Why is it so common for relationships to become fragmented between a teacher and his student? I’ve seen it happen in Wing Chun Gung-Fu a few times over. Many of the well known Sifu’s out there have split from their original teachers, usually under estranged circumstances. Relationships sour and it seems that some people can become quite vindictive of the situation. Perhaps this is because the relationship in Gung Fu is based on trust. A teacher places enormous trust in a student. And like a father living vicariously through the triumphs of his son, a teacher views students’ triumphs as personal ones.
Perhaps tensions arise when the student becomes a capable martial artist and enters into a mode of free thinking with a desire to evolve. Perhaps teachers consciously or subconsciously perceive this as a threat or grow bitter, thinking that the student will now attain the glory that the teacher never received. Conversely, perhaps it is the student who abandons the teacher, wanting to grow in other aspects and goes on to seek other martial artists for further development.
I came close to this situation in the late 1990’s training under my Wing Chun instructor, Leung, Kwok-Keung, during a Saturday morning session in his garden. My opponent was a rival student who clearly held a grudge against me. During chi sao (sticking hands), he caught me in a position where my arm was hyper-extended. Not content with letting go, he paused and then crunched my elbow suddenly. The sound was audible, the pain excruciating. I continued the session but my elbow swelled and weeks later I still had problems with mobility.
I grew bitter during the recovery phase. Bitter against this renegade student and bitter against my sifu, who I felt was obligated to protect me, or at the very least, to have vocalized his discontent. But sifu remained silent. I took a break from training. In fact, I stopped training Wing Chun altogether for a period, taking time to reflect and catch up with friends who I had avoided ever since starting my Gung Fu voyage in 1993. A few months passed and I came to the realization that I was using frustration as a barrier to my training. And the only person who was losing out, was me. I was also scared. It was fear of confronting the rival student that had driven me away.
Some months after that event, I met with Sifu for a meal during his birthday celebrations. The other students were seated around a large table and this rival student was also present. Sifu stood when I entered the restaurant and ushered me outside for a chat. One thing was clear from his actions, sifu had never abandoned me. He wanted my Gung Fu to be good but also understood that I needed some time to self-reflect. I overcame any remaining resentment and promptly returned to training. Ultimately, It was by holding my head high, allowing my frustration to dissipate and forcing myself to face my fear that I was able to return.
It was during my next confrontation with the rival student, that I had one of my greatest learning experiences, as well as one of my lifes major triumphs. I adopted a “nothing to lose” attitude and was able to hold my own against him. Despite this, I regretted the months that passed where I had masked my own inadequacies by blaming the other student as well as my teacher. His patience in allowing me to have my space gave me a much needed opportunity to mature and grow. It was all about learning and growth. Every last part of it.
The teacher student relationship in Gung Fu hangs by a spiders thread, dangling dangerously. The slightest deviation from the path and the thread is broken. What is the path though? For me, it is about the self-actualization of a person through punching and kicking. The lessons are not only about angles, body shifting and power, but also about how to retain focus, how to succeed against life’s many challenges by focusing on the self more than any outward opponent.
My own battles continue against my demons. Any tangible opponent pales in insignificance compared to the past that fate has dealt me. But I’ve never deviated from focusing on the Self. Never. It is up to us, as students in Gung Fu to recognize that before we allow conflict to tear the thread, we should look inwards and address our own insecurities first.
I was loyal to Leung, Kwok-Keung from that day that he accepted me back. I shed tears at his bedside the night he died.