While this blog is about my take on classical martial arts, permit me a story about photography which, I promise, has implications for the subject of budo.
I recently attended a lecture given by a famous professional photographer. Over the years, at computer graphics conferences, I had always made it a point to attend his lectures and workshops. I’ve been at his feet, metaphorically speaking, for some 12 years, having listened to his presentations at least five to six times, as near as I can count. To me, his technical understanding, his ability to explain his vision and his craft, are without peer. At the end of any of his talks, my notebook is full of little nuggets of knowledge: Photoshop Layer techniques over a photograph, using the Histogram, rendering to grayscale using color curves, using light and focus for composition…
As far as the art, science and craft of digital photography, I thought he was a true master. He was also funny, acerbic, witty and could ad lib jokes that kept the audience in stitches. I learned as much from him about public presentations as I did about digital photography. Yet, I thought he had flaws. Huge ones. He was certainly helpful when people had questions, and never lost his temper. But I sensed a tremendous ego. Like all artists (and, my wife says the same about me), he had a huge amount of self-centeredness, all the better in order to focus on himself and his art, I suppose. But in some ways, it made his edges seem somewhat jerky. There was a part of him that seemed an act, a theatrical performance, and not something heartfelt.
Nevertheless, I kept on attending his lectures whenever I could. He was that good.
Recently, he came to Honolulu to give a lecture and series of workshops. I encouraged one of my best photo students to go to his public lecture because I felt he would really inspire her and help her technical growth, and I had made his book mandatory reading for her. We both went to the evening lecture, got there early, and sat in the front row. I had warned her. “The guy is one of the best technical masters of digital photography, in my opinion,” I said. “But I gotta warn you. He comes off as a bit of an asshole.”
Nevertheless, when we sat down and I got a look at him as he talked with the organizers of the lecture, I sensed something different about him. After 12 years, he had aged. Yes. Physical appearances do change. He looked older, with more hair on his chin than on the top of his head. Yet, there was something else that had changed in his demeanor and whole spirit.
He strode up to the centered podium and fiddled around, making small talk with the audience before the start of the lecture. My student took the time to ask him to autograph her copy of his book. He did it with gracious good humor, and a touch of sarcasm directed only towards himself.
Then the lecture started, and I was, again, intensely scribbling notes about his technical concepts and conceptual theories, page after page. He had the same incredible range of knowledge, expanded even more over the years, he had the same jokes, easy repartee, and brimming self-confidence. Yet, there was something else I hadn’t seen before…a warmth to him? He projected image after image to demonstrate particular methods. All wonderfully shot photos, as usual. At the end, though, things changed. He offered to show a couple of slide shows of his work, with little monologue, just to show the sum total of his technical and artistic theories to date.
And then he prefaced the slide shows with a story. One of his most recent freelance jobs had been to photograph a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who had just been released from years of detention by the military junta that ruled her country. The experience humbled him. He had been used to shooting famous celebrities and movie stars, actors and fashion models. He wrote to her, citing his resume, and at first she turned him down. “I am not a movie star or model,” she wrote bluntly. It floored him. Who WOULDN’T want to be famous for fame’s sake?” he must have thought. He kept at it, sending more requests, until finally he received a tentative positive reply, and a cryptic requirement: He had to “do right.”
In the country, he saw poverty, suffering, and a nation that seemed to be facing a new burst of freedom and democracy for the first time. He encountered people with few material possessions who seemed happy and content to share their laughter and friendship with him. Then he met the laureate. He had to talk through an interpreter because, while she knew English perfectly well, the junta still ordered that she not talk directly to any foreign correspondent or photographer. So the communication on the first visit was roundabout.
Yet, he did communicate. And he asked this and that, and always said, “Please,” and “Thank you,” trying to act humble. He asked the laureate, as a “by the way,” how one would say thank you in her native language. The reply stunned him. She said, through three people, “In our language, we do not have words for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ unless you are asking or doing something that requires extraordinary effort, beyond the pale. In our everyday life, we do everything with thanks and mindfulness, so we do not need to say it. We do it.”
The words must have struck him like a bolt of lightning. He had tried to act humble, but he realized he was still acting. It dawned on him that “do right” meant that words are one thing, but actually doing actions in the right manner (as in the Buddhist Eightfold Path of “Right Action”), was different from just ACTING or talking the right way. And to do right, his mind had to think right.
The revelation churned in his head for days, perhaps months. Now, he said, he was going back to that Third World country for a follow-up shoot. But also, he was planning a photo book about the country and its people, and he didn’t know how but eventually, he wanted all the profit from the book to go towards building a school for that country’s children. Somehow, some way, he was going to do it, because he wanted to do one right thing in his life, something outside of his own life, for others. Rather than just harvesting images of other people and creating beautiful pieces that showed how good he was, he wanted his photographs to touch people’s hearts. Because, he said, isn’t that what sharing photographs should be all about?
And at the end, he used the Hawaiian word for thank you, “Mahalo,” that he was taught by my Native Hawaiian student. And it sounded like he meant it.
My student, her husband and I walked to our cars together. In the parking lot, she said she was blown away by the presentation. The photographer, she said, was “like a Zen master of photography.” In reply, I said I had never felt that level of humanity and greatness in him before. He was always a master technician and artist. But now…he was something more. By believing in something outside of his own self-centered career, he was like…a sensei.
I say this because in any endeavor, in any field, you have those before you who have technical and artistic skills. In the budo, you have teachers who may have the greatest knowledge and technical ability. Couple that with teaching ability and you have incomparable mastery of martial arts…at one level. There is more than enough that you can learn from such teachers. But there is another level, and if the budo aspire to be more than just sports in white pajamas, or redundant ways to cause harm to others, then the other level of mastery is important to note. The budo should make of us better human beings. That is the promise and mystique of Asian martial arts, but all too often, it is woefully abused, overly mystified, or debased, even in the countries of their own origins.
One of my friends thinks that martial arts don’t necessarily make people better. It just brings out people’s inner personalities, so you can more clearly see whether they’re thugs, normal people, or extraordinary human beings. I tend to think that IF the budo are pursued as a shugyo, as a discipline that encompasses physical, mental and spiritual training, they DO offer a path to inner training, but only if the budo student seeks it. But then again, there will always be people who have different opinions about everything, including life, social relationships, work and creative endeavors. For some, budo or photography are nothing more than just ways to make money, or in the case of martial arts, to better beat up other people. For others, it can be a path of humanity.
In that way, I count myself lucky to have studied under several teachers who exemplified the best traits of a budo sensei, not just technically, but in their personalities and demeanor. They will always stand out as role models for me to emulate. Were they perfect? No one is perfect. They had personality flaws and human weaknesses, but given that, warts and all, they stood out as wonderful human beings. They were the ones who put aside their egos when teaching, and helped us students out, not to show off what they knew, not for more money from dues, not for fame or fortune, but because they truly wanted to help the students get better. They thought of us. And we could tell it wasn’t faked. Their concern for others were truly genuine. Like the photographer’s tale, the best sensei don’t have to act like good teachers. They ARE good teachers.