“Every truth has four corners. As a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three.”
Confucius, or Kung-fu (Master) Tzu (551-479 BCE), has been misunderstood and misappropriated over the centuries, according to one Chinese scholar and Confucianist I met. He noted that one had to take Master Tzu in his proper context: as a philosopher who was trying to bring order out of the chaos of a warring land by promoting good governance, the idea of civil service based on scholasticism and wisdom and not inheritance and accident of birth, and a peaceful society. He was bound by the conventions of his time, but he sought a way forward. Given that he lived about 500 years before the birth of Christ, a lot of his ideas are, indeed, pretty liberal.
He was later used, of course, as a bulwark in China against cultural progress and women’s rights, then vilified by the Communists as a reactionary. He’s been many things to many people.
However way you look at him, however, he’s been influential in the premodern educational system of many East Asian countries. This is true too of Japan. The Confucian classics were part of the traditional education of the warrior class before Japan’s modernization, and Confucian philosophy still exerts great influence over Japanese culture and society.
It’s easily seen of course in the way teachers are supposed to be accorded great respect by their pupils, although some of the high school students I’ve seen in Japan are in sore need of a refresher course in respect and piety.
What I find more wanting, however, is the self-motivation espoused by Confucius in the above quote. One would think that this lack of motivation would be expected in Japan, China or Korea, countries that were the bedrock of Confucian societies and whose educational system relied heavily upon rote memorization and repetition. But in many martial arts dojo in America, this lack of self-discovery and personal initiative is also easy to find.
Confucius was saying that a teacher’s role is really limited. No matter how much he offers, he is only, as the Buddha would say, a “pointing finger” showing you the path to wisdom. It is up to you, the student, to take that road and find its end. The teacher is a marker, a pathfinder. He’s not going to carry you all the way to the end like a baby.
A teacher, a sensei (“one who has lived more than you”, i.e., an elder, someone with more experience), can teach you only a smidgeon of what you need to know as a martial artist. The rest, the majority of the learning, in fact, is up to you. You can be shown one corner of the room by the teacher. Given that one corner, as a student you should have enough wits about you to be able to discern where the other three are. The teacher shouldn’t have to show you all the rest of the corners one by one.
My first tea sensei told me that quote, many decades ago. Odd, how it stuck to me. Perhaps it resonated with my own attitude towards my academic life and martial arts. I was always a reader, so when I become involved in martial arts and tea ceremony, I tried to get my hands on as many books about the subjects as I could, to learn and read further. When I found the English language books wanting, I forced myself to better my Japanese reading skills to be able to go through old Japanese texts.
By the same token, during my graduate school days in fine art, I haunted the university’s library as much as I hung around the art studio doing my art, going through books on past artists: their lives, their histories, their painting and printing techniques. I learned a trove of knowledge that, even though I teach mostly digital art and photography, I still use constantly in teaching the concepts and theory of visual art.
One of the oft-repeated sayings of the martial arts teachers who I consider my “father and mother teachers” in fact, is “kenkyu shinasai.”
It would often occur when they would say something or demonstrate a technique that would have me in wonder and awe. They would explain just enough so that they think I got the general idea, and then they would smile and say, “Kenkyu shinasai” (You need to study this on your own more).
I have found that this kind of instruction, given at the proper time and place, proved invaluable for making that knowledge truly internalized, a part of my self.
As one example of the results of this, I think back to once, when I went back for more training in jujutsu. Our headmaster was off on his day job so he asked one of his top students to help us visiting students. The student’s own profession was as a chiropractor and massage therapist. He had taken what he had learned of the jujutsu arm dislocation methods and, because of his work experience, brought the angles and pressure applications to a fine art by studying and studying on his own. Our three-hour session with him was eye-opening. He took apart the dislocation methods as only someone who works with joints, muscles and bone structure every day could.
It made me realize that, as gifted a martial artist as my head instructor was, he couldn’t teach me all I needed to know. Other people had to show me things a different way for me to grasp. And I had to spend more time working things out on my own; to make the knowledge fit my own body morphology and ways of movement.
If you are true to the Confucian methodology of learning, then, you don’t just learn by rote or limit yourself only to what you learned from your teacher. Learning becomes a way of life; it fills your entire world with opportunities to increase your knowledge and wisdom.
I keep going back to this because I see too much rote learning going on, not just in Japan, but also in our own country, the United States. Too many students just learn enough to get by and they think that’s enough. Too many students only learn a minimum from their teachers and are not motivated to plow through the library, to get more knowledge from the stored and accumulated intelligence of hundreds and thousands of people before them. Too many martial arts students repeat only what their teachers taught them and leave it at that.
That’s especially troubling with some students whose teachers may have passed on, and with that, they lost their connection to their main wellspring of information from Okinawa, Japan, Korea or China. So they continue to repeat what they learned from their teacher without questioning, researching or digging deeper. My opinion is that it does no respect to the teacher. By not trying to extend oneself, you are in a downward spiral, debasing your methods and muddying it up further and further.
That doesn’t mean that you jazz up your kenjutsu kata practice by introducing Spandex tight-fitting gear in lieu of keikogi and uwagi, by the way. I don’t mean the wholesale revamping of a koryu to “fit the times.” What I mean is serious research into the history of your ryu, perhaps. Or a comparative study of why you do a kata a certain way when another version of it is done another way. Why is that? Is there something you can learn? Is there something the teacher left out, deliberately or inadvertently? Was there more that your teacher didn’t want to teach you or didn’t know how to teach you that you can attain, to extend and deepen what he passed on to you?
The teacher showed you a corner, and only one corner, after all. I don’t think he expected you to be content with just sitting in that one darkened corner and not explore the rest of the room. If so, then he was a self-serving egotist interested more in self-aggrandizement than in leaving a growing, maturing legacy that will survive and expand long after he is gone.
As a student, then, it is up to you to find the other three corners and to make the entire room yours, not just stay stuck in one little dark corner.