The old master’s birthday was only a few days away. The three students training at his dojo for years planned to celebrate it. On the evening before the master’s birtday, they would miss training on one pretext or the other. At midnight when the dojo was empty, they would sneak in and decorate it with paper lanterns, streamers and gifts.
When the day dawned, the first student met the master working in his garden. Bowing low, he said, “Sensei, a childhood friend is visiting me today. I will not be able to train.” The master replied, “Friends are important, especially old ones. Enjoy your time together.”
A couple of hours later, the second student came to find the master busy with his washing. Making a deep bow, he said, “I am sorry Sensei, but I cannot come today to train. My uncle needs my help to repair his fishing boat.” The master noded: “Fishing is important for the health of our village. I wish him a good catch.”
Soon thereafter, the third student found the master cooking his food. He too trotted out his excuse, “Sensei, my employer told me to help organize his wares. I am afraid I cannot train.” The master looked up and said, “We must honor our duties as much as our training. We will meet tomorrow.”
The three students then got together at the market, laughing in anticipation of the pleasant surprise they were readying for their master. They selected their gifts and bought the decorations. Then they bided their time for the night to come on.
With gifts and other parapherlia in hand, the students made their way gingerly through the darkness towards the dojo. As they neared, they were surprised to hear a thumping noise coming from within. After all, there were no other students to be training there at that unearthly hour! Peering in, they saw their master finishing a difficult kata and again striking the wooden board hard, the sweat rolling down his face.
Suddenly, the master stood stock still and called out: “Is someone there?” Sheepishly, the three students walked over to the door and appeared before him.
“Well now,” the master asked, “Didn’t each of you tell me you had duties to attend to?”
“Forgive us Sensei for lying to you. The only duty we had assigned to ourselves was to decorate the dojo tonight in celebration of your birthday,” the students said, adding, “But why are you here tonight? We had told you in the morning we won’t be coming to train.”
The master smiled: “Well, your deception has caused no harm, so think nothing of it. But you forgot about my fourth student!”
The three young men looked blankly at each other, then asked: “Fourth student, Sensei?”
“Yes indeed,” the master replied. “The one I have carried with me since the day I first started training under my own master so many years ago.”
As realization hit them, the students asked, “But Sensei, you are a great master now! What more can you possibly learn? And who is there to teach you? ”
Looking around thoughtfully, the old master replied, “Why, the dojo itself! These walls, this floor, the wooden board in front of me. All my katas. Every equipment I need to learn is waiting for me here, if only I have the strength to become a student once again.”
With much cheer, the students began hanging the paper lanterns and streamers in the dojo. As midnight struck, they wished their master a happy birthday as he accepted their humble gifts with good grace. And each took home the same return gift, the unexpected lesson of ‘the fourth student’.