Shifu, (i.e. “Sifu”) translated literally means, “teacher-father” and so denotes a martial arts teacher in the position of a “father, or head, of the school.” Simply put, he is the Head, or Chief, Instructor.
In the Japanese-related martial arts, the term Sensei, is used. Translated literally, Sensei means, “the one who comes before.”
The teacher can be seen as further down the road the student is traveling. He has experienced the obstacles in the road. He also has likely been observant enough to see the obstacles that others have hit that he may have avoided. It all gets tucked away and with it all comes the ability to lead others the best way he knows how. But that doesn’t mean he’ll make it easy.
“Good timber does not grow with ease. The stronger the wind the stronger the trees.” – Douglas Malloch
Ultimately, the teacher can offer his knowledge but the student must choose and discover for him or herself what it is they feel, and believe, is right. Personal experience is what results in true wisdom, not intellectual speculation.
A teacher, and true Shifu, has to be a great student. By being a great student he can have great students. He learns from his students on one level, while his students learn from him on another. The true martial artist is always working on his consciousness. He works diligently for every action – even the most mundane – to be with complete focus. Every activity is new.
In a discussion with my teacher, he explained, “Cannot take and just give out. Must digest first.” How else can you know what you’re teaching and be able to offer advice if a problem arises? The teacher is responsible for what is taught; the student is responsible for what is learned.
The Teacher – Student Relationship
In the U.S., it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach. If a student doesn’t understand, the teacher is frequently blamed, as in, “How could Mr. Smith fail me.” As if it was the teacher’s choice rather than the student’s efforts.
In Asia, where these traditions originated, it is the student’s responsibility to learn. If the student doesn’t get it, it is because the student isn’t focused enough, isn’t paying close enough attention, or trying hard enough to understand. Traditionally, the student accepted what the teacher gave without question. It was the student’s job to take what the teacher gave and do as much as possible with it. The student shows appreciation through their efforts. They did not question the teacher.
In Master Park’s youth, he was lucky if his Shifu (my Shizu, Lu Shui Tian), would show something more than once. Tai Shizu (Great-Grand-Shifu) would then frequently leave his young student alone to practice and figure it out. He might later check it, and if it wasn’t acceptable he might offer a correction, but most likely he’d just say, “Practice more.”
Certainly, the relationship must go both ways with each making sincere efforts and adjustments. Thing is, if a person takes the time to figure something out for him or herself they are far more likely to understand it at a much deeper level, as well as remember it, than if everything is just handed to them. Learning this way is very frustrating at times, but for the student who sincerely makes the effort, it is the most rewarding.
Master Park would say, “When ready, 5 minutes explain, you catch. When not ready, many hours explain not enough. Spend too much my energy. This waste time.”
This is the way he became the master that he is. He understands it as deep as it goes. The system is not memorized techniques, it is the experience of applying principles. A teacher who learned this way can walk into any situation and figure out what to do. He can figure out what a student needs and when it is a good time to show them. He can come up with answers to questions by problem-solving in the moment.
“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” -Author unknown.
Thing is, people in our society are used to being spoon fed and are in such a hurry to “finish” something and move on to something else. This doesn’t work to acquire real skill, especially the kind that permeates every level of a person – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Some things take time. A tree doesn’t grow faster if you pull on it – it dies.
The student-teacher relationship must be based on honesty, loyalty, and trust. The student must be able to come to their teacher and openly and honestly admit their feelings and their thoughts. This can be very difficult for some people. They don’t like to share their feelings. But this is where the teacher must excel if he is to help his students grow on every level. The student who pretends nothing is wrong when there is cheats himself. He or she may not realize that what they are thinking is very common. They may not realize that the teacher has experienced the same challenge when they were coming up.
The student is going to hit obstacles and plateaus in their practice. There comes a time when you just don’t think you’re getting better, and you wonder if it’s all worth it.
A true Shifu makes every effort to figure out how to best help you, the student. He must know what is needed and when it is needed.
Back in the mid 80s, while practicing with my first teacher, at the intermediate level I came to him and told him that I didn’t feel like I was getting any better. I never forgot his answer, and it still rings true today. He said, “This is the time when most people get stuck and quit. This is the time when you decide: either you’re going to suck it up and practice harder to get through this, or you give up. This is what makes the difference in people who reach the highest levels – in anything – or those who never grow beyond their current limiting beliefs.” I’ve seen this scenario repeat itself over and over with my own students when they reach this level.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” So true.
Make a sincere effort every day. Who wants to look back and say, “If only I stuck with my practice, I could have had 10 years experience by now. I could have been 10 years better”? But “could have been” is a meaningless thought process – you only can do something about anything right NOW. Consistency over time is the only way to become great – at anything.
Are You Teachable?
A true Shifu has his students’ best interest at heart. If the student knows what’s best then why does he need the teacher?
If you are an apprentice learning from a master carpenter, should you be making suggestions about how to make a staircase, or should you just be quiet and do it as he tells you to? I guarantee you’ll learn a lot more by closing your mouth and opening your eyes, ears, and mind. You are there to learn, otherwise, go do something else.
When corrected does it make any sense to argue or make excuses? This only wastes time, trying to validate your ego. There really is only one kind of response when my Shifu tells me something, “Yes, Sir!” or, “Thank you, Sir!” (along with a bow and Salute!).
If I disagree in some way, I can only keep it to myself and ponder a bit. Most of the time, it makes more sense after I’ve thought about it some more. Having faith and trust in your teacher allows you to follow instruction, even when you don’t fully understand, accepting that the teacher just might know something that you don’t.
The teacher can only teach what he knows, and in the best way he knows how. A teacher can also only give his interpretation of the art based on what he has experienced. What I have learned from Master Park is his interpretation of what his Shifu, Master Lu Shui Tian, taught him, just as what I teach is my interpretation of what Master Park has taught me.
The teacher will not always give you the answer you’re hoping for. Sometimes he will hurt your feelings, or point out something that is painful to hear. But all of this is to help you grow – not only as a martial artist, but personally and spiritually.
Traditional teaching methods in many ways are “hidden”. By that I mean the student frequently doesn’t even realize he or she is being taught, and observed. What may appear to be a mistake, a change, or even seem to have a lack of reason, may be by design. The teacher may even appear to not know something just so the student tries harder to figure it out on their own. A master instructor teaches even when the student doesn’t realize he’s being taught. The student might even think he or she is teaching the teacher something, though it is actually all by design.
I learned a long time ago that there is no use in telling a traditional teacher what it is you either think you should learn or want to learn. If a student has the nerve to ask Master Park to teach him something it is very likely he won’t teach that student anything – for a very long time.
In the excellent book, “Kodo: Ancient Ways”, the author, Kensho Furuya writes, “From the standpoint of the teacher, and more importantly from the standpoint of the student, our attitude toward our practice and what we expect to get out of martial arts training is very important. A student with only average physical ability may develop quite successfully in his training through a healthy attitude toward his practice. A student who seems to have all the advantages to becoming a skillful martial artist may fall flat on his face simply because he has a bad attitude. We should really think about this carefully.”
Sincere effort over time is what makes you a real student. The teacher can only do so much. The amount of time available for practice is not the same for everybody. The key is to do what you can do as well as you can do it. It is not what you do but how you do it. You develop the habit of mindfulness in your approach to everything you do and that results in a profound impact in your everyday life. Every moment, we can practice.
A poor attitude, thinking you are better, or worse, than others, is just your ego talking – and holding you back.
Are you a customer, or a student?
The real student of martial arts follows the teacher and has faith in the process, even when he doesn’t quite understand. The customer of martial arts behaves like they are making a purchase, as with any commodity, and may even try to direct the teacher. Regardless of what they get, with this attitude, they leave empty-handed.
This doesn’t mean that the student should follow blindly. Advanced students should be a good indicator to see how good the teacher is. Question is, can you judge yet? You only can interpret based on your current level of experience, so this too is difficult to do. Are you looking only at “technique”? Or can you see an overall demeanor? What is their attitude towards fighting and violence? Is it ego driven or truly self defense?
A True Dao Chang
The teacher establishes the Dao Chang (also Dojang; common term is the Japanese, Dojo – or “Place of Enlightenment / Awakening / Self-Realization / etc.”) for the students to have a place to learn and practice the arts. This place is designed to exist for students to work on themselves – on every level-and to get as much as they possibly can from the environment and the practice.
The existence of this place is made possible by the students and for the students. It is not a YMCA. It’s not a gym or a club. It is a place to learn the skills that helps them to find their true selves. And the goal is for everyone to gain as much as they possibly can from their practice.
The Role of the Senior Student
This is where the students have to step up and become a part of the process. Every student’s responsibility is to maintain this special environment, and to be a role model for any student who is their junior. New students coming in have nothing to compare it to. There’s no one to follow except the senior students. It is the senior students that must make sure the right environment is maintained so that their juniors can develop the right attitude toward their practice.
A strong, focused environment can greatly effect even the weakest, most distracted person, if that person stays in the environment long enough. Remember: Environment is stronger than will. Who and what you spend time with greatly determines what you experience in your life and who you become.
Early in my training, I experienced what any martial artist does: when senior students would lead or teach something, (with the teacher’s blessing). Since I’ve always been a stickler for detail, it would really annoy me when they didn’t do things exactly as Shifu did. Over time, as my understanding improved, I began to realize that they were doing their best, giving their best interpretation of what to do, and if I was in the group, I learned to simply follow their way that day. The class leader becomes the student’s director to follow without complaint, to stay in the moment, and not let the ego jump in and mess up a practice!
Friendly, but not friends
Getting too friendly or too close with the teacher, being on a first name basis where the student becomes overly casual with the teacher only effects the student. This in no way hurts the teacher, it hurts the student’s ability to be a student.
It is important that the student maintains a certain level of seriousness, respect, and even reverence for the practice, the environment at the school, and the teacher. This makes it much easier to stay focused on the task – your personal and spiritual growth.
Socializing with students may make it difficult for a teacher to treat them in the strict and generally impartial way teaching requires. Students are sometimes offended when a teacher’s uncompromising attitude toward them in the training room seems at odds with the friendlier and more laid-back attitude they may enjoy socially.
If fighting was the only focus of training then the common problems that can occur between teachers and students becoming “friends” are less of a concern. However, where the mental and spiritual development of the student is stressed, there is much more at stake.
Crossing the line
There exists an imaginary line between the student and the teacher. The teacher can cross over as he wishes, but the student should never cross that line. Once the student crosses the line it becomes much more difficult to learn objectively.
In the end, if the teacher’s main interest is the student’s growth as a person, it is very important not to get personal. If the student’s main interest is to learn from their teacher, they do not want to create a situation jeopardizing this. They do not cross the line.
You see, when you’re with a true Shifu, you are always being observed, always being tested on one level or another. It may not seem fair, but this is how the teacher learns how to best guide the student.
This “no down time” attitude helps the teacher to better understand the student, their level of commitment and understanding, and where they may need to be further challenged or directed so they can continue to grow. Getting too close and personal blurs things and makes it that much harder to accomplish this.
The true teacher is always teaching.
Most Americans have a hard time with this. This take on the teacher / student relationship is not part of our culture – even less so in our modern society. So, there is a learning curve there for us to develop this understanding so that we can benefit from it.
The authentic martial arts school is a very foreign environment for the average American. The real martial arts instructor will give their students far more than they’ve ever expected – beyond the exercise, self confidence, and self defense that the student may have originally come in for. The correct teacher-student relationship is pivotal in this experience.
A well-known Chinese martial arts instructor I know (Shifu Mike Patterson) once spoke of his teacher’s take on the student-teacher relationship. He said it like this, “You like study, I like teach. As long as you like study, I like teach. You no like study? Who lose? I lose? I no think so. I already know.” Pretty much sums up the attitude and approach my Shifu, Master Park, has.
Originally Published in August, 2004