Master on the Mountain

Pai Mei

Everyone knows this image: the old master of the martial arts living alone on a remote mountain top, students coming to him for wisdom and training. His mastery comes from arduous training and an enlightenment that springs in part from his solitude. It is an image that plays perfectly into our “self made man” ideal, and I see it reflected in martial artists who claim they “just train alone”. A nice image, but in my opinion it is nonsense.

This stereotype does spring from something. Training is a profoundly lonely task at times. Endless repetitions, hours spent developing strength, stamina, and mechanics, and knowing that while your teacher can guide you, you are responsible for your progress. No one else but you. That is lonely. Nevertheless, for most of us, and certainly for any real martial training, our practice is actually a profoundly social act.

Day after day, year after year, we come down to the dojo and train. Sure we also train alone, but we train with others. We are members of a dojo, or a club, or simply a group of people who share a common interest. We come together to learn, to sweat. We share our weaknesses, our failures, and our successes. We rely on each other for support, assistance, criticism. A group that is really pushing you will see you fail. They will see parts of yourself you like to keep hidden- fear, lack of faith in yourself, laziness. They will also see you succeed and develop. You have to trust them with your safety, and with your emotions. You have to be trustworthy the same way. I don’t know about you, but to me that is pretty personal.

And it cannot happen alone. To push your boundaries in the martial arts you need people to work with. In primarily solo activities- strength training, forms, flexibility, etc.- partners help you push past barriers, show you where you are making mistakes. But while you may be able to develop strength, form, or flexibility alone, you will never learn how to apply them without partners.

Real martial arts are interactive because violence is a form of social interaction. In learning to deal with it you need to feel other bodies, deal with different weights, sizes, ways of moving and ways of thinking. You need to respond to attacks and learn how to manipulate an opponent, physically and psychologically. An imaginary attack is just that- it has no intent, no feeling, no heft. Without partners, the arts are a hollow shell, like learning a foreign language without ever speaking to anyone: how do you know if you can communicate? So training is, has to be, social.

And that is a good thing. While the ideal seems cool- being a master sitting on a mountain alone- who really wants it? I don’t. I would prefer a group of friends around me. We share sweat, pain, failure, and sometimes blood. We share laughter, achievement, and the pure joy of training. And more. We have dojo parties, go out for an occasional drink, know each others’ families, share milestones like weddings and birthdays. If I am going to spend this much time at something, I want that something to have depth, value. If I am going to show that much of myself to a group of people, I want them to be people I trust and respect. People I like. They are my community, my martial brothers and sisters.

So when I hear about great masters or experts in the arts, I tend to wonder: who are their training partners? Who helped them get that good? Who do they continue to train with? Who questions and critiques them? Who are their friends? For me, who their friends are will show me more about them than their technique. If they have no friends, no training partners, and are sitting alone on a mountain, then I know all I need to.

2 thoughts on “Master on the Mountain

  1. I have a 15-year old picture of me doing Sanchin atop one of the White Mountain summits, shirtless and apparently going for austere-training/master on the mountain look, complete with Chuck Norris weight beard. It’s a great picture. And then there is always the training next to a waterfall…

    In reality though we train in our kitchens, while shoveling snow, while playing with our kids, while day-dreaming, while dancing (hopefully not visibly), walking, opening doors, trying to sit up straight, petting semi-wild animals, and while trying to find entertainment in all sorts of mundane manual tasks. But your right, self-study alone, or group-solo training, is not enough!


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