By Yossi Sheriff
There was once a naqshabandi who wrote on the mosque wall: “The idiot-teacher’s corner”.
He requested his students to watch people as they entered and responded to the inscription.
“A passer-by responding to the writing in a certain way is ripe for studies. Another who responds differently will not be able to sustain more than a brief period of studying”, said this sage to some of his students, and asked them to be attentive.
It is said that eventually, although he never inquired about the matter, his forecast proved to be precise.
I have no gift of foresight, no such good insights, but I would like to have them.
Budo Ninjutsu is a martial art with no shortcuts. Years of perseverance are the only way to contain the huge accumulation of material and to practice it. Therefore, the instructor invests enormous efforts in his pupil. This is a lot of work measured by the needs of the practitioner, the instructor’s experience, and the strengths possessed by both.
If I had the gift of foresight, I would spare myself futile effort.
On the Sisyphean path one encounters those who stop. When a veteran pupil ceases to practice, I still sense that “oops” feeling anyone gets upon realizing that a unique, single copy of the dissertation he had been writing for over seven years has been deleted from his computer. Not just deleted, deleted with no backup.
It would be helpful to foresee who is “capable” and who is not, who is worth the investment and whom one had better reject to begin with.
One evening, ten years ago, an expensive dinner at a restaurant in Jerusalem put an end to my attempts to foresee who is “capable” and who is not. I forecasted that Guy R. (who has since only intensified the frequency of his training) would stop training, and I even betted with Lior the price of a meal. If my memory has not been totally softened by the blows to my head, I recall that Gadi, Michael and Yoav also came along for the bet so I had to pay a lot for my mistake. It was nice evening, although the kebab was nothing to write home about.
So guessing didn’t work.
What did work prior to that dinner and still works today is an altogether different mechanism called filtering.
Such filtering mechanisms are scattered like mines, even where they seem quite innocent. I would like to stress that these are filtering, not testing mechanisms. There are people not “capable” of Budo who are quite capable in many other fields.
I wished to remain with those “capable” of many years of practice.
Some of the filters are straightforward, warm-up (Himum) for example. A person who looks for comfort and shirks work will not last more then several weeks. Another filter is the never-ending demand to show one’s training partner consideration (“sensitivity” in the code of ethics). Whoever cannot overcome his egocentricity in class will develop strong frustrations that will undermine his determination and will.
The pupil faces yet another obstacle. It has to do with the fact that I am an average human being, and sometimes there are problems between us because I am also a mediocre teacher. In this relationship I am sometimes in a position of a relatively young person teaching older and smarter people than myself, or alternately, teaching people much younger than myself for whom I represent much more than I actually am.
It is big problem because some of those who can, who are “capable” of long years of Budo practice trip against this stone after many years on this path. As Dan once said:
“If we watch people walking along a riverbed, often one person slips on a stone, and then following him, many others will slip on it, just the same way he did.”
I don’t know what exactly are those stones that make veteran pupils trip after years of practice, but I do recognize a large, obvious, much earlier stone: in the relations between a teacher and a novice. It is a fictional image that the beginning pupil projects upon the teacher. In martial arts one stumbles upon into this stone incessantly.
At times the teacher willingly puts on this image and cooperates with this honey-trap which means trouble for both teacher and pupil.
The teacher who must always prove to be omnipotent, who has spent fifty years at the Shaolin monastery, who has been Israeli and European champion of the secret dragon society and is 11th Dan and head master of the most excellent method in this part of our galaxyâ€¦ this nonsense knows no limits. If the young pupil buys it, no great harm is done. But if the teacher, after years of illusion, believes this story as well, then no doubt this is not a mere obstacle but an unbridgeable rift for both.
Filtering out those romantic vessels who wish to train only with Bodhidharma or Musashi themselves is simple: one must simply say one’s personal, unpleasant truth I too burp occasionally, my technique is not impeccable, I am the teacher and still I lose many fights, sometimes I’m sad, at others too merry, and from time to time I seek some good advice.
Another human being.
Although I am neither a naqshabandi nor mevlevi, this now seems to me a fitting heading for my locker at the dojo: one day it’ll say “The private locker of a mediocre, sometimes very stupid Sensei”. I cannot foretell by people’s response to it whether they are “capable”, but I seem to prefer teaching only those who can live with this truth: human beings are so much more than headlines and titles.