Anatomy of the True Teacher

martial arts teacherMy first taiji instructor, Lin Shih-Kuang, told me a story about a tragedy in his family. His father, involved in the government of Taiwan, suddenly fell from favor-in a hard way. Soon after this, Shih-Kuang had a birthday party. The usual friends and family were invited. Not one of them showed up—no adults, no children. Except for one person, his kung fu teacher.

The martial teacher is not special. He or she is like many teachers all over the world in all walks of life. But though a professional teacher, he is rarely a member of an organization. He is the old kind of teacher, as Aristotle was to Alexander, the person-to-person teacher.

Even in teaching physical movements or teaching flower arrangement or teaching science, a bond forms between teacher and student. And the lessons that are passed to the pupil always, always in a long-term relationship, extend past the limits and details of the subject matter. The teacher becomes privy to levels of information that one could never guess. At any given moment he might know who is fighting an addiction, whose spouse is having an operation, who is suffering from chronic pain, who is depressed, who hopeful. The teacher doesn’t have to solicit the information, it just comes out. And a long time teacher carries the triumphs of students who have gone on to successes, he carries the failures, the broken marriages, the children who have died young, and the suicides. And somehow, through a magic that is unexplainable, this knowledge transforms into the subject matter. A kung fu move softens, an edge disappears, a word of advice has the tone of a feather and the weight of a cement bag.

The teacher can see the pain in the student who no longer remembers that he or she is in pain. He can see the map of the person’s personal past written like a topological survey with peaks and depressions of exuberance and hurt.

I never thought to become a teacher. It just happened because there was something in my makeup that saw the transmittal of information between person and person as a kind of profound telepathy. But not between teacher and student—actually the teacher generally thinks little about himself or herself. The telepathy is between the student and all the teachers and people who have come before. It’s not, exactly, tradition. It’s more about the nature of human spirit that acquires information and experience and wisdom in that haphazard but nonetheless special manner, where the wisdom of the past not only aids the present, but somehow makes the past come alive. The very existence of a teacher reminds people that knowledge does not come into being anew with each generation. That no one can truly make his own mistakes because every mistake and triumph have already been made before. That human history is long and that the individual is more important, not less, as a part of that history, because the individual carries a double message from him or her own self and from their participation in the history of the race.

Just speaking of the martial arts, I have known teachers to go to prison for their students; their lives threatened about what to teach or not to teach; offered bribes to suppress information; sent to government detention just because they were teachers.

I have seen teachers demonstrate almost superhuman patience with ignorant students and humble the arrogant. I have seen teachers try to reach the unreachable and entice performances from the petulant. I have seen martial teachers by the dozen, squatting with tear-drenched children, encouraging them past the point of panic and terror to try, just one more time; and then almost jump out of their own skins when the child breaks through his own fear. I have seen teachers barely nod their heads while watching students give awesome, bring-down-the-house performances or—despite the claps and the cheers—shake their heads. I have seen teachers who could have done well in almost any other business, stick it out through bankruptcy, need, and even poverty in loyalty to their students and their art.

There is an old saying, “Teacher for a day, my father for a lifetime.” This recognizes that once a teacher accepts, truly accepts, a student there is a contract made between them. There are no pages and nothing written but the contract exists for all time. The items on the contract may differ from pair to pair but there are some things that cannot change. One of these is this is someone who will tell me the truth.

The teacher’s presence is felt even in his absence. He becomes a symbol of disembodied conscience. Having learned an art one reminds himself of what his teacher knew and not only the information, but the stories of practitioners now dead, their qualities and their limitations. Discernment, the ability to judge by shades and subtleties rather than crude approximations, is part of the legacy from teacher to student. The teacher often fulfills what the parent may lack by his challenge to the student but also his example. No teacher is flawless and many are eccentric individuals, but even in his eccentricity the teacher implies that quality and eccentricity are not necessarily at odds; that taste is more important than wealth; that many people claim to know things without knowing first what it means to know, that knowledge is itself a kind of responsibility to lift up those who would learn and to try and improve those who do not yet understand the meaning of learning.

In his or her very existence the teacher keeps alive the idea that two people can ultimately connect. When marriages sour, and friends turn away, and fellow workers snarl, the teacher keeps going, keeps pushing out the idea that life is progressive, life is evolution, life is learning.

The teacher, without ever saying it, reminds the student that there are people who think the content of the study is more important than their own individual lives. The teacher, no matter how charismatic, keeps up the standard that the subject comes first and foremost. One doesn’t learn kung fu from a teacher, one learns kung fu from Nature and oneself (really the same thing) with the teacher’s guidance.

At times the teacher can be irritating, evasive and demanding. There it is, we remind ourselves, he or she is just human. But the subject of the art is more than human, it is the accumulated knowledge of a hundred human beings with thousands of years of participation in the human struggle. The irritation is forgotten because the student knows that just as much as he or she wants to learn, the teacher, by some twist of fate and human construction, wants to teach. And both of them contemplate the rigors of the subject like a pair of friends sharing a sunrise, both staring at the sky as the light brightens their faces—both believing that sunrise means another day and another chance to walk further along the road.

I’ve known a number of teachers like this. This is no compliment to them; rather more of a curse—at least a fate. But without teachers we may be rich and famous but we will never be successful because there will be no continuity in which to display our successes. And no one but a teacher can really understand our failures.

After all, in the years we study with them they study us and, while we take in their lessons, they also become witnesses. The teacher is the witness who tests us against what we could be and in so doing encourages us to fulfill what we always knew was Nature’s promise to us, and our promise to the world.

This article first appeared in “Autumn Leaves: Journal of the Traditional Wushu Association,” Dec 1999. Many thanks for the right to reprint here.

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3 Responses to “Anatomy of the True Teacher”

  1. Jeff Crook says:

    The other day, a new student said, you are so incredibly patient. This wasn’t the first time. Once, the mother of one of my students insisted that, outside of school, I must be a minister or church deacon. She was very surprised to learn that I’m not. It’s always a surprise when someone points it out, because I don’t feel particularly patient. I just enjoy being there.

  2. Patrick Hodges says:

    This article is so true.

  3. Elliott Monds says:

    An interesting article: teacher is student, student is teacher. One Circle.