Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Secret Teachings

The reason why culture creates myths and stories is to ensure that there is a common store of images and ideas amongst people so they can more easily communicate complex ideas. These images are called "tropes". One of the more common tropes in spiritual literature in general and Daoist literature in particular is that of the "secret teaching" imparted on a particular student in a large school.

I just came across one while re-reading the introduction to Journey to the West. The stone monkey seeks out a realized man to train him on the path to immortality and ends up joining a school. During one of the lectures, the teacher makes a hand gesture that only monkey understands is a secret message to meet him late at night at a specific place. He is the only student to realize this and gets a "secret teaching" that leads to him gaining all sorts of special powers.

Does this sort of thing actually happen? Well, yes and no. Let me illustrate with two examples from my life.


Years ago I was a student at university. I had met a fellow who was a bit of a loner and I think I was one of the few folks who would socialize with him. One of the residence advisers asked me if I thought this guy was dangerous. It turned out that the campus police had come to him asking about his state of mind. He'd been out at the pub with some other students and had said that he had a gun and was going to get up on one of the towers and start shooting students. The adviser knew that I had had some dealings with this guy, so he asked me about him. I said "No, I can't see him doing something like that."

After the fact, I felt a little guilty about being so glib, so I asked the student out to the pub and had a long talk with him. Oh dear. What a story he had to tell me about his life. His parents had abandoned him and his sister when he was quite young. His sister had raised him by working as a prostitute in a body rub parlour. His first job leaving school was working as a "repo man", taking back people's televisions who had bought them on time. You get the picture. This was a fellow who had chewed on the gristle of life from a very early age. I had had my own tough childhood, too. Perhaps that was why we gravitated together, but this guy lived in a bleak, bleak world.

He got up and left the table, leaving me feeling really empty. Immediately, a fellow sat down next to me. The waitress walked by and he asked me what I drank. He said "two blues for me, and two OVs for my friend". And that is how I met my first meditation teacher. This was the guy who taught me a simple technique that opened up my spine chakras with the result of a very, very forceful experience of an awakened kundalini.

Corny as it may seem, this is a good representation of what it feels like to have your chakras open up.  


Years later, I was a member of a taijiquan school and was attending a teacher's workshop on pushing hands.  The big teacher was trying to teach a bunch of middle-class kids how to practice something that is supposed to teach sensitivity and two-person practice in a martial art---without killing each other. Since we were a bunch of undisciplined, self-righteous jerks with delusions of being "above" stuff like martial arts, none of us were taking it really seriously. One of the things he told us to do was stop talking while we were doing it.

Push hands

Why we do push hands

A strange thing happened. I stopped talking and refused to start again. I noticed that no one else did that. Everyone else just started yakking again after a short pause. Oh well, that's the way things are. But I noticed after the fact that the teacher noticed that I had actually done what he told me to do when no one else did. It had a real effect on him. Someone had complained about me and he absolutely tore a strip off her and implied that as far as he was concerned, I was his fair-haired boy. Shortly thereafter, he asked me join the Temple.


Years ago, when I was still looking for a school to enter or teacher to follow, I found out that a Zen priest worked as a technician in the building next where I worked as a guard. (Universities are filled with very interesting people working in a support role. I also met a technician who is an extremely high-ranked Iado teacher and another who was a big name Akido teacher.)

We had an interesting chat. He basically tried to talk me out of being interested in Zen. I asked him why he had gotten involved and he told me that he had been a private in the army who had gotten shipped off to Korea during the war there. He had had a terrible experience and had ended up staying there at a Korean Zen facility in an attempt to make sense of it all. (There must have been a lot more that he wasn't telling me. He was a white guy from Canada who didn't seem to have any background in Asian stuff, dumped into a very brutal war, who ended up staying in a very alien culture in a totally devastated country.) He said that in his opinion, a nasty life experience is the "entry ticket" to the spiritual path.


There is a saying that says "it is harder to find a good student than it is to find a good teacher". I think that this is the basis of the trope of "hidden teachings". I think the vast majority of people who have something useful to share with their fellow men and women would gladly do so any chance they have. But the problem is that there is no sense trying to do so if the person in front of you is incapable of understanding what you have to say. I'm not saying something to the effect that it could be dangerous, or that they would pervert the teaching, I'm suggesting that it would be totally incomprehensible and impossible to put into practice.

I think that when that meditation teacher started me on my path, it might have been because he saw me try to really engage with someone else who had had a very hard life. And when my taiji teacher initiated me into the Temple, he saw someone who had at least the minimal amount of self-awareness necessary to stop talking when asked. Probably, the only reason why I could do these two things was because I had had a similarly tough childhood that allowed me to feel sympathy for someone else who was dealing with big demons. And the fact that I had spent many, many hours by myself thinking about what it means to be a human being---while driving tractor or hoeing vegetables---allowed me to recognize the "monkey" in my head that wants to chatter incessantly. These were my own two "entry tickets" that allowed me to see the "secret hand signals" that life has offered me.

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