How One Shaman Chooses His Students

By Keith Varnum

“You swim, you study with me! You no swim, you no study with me!”

Muramoto shouted to his prospective students above the roar of the pounding waves.

A Japanese native, Noburo Muramoto was a student himself once. He studied closely with the wise and wild Japanese founder of Macrobiotocs, George Ohsawa. Since Ohsawa was deceased at the time in 1972, I pursued who I felt was the next best bet for me to grasp some authentic Eastern knowledge.

I went to the first evening of Muramoto’s class in the hope of learning the ancient art of acupuncture with a master healer. I found myself crowded into a small room with forty other aspiring acupuncturists of all ages and colors of humanity.

As I chatted with the others waiting for the master to arrive, I discovered that no one knew much about Muramoto—except his famous reputation for being blunt, direct, exacting and mysterious. And that he was one of the most renowned acupuncturists in San Francisco.

Muramoto entered the room briskly, barking out two simple words, “Follow me!” We did.

He led us out into the freezing winter night of rain and fog. We wound our way through Golden Gate Park to a deserted beach by the sea. He then proceeded to take off all his clothes and jump stark naked over the icy waves into the frigid Pacific Ocean. The moonlight reflected brightly off his lily white skin.

Between the crash of two thundering waves, he sang out to us:

“You swim, you study with me! You no swim, you no study with me!”

Everyone else stopped dead in their tracks. I paused as well. I froze as much from fear as from cold. I sensed we all had the same questions blaring in our heads, “What the heck is he asking us to do? What kind of an idiot does he think I am? Is he crazy?”

“Crazy as a fox” my dad would say if he were there with me in this cosmic moment of soul decision.

In that instant all the famous stories about how shamans choose their students raced through my head. In ancient Japan a Zen sensei would leave an aspiring candidate waiting outside on his doorstep through three winters before he let the pupil inside to study with him. Other spiritual teachers present other daunting hurdles to their prospective disciples—from long distances to great heights to hidden meeting places.

In the East it’s common practice for students to have to navigate arduous and sometimes scary obstacle courses to reach the inner learning circle of a true master. And such it appeared was to be my path to study with Muramoto.

Of course, I considered turning full circle on the sand and running from this madness as fast as I could—as did half of the group! Perhaps I’ll study acupuncture at a nearby safe community college … or out of a book!

Now only twenty strong, we remaining “fools for God” stared at each other, as ever playful Muramoto barked out again his wacko rules of engagement:

“You swim, you study with me! You no swim, you no study with me!”

I flashed on the notorious techniques of college professors to separate the wheat from the chaff on the first day of an overfilled class. The professor would announce a reading and study schedule so outrageously demanding that only the truly committed would stay in the class.

Ah, I murmured to myself, “I’m on to Muramoto’s game! This is a test of passion and dedication. He’s using Nature—the Tao—to divide the merely curious from the dedicated. How clever. How wise.”

I reviewed my options of studying acupuncture in a structured academic setting—or from books and a computer screen.

I checked inside to see how much I wanted to learn—that is, truly know, own, embrace—the essence of spiritual healing.

I shucked my clothes and leaped into the sea!