The loyalty of the master

Contrary to the thought of many, it is not the pupil who owes loyalty to the master, but the master to the pupil. As Taisen Deshimaru explains in his book The Zen Way to the Martial Arts, the original bujutsu (art of war) became budo (way of martial arts) after meeting Zen philosophy. With the transition from bujutsu to budo the martial arts ceased to be just fighting methods to become a path of physical, technical and spiritual growth imbued with ethical values. The adoption of Zen thought and practice expanded the horizon of martial arts so much that it tended to coincide with life itself, which is nothing other than a journey along the path of self-knowledge. It is precisely from the Zen tradition that this motto has come to us: “Do not follow in the footsteps of the wisemen. Search for what they looked for”.


This motto is not just an invitation addressed to the student, so that he could strive to find his own path and follow his path with his own footsteps. It is also an invitation to the teacher, to accompany the pupil to the junction where his own path and the pupil’s path separate. There, at that junction, where the paths are divided, the master will know that he has fulfilled his task, because there, where before there was just one branch, another has sprouted, which will make the crown of the tree even more thick and lush.

To burden his students with the weight of his own insecurities, calling loyalty what is instead a desire of possessiveness, is perhaps the worst service a teacher can render to himself. And although there is no doubt that the good student is the one who nourishes feelings of gratitude towards the teacher, it is equally certain that in order to truly be a good student he must necessarily remain faithful to his intention to learn and seek, as has been said, what the wisemen looked for.


As Seneca noted, few are happy with their destiny. Yet I am happy with mine, which has granted me the privilege of meeting so many masters. Of each I keep memories full of affection. Some of them still walk on their way, and when I’m particularly lucky, I happen to cross them again on mine. Then there are new ones, met at each successive junction, men and women who do their best to accompany me until the next bifurcation without weighing on me anything.

And to each of them I remain faithful and loyal in the only way in which a student can show faith and loyalty to his teachers: doing my best to honor, embody and bring to life what has been handed down to me by possibly enriching the content, making it evolve together with myself, just to be able to pass it down by leaving, if I will be worthy – and with a little luck, some footprints that should not to be followed. Without ever renouncing to question what I think I know, without hiding the truth about each of my shortcomings, starting all over again whenever necessary, even when I will be fed up and feel I no longer have the strength to restart.

And remaining above all faithful and loyal to my students, knowing that they are not and never will be mine, but making sure that as soon as possible they will understand that they are the true masters of themselves. Because, as another Zen motto reads, you can certainly bring the ox to the river, but only the ox can decide to drink. In the hope that one day this unquenchable thirst could come forth in them with the desire to start looking by themselves what the wisemen looked for.

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