I began my martial arts training in Ireland. I moved around to different schools until I found a good teacher, one who was skillful, but had humility and respect for his students. I loved the martial arts, and I am grateful to a fellow carpentry apprentice who introduced me to the arts when I was young. One of my brothers was in the martial arts too. I didn’t last in the school he was in.  I found the instructor to be egotistical and he didn’t treat people well. After moving to the United States in 1985 I again searched for a good school with a good teacher. I settled on the Butoku-Kai organization because the Sensei in the local Dojo was good person and the Butoku-Kai had as the leader of the organization a legend in the martial arts, Master Richard Kim. It was here that my training took off and accelerated. It wasn’t long until I was helping teach the lower ranks. As I progressed I took over teaching the Monday evening classes. 

There is a saying in the martial arts. The brown belt, the stage just before black belt, is the arrogant and ignorant stage. You are on the threshold of becoming a black belt and so you feel an air of accomplishment. Of course, this feeling is simply a lack of knowledge and understanding of the martial arts journey. I found this was true because I felt that way myself. I have seen this kind of arrogance in the black belt ranks, too. When I looked back I could clearly see my arrogance. I was teaching and so I felt superior to the students, superior to those of the same rank as myself and sometimes I felt superior to black belts of higher rank than I was, just because I was teaching. This arrogant feeling was great for my ego, but useless to me as a student of the martial arts. 

I was lucky to have had trained with really good teachers over the many years in martial arts. I learned incredible skills from these people but mostly what I learned were life lessons that would stay with me. I realized in time that the teacher has to be the humblest of students. It is the humility that brings about learning, and there is a realization that our students are our best teachers. The ranking system fell away for me. I didn’t care about rank; I was in search of knowledge and no paper certificate on a wall could replace that. I even passed up promotions to higher ranks so that my friend and I could test together. The rank meant nothing.

Rank means nothing in life either, although humans like to feel they are better than other humans. This is simply both arrogance and ignorance. It is no different than what a brown belt feels. Those who feel that way don’t know what the journey of life is. The rain falls on the weed and the rose without discrimination. This is how life is. It does not discriminate, people do. In my early years on the spiritual path my arrogance abounded. There was a point along the way when I was telling people I was enlightened. The absurdity of that statement became an embarrassment in later years.

My ignorance shone brightly one evening when I visited a local Buddhist monastery with a friend to attend a meditation class. The monastery had opened their doors with an invitation to attend for free. As we walked inside the thought I was having is that I know more than any monk in this place. We were brought into a large hall with the others who were attending, where monks were already sitting in quiet meditation. We sat in the room for about 45 minutes in quietude. Afterwards, we went to the dining area where we were served a light meal. We then all helped clean the dishes as this was part of the experience for the evening. Once we finished, we were brought to a smaller room where we sat again. This time a novice monk began teaching about meditation. I remember listening to him and thinking, this guy has no idea what meditation is, I have been meditating and so I know! When done he asked if we had any questions. I could not help myself. What is enlightenment!? I don’t remember what he said in response. It didn’t matter, my mind was made up that he knew nothing anyway. He is a novice monk; he has no experience. I was angry that the elder monk wasn’t the one teaching us. 

Because of this arrogance I had I missed out on a wonderful experience in a beautiful monastery. I had dismissed this young man who wanted nothing more than to teach something that might help us on our journey through life. We pay a high price when our cup overflows with ignorance. We miss the opportunity to know, to experience, to learn and to grow. These gifts of teaching that come to us from our students, friends, teachers, family, and strangers, are invaluable. When we don’t see that all beings are part of the universe and universe uses all beings, humans, and animals alike, to teach us the ways of life, our lives suffer as a result. We are told that ignorance is bliss, no, ignorance is the seat of great pain and suffering all over this world. Bliss is the result of the knowledge of life. 

I have learned to stay humble, to say, I know nothing, A lesson the legendary Master Richard Kim taught us. He would remind us that the beginner’s mind is a mind that is open to knowing. Arrogance is the student’s enemy, and ignorance is the result. I have learned to listen to life rather than tell life anything. This has opened doors I never thought existed. I have forgotten this lesson at times in my life when I am down, yet when I return to its wisdom, my life is always better as a result. I am grateful to my teachers, all of them, from the legendary to the ordinary. Each one a gift.

Ed Williamson