On Mastery

Discussion in 'The Martial Arts Forum' started by Roundeyesamurai, Jul 24, 2005.

  1. Roundeyesamurai

    Roundeyesamurai Sensei Member

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    Jul 15, 2004
    Upstate New York
    Note: I was recently asked to write this by a member of this board and of Warrior Talk, following a phone conversation.

    My thanks to Geezer, the Master of Zen Carpentry, for his inputs on this topic.

    What Is Mastery?

    Ask yourself this question, and then answer yourself. Write down your answer before continuing on.


    What Is Expertise?

    Ask yourself this question, and then answer yourself. Write down your answer before continuing on.


    How does one define these two terms, "Mastery" and "Expertise"? This is a question I have asked myself many times, as I have made the transition in life from being an expert in multiple fields, to persuing mastery in one field (namely, the martial arts).

    Ask the two questions above to several different people, and you'll get several different answers- and most of those answers will likely be along the lines of "same difference". In point of fact, in many shooting circles, the former is merely a step above the latter.

    Is mastery an esoteric concept? Some might believe it is, that it is nothing more than a pursuit taken up by the extremely obsessive (and in fact, they might be right, after a fashion). Expertise, on the other hand, would be to these same persons to be a logical progression of the learning process- one learns a topic, applies that knowledge, and as a result, becomes an 'expert' in said topic.


    But what exactly is an 'expert'? What exactly is a 'master'?

    I believe that the distinction between the two, makes them nearly polar opposites. To my mind, an 'expert' is a person who continually persues the expansion of their knowledge and abilities, while a master is exactly the opposite- a person who continually persues the reduction of same.

    Now, when I use those terms, 'expansion' and 'reduction', I am using them in more or less a culinary sense- ask a chef about 'expansion', and he'll describe the dilution of a base to make more of it, such as watering down soup to make it feed more people; whereas 'reduction' means to allow moisture to evaporate out of it and, thereby, distill it into a more pure form, such as reducing a liquid in order to make a gravy.

    So, as martial artists, which should we prefer?

    The classical approach to martial arts has always been with the intention of developing mastery- in other words, to take the lessons imparted to one by his sensei, and through the process of a lifetime of training, make it such an integral part of his being, that he is a living embodiment of it. In other words, immersing himself in it, letting it cook down, until it becomes a unique product, much like the method of making soup stock. This is reduction.

    The modern approach seems to be the opposite- taking a base model, adding "a little of this" and "a little of that", to expand the realm of one's technical abilities. And this approach is not without merit. This is expansion.

    Life, like budo, is an exercise in both expansion and reduction. Since budo is, itself, a microcosm of the cycle of life, it stands to reason that both of these influences will be present in the course of budo living.

    But is either of these forces dominant?

    I have a friend who is frequently heard talking about 'Zen Carpentry'. In considering the differences between expertise and mastery, I am reminded of the carpentry analogies of Musashi, who compared students (and soldiers) to carpenters of different ability levels. In carpentry, much like in budo, one spends the first several years developing expertise- in other words, the technical understandings, techniques, construction principles, and so forth. But after this is accumulated, one will spend the rest of their career (indeed, life) mastering this- in the case of 'Zen Carpentry', the decades spent persuing this occupation, result in a carpenter who knows exactly how a nail will enter the board when struck, can tell by feel whether a bookshelf will stand when laden, can look at lumber and see how it will combine to form a polebarn, and so forth.

    Mastery, then, is the intimate knowledge of a subject, much like a marriage, where one (ideally) develops a complete, intimate knowledge of their spouse. And, just like marriage, the reality is that, although we may try, all but a few people probably will never absolutely develop this knowledge, although we may come close.

    Expertise and mastery, therefore, are but two phases of the living and learning processes- to extend the marital metaphor, those who were likely the most interested in becoming 'sexual experts' as youths, are often discovered to be the most faithful of spouses later in life- they developed the expertise, and now persue the mastery (so to speak).

    As in all things, in budo we first learn, and then apply, and then teach- and only then, can we have a shot at mastering. It's a long process, just like life is a long process.

    Now, look back to the answers you wrote down at the beginning of this thread- would your answers now change? Use this experience to think critically of your involvement in budo- what do you seek to do? What do you want to come from it?

    Examine also, these concepts in your life. In Japanese culture, there is a great reverence for mastery, in all its forms- every person seeks to master their occupation, regardless of what that occupation may be. Learning through apprenticeship, working, teaching apprentices, and then, finally, mastery, are all considered integral components of a working life. Unlike in the United States, where multiple occupations throughout the course of a life are now commonplace, many people in Japan maintain the same occupation for an entire working life- and I find this commendable.