素直 (Sunao), the Student-Teacher Relationship, and Religious Faith

(This is an ongoing draft – the more I add the less organized it gets. For now. 3/25/07)

Sunao – I did not hear a satisfactory definition of this word during my whole time living in Japan. Every definition I heard was along the lines of, “A person who is sunao does what he is told without objecting or complaining.” Although I had the impression that sunao was a word with a positive connotation – a kind of virtue – the definitions I heard all had the sound of obedience, compliance, or other quality that oppressors or superiors would like to see in those who are of lower standing.

Last year, on more than one occasion, Saotome sensei made a series of similar comments to me. He more or less said that a person must be sunao in order to successfully “do aiki”, that the person’s heart must be clean. Although I had only my existing, unsatisfactory grasp of the meaning of sunao at the time, the piece about the heart being clean made some sense to me so I let things be at that. This January, while talking with Ikeda sensei about clean hearts, the word sunao came up in conversation. I seized the opportunity to ask him how he would define that word. He said, “反発しないこと。(Hanpatsu shinai koto. To not react in a rebellious, compulsive way.)” I certainly did understand ‘hanpatsu’, as I had a representative scenario in my mind that illustrated the meaning of the word from my time in Japan. The scenario was one of a student during keiko perceiving some kind of affront e.g., being thrown hard by someone they deemed less able, being prevented from doing a technique, etc. and responding by trying to one-up the other person. Hanpatsu was the opposite of accepting the situation; one applies one’s own label of unpleasantness and thereafter behaves based on that way of seeing things. To be sunao is to accept and proceed accordingly.

When it comes to the relationship with the teacher, if I am sunao, when the teacher tells me to do something I simply do it. If I feel hesitation or reluctance, if I stop to wonder what he intends, if I stop because of surprise, if I feel the compulsion to ask him, “Why?” or “Explain it to me. Prove it to me.” – all of these are feelings within me that stop me from doing the thing I am being told to do. They indicate resistance, dissension, and that my own view has a higher priority. This consideration of sunao is within the context of the relationship with the teacher because, by considering a person to be my teacher, I am stipulating that I will pay more attention to and take in what they say and do. In the above it is written, “when he tells me”. However, in a true student-teacher relationship, (or perhaps “learning relationship” since this discussion is relevant to any interpersonal relationship in which one person learns through relationship with another), I would be experiencing many other aspects of the teacher than just the words he says, such as ordering me to do something. For example I would see how he comports himself, how he interacts with others, when he gives me instruction, etc. The relationship is different than seeing a person, book, or any source of information which I can choose lightly to disregard, ponder, deconstruct, or interpret at my leisure.That is, I get to be the one to approve or disapprove, to accept or not – my gates are open or shut depending on what I judge, think, and feel. *

This dissension of the student is not the same as being mindful or thoughtful. Hanpatsu is more an issue of the emotional stance, often justified by taking the form of an intellectual, analytical stance. However, I cannot “figure out” if I, for instance, love a person. All the more, I cannot determine the love or character of our relationship by analyzing only the other person’s stance (as I see it or how they explain it to me) and/or subsequently making up my mind about loving them in return. In my own experience, in order to get the most out of what a teacher may be giving me, not only is it necessary to suspend my disbelief or hesitation, I should go one step further and see what it is that they are striving for even if it is imperfect currently or occasionally. This is key. Also, if I am to be unable to truly recall “with my body, not just my head” the teachings of my teacher, I am likely to be hindered by a stance that is skeptical and distant.

When it comes to actual interaction with the teacher, whether it is physical technique or everyday life behaviors, the opportunities for dissension are not only more frequent, they are indeed every moment spent with the teacher. Every instance of discord or divergence from the teacher, whether due to dissension or lapses in mindfulness, is an expression of the student’s attitude toward the teacher. If, while receiving a technique, the student falls behind, jumps ahead, or strays off course, that student is not “listening” to the teacher’s teachings. By extension this is true in other contexts e.g., when the student is in front of everybody but currently waiting while the teacher is speaking, or when the student is mixed in the class as just another student and there arise opportunities for the student to represent or advocate the teacher’s teachings. If, during a technique, there is discord, the student should firstly, thoroughly, and persistently look at himself as to why the discord occurred. The student’s compulsion to seek the cause in the teacher or other person a) prevents the student from seeing and therefore improving that which he can change i.e., himself and b) indicates an inclination to see that discord not as a message from the teacher possibly communicating something of value to the student but as some sort of failure by the teacher. (Usually the perception that it is a failure is a projection of the student on to the teacher of his own way of seeing things, namely that to “succeed” with another person means to change them or convince them somehow. Such a challenge-laden view of others is obviously not receptive.) Also, the teaching may not necessarily be intended by he teacher. If the student holds the standard that the teacher must intend to communicate something for the student to pay attention, then a) the student will be passing up all of the other things that can be learned from the person (not just the specific details or techniques) that comprise the teacher and b) the student holds the fundamentally self-centered view that the teacher must speak to “me” if he wants me to hear something.

With respect to sunao, there are some similar-sounding yet distinctly different ways of being. One is submission or subservience characterized by attributing authority to an external source, as opposed to acting of one’s own will. Another is submission or subservience characterized by indifference and disregard for agency and power overall, which contrasts with the previous kind in that the former places some significance on where the power is attributed. Attributing one’s behavior (which by definition includes thinking) to an external authority is synonymous with religious faith. However, I think that within the models of self-development/improvement/cultivation, especially through a “do” (道), being empty (“無になる (mu ni naru)”) is crucial. Being empty in this sense is perilously close to being “filled” with an external authority, and necessarily so. However, in the “do” model, introspection and cultivation of self-knowledge, particularly through self-expression, are characteristic components.

The student-teacher relationship is very much a relationship in that it is characterized by individuation, as opposed to the student being brainwashed into having no personal preferences, having nothing unique to be expressed, and becoming dependent on the teacher. The crucial component in this “arrangement” is for the teacher to avoid cultivating dependence by the student. The student is inclined to be in the relationship from moment to moment by his own volition. The relationship is alive and dynamic, and the inevitable occasions of the student having original thoughts and feelings provide opportunities to work on becoming empty, cleaning the heart, and exercising interpersonal devotion. On the teacher’s side, even if he doesn’t recognize or acknowledge an obligation to be a model for the student, he recognizes and acknowledges that the student is observing him even when he is not showing something explicitly and that there is a two-way communication occurring whether any communication is verbal or intended or not.

From a mindset that is native to being analytical, rational, and sentient, a natural question regarding the student-teacher relationship might be, “The teacher is human and therefore imperfect. What is to keep the student from suffering or being victimized by the teacher, intentionally or not, if the student blindly follows everything? Isn’t it possible for the student to follow by consciously making his own decisions, even if he experiences reluctance or doubt, rather than follow blindly?” This question seems to have the premise that, once the student becomes “blind”, then he is that way consistently and permanently. However, as mentioned above, the student’s self-cultivation is a result of resolving the reluctance and doubt that he experiences. He is not simply without reluctance and doubt. “Blindly following” likely is equated with giving over ownership of the decisions, thinking, and behaving to the teacher i.e., the student gives up all responsibility. (As an aside, this could be why confusion “loyalty” issues arise in this context.) Such a view is very extreme and black-and-white.

No human relationship is so extreme (although discrete interpersonal exchanges may be that way). So, instead of answering the question I would pay attention to the premise of the question in this case. If the teacher is of bad character or gradually becomes bad, possibly due to having a student who does everything he is asked, the student should still have his own wisdom guiding him toward whatever it was that he wanted in the first place by aligning himself with that teacher in the first place. If the student wanted to learn to be happy and the teacher makes or starts to make life miserable, then after some time the student should revisit where the relationship is taking him. The ownership that goes with the behaviors, as well as the degree of conviction, are crucial and ultimately up to the student. Being persuaded or convinced, and then doing something brings an entirely different result even though the overt behavior may be the same.

Related to one’s relationship with the teacher are uncertainty or ambiguity with respect to the teacher. How to handle those times when I genuinely do not get what is being conveyed to me, whether something is being conveyed to me at all, or when I have doubts about my interpretation of what I perceived as being conveyed to me? “Just ask”, some people might say. While I don’t categorically disagree with that approach, I would also be mindful of the implications. One is, my “just asking” may convey to the teacher that I am not willing to spend time thinking or digesting that which he is giving me. Another is that I might be conveying to him and affirming to myself that the onus of sending comprehensible communications is on him, not me. A possible consequence of that is he thereafter tells me only shallow things that can be conveyed clearly and unambiguously. The most important consequence is that I may have subtly told myself, through the act of asking, that the answer, or more precisely the seeking of the answer, is not mine.

To borrow a concept from psychotherapy, examining the “here-and-now” is valuable. If I am experiencing uncertainty related to the teacher, then, instead of simply resolving the uncertainty I might consider the nature of that uncertainty and what it means. Perhaps it is not the message but my current state that makes “hearing” the message difficult. Perhaps my current understanding is insufficient to grasp the message – then, should I improve my understanding? should I examine in what ways my understanding or current state falls short? should I consider my lack of understanding or compulsion to improve my understanding as indicative of my current developmental stage? Perhaps the teacher is not conveying to me a teaching but that I should at this point be able to comprehend something so unclear. Perhaps he is communicating something to someone else primarily and happened to involve me. And, again, whether I simply proceed and think about these things determinedly on my own or I stop and demand an answer from him reflects on my sunao-ness and what kind of teachings I am receptive to. The teacher may give me just the answer that I wanted but I would not have received the teaching.

Another reasonable concern may be, “I do not have the luxury of access to a teacher who is very ‘complete’ and developed. It seems riskier to be sunao with a low-level teacher.” I would refer back above: that the student should also strive to imagine what it is that the teacher is striving for, what it is that would make the teacher “better” in the student or teacher’s eyes, and that the student should include in his training striving for those things without waiting for the teacher to do so first nor taking the attitude, “Well if he can’t do it yet then how can I/why should I? It’s a load off my back.” If the teacher that the student has selected has many evident shortcomings, then the student must simply strive more diligently to see how he himself would like to be and how the relationship with that teacher can help him toward that goal. Sunao is not an attitude or mindset that is applied toward certain people or particular situations. It is an attitude or way of being with respect to one’s experiences in the world. The student-teacher relationship just happens to be a circumstance in which it can be cultivated.

Another key point of the student-teacher relationship, in line with the necessity for individuation, is that both the student and the teacher should have the attitude that the student will be surpassing the teacher. If a student is complacent because he perceives the teacher’s imperfections, then he is being subservient but indifferent. It may sound noble, but being humble by using discretion and tact is not the same thing as being without conviction, lazy, and not realizing one’s potential. Again, instead of being “blind” the student should exercise his wisdom and intuition. Is the teacher challenging in a way that leads to change, or are the interactions are more akin to duels between clearly stronger and weaker opponents, i.e., bullying. Does the teacher appear to be benefiting or enjoying comfort while the students seem to remain the same? If the teacher notices or minds if the student doesn’t progress, how is his corresponding attitude? What does the underlying wish of the teacher with respect to the student seem to be?

The parallel between one’s relationship with a teacher and one’s relationship with a religious or spiritual tradition is striking but not unexpected. The central onus remains the same: the individual must be the agent who considers and acts out the way that he wants to be. The teacher or religion may offer substantial guidance but to completely lean on them or deconstruct them will not lead to reaping the most benefit from them. The conviction one must have when one acts, for instance when told by the teacher, is probably analogous to the faith one must have when one obeys a religious teaching. In both situations the individual must still carry out the action as his own and not as something he has reservations about, that he was ordered to do (although such a motivation can be very powerful and open doors to self-development). Even if the person conceives of his actions as carrying out the wishes of another, the internal stance could be either “I am acting out His will,” or “I am acting out His will.”

Sunao, faith, and obedience to a greater authority sound very much alike. Sunao is way of being, but more importantly it is a way of being that is intrinsic. Faith is based on something or someone. Faith indicates the strength of belief in a certain way of seeing things e.g., faith that someone will catch you, faith that the course of events will turn out ok, faith that a person has the capacity to do something, etc. It is impossible to use any of these with the concept of sunao – such is an indication that sunao is something significantly different. “Obedience” shows an even greater distinction, particularly around whether it can be positive or negative, and crucially around the agency of the individual.

*A reasonable objection/comment: “Isn’t it reasonable if I hesitate or refuse to do something because I feel afraid or deem something unwise or dangerous? Does sunao mean to never say ‘no’?” In a pure sense, sunao is to be egoless and selfless. A person would be of service to others, put the wellbeing of others before himself. He would not put his feelings on superior or even equal ground with others. He would say yes as long as it doesn’t kill him. The “no”s would vastly decrease. The person would know that there are not really so many things that he needs to fear or protect himself from. He would know that accepting and saying “yes” leads to becoming a bigger person. (This is not a question of faith – his experience in trying to become a bigger person would inform him of what aids and furthers him in the endeavor.) If I feel afraid and therefore hesitant to do something, is that fear really truly justified or is it something that I am simply used to or am familiar with as common sense. Am I living within a form that doesn’t necessarily have meaning or function all of the time, in all cases? Is my fear likely to be self-fulfilling? and how well do I know this?

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One Response to 素直 (Sunao), the Student-Teacher Relationship, and Religious Faith

  1. kokyu says:

    Very deep, and nice thoughts on Sunao, I am a Aikido teacher, and student myself. And will share this with some of my friends. Thank you for sharing this.

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