The Mountain Path – Part 1: The Path Up

1 Mar

“Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.” (See endnote number 1)

In the introduction to this three part article ( ) , I noted that this saying is often used in the martial arts. In this context, it is used to express the idea that regardless of the martial art studied, the goal of all martial arts is the same. It is my view that this is but one-third of the potential analysis of this quote. To fully appreciate the symbolism of the quote, one should recognize and analyze three distinct stages as follows:

Stage one: The path up the mountain;
Stage two: The view at the top;
Stage three: The path down the mountain.

This post will express a few of my thoughts regarding the path up the mountain. For the most part, this path is discussed simply as the means to attain the end (the view at the top). Rarely is the actual journey investigated. This is sad for many reasons.

First and foremost is the journeyman that accepts a path. Leaving one’s comfort zone, perhaps symbolized by one’s “home” takes courage and fortitude. To walk out one’s home and undertake a journey upon a certain path is not a trivial undertaking. With the first step, a commitment to see the path to its end is implied. In this regard, the journeyman walking a previously unknown path is far superior to those that choose to remain within the comforts of their “home.”

This extends beyond the martial arts venue. Any challenge once presented and accepted initiates one into the category of a journeyman. The challenge is the path chosen by the select few unafraid of what lay ahead. To that end, the efforts of all journeyman should be saluted.

Second, though not specifically mentioned in the saying, there is an implicit understanding that not all those that venture up the mountain will in fact reach the top. Some will discontinue the journey and retreat, following one’s steps back down the path. In the martial arts, many students will discontinue training. They will never reach the goal “at the top of the mountain.” No, I do not mean they will not earn a black belt. I mean they will stop training long before they die. The path of the my beloved karate-do ends only with one’s last breath.

To discontinue the path invites a future wrought with speculation. This is true not only with the martial arts but also all challenges. Perhaps the most renowned mountain one could undertake to climb is Mount Everest. On the subject of climbing Mount Everest, I thoroughly enjoyed (and highly recommend) Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” about one faithful attempted climb. In the prefatory comment to Chapter Twelve, Krakauer sets out the following thoughts from mountaineer Thomas F. Hornbein:

I looked down. Descent was totally unappetizing. . . Too much labor, too many sleepless nights and too many dreams had been invested to bring us this far. . . . To go down now, even if we could have, would be descending to a future marked by one huge question: what might have been? (See endnote # 2)

The simple fact is that though one may wish to restart up the path at a future time, so as to answer this question, one may be able to do so. As it is said, “Timing is everything.” Once the ability to start up the path and reach the top is lost, it may never be recovered.

Third, In addition to the difficulties imposed by the path itself, the journeyman has another insidious difficulty to contend with. To walk an unknown path takes the utmost of physical, mental and spiritual dedication and commitment. Clearly not everyone has such qualities. Those that do not become not the journeyman but the antagonist of the journeyman. They become a critic, see for example the Hindu quote in Endnote # 1. The critic is envious of the commitment of the journeyman. Lacking the qualities for success, the critic masks his cowardice by seeking to distract the journeyman form his goal. The critic “runs around the mountain telling everyone (the journeyman’s) path is wrong.” The critic attains nothing. The critic only attains a goal when the journeyman quits due to the actions of the critic. The journeyman must remain deaf to the provocations of the critic.

With that in mind, in the next submission, we’ll continue along our analytical path. We’’ll soon begin to see a view of the bright moon with more definition and resolution and the journey back down the path to the bottom of the mountain, our “home’ better for and enriched by our journey.

Respectfully submitted,


Sensei John Szmitkowski

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1. Though not referenced as a source of the quote at the time, the quote seems to come from the Zen-master Ikkyū (1394-1481). It is; however, also found in other sources and contexts. Two examples are:

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same”, a Chinese proverb, and

“There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.” A Hindu proverb.

2. Krakauer, John, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account Of The Mount Everest Disaster, (Anchor Books, New York, NY, 1997) p. 292. Please note, page references are to my the E-book which has adjustable type and may be different depending on the setting, thus they and may not be exact. Please see the Chapter reference in the body of this article.

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