Sen No Rikyu, the founder of the wabi style of Japanese tea ceremony, didn’t leave many writings behind. Instead, his students were left to collect many of his pithy sayings and teachings, much like what the followers of other gifted teachers had to do. With their great teacher gone, Rikyu’s students had to make sense of what their master had said and taught.
One of Rikyu’s sayings that was preserved was: “Learn one, progress to ten, and then go back to one.”
In other words, you learn the basics, progress up the skill level to attain mastery of all the techniques, and then in the end, you go back to refine the beginning techniques.
My interpretation of this is that it’s a never-ending spiral, not so much a circle. If you keep refining all aspects of your training, from the simplest basic to the most advanced technique, when you return back to the basics, you approach them in a very different light, and therefore find new insights. Then you start all over again, but instead of repeating the same techniques the same way, you have refined it, and therefore elevate your progression to a higher level, creating not a circle but a spiral. In a way, it’s like a version of an industrial circle of quality. Improve a product, sell it, test it some more, get more feedback, improve the improved product. Repeat. Keep doing that and the competition will be always eating your dust. Stop improving and sooner or later, the competition will catch up and then beat you.
The difference in how you look at practice, I think, is important because it reflects two ways of continuing budo, as well as any other endeavor that requires skills acquisition.
If you reach a certain level of competence, become satisfied with it and stay stuck in that, you are repeating but not advancing your skills. This is where many people become “stale” or frustrated with their progress. You get into a “rut.” Worse, you might get too comfortable in it and you then don’t challenge yourself to get any better at all, blame the teacher, and quit. So the more you repeat the kata, the more you do the same thing again, including the same problems, mistakes and errors.
Here is where it’s important to be both a good student and to have a good teacher. A good teacher will point out your ongoing mistakes. But half of the equation is that you must be an engaged student and absorb the corrections, internalize the changes, and change your body movements and techniques endlessly. A teacher can’t just pour his knowledge into your head like water into a bucket. You have to be actively involved in the learning. If that means extra practice on your own, studying the history of the ryu on your own, going over kata and making notes on your own, so be it.
So many times, students think training and learning stops at the end of the class session. The true student knows that learning is a lifelong endeavor, that should extend well beyond the classroom. Being a student is a way of life, not something that ends when you graduate from school or attain a black belt.
For some people, this flexibility of mind and body is “atarimae,” or “only natural.” For others, it’s really hard to implement due to physical, mental and/or emotional limitations. I myself tend to think I’m somewhere in between when it comes to physical skills acquisition. I’m not a super athlete, but if I try hard enough, I can pretty much learn something under the guidance of a good teacher…not superbly at first, but given enough time I tend to “get” it, more or less, and then I try to polish and polish the technique. That’s how I’ve been taught to learn.
Good teachers in Japan will harp upon and take apart their best students’ techniques endlessly because they want their most promising students to always improve themselves. As one of my friends said, “The day my tea sensei stops criticizing my temae (tea “kata”) is the day she gives up hope in me.”
I contrast it with another tea student. My sensei tried correcting this student many times in the past, but the student didn’t seem to want to work hard enough to correct inbred ways of doing things. Finally, the sensei stopped making comments. The student became very smug about her temae. My friend and I thought otherwise. The teacher’s silence meant that the teacher had given up hope on improving the student’s skills much further.
Even though we had attained a somewhat high rank in tea ceremony, my friend and I are still constantly critiqued by our teacher, especially in our basic movements. She wants us to continue to improve, and I suppose she thinks we can. She corrects the angle of our fingers by only a minute difference. She corrects our timing by mini-second differences. Her corrections, therefore, are welcomed. There’s hope for us yet.
But the greatest obstacle to any of us is in becoming too smug. That’s like when another friend of mine attended a karate clinic. Several other attendees put on their keikogi and wrapped a black belt around their waist…and then when the workshop started, they stood off to the side. He asked them why they weren’t participating. One of them, with a protruding beer belly, said in all seriousness, “Well, we’re black belts. We don’t have to practice that stuff.”
Hogwash. They were just lazy, and they had stopped improving. They had forgotten that if you reach ten, you need to go back to one all over again.