On the art of the sword – Finding the right master

Many centuries ago, in the days of the samurais, a text was written in Japan on the spiritual art of wielding the sword: “Impassive comprehension”, also known as “The Treatise of Tahlan”, the name of the author (a fencing master and Zen monk). Below are an extract that I have adapted:

Our path will always cross that of many others who for love or pride wish to teach us something. How can we tell the friend apart from the manipulator?

“The answer is simple: the true master is not the one who teaches an ideal path but rather he who shows his pupil the many ways that lead to the road that must be travelled to reach the destination.

“As of the moment that you find this road, the master can no longer help you, because your challenges are unique.

If we fail to understand this item, we will never get anywhere.

Welcome to Share with Friends – Free Texts for a Free Internet


  1. Thankyou Paulo,

    What is a teacher? I’ll tell you:
    it isn’t someone who teaches something,
    but someone who inspires the student to give of her best
    in order to discover what she already knows.
    – The Witch of Portobello

    Thankyou God.

    With Love and Gratitude,

  2. Heart says:

    A true spiritual director asks God what His plan is for this person. So many times we saw great saints suffering under directors who didn't understand what great spiritual gifts a person had. Even saints needed guidance and support, and probably couldn't fulfill their task, without this misguidance? A master should listen much more than teach, to find the uniqueness of each individual's talents.

  3. Ria says:

    Daniel Quinn. The teacher finds the pupil… or “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

  4. Charles says:

    Hmmm, I don’t know why people tend to romanticize the art of the sword so much.
    At the day’s end, it’s a weapon designed to kill people – don’t let anything distract you from that. The moment you become too enmeshed in philosophy, you forget the reason and method for the tool you hold in hand – something that could be fatal in any situation.

    The absolutely only true test of the mastery of the sword is actual combat.
    I guess that’s where zen comes in handy – though I think it’s less spiritual perfection than being able to come to terms that once combat is engaged, one could very easily lose one’s life to a razor blade wielded by a stronger, more skillfull, more cunning, or luckier opponent.
    The catch is that you simply cannot wield a daitou properly if you’re afraid to be cut by your opponent’s sword – the Japanese blade wasn’t designed to deflect or hold another blade – it’s designed to cut quickly, efficiently. The only way to wield a sword is to lose or submerge the organismic fear of death – essentially promoting a brusque, fatalistic lifestyle.
    The ability to control this fear is linked with the ability to control or submerge imagination, and focus on one’s immediate surroundings: essentially the emphasis is in reacting to the world at large – rather than trying to predict or control it.
    The mind-set promoted above, of course, is bad for invention and innovation – which is why , though no doubt the samurai are skillful and brave chaps, they nonetheless decimated when they had to go against guns and cannonfire. (Yes – Guns and Strategy unified Japan.)
    Here we can link the value judgement of which view is better by the simple expedience of interviewing the survivors of the conflict between mindsets. Since nature seems to favor the technical inventive mind, I guess that pretty much solves that issue.

    SO to get back to the question, I have two conceptions attached to the word master: One is someone who simply has managed to survive long enough to learn cunning. It is to the master’s interest to titillate the initiate with high ideas, to gain more apprentices (who are historically undercompensated when calculated over the whole length of his training period) and economic power. Doubtless, one can learn much from these persons, but one has to be wary that they all inevitably have ulterior motives that may not run parallel with your own.
    My second conception of master is someone who brings various elements of Being together (in armies, soldiers, in science, great innovators gathered round, in religion, great priest-kings fighting to save their people, for revolutions, martyrs to the cause marching forth…) creating greater and at times more efficient organization to society and the world about. (I’ll talk more about this on my next post – assuming I ever get around to doing it, hehehehe…)

  5. Sefer JAN says:

    You can learn something valuable from everybody, book, newspaper, … that has enetered into your life without your will.

    But finding true master who would lead you to the truth is not so simple. Because “when student is ready, master comes to him.” Firstly we have to climb up to high (eneough) level to understand the value of potential master.

    Nobody can expect from child to know the value of platinium, it is only a piece of “metal” that does not interest him. But when this child grows, gets knowledge and becomes a scientist, he starts to seek for platinium, because he knows that it is very valuable.

    In Sufism, it is important to have a master, because without a “lead”er nobody can pass through valley of knowledge. It is important to listen to your heart to understand if this master is the one whom you are searching for.

    There are many Sufi stories where a student comes to master and takes knowledge for a long time. But one day his master says to him: “I am not your real master. I only prepared you for your real master. Now you are ready and should go to him, because he said me to send you to him. He lives (e.g.) in Egypt, go and find him there.”

    Actually, real master is not the aim, but a compass which will direct us to the way that leads to the aim. So it is important for student to (1) prepare himself, (2) find the master, (3) pass the way and (4) reach the truth.

  6. El Dormido says:

    Engaging a mentor, or master, or teacher, I have something I want to attain, even if imperfectly understood. I want to find someone who has attained that to which I aspire, who will be able to share with me their experience in ‘getting there.’ What did they do, what did they feel, how did they handle the difficulties and disappointments, and the successes along the way. And what did they do next after that.

    So, inevitably, there is that moment when the progression exceeds the reach of the teacher or mentor, and it is time to look for the next step to take.

  7. Savita Vega says:

    Dear Jessica:
    Sorry to hear of your misfortunes of yesterday, and also just wanted to say that sometimes I think things like that happen specifically because the universe is trying to push us out the door and into a new situation. Sometimes it is hard to leave, even when we know our potential could be better fulfilled elsewhere; therefore, due to our reluctance to move on, the Divine feels the need to give us this little shove. What initially feels like misfortune becomes a golden opportunity.

    The best of fortunes to you in your search.


  8. It is also said that, “when the student is ready, the master will appear”.

    We continue to live in a consumerist culture. We spend much energy seeking a master, when it is the lesson that is important. We constantly look outside of ourselves for people, technology, etc., to solve our problems.

    Perhaps once in a while we should look inwards, and realise we are stronger, more intelligent, and more capable than we give ourselves credit for. It is when the student realises that he has everything he needs to overcome life’s problems, that he becomes the master. He no longer tries, he does.


  9. Alexandra says:

    I was thinking at the same thing that morning,and you write that on your blog today.Sometimes seem you read my mind….
    I think we have some common features,my dear Paulo.I was thinking about the manipulators,and that is really impossible to give a solution that fit each person on every situation.We are unique.Nobody knows how we are inside.So,now I repeat your words,we have only some helping tools ,but we must find alone the greatest part of “the hidden treasure”.

  10. THELMA says:

    I have never dreamt of being anybody’s master/mentor/teacher! I do not like the word master!! It reminds me of … slaves! We are free and all equal with the divine spark inside us. Our real guide is our inner self. Sometimes we feel lonely and we seek assurance that we are in the right way. Then at the right moment the right quidance comes. Sometimes we may have it in the physical planes, from another soul who is ‘wiser’, but usually the lessons are received from the universe, from higher planes, holy beings and the Light. We are never alone.

  11. Savita Vega says:

    This leads me to recall my time at the Ashram, of which I was once a member…. I know I’ve talked about this before – hope that the repetition is not boring – but my tendency to mention it repeatedly is only because the six years I spent there represents a formative step in my spiritual development. The experiences and teachings of that period were, and still are, a very significant element of my journey.

    At any rate, for all that the Ashram and my Guru had to offer me, there came a day when I knew that it was time for me to leave. I had no idea what came next, but I knew that it was time to move on. Now a funny thing happens in such a situation, and I feel certain that my experience was not unique. A dear friend of mine also left from the Ashram, about a year before I did, and a similar phenomenon surrounded her departure: As soon as I announced that I was leaving, moving on to someplace else, everyone that I knew in the Ashram, all of my former comrades, quickly split into two camps – those who were supportive of my decision, and those who were highly critical. Because I had heard everything that was said when my friend left – witnessed many of the conversations that went on behind her back – I quickly caught on to the whirlwind of responses surrounding my own decision to depart.

    Some people held that this was a good thing, a natural development – that I should some day leave my guru and move on. Still others held that this decision to leave must denote a “spiritual failing” on my part – in other words, I had somehow “fallen from the grace” of the spiritual path and was now being sucked out into the evil darkness of the material world. I can only assume that such arguments occur in many diverse environments – when some member decides to leave a particular church, for example. The nature of the spiritual group or organization does not matter. There is the tendency of those who remain to split into two camps – those supportive of the individual departing, assuming that this person has to move on in order to discover their own path, in order to continue to grow spiritually; and those who declare that such a departure is representative of a “falling away” from the “one true path.”

    This split in opinion among those who remain in the group, I think, reveals the devision between those who are “true seekers” and those who are merely fundamentalists. The True Seeker understands that there is a time to move on, that each must inevitably find their own path, and that each individual must decide for themselves when it is time to move beyond the teachings of a certain religion or a certain guru. The True Seeker supports and is happy for others when they move on. The fundamentalist, on the other hand, sees only one belief system, only one path, only one guru or one religion as the one right way. Thus they label anyone who departs from this one path as “fallen.” They do not understand that there are indeed multiple paths, all leading to the Divine. Likewise, they do not understand that the True Seeker can never be a coward, simply clinging to some pre-established path or pre-defined order. The True Seeker must be brave enough to set out on their own when the time comes – willing to move beyond the known into the unknown, and beyond. The fundamentalist is closed and fearful, believing that anything that lies outside this tightly defined circle – this one religion or one path – is “evil” and to be avoided at all costs. The fundamentalist stands frozen in fear. The True Seeker steps out into the unknown, driven by the desire to know ever more of the Divine.

    Thank you!
    Savita Vega

  12. Heart says:

    A true spiritual director asks God what His plan is for this person. So many times we saw great saints suffering under directors who didn’t understand what great spiritual gifts a person had. Even saints needed guidance and support, and probably couldn’t fulfill their task, without this misguidance? A master should listen much more than teach, to find the uniqueness of each individual’s talents.

  13. Uku says:

    Correction: Gakudo Yojin-shu is not an essay from Shobogenzo, it’s a individual collection of guidelines and it’s a companion to Fukan-zazengi, another individual writing about practicing Zazen.

    Sorry ’bout my misleading writings.

    With palms together,

  14. Uku says:

    Great post and quote, thank you Paulo.

    That just remind me of what Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), a Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher wrote in Shobogenzo, essay Gakudo Yojin-shu (“Guidelines for Studying the Way”):

    “A teacher of old said, ‘If the beginning is not right, myriad practices will be useless.’

    How true these words are! Practice of the way depends on whether the guiding master is a true teacher or not.

    The disciple is like wood, and the teacher resembles a craftsman. Even if the wood is good, without a skilled craftsman its extraordinary beauty is not revealed. Even if the wood is bent, placed in skilled hands its splendid merits immediately appear.”
    – Dogen Zenji

  15. Lewis says:

    Dear Paulo,

    I agree that a true teacher always shows the many paths for his/her pupil. But whenever I try to teach someone something, there is always this feeling that wants to show off and dominate the other person. And I don’t know what to do about it. Is there something I can do to turn myself from a manipulator to a friend?


  16. masher says:

    hi all
    yes we never stop learning and pride definetly obscures us all at times.intention ,striving for good intention is a must ,we will always come across manipulation and even though we find it hard to admit we will sometimes manipulate.keeping our intentions in check and really listening to our inner voice and reasonong with ourselves wiil lead us on an honest path through our lives. maturity hopefully dwindles pride but i do feel by hurting others we hurt ourselves.we all have our own path but i do think our egos our very similar and fragile,x

  17. Finding the right master or mentor remains a difficulty in the contemporary world, just as it was in the days of the samurais. The mentor that will not make choices in order to change the pupil’s destiny, but will actually motivate the disciple towards finding his own inner resources that will generate the changes… that is the mentor one should be looking for.