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My Karate Teacher Wasn't Very Nice

I like to go walk into town once in a while, find a pleasant cafe with big windows and, over a coffee, read, contemplate and watch the world go by. 

Recently, while enjoying my cappuccino and the latest John Rain adventure, a young couple with a boy came in and sat at the next table.  I was not paying them too much attention until I heard the woman say, 'I'm not going back to the Karate class, the teacher wasn't very nice to me.'

I looked up and had the impulse to advise the woman that a Karate teacher was not supposed to be 'nice' to the students.  As I thought about it a bit more I realised this was a pretty big topic and settled down to contemplate it further.  There are so many aspects to the relationship a student has with a teacher and so many different outlooks, from both parties, that confusion is inevitable.  Add to this the expected etiquette and cultural assumptions that pervade martial arts classes and the situation is a minefield.

Some teachers are very traditional - their methods would not be out of place in Army basic training.  They can be brutal whilst their authority is unquestioned.  They make their students learn and some have driven students to attempt suicide with their severity as, reputedly, did Yang Lu-chan with his son.  Some continue the archaic 'Master - Disciple' relationship which includes a formal ceremony and has obligations on both sides.  Students are only accepted once they have proved themselves worthy of instruction and may need formal Letters of Introduction from legitimate sponsors.

On the other hand, there are teachers who are more egalitarian and democratic, dispensing with grades, encouraging questions and socialising with their students.  Classes with these teachers are more informal, less structured and open to anyone who wishes to attend.  The etiquette is more subtle and devoid of bowing or addressing the teacher by a title, such as sensei or shifu.

The majority of teachers place themselves somewhere between these extremes and, now and then, move one way or the other as their experiences lead.

Since the issue 'abuse' is of such concern in our modern society, it is understandable if there are questions as to where the line between 'tough training' and 'abuse' is drawn.  This is a difficult call to make as so much is dependent on the motivation of both teacher and student.  I know of present-day Chinese Tai Chi teachers who, despite physical beatings from their own teachers, still retain a reverential respect for them.  It is also true that many students believe that, without testing conditions, very little can be achieved and so push themselves to the extreme.  The first Zen Master I ever met said that the reason Zazen (described by Alan Watts as 'aching legs' Buddhism) was not torture was because we do it to ourselves. 

Then there is the complication of judging from different cultural and historical perspectives.  I often wonder how Cheng Man-ching would get on in a Scottish court defending the use of a paddle for disciplining his children by assuring the Sheriff that striking them with his hand would leave them injured.

The issue is not just cultural.  My own school teachers went to the lengths of belting the whole class on the hands with a leather strap (the standard corporal punishment in Scotland at the time) because, unable to find a particular culprit, they preferred the option of punishing everybody rather than nobody.  Is this child abuse?  Should those teachers have been on a register of some sort?    

In pursuing many skills and arts, the student is at some level required to surrender power to the teacher, even if only performing the exercises as laid down by the teacher.  Often in martial arts circles there is a suggestion that, the most valuable instruction comes about from 'heart to heart' - i.e. in an intuitive way which is best facilitated by the student 'harmonising with the teacher.'  Wolfe Lowenthal quotes Cheng Man-ching on the subject as follows: 'In revering the teacher you will not only benefit from his teaching, you actually can become harmonised with his knowledge.  If you neither revere your teacher nor give consideration to those without understanding, to whom you are an example, you are indeed confused.  To know this is an essential tenet of the Tao.'

A good teacher does not just demonstrate techniques, nor give verbal instructions but also inhabits the art.  The teacher is the living embodiment of the art in every action and gesture.  The smallest nuance speaks volumes to the observant student.  This is why the quality of a teacher can often be judged on how they react in the face of unexpected difficulties or when confronted by awkward people.

In some instances, though thankfully very few, there are abuses of the student's surrender of power.  A former teacher of mine recalled how his teacher used to invite female students to his room for special 'chi injections'.  Finances too can become a major cause of difficulty.  One of my own former teachers still owes me money for teaching classes for him - more than ten years ago.  The cheque may still be in the post, but I doubt it.  Although rare, I have seen the humiliation and intimidation of students in class, and also been at the receiving end of disagreeable pressure to remain with a school when I wanted to go on to pastures new.

At some point, we may conclude that the teaching is more 'abuse' than 'robust training,' but we may still stay with a teacher because there is something of value to be learned.  I have stayed with a couple of teachers, perhaps longer than I should for this reason.  Eventually, though, the student can always leave when the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.

However, what about when it is the teacher who is being abused by the students?  This may not seem likely to those who do not teach but, unfortunately, it is far more frequent than people realise.  Robert Smith in his Martial Musings quotes the advice given to him by Paul Guo, one of his teachers from Taiwan, on whether to start teaching or not.

'You are capable of teaching but my advice is - Don't do it!  Don't teach.  You will invest your time, energy, and love and usually nothing comes back.  The students always think they know more than you.  They don't believe you; they stop short; they are disloyal.  They try to bend you to their own egotistic purpose.  And in the end they disappoint you and end by breaking your heart.'

In trying to understand the words of Paul Guo, it helps to realise that people bring to the Dojo, school, etc., all of their own peculiar ways of dealing with their insecurities, practiced long and hard in the real world.  The masks adopted by the ego to protect itself are often more hideous than the genuine frailties which they are supposed to cover up.  Good teachers understand this and view their students as on a journey toward internal strength, compassion and sincerity where the ego's defences are no longer needed by the growing energy of the real Self.

Sometimes, however, the harmony of the School needs to be protected from the more viral conduct that some members can instigate.  Left unchecked the School, instead of being a place of refuge and learning, becomes contaminated by petty jealousies and conceits.  Sometimes, what looks like intolerance by the teacher is, in fact, an attempt to curb the damage with 'surgery' before it is too late and the School withers.  One of my former teachers, in his early years, did not understand the pervasiveness of this particular ill until, finding himself so undermined by his students, he abandoned his own class and started afresh on the other side of the city.  Another of my former teachers told a group of students to 'go elsewhere' for their instruction, and still another would have periodic arguments with senior students when he felt their egos were getting out of control.

Most martial arts schools have schisms, great and small, and I guess this is part of the process.  The 'youngster' gets too big to be tied to the nest and needs the freedom to learn and make his own mistakes.  'Growing beyond an instructor's control' can be a good thing, since the job of the true teacher is to facilitate growth and independence.  To break away from the apron strings takes courage and energy.  Sometimes the frustration and anger at the status quo can breathe life into a new start.  Eventually, with greater understanding, the teacher may be able to sense the need for change in a student and help them find another teacher or start out on their own.

The point: a teacher is ultimately the guardian of the class, for better or worse.  It really cannot be otherwise and when, we reach a point where we feel we no longer can harmonise with the teacher, for whatever reason, we need to leave.  Unlike other institutions, we cannot expect to form committees and lay down formal codes of conduct by which the teacher abides.  We have to take the good with the bad, or opt out.

Tai Chi or martial arts classes do not tend to flourish as democracies as Wolfe Lowenthal's description of the events at the Shr Jung in New York demonstrates.  In spite of the rigging of elections for the 'big six' who would run the School in Cheng Man-ching's absence, the school split anyway.  Without the unifying presence of Cheng Man-ching, the School fragmented, but may have ended the stronger because of it.  After his death, the seeds sown by Cheng Man-ching had germinated and spread across the country and beyond.

Tai Chi is an art of self-cultivation.  A teacher stands in front of a class and does not so much show what they know, but who they are.  This is not quite the same as saying that the teacher is somehow superior to the students, but rather that any teacher worth their salt embodies more of the gist of the art than those they teach.  For example, if relaxation is the goal then knowledge about it is of limited use unless you can translate that knowledge into being.  The job of the teacher is to serve as a living example.

Needless to say, most of us are quite far from attaining the ideal and, upon hearing of instances of pettiness or hubris, many people often comment: 'But isn't Tai Chi supposed to make people better than all that?'  Well . . . like so many things the poison is also the cure.  The tendency to vanity, manipulation and selfishness is to be found wherever two or more of us gather.  The martial arts world is just another domain where the game is played.  Perhaps, uniquely, the forces at work are more immediate and volatile, and so the lessons are learned quicker, if with more bruising.  Whether the arena is the boxing ring or the Push Hands class - egos clash, fear abounds, and respect is earned.

What stops it all degenerating into anarchy?  The Teacher, who is expected to have the wisdom of Solomon, the compassion of Buddha, and the strength of Hercules.  Perhaps we can forgive them when they are not so nice.

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