Recently I was asked how one knows where one is at in terms of level of Tai Chi skill. Also, when are you qualified to teach others?
At one point some decades ago I was getting a bit discouraged by the fact that, after teaching for some three years, I had only 4-5 students. I was in a multi - martial arts collective at the time and had an opportunity to sit down with Al Evans, an Aiki Jutjutsu teacher at the University of Waterloo, who had many years of teaching experience and had a relatively small club. I asked him what it was that kept him going?
He sized me up, saw that I was in some need, and very generously answered as follows:
"First of all, and this is natural, you teach because of ego. You are impressed by the fact that you know something of value and that others want to learn it. But that's not enough to keep you going...."
"Then you enter more deeply into your art and come to regard yourself as part of a tradition - part of a line of teachers going back into history - and you wish to further that tradition. What you do in class has been done by generations before. This will keep you going for quite awhile longer, but it is still not enough...."
"Finally, you come to understand that, through teaching, you can help people be better than they are - be healthier and happier - and that they, through your teaching, can help you achieve this also for yourself."
Personally, I also think think that it is important that one be capable of honestly assessing where one is at in terms of level of skill. This must be personal, not for others. It's not something to talk or brag about.
The rankings suggested by Sam Masich (below on left) are:
2. Novice (still class and instructor-dependent)
3. Enthusiast (developing a home practice and no longer completely class-dependent)
Teaching often starts at the Enthusiast level, and there's nothing wrong with that. This is the point where you become aware that you have something valuable and you want to share it. Often one is projected into the teaching role simply because no-one better qualified is available and others want what you have. "Enthusiast" is a word I am not fond of. I mistrust enthusiasm for many of the same reasons John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, did. Nevertheless the term is useful and seems acceptable to most. The enthusiasm I respect has staying power. That is something that has to be demonstrated over a certain number of years, which is why the development of a home practice away from teacher and club is a reasonable criterion. Beginners and novices who have not made that essential transition to personal independence may have an interest in Tai Chi that is momentarily strong, but not absolutely committed. Their interest may turn out to be superficial -- like the religious enthusiasms John Wesley identified. Following one's bliss is not enough!
Expert level is when one has and is deepening a solid technical foundation, is getting into the tradition and the Classics, and can start to handle difficult questions from others. The Expert has developed a solid home practice and has penetrated to the point of not only practising the form on a daily basis, but seeking to clearly understand its internal practices and applications. The Expert seeks to achieve a deeper understanding that transcends the form itself. This is where recourse to experts like Sam and Master Jou Tsung Hwa (above) come in. These are the master teachers who share!
Mastery is when all the technical aspects are in place and one is capable and interested in exploring and perhaps even bettering the art itself. One is capable of regarding what one has received from teachers with gratitude and respect, but can also see other paths to pursue and other ways of doing things. Personally, anyone who thinks they are a master and claims to be one...isn't. It's not something one claims to be, but something other masters claim...of you.
Nomenclature can be dicey. When I was involved with CTF certification standards I suggested "Master" for the top level and some people just went berserk! The 'Peculiar Institution' of slavery was never a significant part of our Canadian experience, so that wasn't the issue. It was more a sense of egalitarianism and, I'm afraid, a certain amount of reverse-racism. How could anyone who was not Chinese pretend to mastery? So we just went with "Senior Instructor" which did not seem to attract too much hostility.
My sense is that master / sifu equates to terms like school-master, choir-master, games-mistress etc. It's just not a big deal. In-club we use Assistant Instructor, Associate Instructor and finally Senior Instructor for members who have a high degree of expertise and have their own clubs where they have developed their own curricula and teach independently. But very senior masters like Jou Tsung hwa or Yang Zhenduo (above correcting my form!) are often addressed, not as 'sifu', but as 'lao-shr' - old teacher. In my 70th. year I can appreciate this!
'Master' and 'mastery' are different things. Basic mastery implies a good grip on the technical stuff plus an interest in exploring issues such as artistic expression, medicine, philosophy etc. Real mastery, particularly at a senior level, is different. Senior mastery involves all of this plus improving on what has been learned - perhaps introducing innovation and even creating forms and styles. A senior master has gone beyond conserving and transmitting the art as received, and has entered into the world of Tai Chi creation. A good example is one of my late students who entered into a collaboration with a classmate that resulted in the creation of a stunning Tai Chi Crane form!
On the one hand our club is not large. Our present membership hovers at just over 40 supporting members. But we have members at all of these levels and are the richer for it!
In many martial arts the various levels are sorted out according to belts and gradings. This is an approach which is now making in-roads into Tai Chi, but with which I am not in sympathy. Still, I can see its appeal - the judgement of an external authority to validate where one is at. But it is not part of the traditional picture in the Internal Martial Arts. So, with regards to this, I guess I'm a bit of a curmudgeon.
There can also sometimes be a mysterious connotation to mastery. Mastery can have a connotation of progress toward spontaneity, something possible only when all the technical pieces - knowledge, theory and application - are transcended. This is very hard to explain but can be considered the difference between a senior craftsman and a master.
It has something to do with death and new life. In the old days there was the concept of the 'masterpiece'. In its original sense this was actually a graduation exercise. The legendary stories about this usually included some account of the apprentice's death, the real idea being that the student had died to his previous life and progressed into something else.
The meaning of this must be discovered on one's own.