On discipleship by Gene Ching

by admin on 2010/05/23

Head Shaolin & Tai Chi Chuan Instructor
(Posted with permission from the author)

Within Chinese culture, any traditional skill may be passed down from master to disciple, whether it be martial arts, scholarly arts, painting, cooking, even the art of being a barber or an executioner. Becoming a disciple forges a unique bond between you and the long line of ancestors who forged your tradition before you. It is a very special relationship between master and disciple, full of ritual and meaning. You become family. However, like so many aspects of Chinese culture, it is woefully misunderstood by outsiders.

Traditionally, Chinese disciplines do not have a “black” belt system of hierarchy. The belt (or dan) tradition comes primarily from Japan. Like the Chinese system, dan traditions also extend beyond martial arts to other disciplines like tea ceremony or the game of Go. In contrast, the Chinese system is more familial, than militaristic. The term we use for master, Sifu, also implies “father”. In the same fashion, other titles translate literally into “elder brother”, “younger sister”, “uncle”, and so on. This system is not exclusive to martial arts. These same terms might be used in any community, from fellow workers in the same company to organized crime triads. It is important to note that a term like “big brother” (Sihing in Cantonese) can have two meanings. It could mean either a member who joined the community before you or a member who is physically older than you. This distinction depends upon the preference of the Sifu.

Chinese people hold teachers in very high regard. A Chinese student will always hold a special loyalty for any previous teacher, even if they only studied with them once. Accordingly, there are some particular observances of respect unique to the pedagogical context. To begin, every student submits unquestionably to their teacher. They must be willing to “empty their cup” of any previous misconceptions and accept the new teachings no matter how disruptive they may be to their personal world view. This is just one reason why it is important to begin with a good teacher. Submission is often represented symbolically by the simple ceremony of “bowing to the teacher”. Almost every student begins with this basic teacher-student relationship, the “general public” class. These students are called Moon Sang or “in the door”. In the martial arts, most teachers have many students, especially now in modern times. Over 3 decades, Sifu Wing Lam has taught thousands of students. All of those students would be “in the door”.

In the old days, a new student would have their acceptance into a school acknowledged through a simple ceremony before the school’s martial altar. Known as a “Sun Toi”, a martial altar is mandatory for any traditional school. Without it, the school fails to honor its lineage and has no right to claim any heritage. The Sun Toi is more like a memorial than a religious object. It honors all of the ancestors who originally created the art. When we give offerings at this altar, we acknowledge the sacrifice of those who have gone before us. Typical offerings are incense, candles, food, and paper money. Food and paper money give the dead some materials in the afterlife, much like leaving favorite toy at the grave of a child. Incense and candles are believed to send a signal to the heavens in hopes that they heed and bless our practice. The rising smoke, pleasing fragrance and fire arouses whoever is enshrined in the altar and brings their spirit into attendance.

The acceptance ceremony for new students consists of a small offering the school altar of food or incense. The new student would bow three times to the Sifu, then give some lucky money in a red envelope, known as Lai See. Following that, the new student would acknowledge all of the elder students, with an exchange of names, a salute, or perhaps a hand shake and the ceremony was complete. Some food might be shared, then the class would begin. Formally, these students are called Yup Moon Dai Gee (in door, skill “son”).

Discipleship is a more intimate relationship, akin to marriage. Two people make bonding vows that will unite them into family forever. Unlike marriage, a Sifu can have many disciples. When a Sifu has hundreds of disciples (and some grand masters have thousands) it is a demonstration of pure political power. Generally, disciples have only one master. Practically speaking, it is difficult to honor all of the tremendous obligations that comes with discipleship for more than one Sifu. Furthermore, in days of old, a Sifu would not want to reveal his back room secrets to a disciple of another Sifu. However in the last century, many people have become disciples of multiple masters.

When the student is satisfied with the teacher’s skill and character, they may decide to make a deeper commitment and become a disciple. Formally called Yup Sut Dai Gee (in the back room, skill “son”), this term originates from the architecture of old Kung Fu schools. In old schools, the teacher would commonly teach all of the “in the door” students together in a big hall or courtyard. More intimate instruction for disciples would take place in a private back room. Here, Yup Sut Dai Gee receive special tutelage material from their Sifu, where finer points would be clarified and “secrets” would be revealed. The Yup Sut Dai Gee would represent the Sifu in the public eye, so they were often taught some secret skills. It would be these students that would carry on the school after the Sifu was gone, so they must commit to learning all of the knowledge their Sifu has to offer.

It may surprise you to find that a Sifu does not even have to know the student before accepting him or her as a disciple. Sometimes an intermediary can speak for someone the master does not even know. Just like in arranged marriage, an “arranged” discipleship is not uncommon in the East. Such an arrangement may have political overtones, such as alliance between two factions, or it may simply be a good match in the eyes of an industrious intermediary. Many great masters were made disciples because they were given to their Sifu as orphans. This assured that the Sifu would care for the orphan like their own child. While many westerners reject the idea of arranged marriage, many easterners frown equally on the western practice serial marriage (divorcing and remarrying several times). Not surprisingly, many masters are reluctant to take Western disciples because of a perceived lack of the cultural foundation to adhere to such a commitment. Serial discipleship just does not work.

Before you can become a disciple, you must earn the confidence of someone very close to your Sifu, such as a personal friend, relative or classmate, to act as your intermediary. This intermediary will stake their reputation on you by agreeing to represent you. They must believe that you have a good heart, a strong aptitude for learning and that you will be able to represent and promote the art for future generations. You must trust them to speak for you because it is impolite to ask your master directly. A fundamental rule of all Chinese etiquette is that you must provide an “out” or a graceful way to refuse. By going through an intermediary, neither you, nor your master, are confronted with the awkwardness of a rejection. This is a typical “face-saving” convention that is so pervasive in Chinese culture. Such conventions are absolutely necessary and violation of the unspoken rules of etiquette invites tremendous disaster. Known as a Yun Jun Yut or “leading, bringing you in”, your intermediary must be willing to guarantee your good character before your Sifu.

After your Sifu accepts your request for discipleship, an auspicious date must be chosen for the new disciple’s initiation, based upon Chinese astrology. Invitations are sent out to all of your master’s martial relatives and previous disciples to witness the initiation. The ceremony may be held at the school, but more often, it will be held in a high class banquet hall. If held at a hall, a special portable Sun Toi must be prepared. On that day, a master of ceremonies is appointed to oversee the initiation. The Sun Toi is served with incense for your martial ancestors, along with their favorite food or pastry. First, the Sifu bows thrice before the Sun Toi. Second, any blood relatives of these ancestors in attendance will bow. Next, the grandmaster of the system (if in attendance) will bow. Then, a special offering called a Bai Tip or “bowing card” is presented. This is a sheet of red paper that declares the union between master and disciple. It will bear date of the initiation, the name of your master, and your name and birth date. It may also bear the name of your intermediary. Additionally, this card will bear a special set of vows for you. Common rules are “respect your Sifu”, “promote the art”, “defend the weak”, or “be polite”. The exact vows are unique to each Sifu.

As the initiate, you must bow three times to the master, then give a Lai See and pour tea for your master. The bows are symbolic of your complete submission to the teacher and an expression your loyalty. The giving of Lai See represents your commitment to support your master financially for the rest of your lives. Offering tea means that you will help your master physically, and empower your master with your own personal efforts. Then you must then bow before the Sun Toi to the ancestors and then to all of your master’s other disciples who are now your elder brothers and sisters. Your master will present you with a gift, you must then thank all of your classmates and your intermediary with a salute or handshake. Of course, a big banquet follows for all in attendance. More gifts and offerings may be exchanged. Later, those disciples and significant people who were not in attendance should be honored with a gift from the event to be sent to them later. You, as the disciple, are responsible for all of the arrangements and all of the bills of the ceremony.

There is vast variation in initiation rituals, depending upon individual the master and the school. For example, in some dialects of Chinese the number “9” sounds phonetically similar to the word for “longevity” so the Lai See is commonly $999. However, at Shaolin Temple, the Lai See is either $888 or $1111 due to the symbolism of those numbers to Buddhism. Furthermore, a laymen disciple of Shaolin Temple takes very specific Buddhist vows beyond disciple vows because it is a Buddhist Monastery. If you are serious about asking your master to be a disciple, your intermediary must find out exactly what your specific customs might be.

Many westerners seek discipleship for all of the wrong reasons. If you want to become someone’s disciple, consider your own motivations first. It is not what your tradition can do for you, but what you can do for the tradition. You do not become a disciple to promote yourself. Quite the opposite, to become a disciple is to abandon your own selfish thoughts and dedicate your practice to others. You must always put your art, your ancestors and your Sifu before you. It becomes your sworn duty to honor your teachers by maintaining your lineage. To become a disciple is a lot like adopting a parent plus all their extended family. It is not something to be taken lightly. You will swear an oath to be bound to your master until death. A warrior’s word is like an arrow, once released, it can never stray until it strikes its target. So before you shoot that arrow, examine your target closely and be sure it is what you want to penetrate.

(c)2001 Gene Ching
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