I don't speak Chinese and Laoshi speaks heavily accented English which is possible to understand when combined with gesticulations and alongside years of deciphering meaning from attending his seminars ... but still not 100% clear.
His body language is very expressive as are his facial expressions which really helps, yet still sometimes certain questions and ideas are hard to get across, and the answers often don't seem to directly match up with the question ... which is always disconcerting because one wonders ... Is this the real answer underneath what I was asking? Perhaps I am just being a little stupid in not getting it? Or is this the answer to a different question? How did he hear what I asked?
Of course, all he has to do is SHOW what he means, physically - "Not like this, like THIS!!" and the meaning, the point, the purpose, become much clearer.
One of the things Luo mentioned this year is that he has been writing a book about all the years of research that he has done into Martial Arts. This is very cool news and I look forward to reading what is sure to be a fascinating work. He said that one of his wishes is to demystify the classic terminology of the so called 'Internal Arts' into something more modern and pragmatic, alongside sharing his personal journey to discover what he knows and to become who he is.
I asked him how he had decided to convey these ideas - because truth be told, I do not think there are enough words in the universe to guarantee understanding ...... though I did not exactly say that.
His answer was this -
He said he wanted to translate his work into English, and he figured it would be no problem as he has many friends and students who speak both excellent English and Chinese AND train martial arts, yet he said he still found many errors of understanding despite his best efforts to be clear.
He said he believes these misunderstandings can only be fixed through sitting down, talking through, and physically demonstrating the concepts with the translator, in the same room, to get the actual meaning connected to the right words. That this is the only way to understand what THEY do not understand, and work until he knows they do.
Once he knows they understand, he knows the translation will be what he means, and not what they think he means. Using a different language means that errors in understanding are more obvious and show faster.
Humans have been preserving knowledge through writing and reading for a while now, though certainly not for as long as they have apprenticed, tagged along with their elders, and sat around camp fires listening and watching ... So how big an issue is this whole misunderstanding business (And I'm talking about physical arts here, not intellectual or philosophical arts)?
If words are so prone to misunderstanding why write anything down at all, especially in this day and age of video?
So far the best reason I can come up with is that writing and reading serve to inspire practice, and perhaps more importantly to provide a confirmation for results experienced by the student. They can really do no more - Inspire and Confirm. That's it. Oh, and expand the imagination, that's very important too.
Words go to the mind, not the body, so to have worth in the physical realm, they need to effect behavior, and perhaps this is why great books can be felt on a gut level and resonate for a long time.
Have to say though, the more I personally attempt to convey the concepts inside of me in words, the more the earlier methods seem far more reliable .....
"A trap is for fish: when you've got the fish, you can forget the trap. A snare is for rabbits: when you've got the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words are for meaning: when you've got the meaning, you can forget the words. Where is the man who has forgotten words - he is the one I would like to speak to."
aside from that, the value of words in teaching is not to share the meaning, it's the operations you can do with the words when you have shared meaning. We both know A and B, now we can talk about what if we have A and B together? Or I can say, this other thing is like A, and not like B, and you will not know exactly what it is, but you would have warning if treating it like B were dangerous. And perhaps most valuable, if I have A, B, and C, and you have A and B, and think that C is A or B, I can say, no, this thing C is not A or B, it is a new thing, you should learn it for yourself.
It's the "when you have shared meaning part" that's the tricky thing .. ;-)
As an aside, just came across this - Advice from Raymond Chandler on writing. I particularly like #4.
WRITING ADVICE FROM Raymond Chandler...
1. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
2. Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder… The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.
3. The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It [style] is a projection of personality and you have to have a personality before you can project it. It is the product of emotion and perception.
4. The challenge is to write about real things magically.
5. The more you reason the less you create.
6. Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it.
7. I am a writer, and there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn’t have to be great writing, it doesn’t even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine.
I suspect the misunderstanding issue in the martial arts is HUGE.
Even teaching in my own native tongue, to people who also speak my native tongue, I've had students who were doing something, and would swear that I TOLD them to do it that way. And yet, I hadn't.
Add in the dynamics of teaching in a language not your own, and it gets worse.
Video is nice, but it can still miss things. Hell, you can miss things in person. No system of communication is perfect.
To follow up on Jake's final point, we, as Humans, are not perfect, as much as some of us want to believe!
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