Monday, 26 May 2008

some thoughts on being a good student

It has been a while now...since I last had the urge to get all philosophical late at night. In fact it's been a while since I last had anything really heartfelt to say at all.

I'm learning that this type of intimate journal entry, sort of dialogue, and what would be the point if it weren't intimate and honest, is not quite as easy in the, apparently, impersonal atmosphere of the internet compared to my preferred format...having a decent meal followed by a good drink together.

In those convivial circumstances I have no difficulties opening my heart and revealing all my frailties, I can't imagine I have any...but I do... I'm all too human, or expounding on my "grand theories". The written word is so final, there is almost no going back, it seems so absolute. I'm a particularly opinionated sort of chap, in the most reasonable sort of person, honestly! And there's the rub. We're not getting getting it together, "in person". I actually really enjoy provoking an original response from those I'm engaging much as I would love the same to be stimulated in me.

Naturally enough, this isn't always the preferred form of engagement on the net. If the use of the word "engagement" sounds a bit combative I make no apologies...nothing will get hurt other than ego' what's the big deal. Why do we take ourselves so seriously? and surely, we can separate who we are, from a bunch of vaguely constructed opinions.

I happen to be quite good at defending my opinions, but I suspect that this says more about my abilities to "box clever", than the truth of them. Similarly, I find that many opinions I encounter, and challenge, are in fact very poorly conceived. Never-the-less, we seem to be prepared to go to war for our opinions!

Recently, I was prompted by a rather unfortunately expressed thought, on my forum, to respond in a deliberately provocative way. I hope the author of that post will forgive me drawing attention to this brief exchange but he in fact did me a great service.

I don't need to elaborate on the stimulus but my response was summed up thus; "the master serves the tradition...most useful students are merely a means to that end".

I hadn't previously thought of it in this way before, my response was an almost instinctual reaction. I won't go into a messy analysis of how it is I feel this way, or even if I am "right" in this assumption. No-one told me this, as some universal, traditional where did it come from? The answer to that is obviously bound up with who I am...and that will take a long night to begin to reveal.

What immediately caught my attention with this statement, and it is sort of cheeky to quote oneself, was the ambiguity contained therein.

At first glance it seems incredibly arrogant and unfeeling. Particularly in a world where the student, who is inevitably paying for their instruction, feels that the instructor owes them something. That's the first mistake the teacher makes...he ( or she ) hands control to the student. How absurd is that? I've never charged anyone for anything I've been able to impart, perhaps I'm a fool to give away so freely what has cost me so much. Perhaps this is also why I often get the impression what I have to offer is taken so lightly. That aside, as I've not taken the kings coin...I need not bow to his whims. ( here I'm rather obscurely referring to the consumer idea that the customer is king ).

In my view, if someone seeks your teaching then they must empty their cup and be prepared to learn. There is no discussion involved. This is not a two way sort of deal...the opinions and feelings of the student are irrelevant. In time...on the odd occasion, the student may actually, eventually have something original or significant to say. But, it is a profound arrogance and display of self indulgence, for a student to think, at the very start of their journey, that they may have anything of real consequence to express, in the face of hundreds of years of the accumulated understanding of previous masters.

It's very fashionable to pay lip service to traditions of late, and we hear people humbly expressing their respect for past masters and their respective traditions. I really don't see much more that words though, it's as though it's all about association, to make us feel a sense of importance...or significance, and that demeans the past.

We really aren't that important, if we amount to anything at all in our all to brief lives it is due to so much of what has gone before us. The contemporary tendency to place the highest value, in fact the only thing worth anything, on the individual, loses sight of our tiny place in the continuity of humankind.

I am well aware that my, rather idiosyncratic, view is something of an anachronism in this age, but the way I see it, that's all the more reason to stand by it.

So, return to my provocative quote ( of myself...what a sneaky trick? ).

There is always a master somewhere up'll recognise them when you aren't able to understand where he ( or she ) is coming from. That is as it should be, if you understood it all then you'd be at least as masterful. There are people out there who are pursuing excellence, they are rarely the most lovely people you'll meet, but if you recognise some small spark that draws you to them, then you must approach like a child in the face of a new and wondrous world...and maybe, just maybe...if you're very lucky, you'll get invited on a unique journey. A journey not without cost...or peril. One where you will learn all about the things you set out to explore, but most'll learn about yourself... and it's a bloody good ride.

While on that ride you'll discover at some point that in fact the person you thought was the master is also a student, and that your objectives are not so far apart as you may have once imagined. The true reverence is when this is understood and you understand your part in the continuum.

Good night and Namaste


Lorenzo said...

Even if i was not there to tell that for true, i think that also in "our" not japanese world in the past the relationship between masters and students where different form now.
Reading some old book, i see much more respect. And it is difficult to define this aspect of the word "respect".
Respect because student was scared by teacher? Maybe, but not only. Respect because they deeply belive that the teacher "knows", and have to teach, or maybe must teach something more than just his technical skills. Something like a relationship between father and son, another relationship that so far in the modern times is loosing importance too. Maybe our rithms of life are something we shall rewiev deeply.
I had no experience of that kind of relationship in my short life, sadly neither with a teacher, neither with my dad. He was here, and still he is, but used to be very distant.
The perfect combination is to find a student that wants to learn, and not only the technical side of the matter; he have to be prepared to learn about life. The second point is to find a teacher ready to open and give his heart, and not just during worktime. Both things are so rare..

Lorenzo said...
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Anonymous said...

I suppose one should not think so much about teaching. The work will stimulate and teach. The olden masters communicate with us this way. Art or craft is a language without words.
One have use the eyes and the hands to understand this. Learning is active, it is not possible to be learned. Ultimatly it is the urge of the student to achieve something. If one really wants to express something, one will do it, with or without a master. A master can only shorten the time needed for this.

cheers, Karl

Lorenzo said...

I agree that a master can shorten the time... but, even if you can be potentially the fastest swimmer of the world, if nobody helps you to win the fear of the water you will never swim.
I think a master can teach techniques, but can open also our mind.
Nobody is perfect, there always is something to learn, and if we think today that our point of view is right maybe one day we can change our mind ;)

Hyllyn said...

So in a life or death situation you are saying people would have to settle for dying because they weren't taught to swim by someone?

I happen to agree with Karl's comments almost entirely.

And Ford I read it all and I understand from where I stand, however there are always several levels to the whole business of transmission of any message/knowledge.

One is where you actually register the information, another is when you understand, and a third is one where you comprehend. If you analyze the lot etymologically surely you can see the difference. To those who are lazy with words they are all the same but ultimately neither of the three means that despite achieving one of them you have to be in agreement with the idea or the person transmitting it. After all that idea has been put through the filter of said person and might not be "pure" as it were, but then again that is the case with literally anything that is to be interpreted.

I believe that ultimately like you do when training to become a Tosho you have to be in close proximity to the person teaching you. The idea is not to become like the master but the embodiment of tradition (both of them) in their own complimentary ways and thus a student might indeed be a useful tool in preserving tradition just as the master is devoting himself to being.

So I suppose really you are set for disappointments unless you do it that way, whether these disappointments are caused by real/perceived attitudes to anything that is being taught. However I do not know if the teaching of any particularly discipline qualifies anyone to be a "life teacher" to anyone, when those boundaries are crossed there's a lot of confusion that can ensue.

Of course this is merely my opinion but it is proven that everyone can be wrong, both the old and the new, and given half a chance people can easily turn a right into a wrong.

Best regards

Lorenzo said...

Sorry Hyllyn, but i do not see any sense on your interpretation of my words; with no anger of course.

Hyllyn said...

No problem Lorenzo. I will try and make it clearer for you.

What I meant was that given the right circumstances survival instinct kicks in, which is exactly the same as Karl said but in other words.

Of course the presence of someone who can teach you is appreciated and helps to avoid mistakes that might have been made before but it doesn't mean that as "humans" we are incapable to learn from trying if sufficient need exists.

Of course that is ultimately up to the person who is involved in the situation but if you had to invent the umbrella because it rained a lot where you live you either could wait till someone else did it, you did it yourself or someone came along to teach you, all approaches are valid.


Ford Hallam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hyllyn said...

By the way Ford, I didn't write what I did meaning disrespect for what you represent. Traditions allow us exactly to be able to get in touch with the efforts made by a series of very respectable and admirable individuals regardless of their quest and as such that kind of establishment is to be cherished and maintained.

What I meant with regards to my opinion is that when no other option is available to a person for any reason then "need" dictates how the person might go about it. It is not better but it is not worse either, after all any tradition has to start somewhere (no not implying one should start one) but just trying to relate the principle of overcoming a handicap or absence of tuition with the trial and error approach.