Many of the students that trained with Master Ma referred to the school as “the cave” “the dungeon” or some less flattering terms. The place was underground in the north end of the city, bars above and across the street. Fancy places like “The Bigfoot” where I saw a man get his leg broken in a fight one night and so on. The school itself had a small waiting area just as you came down the stairs with a couple of old couches from the seventies at the very newest and they were so crusty and hard that you really never wanted to spend any time on them anyway. A small kitchen area and change room rounded out the place other than the room where all the training happened.
About thirty feet on each side the walls were lined with weapons. One of the older brothers had made Shifu some weapons racks in his garage so they were not just lying up against the walls anymore and so it started to look more put together than when I first joined. Monk spades, Guan Dao’s, at least a dozen spears of all types, three section staffs, meteor hammers, broadswords and Jian (straight swords) lined those walls. Any spaces were covered with paintings a dragon on one wall painted by a former student whom I never met, the four dragons I painted on another wall surrounding a yin/yang (Taiji) and of course the fighting diagram.
The floor was covered in a musty, thin muddy brown carpet glued directly to the concrete floor. By the time I got there it had been soaking in the sweat of a dozen years of workouts, blood and incense. Whenever I arrived early I would do my best to vacuum and tidy up but honestly without the incense in there, the lack of windows made the cave a brutal place to be. Luckily we would burn incense every day when we arrived before the workout in the same lotus shaped chrome burner. So many sticks had gone through it that the ceiling was brown above where it sat from the smoke.
The burner had three feet on it and one night at class just after I had joined my brother knocked it while putting a staff away and it fell to the floor and broke one of the feet off. Shifu was really pissed and told him to take it home and repair it and bring it back. Honestly he was lucky that was all that happened given our teachers unpredictable nature, but that was all that came of it.
Three classes a day – 1pm, 5pm, 7pm Monday to Friday we were there. While I was living with Shifu my job was to train and help teach any beginners for him and in exchange I got to train (had to was more like it) as much as I could. Most days we would do another session for an hour or two at the house as well which were generally more brutal in many ways since there were no prying eyes or other students to distract him from me. Years passed like this and I would train as much as I could handle, escaping to a friend’s house on the weekends to have some rest and non-martial arts time.
The school eventually started to falter and students drop off, not that it was any big success in the first place. Only certain people would ever train there for any length of time with his methods and methodology of “grow stronger or go home”. Once he even told me to not refer to new students by their names until they had been training for three months, to “test” their resolve. The same was done to me but I was too much of a monomaniac to care.
His car accident finalized everything and the school closed. Those of us who had been there a number of years went on with our lives and some of us lost touch. I went on to search out new teachers and began travelling more and more to find them. When I opened my school my gongfu brother whom I had always remained close to invited me to dinner. Dan Shing, the restaurant he and I would go to after class when he would give me a ride home. It had been our haunt for years and although we had taken a hiatus from going together, there we were at our corner table again.
He handed me the incense burner.
I was stunned. It had been years since I even saw it and here it was in my hands. A piece of the school we trained at, suffered at, a piece of the history we shared.
I just pulled it out of the box today and for the first time cleaned the grime and incense from Shifu’s school off of it. The leg had broken off again and instead of trying to fix it, yet again, and make it like it once was I tore the other two legs off of it. I filled it with rice and placed it last in the tea room and lit my favorite incense. It was not the same burner as it once was, it was reformed, re shaped but still able to be used for its purpose. Just because something is broken or damaged or changed does not mean it is not useful in the same way. Its true nature remains the same, but rather than trying to struggle to reclaim the past and make things as they once were we have to learn to let go and move forward with what we have. It is not less beautiful than it once was, just different; a reflection of my impact upon it apparent for one who knows its history.
It rests in my tea room now, serving its purpose and moving forward through time legless. Changed from every single thing it has ever been through. Accepting change as the only constant in reality, the power of entropy and its effect on ourselves and everything around us is what it reminds me of now. I hope one day I can pass it on to someone else to whom it will make a difference.