Umi Sen Yama Sen — A Thousand Years in the Ocean, A Thousand Years in the Mountains 海千山千

We seek to become better, stronger, and wiser. However, this only comes with experience and hard work, and it takes a long time to acquire these skills and wisdom. Those who have invested this time and effort truly become formidable.

Umi Sen Yama Sen 海千山千 [pronounced "ooo-me sen yah-mah sen"] is a multifaceted concept that discusses two core truths: transformational change takes much time and effort; and those with great experience in life have great wisdom and great advantage.

Becoming a Dragon

This concept is based on an old story in Asian mythology.

A snake wishes to become better (ren ma, of course!), and to grow and improve himself, and become stronger and wiser. So he seeks out a man of wisdom and asks him how it is possible for the lowly snake, a creature generally disliked and considered crude, to evolve into a powerful and wise creature.

The wise man counsels him that it takes a very long time for strength and wisdom to evolve, and that the snake must work hard and have great patience. But this is not enough, he must also have much experience of the world and all that is within it.

So the snake asks the wise man how he can do this, and the snake receives the now-famous dictum of Umi Sen Yama Sen 海千山千 – spend a thousand years in the ocean, and then a thousand years in the mountains.

The snake goes away and follows this advice, and the recipe for how a snake becomes a dragon is born. Not only does the snake transform into a dragon, but now the snake has gained a wealth of experience to power his strength and wisdom.


The point of the story is to illustrate a fundamental truth about human existence: not only is it possible to transform ourselves completely and totally, it is within our own power to effect the transformation.

In the story, the snake does not rely on external forces: it does not receive its dragon wings from some magician, as an example. Rather, the snake persists with indomitable spirit to rise above its existence and make the transformation happen. This myth teaches that transformation is a process that is internal, and that it comes from within, not outside of ourselves. 

Oftentimes, the notion that we can transform ourselves in small ways is not so foreign to us. 

Yes, we can lose five pounds to become a little more fit, or yes we can read the instructions that came with our microwave oven and learn to program it. But transformation on a grand scale is a whole different thing. It requires long-term commitment, and it requires planning and thought. 

It also requires something that isn’t present in most smaller transformations: the notion that a big change will make a big impact. This is an uncomfortable thing, and possibly the biggest obstacle to serious transformation in our lives. It is one thing to save a few hundred dollars by being thrifty; it is another thing to change how we spend money and what we spend it on, and build an investment portfolio. The impact of changing our spending habits to save a few dollars is minimal; changing our spending habits long-term means changing our daily life, and changing it for the rest of our life. What a daunting possibility… but what an incredible impact in the long-term!

The Power of Experience

At the same time, once evolution and transformation is achieved, the value of that experience is near priceless.

Recall that our transformation comes at great cost and effort; and that it is most certainly not a straight-line of progress. There are mistakes, challenges to overcome, and lessons learned along the way. And these are all incredibly valuable in terms of wisdom gained and wisdom retained.

So another aspect of Umi Sen Yama Sen is the idea that there is tremendous value in experience. And that value is mostly in terms of acquired wisdom.

The Dragon Lurking Within Emerges

Just as Umi Sen Yama Sen tells us, true transformation requires great commitment, great effort, and perseverance over time. But as the result of Umi Sen Yama Sen indicates, it is possible for all of us to become the dragon that we have always wished we could be. 

The dragon within can, with great effort and desire, become the dragon made real. And once achieved, being that dragon confers great wisdom.

Kanji/Katakana Meaning
ocean (umi)
one thousand (sen)
mountain (yama)
one thousand (sen)

Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei in San Rafael, California on 11 March 2017, and then again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 7 February 2024.