‘Polish One Sword’

The Buddhist philosopher and educator Daisaku Ikeda quotes the Japanese proverb: “Polish one sword for ten years” to explain the process of mastery. In other words, it is the single-minded cultivation of one’s abilities that will eventually lead to the path of mastery. Without doubt the process of mastery requires a high degree of patience. Indeed, patience in itself, is a great challenge for many albeit it very often holds the key to breaking through a particular impasse in development. Consequently, for those of an impatient disposition it should also be remembered that something which is hastily constructed or achieved holds no foundation and can be quickly undermined within a demanding environment.

In the early stages of developing any skill, comparison with other practitioners is a mistake. It is more important to win the battle with oneself on a daily basis by possessing the developmental mindset to strive to be better today than yesterday, and moreover, better tomorrow than today. It is this form of approach that aids to describe the endless process of effort to achieve mastery.

‘Green Boots.’

But every attempt to reach any pinnacle of achievement brings its own dangers. It is with this in mind one should consider the story of ‘Green Boots’. ‘Green Boots’ is believed to be the frozen body of the Indian mountaineer Tsewang Paljor. On the day of his death Paljor was wearing green Koflach boots as he, and two others climbers in his party attempted to reach the North face of Everest.

In May, 1996, Subedar Tsewang Samanla, Dorje Morup and Tsewang Paljor were caught in a blizzard, just short of the summit. While three of the six-member team turned back down, Samanla, Morup, and Paljor decided to continue on towards the summit after entering the “death zone” at 8500 metres above sea-level. All three failed to survive.

The first recorded video footage of ‘Green Boots’ was filmed in 2001 by French climber Pierre Paperon. In the video, ‘Green Boots’ is shown lying on his right side, facing away from the summit. The dead climber, which all mountaineers must pass on their attempts to reach the summit of Everest is a stark reminder of the dangers any quest for mastery may bring with it.

This grisly account highlights that any path towards excellence is fraught with numerous dangers. Such dangers, as was the case of ‘Green Boot’s’ may not be life-threatening. However, they may also bring a number of sacrifices which could affect the individual. Whilst some individuals are willing to pay the potentially high price for realising their dreams; others, such as the three other mountaineers of Paljor’s group who turned back from the summit were rewarded with their lives as recompense for not achieving their goals.

This leads to the obvious question: how important is mastery for the individual? And, is the individual willing to accept the consequences of their single-mindedness in their quest towards excellence regardless of what these sacrifices may be, or in which areas of their lives these may occur or impact upon?

It is with this in mind, and, after due deliberation of the potential consequences that one can finally consider some of the factors which may lead to the attainment of mastery.

The Five Keys to Mastery

Along with co-founder Michael Murphy, author of one of sport’s most metaphysical pieces ‘Golf in the Kingdom’ featuring the enigmatic Shivas Irons, the renowned writer and thinker George Leonard could explore the factors influencing mastery and the fulfilment of human potential.

Indeed, it is owing to Leonard’s position as principle lecturer and President Emeritus of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, to write many articles and books focussing upon alternative education and philosophies. Amongst others, these include ‘The Ultimate Athlete,’ ‘The Way of Aikido’ and ‘The Life We Are Given’. These seminal works have become standard points of reference for athletes, academics and artists alike in search of enlightenment outside of mainstream academia, philosophy and psychology.

In his position as President Emeritus of the Esalen Institute within its dramatic grounds overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Leonard considered the theme of mastery and the keys to success and human fulfilment. He consequently considered the development of mastery possible via the realisation of a number of interacting factors namely; instruction, practice, surrender, intentionality and experience.


Instruction at the highest level is a key component on the journey towards mastery. The search for the correct coach comes by initially considering their credentials. This may include considering what coaching ‘lineage’ the instructor possesses? Ask questions such as who was their teacher, coach or mentor? Trace the coaches influences and consider if these proved to be successful over a period of time.

That said, one should not be oblivious to other considerations. Instruction demands humility by both the coach and the coached. Consider the interaction between the athlete and the instructor. Would their overarching style of instruction be appropriate for you as an athlete and as a person? Whilst knowledge, expertise, technical skill and credentials are important, but without patience and empathy such merits mean very little.


Practice should not be perceived as a verb but rather as a noun. For all too many, practice is an activity leading to learn a skill, achieve specific goals, and finally, on a more mercenary basis, make money. However, for those few on the path towards mastery, practice is not a thing that the athlete has to do but rather something the athlete ‘has’ or possesses. Therefore, like a doctor that practices medicine, practice can be defined as an activity that becomes an integral part of the individual’s life.

Similar to the martial arts master, the rationale for practice within a discipline is not one of attempting to improve in order to accrue extrinsic rewards. Indeed, many individuals who go on to achieve excellence do not undertake practice as an activity to heighten proficiency. Rather, the true master practices for the intrinsic pleasures of the activity itself. It is through the pleasure of the activity of practice and the associated increase in proficiency that leads to a further intensification of the level of gratification derived from the discipline itself.

Surrender By surrendering to the coach and the discipline itself by forsaking ones ego and current level of proficiency, a higher level of proficiency can be eventually achieved. This is particularly important when the individual remains at a familiar level of expertise for a considerable period of time. Within any learning environment it is almost inevitable that the student will be ill at ease, uncoordinated and somewhat confused when change via surrender is required. However, it is always important for the master to remember that there are no experts. There are only learners. It is by ignoring the protestations of our ego that is possible to continue the journey towards mastery.


Intentionality synthesises words such as character, willpower, attitude in addition to imagery to provide the single-minded drive along the path towards mastery. Whilst the term intentionality refers to the ability of the mind to form representations of actions it should not be confused with intention.

As with the artist, athlete or indeed, any other individual attempting to achieve excellence, there comes a point where improvement is incremental, and, at best negligible. At this juncture when tangible, physical refinement is almost impossible to achieve, the mind becomes the area in which the greatest gains can be attained.

According to Jack Nicklaus, the golf professional who has won more ‘major’ titles than any other person in history, the mental aspect of any activity is critical. For Nicklaus, a successful stroke comprised of 50% visualisation, 40% set-up and only 10% swing. In a similar vein, the visualisation of success and the development of mental toughness through mental rehearsal is critical in the attainment of mastery critical.

Intentionality fuels the master’s journey. Every master is a master of vision.


Undoubtedly any master is thoroughly dedicated to their discipline. This is reflected in the manner they practice, apply and dedicate themselves to their vocation. However, in their pursuit for mastery these individuals are also not afraid to explore other methods or techniques deemed to be unorthodox. It is only by challenging conventional wisdom that, upon occasions, progress can be made.

One such person who explored the possibilities of technique was the Olympian Dick Fosbury. As Fosbury began his career as a high jumper the dominant technique within the discipline was the ‘straddle’ where an athlete went over the high jump bar facing down lifting their legs individually over the bar. Fosbury found this method too difficult to coordinate and began to experiment with other techniques that could also lead to success.

Although Fosbury was once titled “the world’s laziest high jumper” his technique helped revolutionise the high jump. Indeed, his willingness to explore other possibilities eventually led to Fosbury taking the gold medal and setting a new Olympic record during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. After that, and despite the initial sceptical reactions from the high jumping community, the ‘Fosbury Flop’ quickly gained acceptance and is predominantly favoured by athletes competing within the discipline. Dick Fosbury is now considered one of the most influential athletes in track and field history.

It was Fosbury’s exploration of other possibilities and willingness to search for alternative solutions to a particular challenge that eventually provided him with the breakthrough to mastery.

The Future and the Fool

The question is what does the future hold for you as an athlete, artist, businessperson or individual? How does one continue to learn? Can one ‘master’ an activity or is it possible to continue to learn, and by doing so improve one’s prowess even further? The answer to this question is yes. How? By remaining receptive to new ideas and concepts and upon occasions, demonstrating a willingness to be a ‘fool’ empty and lacking of ‘knowledge’. It is this theme of emptiness, absent of prejudice or preconceived notions is a necessary condition to significant learning upon the path towards excellence.

The importance of emptiness can be exemplified through the tale of the Zen master who receives a man of great knowledge. When the man asks the Zen master how he can become wiser still, the master simply pours tea into the wise man’s cup until it runs over. By doing so he let the wise man know, without the need of words, that if one’s cup is already full there is no capacity for new content or different forms of knowledge. Quite simply, one must be willing to relinquish certain types of ‘knowledge’ and, perhaps at times appear foolish, in order to refill the cup of knowledge with new perspectives and insights.

And whilst progress towards excellence can be made, can true mastery ever be truly achieved? The answer to this question can only be answered by the individual themselves. However, by sheer definition, the endless process of improvement towards mastery and perfection is ceaseless. It is those who are most willing to remain focussed upon this Sisyphus-like task that will eventually be perceived as masters of their art.

When Jogor Kano, the founder of Judo, was close to death, he gathered his students around him and told them he wanted to be buried with a white belt; the sign of the beginner. By doing so, Kano the master, even at the highest level of renown and accomplishment, maintained the image of an eager student, willing to play ‘the fool’ hungry in his quest for alternative insights or forms of knowledge. Therefore, for all who wish to walk the path towards mastery, Kano’s final request transforms itself into the ultimate question:

Are you willing to wear the white belt?