The bokken hummed and whirred as Masae moved around the mat, slicing and cutting her way through the kata with far more fervour than was strictly required. In the midst of the form, her bokken cracked into another, throwing her off balance both from the unexpected sound and the sudden resistance.
She stared up for a moment at the calm face of Sensei Hitoshi, then hurriedly bowed. “Sorry Sensei. Did I… Did I disturb your meditation?” The old man acknowledged the bow and moved back across the mat, but didn’t return to his usual seat. “Your disturbance disturbed me, young Masae. Something is troubling you and interfering with your focus.”
He gestured for her to begin again, holding his own bokken behind his back. He watched silently as Masae went through the opening steps of the kata, then he sighed. Usually, his pupil could put aside the knowledge that he was watching, and moved fluidly and easily between the stances and strikes. Now, there was a jerky element, a hesitation he hadn’t seen for a long time. He stepped in, smoothly tripping his student as she transitioned between stances.
As she staggered, he swatted her across the backside with the flat of his practice sword. She straightened, flushing red, and resumed her work. He barked at her, “Focus!” Surprisingly, she flinched. He watched a few more half hearted steps and strikes, before raising his hand. “Yame.”
Masae halted at once, taking a moment to properly place her bokken at her side before bowing, shamefaced, to her sensei. He sighed again, looking at her with sleepy eyes as she kept her own downcast. “You are working far below your usual standard. This will not be a productive evening if you do not settle your mind. Come. Store your weapon, and we will take tea.” He was unusually gentle, knowing his student well enough to recognise that something more serious than a difficult homework assignment plagued her.
Off the mat, the master went through the careful steps of preparing tea. An informal occasion still required some effort, but it allowed Masae time to settle to a futon and begin to fidget. He poured, still saying nothing, knowing the silence would draw out the words like a poultice drawing poison.
Taking up the waiting tea bowl, Masae cradled it for a few moments, trying to find a place to start. She looked up to see Hitoshi fussing with the tea set, carefully paying her no attention. " Gomen’nasai sensei. I have been worrying about… a friend." He said nothing, taking a careful sip of tea. Sleepy eyes regarded Masae. “She is… in training, and her teacher is…” She frowned, caught between respect for an elder and anger at that respectable person’s methods of instruction. “Her teacher is being… very firm, in her punishments. I don’t like that my friend is being disciplined so harshly, but I’m a child, and it’s not my place to instruct a teacher.”
“Can your friend not find a different subject to master? This does not sound like a matter which has come from school.” He sipped again as Masae searched for a reply. “No, sensei. She loves being… a student, of this subject.” She bit at her lip, taking a mouthful of tea to drown the slip of the tongue. Hitoshi allowed the silence to stretch.
Masae blurted out “Even to teach the sword, you’re not as harsh as her teacher, sensei! When I’ve earned a bruise, it’s a sign of a fatal mistake, not having a hair out of place!” Having begun, she couldn’t rein in her frustration. Tiny little mistakes, that you would mention only after I had finished a kata, earn her a strike from a cane. She doesn’t complain, but I could see the bruises. They were not the kind of bruises the… She should have to carry. It’s not fair!"
She gulped down tea, face burning. Hitoshi continued to sip, calmly. When she was a little recovered, the old man spoke again, quietly. “It is not always easy to determine the true path. But there are some things which we can steer by. There is the heart, a powerful drive in all of us. But emotions alone can lead us deeper into trouble. There is the mind, which can analyse and provide a cold way forward. But that can lead to trouble, when others will be harmed as a consequence. There is duty, or role, but these things can tie our hands and leave us unable to act at all.”
Masae looked confused, her tea bowl resting in her lap. Hitoshi smiled, shrugging off any embarrassment he might have felt. “Forgive an old man his philosophy. That can wait for another, rainier afternoon. You must consider whether the punishments you will receive for intervening outweigh those suffered by your friend if you do not. Discover your true path in this. When you have decided what you must do, do it. Move past second guesses. Accept the consequences in the knowledge that you have acted as you, Mitsuya Masae, must act to be true to yourself.”
She didn’t look puzzled, now. Her head was sunk in thought. Quietly, Hitoshi abandoned his empty tea bowl and moved back out onto the expanse of the mat. Fluidly, he moved into the stances of the kata Masae had been struggling through earlier. After a little while, He saw the young lady appear beside him, stepping into the drill with a much more familiar confidence. He smiled, but said nothing. He would wait to see what his student’s true self would do.