On becoming worthy of having a master

It’s not uncommon for some Japanese students pursuing academic research to casually call their supervisor “shisho,” which very roughly means “master” (I’m not sure how many of them actually address their supervisors that face-to-face, but that’s another matter). This is the word that a disciple of some craft (e.g. carpentry, calligraphy, or some traditional performance art), martial arts, or religious order would use to call his or her master.

A shisho, as I think of the title, is usually not just an expert teacher, but also a mentor, and never quite a friend: the relationship between a shisho and a disciple is always asymmetrical, the latter obeying the former, and the former deigning to guide the latter. A would-be disciple would have to demonstrate to the master his or her willingness to submit, eagerness to learn, and a promising capability of following, preserving and developing the ways and skills of the tradition, before he or she can be accepted as a disciple.

It is for this last point that I fail to have someone I can call my shisho. I have met and have been taught by some great teachers, and all my supervisors have been superb. My intellectual debt to them is enormous, but for all that I would not be comfortable calling any of them my shisho, because I don’t believe I have ever been good enough even to be their student, really. It would be a sort of shame for them to have to present someone as unpromising as myself as their student. For taking someone as a student, in the strong sense that approaches something like a master-disciple relationship, would imply that the teacher sees the person as worth teaching. I have been receiving the kind of education and training that many would envy; it is totally unclear that I deserve it.

But isn’t there a problem here? In order to be accepted as a disciple (student) of a master, it seems that you have to be already good, to some preliminary extent: you have to be promising. But mightn’t one of the primary reasons why you want to become a disciple of a master be that you are, as things stand, no good? I myself am, I have sometimes felt, a case in point. If this is true, then, insofar as some teacher is willing to recognise me as his or her student in the strong sense under consideration, that is an unmerited favour, something like grace.

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