What happens when you lose your teacher?

When Kanryo Higaonna died, Miyagi is quoted as saying that he felt he was "groping his way along an unlit road".

To fully understand this metaphor you have to be in a completely isolated place like in the outback here in Australia where on a cloudy night there is no light - zero (where in most places on Earth there is a distant light on the horizon from one city/town or other). Even as you walk along a well demarcated road you soon find yourself straying into the bushes. More than once during our gashuku in the wilderness I have made the mistake of visiting the "sanitary convenience" without checking the batteries of my torch - only to find out on my return trip that they had gone flat.

With the campfire out you can become lost very quickly. In one case (in the middle of the night on a Gashuku in 1989) I wondered off the 4wd track (I couldn't even see its boundaries) and walked almost the opposite way for a kilometre or more. The only way I got home was by groping my way through bracken to the top of a hill from where I could just make out the faint glow of the embers of our campfire. I got back after an hour (instead of 3 minutes), scratched, bloodied and wet from crossing a stream - and never mentioned it to anyone!

When you lose your instructor try to think of it as an opportunity to see the world from another prespective.

When I "left" my first instructor I did so for the reasons a son leaves home. You get to the point where you want to do your own thing. Like it or not, 2 people will have different goals and objectives and after 16 years of following his footsteps I decided (like any impetuous youth) to go it alone. I spent a few years groping along the unlit road.

Like Miyagi I surmise, I sought out knowledge from all and sundry.

Years ago I went looking for references to my teacher's Chinese teacher on the net. His name was Hong Yi Xiang. I knew he had died a decade before, but I wondered if his Taipei guan was still functioning (it is, but I couldn't find it then). Then I remembered his own mythical taiji teacher, Chen Pan-Ling. When I did a search for this name the very first result in Google was a reference to a visit by his son Chen Yun-Ching to a place called the Wu-Lin Retreat (run by my now good friend James Sumarac) in Victoria, Australia (where he was going to hold a 4 day course).

I immediately booked a ticket and the rest, as they say, is history.

I haven't yet lost an instructor in a "permanent" sense. But if it happened tomorrow I'd know who might "fill in the blanks". Regardless, it would be a challenge, just like the time I scaled that hill in the darkness.

I'd also be aware that no one has a monopoly on martial knowledge. "Instructor hopping" is not a good thing, but being forced to learn another approach can be very enlightening too (provided you stick with it).

It is important to note that experiencing another approach requires years of dedication to that "perspective". Hong Yi Xiang said to my teacher that he remembered famous author and researcher Robert W Smith as a man "who learned very little from a great many". This does not diminish Mr Smith's achievement. It merely notes that he did train with very many different masters in Taiwan in the 50s, however spent very little time with most of them. I believe he eventually specialised in one particular style - but during his research era he simply didn't spend enough time with Hong, Wang Shujin and the many, many other Taiwanese masters to learn their very disparate forms of fighting. He did learn enough to introduce the West to these fighting systems in a general sense and he probably learned enough to choose the art in which he wanted to specialise.

Take a look at the complexity of the 1950s masters in this rare footage (Hong Yi Xiang is in there too with one of his sons - 2:28 to 4:08). There is simply no way anyone could usefully absorb each instructor's "perspective" just by spending a month or 2 with him or her:

Rare footage of Taiwanese martial masters in the 1950s

So if you lose your instructor - for whatever reason - accept the challenge. But whatever new knowledge you seek out, devote yourself to it sincerely and with diligence.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. I left a small circle of my instructors back in Dallas. There is not a week that goes that I don't think of them. Many of my techniques remind me of their lessons. The skills I learned prompt me to think of their skills. The knowledge I've gain so far I've gained only because they've trained me so well.

    When I left the States I also felt like I was groping in the dark. In a way I was. It took me 6-8 years to find my feet and to establish my own direction and progress. But still, I think about how much easier it would be if I was over there. Skills and knowledge acquisition would be far easier and simpler.

    Check out the interview information at Australasian Taekwondo Magazine Interviews Colin Wee for more information on my lineage and current progress.


  2. Perhaps you underestimate the role "finding your way" has had Colin.

    My teacher said that had he stayed at his teacher's dojo he would have learned a lot, but that knowledge would have been capable of pictoral representation as a tall spire. Instead the knowledge he gained on his own represented a very broad but deep foundation.

    I know which one I feel is more useful.

  3. I like that analogy.

    It is true. I could have learned a lot from my teachers in the same time.

    But I have also gained from the autonomy from being away from them. If not I would have given up years ago.

    Instead I've done lots of good work in research and development. My lineage is better for it.

    I wish I could visit more often.



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