What Is A 'Master'?


We often possess romanticized notions of a "master" being some larger-than-life figure who possesses some highly distinguished skill; a title that is only bestowed upon someone who has the ability to spit fire and shoot lightning from their hands. Though, even if that were somehow possible, an individual who sets out to exhibit such a level of grandeur would often be the furthest thing from a true master…

What illuminated me to this understanding of what a “master” truly is comes from Thomas Cleary’s inspired work, Soul of the Samurai*. In it, Cleary dissects various Bushido codes and Zen teachings according to the 17th-century Japanese samurai master, Yagyu Munenori, and his Zen teacher ,Takuan Soho. Contained with its 150 some-odd pages, the true understanding of what a master is can be found.

One of the most pivotal insights expressed in this text is the commonly held term used in Zen known as the Blood-Mind. Now, before you get all squeamish and reluctant to find out what this term actually means (there’s something oddly off-putting about the word Blood), it simply means “one who is ruled by their emotions.” Blood (literal blood) is influenced by emotion. When you get upset, your face turns read. When you get excited, your heart begins to race. Each of these responses, carried out by circulation; or, blood...

Though, it should be noted that the Blood-Mind is not the true mind. The energy which directs the false, or Blood-Mind, is that of emotion. Emotions can often mislead you. So, if you somehow are able to still your own emotions in a way that your demeanour does not change and your judgement is not impaired, you will have freed yourself from the faulty Blood-Mind. How can this be achieved? Realization.

The realization that what you know is, in fact, what you know. So much so, that the Blood-Mind does not interfere mid action. This quality is what is considered in Zen to be acting with Mindlessness; a mind which has been freed from its own meandering — able to move effortlessly amidst obstacles which may appear in its way. This is the quality of Mindlessness, or engaging with No-Mind.

Why is this so important? No-Mind is the primary characteristic of a true master. You see, one who showboats and pines for the attention of others is not one who has achieved a state of No-Mind. Rather, they have been stricken with obsession and now exhibit the characteristics of a Sick-Mind. Zen Buddhists consider obsession to be an ailment which leads to a Sick-Mind. What is the mind sick from? Attachment. 

When you learn to free yourself of needless attachments (especially the opinions of others), you are able to "just be". When you operate within a system governed by rules, but are able to dictate your own, you have found yourself; you have become a true master.

You see, a master is not someone who has the unparalleled ability of some mythical deity. Instead, they are someone who has mastered themselves in relation to their own craft. The ability to put aside thinking-mind and begin to act without-thought. To "do", simply because it is what they are doing. That is the mark and the mind of a true master.

Whether it be music, painting, mathematics, or martial arts, a master is one who has freed themselves of thought amidst action. Leaving no room for second guessing, as they perform by following the way — their own way.

So, put aside your expectations of who you "should" be and simply be who you are. Practice your craft until your craft has become you. In this way, we will all have become masters; the second we stop thinking and the moment we start being.

That is true mastery.