The Master, Disciple Relationship

The master, disciple relationship permeates the martial arts and is as old as time itself. Throughout all cultures and history great teachers have looked for students with the right attitude, conduct, and ability to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to. Few relationships are special and sacred as that between master and pupil. This relationship signifies the cycle of knowledge that is passed from teacher to student so that the knowledge and traditions can be sustained for future generations.

The master, disciple relationship is based on the ideals of Confucius (Kǒng Fū Zi 孔夫子). Confucius outlines five major hierarchical relationships: ruler and subject, parent and child, older sibling and younger sibling, husband and wife, and older friend and younger friend. The master and disciple relationship is based on and on equal level with the parent and child relationship. When a master decides to teach a disciple, he not only takes on the role of a teacher but also assumes the role of a parent.

The student participates in a special ceremony known as bài shÄ« (拝師). This ceremony is a formal asking of the student to be accepted into the master’s family and is often the cause of much celebration by his family and the community. The details of the bài shÄ« differ greatly by lineage and by master but all signify that the student has undertaken a larger commitment than the average student. This is a sign to all that a relationship has been established that goes beyond mutual respect, admiration, dedication and duty. Once the ceremony is complete and the disciple is accepted into the master’s family the student will now serve the master and display the same type of filial piety to his master that he shows to his parents. This kind of relationship requires unquestioning obedience, respect and loyalty on the part of the pupil, and knowledge, wisdom and exemplary moral behaviour on the part of the master.

The master, disciple relationship is a relationship founded on respect. The student respects his master because his master has knowledge and wisdom that the student does not. The master respects his student for the journey he is about to undertake and the responsibility he shows in committing himself to learning what the master has to teach. Humility is also important for both sides of this relationship. The student must humble himself and acknowledge that he knows nothing, the master should be humble letting his knowledge and skill speak for themselves.

The student often spends a great deal of time with his master. This allows maximum exposure to the information. Spending this much time together the student will learn everything that the master has to teach. Not only does the student learn the information that the master teaches, he also learns from the masters behaviour and actions. The manner with which the master conducts himself in all areas of his life are observed by his student. The master leads by example conducting himself with a high morale character, humility, and keen judgement so that the student learns how he should conduct himself within society.

The master acts as a mentor providing guidance and encouraging the student, leading the student through the unique knowledge that the master possesses. This ensures that the student is continually progressing, learning, and gaining in knowledge and wisdom under the master’s guidance. The transition of knowledge from master to student is of the utmost importance. The master realizes that the most important person in the relationship is the student. The student is often young or inexperienced and may not realize how important he is within the traditions that surround his course of study. The master knows that without the student he will be the last to carry on the traditions. This is a powerful motivator that drives the instructor to find a student that he deems worthy of spending time and effort on to pass on his knowledge. The relationship is a symbiotic one. Without the master’s knowledge the student has nothing to learn, and without the student the master has no one to transmit his information too resulting in the termination of an entire tradition.

The transference of knowledge and skill from master to student is often steeped in tradition. These traditions ensure that the master is shown the proper deference and that the pupil learns the importance of maintaining the traditions for future generations. These traditions take many forms from rituals to oral traditions. The traditions and information taught to the disciple differs from that of the normal student. The disciple learns the true transmission of the system of knowledge. This is often referred to as ‘closed door learning’ and contains much knowledge that the average student will never know exists. This is only taught to the disciple that has been tested and has proved time and again that he is loyal and trustworthy enough to learn this information. Sometimes this information is considered so dangerous that it must be taught orally or if it is written it must be memorized and the evidence burned afterwards so that it is not learned by anyone who does not have the proper moral character to use the knowledge appropriately.

The master, disciple relationship is an interesting one. It is governed by much cultural tradition and founded in the respect that a child has for his parents. The master must guide the disciple through his words and actions to learn all that he has to teach. The student must be willing to obey the master and submit to his wisdom and judgement with unquestioning loyalty. The student searches for the master that has great knowledge and wisdom, tremendous skill, and high morale character. The master searches for the student that has potential in many areas including the ability to learn the knowledge, acquire the necessary martial skills, and can cultivate the honesty, loyalty, and respect needed to develop great morale character. Without this very important relationship the cycle cannot continue and the traditions and values of great systems may die out bringing long lineages and many generations of students and masters to an end.

Comments  5 Comments »

  1. SiGung Vincent A. Cabais - January 22, 2009 3:14 pm

    This is a truly insightful article. I am proud that you recognize the subtleties of what it means to be a Disciple or Apprentice. However, thought without action is nothing more than ‘wasted energy’. I hope everyone that reads your article will come to understand that. It is important also to realize that there will always be ‘conflict’ when dealing with ‘growth’.

    I pray that more people take what you have discovered to heart.

  2. Sijin Pedro - August 19, 2011 1:48 pm

    can anyone tell me if this is right or wrong, i practice northern style kung fu in Puerto Rico, i am currently a purple belt, and i do believe that the Master/Disciple relationship is a strong bond between Teacher and Student, but i sometimes feel like my Sijo tents to not take into consideration all we do for him, his main concern is his other schools, the money, and winning tournament, i know he is a good teacher, but i just dont feel the respect toward him as i should due to his behavior around us. Is it normal for him to treat us like that? is it a kind of teaching?

    • Matt Talbert - August 23, 2011 8:52 am

      Da Shi Xiong Matt Talbert

      Thank you for the great question! Personally I feel that respect is earned regardless of the relationship between two people. The Master, Disciple relationship is special in many ways but ultimately you are both still people. If your master is more concerned about his business and making it grow then he may lose sight of the great individuals he is teaching and interacting with. However, also remember that respect comes from admiring someone’s ethics, actions, and behavior. If you do not necessarily agree with his ethics, actions or behavior you will not respect him as an individual. Respect is also a two-way street. Though you and your fellow students may do a lot of things for him these may be things that he is not concerned with or admire. It is not what you do for someone, but how you carry yourself as a person.

      What do others think?

  3. CoachSudan - October 20, 2011 1:19 am

    The Master has just as much if not more responsibility to conduct himself in a way where his disciples do NOT find it difficult at all to respect him/her. The Master does not have the same luxury to stray or act out in front of students and the public. When you are given such title or respect you are under obligation to uphold it or you will not be believed to be that which you or those say you are. Your teacher should not give off an aire of money-grubbing or any other such dubious behavior or it is your right to question.

    • Matt Talbert - October 20, 2011 8:59 am

      Da Shi Xiong Matt Talbert

      Coach Sudan I completely agree. It is the responsibility of any mentor to uphold their ideals and what they are trying to teach. The best way for a Master to pass on his values is to lead by example and realize that his students and his community are all observing and looking up to him as a model to aspire to. We want to watch our mentors and be inspired to attain their skill, values, demeanor and gain the respect of our peers and community. A Master who conducts himself properly and upholds moral values will naturally garner the respect of his students and his community.

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