Star-struck

This young martial arts student, right, had seen photos of Michael Sullivan before, and was also an admirer of his calligraphy, some of which can be seen on the wall behind her. But she had never seen Sullivan in person until he came to deliver a lecture at her martial arts school. Safe to say she was somewhat star-struck upon meeting him in person. (Photo courtesy of Herta Sullivan/The Flume)

It’s been said that life is not a destination with an end, but a path down which we continue to journey as long as we can breathe.

Michael Sullivan excelled to unimaginable heights throughout his 79-year journey, blazing a unique path  and positively impacting the lives of many along the way.

Sullivan was a boat captain, a martial arts guru of the highest order, perhaps the most capable calligraphist in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps one of the world’s best swordsman during his prime, an esteemed professional classical guitarist and a Bailey resident for more than 30 years.

Sullivan was also highly-educated, a teacher, a prize-winning author, a man of heartfelt spiritual and philosophical convictions and a deeply loyal friend and confidant to those fortunate enough to have known him.

Sullivan passed away peacefully in Bailey just one month shy of his eightieth birthday, July 22, with his wife Herta at his side.

To recount Sullivan’s life, his accomplishments and his vast experiences stateside and abroad, would require a multi-volume work. His personal exploits and teachings in calligraphy and swordsmanship alone could easily suffice as individual book topics, and perhaps some day they will.

Today, understandably, Sullivan’s passing is being mourned. But his life, his ever-so-rich and eventful life, is also being honored and celebrated by those who knew him best.

“Michael was fascinated with the Samuri, and their interests and pursuits such as calligraphy and swordsmanship,” said Herta Sullivan, Michael’s wife of 32 years. “So he pursued those interests in later years and ultimately became very accomplished in each of those areas.”

“Accomplished”

“Very accomplished” might be the humblest of all possible ways to describe Sullivan’s immense success within his selected areas of interest.

Sullivan was born to parents of European origin in the Chicago, Ill. area, but his family moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. during his early-childhood years. It was there that Sullivan’s areas of interest began to develop in earnest, and it was those same interests that eventually culminated in a firestorm of personal success and international notoriety.

His childhood fantasy of wielding a sword with the skill and precision of a Samurai warrior, for example, eventually resulted in Sullivan’s becoming the Nidan-level Swordsmanship Champion of the Kagawa Prefecture in Japan for two consecutive years in the mid-1980s.

A copy of his rare, limited-edition treatise on martial arts strategy, “Sword and Psyche,” is available only in the Pentagon Library.

A common theme also emerged with regards to Sullivan’s fascination with calligraphy. After years of study in Japan, he earned a Kampo Calligraphy Award, and twice won the prestigious Nippon Shuji Prize for calligraphy from the largest calligraphy group in Japan. He was the only non-Japanese ever to do so, and was awarded the name “Seiho,” or “Mountain Sage,” to honor and acknowledge his mastery of the art.

Sullivan was the author of five novels, as well as “Shingyo,” a unique translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra. He also wrote three workbooks for students of Japanese calligraphy that were published in Japan. His first novel, “WAZA,” about the corruption of Buddhism and the martial arts in America, won the Colorado Co-Visions award for Literature in 1994.

Sullivan studied creative writing with noted author Andrew Lytle at the University of Florida. He later received his Masters degree in Asian Studies from Florida State University.

In his early years, Sullivan was a sailboat captain, delivering sailing yachts from New England to Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. His near-fatal voyage into the eye of Hurricane Agnes is narrated in his trilogy of novellas, “Three-Strand Cordage.”

And, oh by the way, Sullivan was also an acclaimed classical guitarist, performing concerts in the U.S. and Canada, and he later taught classical guitar at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Marching to his own beat

Sullivan was an independent thinker of the highest order. He worked incessantly to filter out all that was not true, or immaterial, and meditated often as a means of finding truth and promoting self-improvement physically, mentally and spiritually.

And, as a courtesy to others, Sullivan was not apt at sugarcoating the truth as he understood it.  

Roland Roemer, owner of the Colorado Academy of Martial Arts in Littleton, was a student and close friend of Sullivan’s for many years. Today, according to Roemer, his academy and its students are deeply influenced by Sullivan’s teachings and philosophies.

“Michael considered telling someone the truth to be one of the kindest things he could do for them,” Roemer said.

Roemer recalled working on a calligraphy piece he created in one of Sullivan’s many calligraphy seminars, and getting a typically truthful response when asking what the master thought of his work.

“He looked at my work and said, ‘That’s good … childlike, but good,’” Roemer recalled. “That was the highest compliment Michael ever paid to my calligraphy.”

Sullivan once had a martial arts student who was woefully under-committed to the discipline. Upon learning that the student was again absent from a regular meeting of the class one evening, he turned to Roemer and asserted: “She will never encompass the ethos, but at least she has the grace not to show up very often.”

Roemer, who spent years traveling the nation and beyond in a personal quest to locate the most knowledgeable martial arts instructors he could find, described Sullivan’s skills in both calligraphy and swordsmanship as “poetry in motion.”

Ambitious, admiring students flocked in from near and far to attend Sullivan’s swordsmanship classes which were held regularly at his home in Bailey for many years.

“Michael had quite the group out there on the deck for swordsmanship classes,” Herta said with a chuckle. “Fortunately, no neighbors live close enough to see over here … so there was never any problem. But they were quite a sight. Michael was always very generous with his students, and with his time. Quite often, I don’t think he even charged them for his services.”

Roemer recalled Sullivan’s lighter side, which was always present beneath his sometimes-staunch exterior.

“We used to go to the same establishment each year to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and at the end of the night Michael would jump up on a table and sing “Oh Danny Boy,” Roemer said. “He did it in absolutely perfect Irish tone and tenor,” Roemer recalled. “He also used to say ‘Mountain Sage’ was the name he earned, and ‘Michael Sullivan’ was the name that was imposed upon him by his parents.”

Roemer continued:

“Michael was absolutely the most complex man I ever met, but he had a unique talent for expressing himself with remarkable eloquence and simplicity. His mastery of the English language was probably unmatched by anyone else I know, and his insights into the etemology of Japanese characters was invaluable. The uniqueness of his reflections was that they were deep, but simple, and he conveyed those lessons to students through his calligraphy and martial arts teachings. He was also an extremely consistent, honest and loyal friend. I miss him a lot.”

Herta recalled Sullivan’s cantankerous temperament in his later years, as well as his knack for self-expression, which never waned.

“Michael joked one day not long ago that ‘The U.S. government finally has an agency for three of my favorite things: alcohol, tobacco and firearms; unfortunately, they’re on the wrong side of all three,’” Herta said. “He had a great sense of humor, and I can also say that Michael was always a gentleman. He adored kids. We met too late in life to have children, so his students were his children.”

Other thought-provoking quotes from Sullivan’s prolific collection of writings include:

“One can never know the world so long as one holds to the idea that the human has greater value in it than any other living thing.” (From “The Hermit and the Shingyo.”)

“Good teachers offer their students questions. Good students keep asking those questions long after graduation, and never stop asking new questions of their own.” (From “The Zen Spirit of Seiho”)

“I define belief as a proposition, statement, or assumption, which cannot be verified or falsified, proved or disproved, yet is considered to be true.” (From “Shingyo: Reflections on Translating the Heart Sutra”)

“Every translation is an interpretation, and so will reflect the ethos of the culture and era in which it was made, and will also reflect the personal biases and beliefs of the translator, no matter how accurate or neutral the intent.” (From “Shingyo: Reflections on Translating the Heart Sutra”)

Discipline; embracing the process

According to Roemer, Sullivan’s unwavering discipline and wholesale commitment as a student of calligraphy and martial arts was unsurpassed, as were the results of those efforts.

 But as a teacher, and as a student, the process of self-improvement was always the focal point of Sullivan’s efforts, rather than results. Based on Roemer’s accounts, it is probably safe to assume that none of Sullivan’s students ever matched their teacher’s tireless work ethic in the pursuit of calligraphy and swordsmanship.

“Michael used to say that he practiced religiously, but not as a religion,” Roemer said. “He used to write the Heart Sutra in Japanese calligraphy, and then chant it, also in Japanese, every day,” Roemer said.

One quick look at the complex multitude of characters that comprise the Heart Sutra, and the thought of recreating that information through calligraphy on a daily basis with no mistakes. seems almost incomprehensible. In Sullivan’s case, his commitment to the process of self-improvement never wavered, and the results spoke for themselves.

“I think it’s fair to say Michael was the possibly the best Caucasian practitioner of Japanese calligraphy in the west [Western Hemisphere],” Roemer said.

According to Roemer, Sullivan would have been the last  person to have made such a claim.

Sullivan believed that questions, rather than answers, were the linchpin of lifetime learning. He also explored the difference between “belief” and “commitment,” insisting that the former was a much less useful tool than the latter.

Sadly, Sullivan’s remarkable journey on earth has concluded, as all journeys must. But his legacy of disciplined commitment to self-improvement, his courage to present the truth as he perceived it, and the uncommon wealth of wisdom he shared with students and acquaintances will positively alter the paths of many for generations to come.

That, in retrospect, was perhaps Michael Sullivan’s greatest accomplishment of all.

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