strength left in his body until he was under the steps safe from the madman.  Looking through the steps at his attacker he saw Konto-Okuda shouldering a long piece of bamboo and laughing to the heavens.  Konto's voice roared with laughter, "Where is this man who demands to ask me but one question?"  Then as the words echoed, Konto went up the steps, and Soto could hear the sliding of the door as it closed.  Kneeling under the steps, trying to get the blood to circulate again in his legs, Soto could not help thinking to himself, "This man is stark raving mad, no wonder he is known to be the greatest Iai-jutsu-ist.  A person would have to be mad to deal with such a man."  Just then he heard the door slide open above him, and a torrent of water came pouring down upon him.  "There demanding-one with no manners, let me try and clean your outside while you do something with that you call a brain."
     That was enough.  Out from under the steps Soto came.  "Master" he shouted, "If you are not going to accept me as a student, then at least say so and I will be on my way."  "Accept you?" Konto laughed, "You who came first demanding, then tried to show humility by kneeling all night outside my door, but was without humility enough to stay awake.  Want you? No, I do not want you."
     "So!" Soto broke in, "I will be on my way! Maybe I did start off on the wrong foot, and maybe I deserved the beating, but after all I have been through, don't you think you could at least answer my one question?"
     Konto put his finger to the side of his nose and looked straight into Soto's face.  For the first time Soto began to know fear.  With a half-smile on his face but a frown on his brow, Konto said in a whisper, "Tell me, little one, not that it really matters, what is your question?"  Konto started down the steps, slowly placing his hand on the handle of his sword.  "Come here so we can talk, little one."  He was still moving forward towards Soto.  Soto felt this was a dream, he could feel the master getting close, but he did not seem to see his body moving, Konto reached out with his right hand and grabbed the boy by his hair.  "Now demanding one," Konto exclaimed, holding him so that his face looked straight into the afternoon sun, "Tell me what is this most important question?"  Soto felt his neck was about to break and he knew he was either about to die or have his question answered.
     "What is this question, demanding one?"  Konto said again softly, with eyes ablaze.
     "Let go of my hair so I can stand up and I will tell you," Soto replied.  Konto released his grip and it seemed to Soto like the hair on his head had grown a foot.  Now Soto dropped to his knees at the master's feet and without looking up started to explain his question.
     "Master, as I have said, my name is Soto Mamoto and I come from Kyushu.  My father was the fencing master at Kumamoto Castle until he was killed by two ronin six moths ago.  It was at this time that I started on my journey to find you, Master."  Konto broke in, "What was your fathers name, little one?"  "Shin No Fuji Mamoto," Soto replied.  "Not Shin No Fuji Mamoto of Higo prefecture?" "Yes," Soto replied.  Konto could scarcely believe it.  Shin No Funji and he had grown up together, fought side by side in the castle wars, got drunk together many times and eventually fell in love with the same woman.  But he had not heard from his good friend in many years.  Quickly, Konto's mind snapped back to the boy.  "Tell me, little one, what's your mothers name?  And is she not worried about her son so far away at a time she might need him most?" he demanded.
     "Master, her name was Shimoke-Kuto, but she died when I was born and I only know of her from my father's uncle.  My father would never let her name be spoken in his presence."
     Konto reached down and put his hand under the boy's chin, lifting it so he could study the story on his face.  Indeed, Konto thought, this is Shimoko's child.  She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known and through this little one she still lived.
     Just then a loud voice from the monastery gate cut short Konto's memories.  The voice was so loud that is startled Soto, and he jumped to his feet.  Konto reached out and pushed the boy to one side behind him.  Two men standing at the gate moved toward him.  Konto placed his hands inside his kimono, and turned to face them, and spoke, "My name is Konto-Okuda.  What do you seek here?"  One of the men replied, "We do not wish to hurt you, old man, we have come for that one, there," and pointed to the little one.  "And what do you wish of him, may I ask?" questioned Konto.  "That is none of your business," answered the ronin.  "But you see it is my business, smelly one, for the one you seek is my student and therefore I am responsible for all of his actions."  Konto retorted.  The ronin laughed smugly, then turned back to Konto and said, "So bold one, who is acquainted with the Gods, you are responsible for this little one.  Then I suggest that you make yourself ready to meet your responsibilities."  Konto remained silent and let his body relax.  He studied the ronin eyes, never changing his own expression nor removing his hand from under his kimono.  As the ronin drew his katana, his swift hands became only a blur to Soto's eyes but more unbelievable to the boy was that the master's entire body became a blur to the ronin movement.  With the quickness of a mountain cat, the ronin tried to block what his eyes could not truly see.  But it was too late, for when the ronin finally realized that the sword was coming from the old mans saya, he had already felt the blade cutting deep into his flesh.  The ronin tumbled dead at Konto's feet.  Konto quickly turned to face the other ronin but he had vanished just as suddenly as the life which Konto had just taken.  Now making a circle over his head with his katana and a snapping movement with his wrist, he removed the blood from the end of his sword.  Before Soto's mind had digested this movement, the sword was back in it's resting place.  Soto's heart was pounding like the sound of an attack drum and finally realizing that it was over, he ran to Konto's side.  Looking down at the dead ronin and then to the master, he began to weep.  "Master, these were the ronin who killed my father!  As my father was dying, he told me of you, he said to come here and to become your student."
     Not now, little one," Konto interrupted, "We will have plenty of time to talk about such things later.  We must take care of things first.  This lifeless body must be cared for and we must pray for his misguided soul.  Now go to my room and try to rest while I take care of these matters."
     It was late evening when Soto heard the master come in.  He did not move from where he had been sleeping, but just lay there thinking never before had he know such a man, such a great warrior, and he knew his answer to his question was within reach.
     When Soto awoke the next morning he could see the master making tea.  Quickly going over to where Konto was, he knelt down and, taking the kettle from the fire, began to pour the master's tea.  "If I am going to be your student, master, you must allow me to do my duties.  A student does not sleep while his master makes tea."  "It is good you know such things," Konto smiled.  As they sipped their tea and warmed their bodies by the fire, Konto broke the silence and said, "Well, little one, I feel it is time we had our talk.  You have come all this way to ask a question, but I must warn you that some questions are better never asked, for once you ask and seek the answer, you will be drawn into the trap of life.  The answer could lure you away from things that now seem important.  You may start on the endless circle I have traveled, and find only that there end is no end at all.  The revenge you hold in your heart for this other man may only be bitter fruit, that neither you nor anyone else will ever be able to digest.  With these things in mind, you may ask your question.
     Soto looked at the master for a minute reflectively, put his cup down and began to speak.  "Master, before my father died he made me promise to revenge his death.  But in a way, I do not understand.  He said I would only be able to set his spirit at rest by finding the answer to the sound of one hand clapping.  He said unless truly find this answer, the ronin will surely kill me and my death would be of no purpose.  He then told me of you and explained if there was anyone on earth who could help me with the problem it would be you."
     Konto, looking into his tea cup, could not help but smile to himself, for he knew without a doubt what he had suspected all along.  Shin No Fuji had sent the little one on and endless journey for his own safety.  He knew Soto would never leave the monastery now until he had found the answer.  The answer would take many years.  By the time he knew the answer, he would have forgotten why it was so important in the first place.
     Soto cleared his throat, and the master looked up.  The boy continued, "Master, do you know the answer?"  "Oh yes, I know the answer, little one!  But first let me ask you a question.  Do you know the sound of two hands clapping?"  "Is it important to know the sound of two hands, master?"  Soto replied.  Konto poured himself some more tea.  "Yes, I am afraid so, little one, before you get into the water, you must first learn to swim.  Remember if you are going to be my student and search for the answer of one hand, I can only instruct you in the use of the sword, I cannot teach you, you must teach yourself.  The sound of two hands clapping is one of the most vital elements in the art of kenjutsu, as well as in Zen.  Always remember, little one, when the hands are clapped, the sound heard is without a moment's deliberation.  If there is any room for a breath of air between these two actions, there is an interruption.  The sound does not wait and think before it issues, one movement follows another without being interrupted by one's conscious mind.  Do you understand this, little one?"
     "I must confess, master, I do not think I do,"  Soto replied.  "Well, do not worry about it now," Konto smiled, "we have plenty of time and you must start your duties before the morning wastes away."

This story was taken from the book "IAI The Art of Drawing the Sword"