The Hidden and the Secret:

shinn_fourcorners1Sketching Out the Other Three Corners

Ted Mancuso’s two most recent essays * posted on the Plum Publications website deal with the hidden and the secret in martial arts. At first brush, this is interesting from the perspective that Mr. Mancuso is a publisher with a strong presence on the internet, an author of books and DVDs on the martial arts, and a successful martial arts instructor offering seminars beyond his own school. On the face of it, he is in no way hidden or secret. And yet if we read his essays, we see that he is clearly telling us that there is so much more to what he knows that he would love to share but can’t (yet or ever). We also see that he is very much aware of all that is unknown even to him with his vast knowledge and experience. The secret and the hidden: these are dynamics (not fixed states or points) in the path of every seeker and transmitter of knowledge, not just for the martial artist.

My first mentor and teacher in the martial arts, Paul Sun, always marvels as he looks at schools that are set up and run by people who are only basic-level students (perhaps in a number of arts). We’re not talking about rank here, but knowledge and the accumulated time spent in sweat and pain on the quest for that knowledge. Time, sweat, tears, blood, pain, joy, relationships built on all that and on the bond of teacher and student, between classmates and workout partners: these things are the first barriers to the secret. Without these experiences, an individual is not able to process and absorb certain aspects of his art. And yet we see people with only a few years in an art opening up a school full of confidence in his knowledge to train people. These are usually the people who refer to themselves as “Sifu” – even if they’re doing a northern style with northern Chinese teachers! Paul would always say to me that the longer he spends training the less he feels he knows, and yet there are so many young “Sifus” out there with no more access to knowledge because they have put themselves (mentally and in terms of public status) above the level of student. These people are the first to tell you that there are no secrets, that nothing is hidden, and that the sum total of any art is found in the basics. For these practitioners and teachers and their students, there are no secrets.

Extrapolating from Mancuso’s essay, secrets are knowledge that has been created, revealed, understood, or discovered but that has been kept in a place (one person’s mind, a vault, a remote mountain top, a dusty old and forgotten book, or a secure database) that is inaccessible to some or to most. Sometimes this knowledge, these secrets, die because they are not transmitted. Even if a teacher wants to impart some knowledge, he may choose to wait so as to let the student work through the material he has already been given. As Confucius says, “If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson?” (Lunyu 7.8). The other three corners are thus “secret” until the student realizes them.

This is vital to really learning the martial arts. A student has to work through a lot on his own. The teacher is there to guide, correct, transmit the form and the internals, but the student has to internalize those things on his own. A master chef prepares a meal, and it is served in a perfectly presented manner, beautiful to the eye, easily eaten, balanced in every way. But the digestion is out of the chef’s hands. It lies solely inside of the person consuming the dinner. Sometimes, because of some quirk of a diner’s metabolism, he may not be able to properly digest the food. He may not be able to have a second course, much less desert. A good teacher waits to make sure that the student has digested the material fully before moving on to deeper levels of practice. Usually, the student who has successfully digested the material will come back with questions, or excited observations about the material and some implications of that material for other movements. The student has come back with the other three corners.

Sadly, sometimes we see people who only learn the first corners – pick “first corners” up from a variety of schools, and go on to assemble them in awkward geometrical shapes and teach them to others. So no, there are no secrets there. But the truth, as Mancuso writes, is that there are secrets in every field of human endeavor.

The other reason I find Mancuso’s recent essay topics so interesting is the resonance with some observations and experiences I’ve had in recent years. When I was younger ? and I imagine this is how most people first experienced the martial arts, at least in America ? you went to whatever school of martial arts you could find near you. This meant a public, open school. You would then meet other students from open, public schools at demos and tournaments. This defined the world of martial arts as you knew it. Sure, you could read in magazines and books about other teachers and styles. But they were almost fantasy unless you could actually encounter them first had. And there is no interaction with books and magazines. Then along came the internet and YouTube and you can suddenly see so many styles being practiced. Long gone are the days of “secret transmission” of valuable 9th generation copied VHS tapes, where you might see a distant kung fu relative blurredly making his way through a form you were learning, or wanted to learn. And yet, in the midst of all this openness, there seems to be a decline in the large open schools teaching traditional arts.

A few years ago, I started a “new phase” in my martial arts experience. I relocated away from my teacher, Paul Sun, and began working out a lot on my own in parks. I met other martial artists in the area and found some teachers who do not have large public schools and who do not compete. These teachers charge little or nothing. Instead, they value passing on the arts to dedicated students. Then Paul ?retired? from teaching, and now just works out with a handful of students privately. As Mr. Mancuso writes, there seems to be a definite movement of teachers withdrawing from open teaching and concentrating on a few select students. Teachers and their arts are becoming hidden.

At this point, I honestly cannot say how I feel about the dynamic of ?hidden teachers.? Obviously, whatever works for a teacher in the practice and transmission of his or her art is up to them. Of course, it is a tragedy when knowledge is lost because it is not transmitted. And ?hidden teachers? may run a greater risk of lack of transmission. On the other hand, more can be lost in a large commercial school, where the students come and go with greater frequency. Perhaps “hidden teachers”? are actually necessary in order to transmit these structures of human knowledge to future generations with greater fidelity. For now I seek to grow as much as I can as a martial artist through the new openness in information, through the guidance of my more-or-less hidden teachers, and through introspective experimentation with the material (sketching out the other three corners). The secret and the hidden remain in flux.

Andrew Shinn

* The two articles referred to are: Secrets and Hidden Masters

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