True Mastery Always Involves the Mind

Physical skills only go so far, and true mastery always involves the mind.


Many years ago, a young samurai trained hard and felt very confident in his quick reflexes and powerful techniques. Periodically he would challenge well-known fighters, and since he always won, his reputation grew. He heard of a renowned Zen swordsman who lived in a remote region and decided to go there to challenge him. When the samurai finally arrived, he knocked loudly on the door. A diminutive servant answered the door and said, “Hello, may I help you?”

The samurai answered loudly, “I have come to challenge the master to a duel!”

The servant bowed calmly and said, “Just a moment, I will give him your message.”

A few minutes later, the servant returned. “Sir, the master asks you to return in one hour.”

The samurai wondered if this so-called master was just avoiding him, but decided to give him the hour to get up his courage. The samurai walked back to the woods and began practicing his strokes to get ready.

Meanwhile, the master instructed his servant to go out into the woods and cut one of the beautiful orchids that grew there. When he returned with the flower, the master placed it in a wooden stand. Then he stood in front of it, sword in his scabbard at his belt, and meditated deeply. Suddenly, in one graceful, sweeping motion, he drew his sword, raised it high overhead, and came down swiftly to sever the flower in two perfect halves without touching the stand. Then he effortlessly returned the sword to its sheath. He took the two pieces and placed them in an envelope. Then he composed the following note: “I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to meet and duel.”

When the samurai returned, the servant gave him the envelope. The samurai looked at the two perfectly cut flower parts. Recognizing the counter-challenge, he asked the servant to get him a flower just like the one the master had used. When the servant returned with the flower and set it in the stand, the samurai quickly drew his sword and smashed down on the flower with all his might. The flower was cut into two jagged, torn halves, along with the stand. He placed his flower side-by-side with the master’s flower and compared them. Then he realized that his technique was no match for the master. He would have been destroyed. The master had spared him, compassionately.

“Tell me, servant, what did the master do to get such a perfect cut”

The servant answered with a quiet smile, “The blade is sharp, but the mind is sharper!”

Realizing that he had much to learn, the samurai bowed and said, “Please ask the master to accept me as his student!” He became the master’s best student.

This story illustrates the importance of mind in martial arts. Physical skills only go so far, and true mastery always involves the mind.

While this story, and similar ones, are told in many places, this version is from Zen in Ten by Annellen Simpkins, PhD and C. Alexander Simpkins, PhD.