[ Adventures ]
The Karate Kid
“Have you ever seen The Karate Kid?”
I’m asking The Numbrist for yet another poker lesson, and yet again he is refusing me. He tries to explain that my reviewing his notes as part of the preparation for writing his book is the best poker education I could receive right now. He reminds me of our previous conversation, back at the World Series, where he offered me the choice between learning a system and mastering a form. He points out that mastery of a form takes time, that—and as a writer, I’m supposed to know this—it can’t be rushed. He even acknowledges that nothing much seems to be happening in my poker progress right now—since the Series, I’ve played a bit online but put more energy into reviewing the Numbrist’s notes and writing my own poker articles. He assures me, though, that if there were anything else I could possibly do, he would be telling me to do it.
Finally he just smiles. “Have you ever seen The Karate Kid?”
“No. . . ”
“Well, that’s something you can do. Watch that. Then everything will be clear.”
So the next time I have a free 127 minutes, I put The Karate Kid into my Netflix “Watch Instantly” queue and settle in for a feel-good evening with Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi. I watch the ancient master give the young novice a little bonsai tree to shape and trim as he sees fit.
“How will I know when it’s right?” the kid asks.
The master smiles. “Look inside yourself. You will know.”
Then I watch the kid beg for lessons. Fine, says the master, but you must do exactly as I tell you—no questions. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this part—when we first met, I told The Numbrist a similar story, some kind of Buddhist parable to explain either learning to write or learning to play poker—I don’t remember which.
Nevertheless, the movie is engaging. I watch the kid waxing and unwaxing the master’s cars (“Wax on! Wax off!” Mr. Miyagi explains.), painting his fence (“Left hand up! Right hand down!”), and staining his deck—I don’t remember those instructions, but by this time, I’m laughing, because of course I get the idea. When the kid finally begins his formal training, all the muscles are there—not even as a matter of effort, but automatically. His arms and legs and shoulders have absorbed the lessons at their very core: this is what they are for.
I remember from my own several months of studying t’ai chi—which Master Yu taught as a martial art—that the goal was to absorb the form so deeply into your being that you couldn’t not use it. Then, when an enemy attacked, you invented everything on the spot—attached to nothing, expecting nothing, fully within the moment—and all within the form. “You don’t know the system well enough to not be able to make mistakes in it,” The Numbrist told me back when he was trying to teach me the system, and because of that t’ai chi class, I knew exactly what he meant.
So here’s the story I told The Numbrist, just to prove that, before he ever told me to watch the movie, I got there first:
A student comes to the master jeweler, eager to learn the mysteries of his craft. “Master,” says the young man, “teach me, please teach me, for I long to learn.”
The Master regards him skeptically for a long time. Finally he says, “All right, my son, I will teach you, but only on one condition: You must do exactly as I tell you and ask no questions, no matter what I require.”
The young man laughs at even the thought of challenging the Master. “Of course!” he says. “Of course!”
So the Master hands him a piece of jade, ushers him into a tiny room, and shuts the door. After two hours have passed, he opens the door, and motions the young man out. “Go home,” says the Master, “and return tomorrow.” The young man is puzzled, but he obeys.
And so it continues, day after day, week after week, year after year. Each day, the young man arrives, is given the jade, shut in the room, and left in silence for two hours. Then, without speaking, the Master opens the door and sends him home.
Finally, after several years, the young man has had enough. Promise or no promise, he must speak. “I’ve done everything you told me!” he bursts out, “but you’ve never explained anything, never shown me anything, never taught me anything—only shut me inside the stupid room with your silly piece of jade. . . And today, it wasn’t even a real piece of jade!”
Okay, Numbrist, you win. Wax on, wax off. The magic, I know, is in that moment when you suddenly see: the jade’s mysteries will never belong to you, but the ability to see them does. The magic is in that quantum leap: the burst of the water into steam, the burst of blindness into vision. I lived through too many years of nothing not to know that, in the end, there’s suddenly everything, and I do trust you, Numbrist, to see what I cannot.
The magic is in that moment when you suddenly see: the jade’s mysteries will never belong to you, but the ability to see them doesStill. When you’re the Karate Kid’s age, or maybe even older, you kind of hope for some control over the process, or at least for some way to make it yours, when the point of it, of course, is that it’s never your process—it’s not even your Master’s process. It’s not you who perceives the mystery, it’s the jade—or the cards—or life itself—that reveals it to you, and it takes its own sweet time doing so. You can’t hurry love, or art, or mastery, or even the process of knowing who you are and what you’re capable of, though once you have the ability to see, you can’t imagine a self who was ever without it. That’s why lack of faith is so puzzling to the faithful—and why faith is so mysterious to the ones who are without it. The knowing, as much as the not knowing, is absolute, and if it doesn’t belong to you, at least it fills you.
When I see The Numbrist struggle with the obstacles in his path, I wish I could transfer his knowledge to him, just as, when he watches me struggle, he wishes he could transfer my knowledge to me. Nope. Wax on. Wax off. In the end, that’s all you’ve got—but luckily, it’s enough.