These thoughts on teachers and students were written with Taoism in mind, but everything the author says is applicable to riding.
With thanks to Deng Ming-Dao, Scholar Warrior.
An Introduction to the Tao in Everyday Life
In the Asia of the past, masters were a bit more accessible, and it was possible to commit oneself to the study of Tao if one's heart was so moved. But nowadays, masters are fewer in number and harder to find. Modern culture neither recognises the importance of a master nor supports masters. Moreover, with the fast pace and distractions of modern life, few people are satisfied with the patient, long-term relationship of master and student.
Further compounding the problem is the plethora of false masters who hurt their students with poor guidance. Sometimes, this malpractice is not simply bad advice, but the introduction of medicine, diet, or techniques that cause bodily and mental injuries. Even people who are uninterested in spiritual pursuits have heard about the various abuses of so-called masters, and these perverse teachers continue to prey upon the sincere aspirations of thousands around the globe. There have been many cases of teachers who have not developed fully, who have become infatuated with power, or who have fallen to material or emotional temptations. Responsibilities are greater for a master than for an ordinary person; not everyone can bear the burden. This unfortunate state of affairs leads some to question the need for a master. But rarity is not enough reason to reject the idea of a master. Just because there are many bad masters does not mean that there is no such thing as a good one.
If you truly need a master, then you must find the one appropriate for you. But the way to find a master and the standards to apply are not well known. It makes no sense to study with a master because of fame alone.
The ease with which advertising and rumour make people famous overnight should give us ample reason for caution. It doesn't matter whether a particular system or master is well known or popular. What does matter is that the master is qualified and that there is a true relationship between master and student.
The most important things about masters are their proficiency in their system and their genuine compassion for and interest in their students. A male master is like a father. A female master is like a mother. Without parents, we do not have life. Without a master, we cannot have spiritual awakening. The master helps us find the way. The master is the true gateway. Those without masters but who nevertheless hold aspirations for spirituality and self-cultivation are like spiritual orphans. They can fend for themselves and still live successful lives, but whatever their achievements, they cannot compare with what they could have achieved with the guidance of a master. A master cares for students as a parent cares for children. Oddly enough, good mothers and fathers also seem to be more rare these days, so it's no wonder that people can barely accept the idea of a master.
Unlike our relationship with our parents, however, our connection with a master is voluntary. We cannot choose our parents, but we do have a say in whom we learn from. We must choose wisely. The old saying, "When the student is ready, the master will come," can also be interpreted to mean that you must know what you want from a master before you can select one wisely. Many people seek out masters when what they are really looking for is a surrogate parent. This has nothing to do with the true role of the master. You should go to a master to seek the answer to your questions, and to acquire a way of life that will serve you well. Your life is always very much your own responsibility.
A good coach inspires the people he or she is training. Usually former champions, coaches impart all the secrets of their own greatness. Their students may sometimes surpass them, but true coaches never become jealous of such success. They know that these achievements are an extension of their own. What runner, weight lifter, boxer, swimmer, gymnast, or any other athlete ever became great without a coach? To paraphrase the Chinese aphorism about masters and students, "An excellent coach produces an excellent pupil.
No matter what level of the Scholar Warrior you seek to achieve, you cannot do it without a teacher, a coach, or a master. Being a great dancer or athlete is difficult, but it isn't as difficult as living a complete life in accord with the Tao. Being a world-class champion is for the very talented and well trained, but it cannot provide knowledge of what to do after retirement and what to do to face death. The task is complicated indeed, and the challenge cannot be met with a smattering of book learning and attending a few unrelated seminars. You need a coach to train you, whether you are an aspiring dancer, or an aspiring meditator.
There is one way that the best masters differ from many of the coaches and athletic trainers in the world today: they never stop growing. They teach as a natural part of their own quest. But they still continue on their lifelong path. Being a coach is not a function of retiring from the arena. All too often, people teach or become coaches when they can no longer participate in their field. In the tradition of the Scholar Warrior, there have been many great women and men who were powerful fighters or accomplished scholars and who knew when to leave one field of competition and enter another. As they entered each new stage in their lives, they were able to apply their skill, discipline, and knowledge so that they continually achieved brilliance. Coach should not be a role taken when one can do nothing else. Being a master is a function of continuing greatness, not an empty role taken on to gather innocent students.
Just as you should live your life with a purpose and a goal, so too should you approach a master with specific goals. What do you want to learn? What kind of master do you want? The more adequately you can answer these questions, the greater your chances of finding an appropriate teacher. In addition, such a clear picture will help you to assess your progress through the years. You know exactly what you want, so there should be no confusion about whether you are getting it or not. ...
What is a Master?
If one were to list the qualities of a master, they might be as follows:
A master is like a parent. Masters must be capable of both loving and disciplining their students. They want only the best, so they teach their students all they can. Aware of their own shortcomings, they will send their students to other teachers to learn skills they cannot themselves teach. Just as a mother and father give of their flesh to create a child, nurture with their Labour to help it grow, and pass on an inheritance to provide for the future, so too does a master give of his or her spiritual essence, nurture with training, and pass on a spiritual legacy.
A master will have a lineage. A true master has a lineage, just as we all have a family history. As the history and example of our ancestors influences our lives, so too does our lineage influence our thinking. The master passes on this influence, so it is critical that the master has a good background and sound history.
A master, by his or her very presence, can awaken your dormant spiritual energy. This is subtle, not dramatic. You feel good, energetic, optimistic, and safe around your master. This must be experienced to be believed.
A master can answer any questions that the student has. No matter what the nature of the inquiry, masters must be able to direct their student's search. That is why they must be Scholar Warriors. Only someone with a broad spectrum of experience can do this.
A master must have lived the life that he or she is advocating. There can be no intellectualising, hypothesising, fantasizing, mesmerising. A master must be experienced. Anything less is hypocrisy.
A master must look healthy and vital. Eyes and skin must be clear, body muscular and lean. He or she should be fastidious in habits and glowing with health. True spirituality has a physical manifestation, for there is no true division between body and mind. Unless you can sense this in a person, that person is not worth studying with.
A master must be the right age. A young teacher is too inexperienced. An older one will be too impatient, too irritable, and too interested in completing his or her own spiritual quest. In general, it is best to begin one's study with a master who is between the ages of fifty and sixty-five.
A master inspires trust. You feel safe with him or her. It should not be a strain to believe your master. You understand that he would do nothing to intentionally harm you. Your master protects you - physically, mentally, and spiritually.
A master is three-quarters along his or her own spiritual path. Any less, and he or she is like a parent who is too young: such a master might do all right, but often makes mistakes when an older or more mature person would not. On the other hand, masters who are too close to ultimate spiritual attainment cannot communicate on a normal level. They are already partly in the spiritual realm and will have a tendency to withdraw from everyday activities. You need someone still active and vital.
There are two types of masters. One is the type who cares primarily for his or her own practice. This type of master generally is highly accomplished but will not come out publicly. Masters like these hide themselves away and train themselves for higher and higher stages of accomplishment. Sometimes, they will teach because they meet a student they feel is destined to learn their art, or sometimes they are forced to teach because of dire circumstances or poverty. To learn from such a person can be a fantastic opportunity, though masters like these can be temperamental, impatient, and as demanding of their students as they are of themselves.
The other kind is the priest or teacher. These are masters who have been trained specifically to take on a public role. Usually, their own masters designate them as teachers because they are articulate, socially skilful, and able to properly represent their tradition. Inwardly, they are often motivated by strong compassion and find that helping others to learn their system is as essential as their own success. Such masters need a certain amount of charisma to hold their group together. In return, however, they usually will teach unreservedly.
Neither type is superior to the other. But as a student, it is essential that you look carefully into your teacher's character and make sure that you are compatible with his or her inner nature and personal priorities.
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