h Phoenix Qi: Daoism on Teachers

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Daoism on Teachers

I believe this is the modern equivalent of the guqin, the ancient Chinese 7-stringed zither. It is said that Confucius (c. 600 BC) was a master of this instrument.

The quote below is "Music" from p. 100 of Everyday Tao: Living with Balance and Harmony by Deng Ming-Dao, Harper San Francisco, NY, 1996, ISBN 0-06-251395-8.



Music, joy.

The music of nature is entirely different from the music of the academy.

There once was a zither student whose master, frustrated by his pupil's lack of musical progress for so many years, pronounced him unsuitable for learning. To understand how devastating this was to the young man, one must remember that playing the zither was considered a very high and demanding art, practiced only by refined and learned people. In addition, one's master was like a parent. He or she was usually as dedicated to teaching as a parent is to rearing a child. So to be rejected by his teacher was a great shock to the student.

The master abandoned the young man on the shores of an island, leaving the student only a zither. Left to his own resources, the disappointed pupil provided first for his survival. The island, although uninhabited, had enough wild fruit and vegetables to sustain him. In the time that followed, he listened to the singing of birds, the chorus of the waves, the melodies of the wind. He spent long periods of time in meditation and musical practice. By the time he was rescued, several years later, he had become a virtuoso player and composer, far greater than his master: he had entered into Tao.

And so it is with us. We need teaching. But there is a point beyond which teaching cannot provide for us. Only direct experience can give us the final dimensions we need. That means learning from nature, and learning from ourselves. As long as we remember that, there can be no mistake.

Deng Ming-Dao


Here we have a quintessential Quest Story with the Archetypal Hero who makes his appearance as "unsuitable" and inept, who leaves town for a long time and seeks that which he knows will bring him joy (the music) but did not with the Teacher, who experiences an enlightening adventure, who returns to his place of origin as an admired adept.

In our immaturity, we often deliver ourselves into the hands of teachers and unquestioningly believe what they tell us regarding our ability and value. The problem with that is, even if those teachers are friendly toward us and want us to succeed, their judgment is still subjective. If they are unfriendly, over-demanding, or ego-driven, teachers can instill a lack of confidence in us that we may shoulder throughout our life. (As you can see, choosing and being a teacher carries a lot of responsibility, and should never be taken lightly.) Also, students' learning styles differ; for a successful teaching/learning experience, the student and teacher must be compatible.

Now, here is something that may seem to be a paradox but if you think about it, you'll find that it makes complete sense: sometimes we place too much importance on finding or having a teacher. The reason, I believe, is because somewhere deep inside, whether we admit it or not, we believe that if we find the right teacher, he or she can instill abilities in us like pouring water into a bottle. Logically, we know this is untrue, but it's human nature to hope to find that magical someone from whom we may effortlessly learn. Teachers are guides; a teacher may be the best way to learn some types of knowledge, but for other areas there may be better ways to follow. In any event, we still have to do the learning for ourselves.

The big question is, how difficult should it be? Think about effortless learning for a moment. When is learning effortless? Is it when you follow your natural inclinations and learn/practice that which is your purpose in life? I believe it is. Remember the principle of "wei wu wei," doing without doing, and that it means doing that which follows the laws of nature, doing (any action) in accordance with the natural flow of energy not against it. Now, I could take zither lessons, but I'm tone deaf....how sensible would it be for me to take any kind of music lessons? Not sensible at all - I'd be wasting my time and money. However, the student in the story was flowing with the universal energy when he chose to take up his instrument, he just needed the right teachers....the birds, the waves, the winds, his inner self.

Oftentimes, we will find that the best teacher for a natural inclination is Nature herself, inner Nature (that which we feel, or Dao), and outer Nature (that which we observe).

I like that this story is about Music because that is what the Language or the Voice of the Universe is often called; music of the stars, music of the heavens, etc. "The so-called music of the spheres was thought by Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras in the 6th century BC — and by later classical and medieval philosophers of the Western world — to be a perfectly harmonious music, inaudible on Earth, produced by the movement of the stars and planets. In many non-Western cultures ancient thinkers understood music as part of a system of cosmological, philosophical, or scientific thought. For instance, the musical scale of ancient China, derived through arithmetic from a basic note, reflected the ancient Chinese conception of the organization of the universe." (Source: Encarta)

Another thing I love about this story is the island metaphor: island as a spiritual realm. There was the Hero - abandoned on an island....and, worse, left with only the object of derision & scorn, the zither. In his isolation, he discovers self-sufficiency, and the greater enlightenment of hearing the song of the universe as presented to him by the birds and the waves and the wind. Left to his own devices, naturally finding his way to the Dao as we all are wont to do when left to our own devices, he is not only able to hear the Song of the Spheres, he is able to translate the Language of the Universe using his zither, gifting the Sound of the Universe to mortal men like the old teacher who never advanced as far as his pupil.

To ponder the idea of isolation a bit further....in isolation, many of the great religious leaders have found enlightenment: Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad. Buddha of course spent his time at the edge of a forest seated beneath a tree, Jesus went into the desert for an extended time, Muhammad meditated in caves outside Mecca. Lao Tzu, author of the Dao De Ching, was a man who shunned the public eye, though we don't know if he spent time in isolation as did the others mentioned. (One article claims he worked as the librarian in the emperor's library!) I suspect that he did spend some quality alone-time because legend tells us his philosophy of peaceful, simple living in natural surroundings was rejected by society so it stands to reason he must have lived in this way in order to espouse the ideal. After having his philosophy rejected, he went into retirement away from the city, and it was during a break in this long and lonely journey he was asked by a border gatekeeper to write his philosophy so it would not be lost. So, spending time in isolation does appear to be a common thread among enlightened human beings.

Being on an island surrounded by water is like being in the womb. In being removed from his village and left on the island, the Hero has been returned to his True Source, the realm of spirit. An island in the sea (or the sky) has always been the equivalent of the spiritual realm. (In this type of story, the sea and sky are interchangeable; even the Milky Way was called by the ancient Egyptians the Celestial River (which was crossed on one's way to the World of the Dead), and was the equivalent of the River Styx in European myth, the crossing of water into the land of the dead - which was also the land of Spirit! In the I Ching it's called "crossing the great water" or "...the great river.")

His rescue is, of course, his rebirth. Having entered the Dao through his music, he is now perfectly in harmony with the Universe; through his enlightened experience, he shares with those who rejected him the Music of the Spheres through the playing of his zither.

No matter who your teacher is, and especially if you have no blood-and-flesh teacher, align yourself harmoniously with the natural laws of the universe...enter the Dao.

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