A long time ago there was a master who lived in a quiet village. He spent his days carefully tending to his garden and livestock. After years of collecting spare wood and materials from his fellow villagers the master built a small dojo on the edge of town. The roof was a little lower than he wanted and the walls more porous, allowing wisps of air to pass through cracks where salvaged boards refused to lay flush. Despite the creaks in the floorboards and the rain trickling through the thatch the old man loved his dojo and was happy to train there.
The master’s activities became known throughout the village, warranting a glance and a smile whenever passersby heard a steady thumping of fist hitting straw-wrapped wood. Three young men, intrigued by stories and rumors of the old man, joined in training and returned faithfully every week to listen and learn.
A few years went by in this way, both students and teacher happily progressing in their studies. One day, the three students got together and hatched a clever plan. It was the master’s 77th birthday in just a few days and there could be no better time to express their appreciation for all his efforts. They decided, one at a time, to inform the master that they could not attend training that week. Then, when the dojo was empty, they would sneak in and decorate the place with paper lanterns, streamers, and gifts.
The next day the first student visited his teacher while he was home in his garden. Bowing apologetically, the student said, “Sensei I’m sorry but I have a childhood friend coming to visit me this week. I will not be able to train.” The master replied, “friends are important – especially long held ones. Enjoy your time together.”
Later that day the second student arrived to find the master still at work in his garden. He bowed briskly and said, “Master I am sorry but I cannot train this week. My uncle needs my assistance on his fishing boat.” Nodding, the master replied, “fishing is important to the health of our village. I wish you a good catch.”
That evening the final student visited the master at his home where he was sipping tea. The young man bowed slowly and said, “Sensei my employer needs me this week to help organize his wares. I’m afraid I cannot train.” The master looked up from his cup and said, “we must honor our duties as much as our training. I will see you next week.”
Shortly after, the three students got together and celebrated their craftiness. The following evening they would sneak into the dojo, decorate it, and sneak out with the master being none-the-wiser.
The next day they bided their time anxiously waiting for dusk to fall. It was then that they snuck to the edge of town, gifts and streamers in hand. Oddly, as they approached the dojo they heard a thumping noise. It sounded like a fist hitting wood, but that didn’t make sense since there was no class. Peeking in, they saw the master steadily striking the board, a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead onto his weathered cloth gi. They quickly ducked down.
“What is happening? Did someone forget the plan?” they asked each other.
Suddenly they heard an old voice, “Hello? Is someone there?”
Slowly they walked over to the door and sheepishly appeared before their teacher.
“Well now,” the old man said, “I thought you each had duties to attend to!”
“We did,” the first student replied. “But I’m afraid we deceived you. Our duty was to decorate the dojo tonight in celebration of your birthday! We apologize for the deception, but why Sensei are you here tonight? We all visited you and explained we couldn’t train.”
“I see,” said the master. “Well your deception caused no harm so think nothing of it. However, I must tell you, you forgot about my fourth student.”
The three young men looked at each. “Fourth student Sensei?”
“Yes indeed,” he replied. “The one I’ve carried with me since the first day I stepped into my own teacher’s dojo.”
Understanding, the students asked, “but Sensei what can you learn alone? Who can teach you here in this place?”
Looking around thoughtfully the master replied, “why the dojo itself! These walls and this floor. My kata. My board wrapped in straw. Every tool I need to learn is waiting for me here if I have the strength to become a student again and learn.”
The students nodded, then began to laugh as they realized how foolish it was to think that the master would slack just because they weren’t around. Apologizing once again, the students cheerfully began hanging streamers and lanterns, celebrating the master’s birthday and the unexpected lesson that night.