The Iaido Journal  Aug 2005
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Losses, Lineage and Lessons

copyright © 2005 EJMAS, all rights reserved
by Kim Taylor

It's June 20, 2005 and I've lost too many fathers, teachers and colleagues lately.

One of the sayings of the martial arts (and enlightenment practice) is "practice as if your hair is on fire" or as I'm fond of saying "you could be hit by a bus tomorrow". For the last 20 or 30 years I've been living as if this might be my last day on earth.

It is stressful. It gives one the idea that you have to finish everything now, today, which makes it sort of hard to enjoy life, and those around you, in the rush to accomplish all that you need to accomplish. It's been years since I've just sat around with a sci fi book and wasted a day reading.

And then you die.

My father died at somewhere around 51, he was the oldest male in his line to that date. I just turned 49.

My stepfather the letter carrier died not too long ago, for several years he'd been thinking of retiring, he was working for very little, compared to what he would have been making retired... a couple of dollars a day. He died of a massive heart attack with letters in his hand, on someone's lawn.

Haruna sensei, Kanai sensei, both teachers and teachers of teachers of mine, both have died in the last couple of years.

A few weeks ago I discovered that my first sensei had died after a battle with A.L.S. Peter Yodzis had been in a wheelchair for 4 years and I didn't know, I'd lost touch. He started the aikido club at Guelph and I was at the very first seminar. I've been in the martial arts ever since. One day soon I hope to be able to write Peter's obituary for EJMAS but I still can't do it.

And I just found out that Bill Mears died this morning from a heart attack. Bill was one of the pioneers of iaido in Ontario, in Eastern Canada, and in a chunk of the USA. He was my age... hell he was one of my brothers, one of the two guys around that made my mother do double takes when she saw him, to make sure it wasn't me she had just walked past. Tall, bald, and a certain way of moving. There's another obituary I won't be able to write for a while. A long while, but read this:

Fathers, mentors, colleagues and friends. A lot of lines seem to be coming down to me lately. A lot of lineage with me popping up to the top of the list.

What does it mean to be the "top"? What does it mean to be the "head of the line"? It seems a lot of people want to be there, want to have that authority, that legitimacy of being "the guy who is the inheritor".

Have I a lesson for you? Yes and I hope you're paying attention. You want to be the top dog, the head, the soke? You're a fool. At the top of the pile is a long chain of responsibility on one side, and on the other is a big, gaping, empty hole. Nobody who knows you is still around, everyone who could teach you something is gone, and everyone else is looking at you as if you have some sort of answer for them.

And only a fool thinks they actually have an answer... beyond simply carrying on as you've been doing for the last 20 years.

Being "on top" means that you've won the tontine, not the lottery. Look it up.

So what can I advise? Well I know of one martial arts group that is waiting on a teacher to die so they can claim they were named soke. I know another group that has disowned their soke and have taken the term on themselves. I know lots and lots of  folks who jump organizations to become bigger fish in smaller ponds. Hell I know people who make up meetings with imaginary "masters" who impart special knowledge of extinct koryu. All fools, all ego. All people who need to get a life because too much of their self-image is made up of being a big cheese at what is, ultimately, a silly hobby.

Think about what it is you're working on so hard, what it is you're so desparate to accomplish, to the possible detriment of your family, your friends, your own life. If you're working on being a better human being, the cost may be worth it. If you're doing it to become a big fish, even in a big pond, you're a fool. Not one of those martial arts instructors listed up there gave a rat's rear end about titles and honours and anything else that didn't involve being in the dojo practicing or laughing over a beer afterward.

The closer I get to extinction from this life, (and I really do hope I live to see my kids, kids, kids) the more I realize that we don't need either Gods or lawyers to be good people. We simply need to realize that we'll die one day and understand that the only thing that makes sense is to be kind to strangers, to indulge our kids and to forgive everyone who we ever thought treated us bad. Anything else is just a waste of our time.

Now if you have to neglect the family to get to the dojo to get to that point... well so be it. It's what kept my teachers in the dojo, and what keeps me there.

In other words, what I've learned from losing so many masters and mentors is that the martial arts is about being a better person, not being the guy who's left. If you're not practicing to become a better person, if you practice because you want to become a "big cheese", you're wasting your life. Quit, go spend some time with your kids.

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TIN Aug 2005