The swelling bulged out of the back of my hand in a symmetrical hemisphere, like a golf ball under the skin. I recognized it as a hematoma. It was a late summer day in 1986. I was twenty-two. I had practiced traditional Japanese karate for six years—time enough for an education in how the body bruises, balloons, and breaks. But it was my first day in this dojo, the Japan Karate Association of New York, on the fourth floor above the Fairway Supermarket on Seventy-Fourth Street and Broadway. After class I went to the instructor and asked if he had any chemical cold packs.
His name was Masataka Mori—Mori Sensei to his students, then a hachidan, or eighth-degree black belt. A little shorter than my own 5' 8 ", he was a Japanese native with a square jaw, brief nose with flaring nostrils, and close-cut black hair. His limbs seemed disproportionately short for his torso, and he rolled up the cuffs of his do gi (or keiko gi), his crisp white cotton uniform. In the dojo his glare alternated between two states best described as partially unsheathed and dismembering. In contemporary photos he looks remarkably young to me, though he was two months short of fifty-four, my age as I write this.
He ignored my request and snatched up my fist in his left palm. He studied it briefly, raised his other hand, and smashed down the swelling with the knuckles of his bent fingers. It was so unexpected that I just stood in shock as pain shrieked up my arm. A doctor later characterized his novel treatment as “further traumatizing the damaged blood vessels.” Mori Sensei dismissed me without explanation. I wandered away, baffled.
Thirty-two years later, on September 2, 2018, I received an e-mail from a friend in New York. Mori Sensei was “in grave condition,” he wrote. Old students were going to see him one last time. From my house in Berkeley, California, I reached out to his two daughters, Mayumi and Sayuri. They told me he was in home hospice. I feared I might be too late, that my visit would be a burden. I closed the door on my wife and two children, sat on my bed, and wept. I wept because he was a master—because he was my master.
That’s difficult for me to write. I’m not naturally a follower. I was the kid who argued with the teacher. I was fired more than once because I was a difficult employee. It shocked my wife to hear me answer a call from Mori Sensei, to adopt a deferential tone I took with no one else. I couldn’t explain it to her then. I have trouble explaining it to myself now.
What is a master? I’m sure many karateka, practitioners of karate, have an opinion. As with all esoterica, the martial arts produce know-it-alls. Many genuinely know more about karate than I and are better at it. Making the answer more difficult: it’s diverse, too, less a single art than a cluster, all descended from secretive Okinawan practices. Mine is Shotokan style, overseen by the Japan Karate Association, or JKA, a long-established institution headquartered in Tokyo. I have a godan, or fifth-degree black belt, as well as licenses as an instructor, rank examiner, and tournament judge. But I never studied in Japan, don’t speak the language, and have never given my full time to karate. I am not a master as surely as Mori Sensei was.
Our intuitive answer begins with mastery itself—that is, with superlative skill. When I first saw him, though, his abilities did not seem apparent to me. He did not move with the particular feline grace or shocking speed that distinguishes later graduates of the instructor course in Tokyo—though, of course, I never saw him when he was young. I thought his techniques looked old-fashioned, heavy and deep; after all, he began training at Takushoku University in 1950, a year after the founding of the JKA. Over time I glimpsed his power, his precise timing—how he could face a lunging assault by his fastest student and, with only a slight tap of the sole of his foot against the attacker's ankle, send him sprawling on the ground—yet I never thought, This is why I’m here.
My journey there began a thousand miles away. I grew up outside Foley, Minnesota, a town of just over sixteen hundred people in 1980, in farmland seventy miles north of Minneapolis. A high school music teacher with a second-degree black belt from the JKA taught karate twice a week in the gym at 6:30 in the morning. I started that fall at age sixteen. At first it was merely athletic moonlighting. That same year I earned a place on the varsity football and wrestling teams. Wrestling was the local sport; my career had begun in a summer grappling program after second grade, which I had joined under the impression that it was mandatory. But karate was unusual—and something I chose for myself.
I discovered that I enjoyed kihon, the basic techniques: the deep stances and precisely defined strikes, kicks, and blocks. I practiced the simple drills of beginner-level kumite, or sparring. I learned the first kata, formal exercises that each have a name and particular style, performed alone as if fighting multiple attackers. Learning traditional karate is like learning a language; kihon, kumite, and kata are the vocabulary, conversation, and classical literature. As with a language, the pleasure of learning long precedes fluency.
When I went to Carleton College in the fall of 1982, I abandoned my other sports to concentrate on karate. I practiced whenever I could—with the college club, on my own, and at a dojo in Minneapolis. In my senior year I earned my shodan, or first-degree black belt. The great end-of-college question—Now what?—also applied to my martial art. Northwestern and Columbia both offered me graduate fellowships in history, presenting a choice of dojo as well, an inflection point that might bend my path toward something I wanted but had never quite gotten.
I was raised in fundamentalism. That overpacked word bulges with meaning and experiences and intense, even totalitarian beliefs. My family attended a small Presbyterian church, a denomination not known for extremism. But each congregation hires its own minister, and ours spoke in tongues and prophesied the Antichrist’s imminent return. Each summer I attended a Bible camp where ministers described encounters with demonic possession and told anecdotes of teenagers who sold their souls to Satan. They populated the night with evil spirits who hovered and whispered and struck at any weakness. My own mind, I gathered, was my enemy.
But my intellect rebelled. Bookish and inquisitive, ill at ease in a place I saw as isolated and homogeneous, I defined myself by independence of thought. I felt the constraints of my religion. After I started to practice karate in high school, I grew curious about its cultural and philosophical context. I read Karate-Do: My Way of Life, the autobiography of Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan. He described how he chose to write karate with characters that changed its meaning from “Chinese hand” to “empty hand.” The old name referred to its ancient roots; the new one invoked the Buddhist notion of emptiness—a state devoid of vanity and distraction, relaxed, aware, and free. The goal, he wrote, was to perfect one’s character. Thus, he called his art karate-do—“do” meaning “way”—implying a spiritual as well as physical discipline.