The Other Three Corners

By Muromoto, Wayne
This article first appeared in the “SMAA Journal” Volume 26, Issue 2.
The Other Three Corners

“Every truth has four corners. As a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three.” – Confucius 

Are you familiar with Confucius’s idea of four corners?

Have you thought about how ancient principles apply to our everyday lives?

Confucius has been influential in the premodern educational system of many East Asian countries. This is true too of Japan. The Confucian classics were part of the traditional education of the warrior class before Japan’s modernization, and Confucian philosophy still exerts great influence over Japanese culture and society. It’s easily seen, of course, in the way teachers are supposed to be accorded great respect by their pupils.

What I find more wanting, however, is the self-motivation espoused by Confucius in the above quote. One would think that this lack of motivation would be expected in Japan, China or Korea, countries that were the bedrock of Confucian societies and whose educational system relied heavily upon rote memorization and repetition. But in many martial arts dojos in America, this lack of self-discovery and personal initiative is also easy to find.

Confucius was saying that a teacher’s role is really limited. No matter how much he offers, he is only, as the Buddha would say, a “pointing finger” showing you the path to wisdom. It is up to you, the student, to take that road and find its end. The teacher is a marker, a pathfinder. He’s not going to carry you all the way to the end like a baby. 

A teacher, a sensei (“one who has lived more than you”, i.e., an elder, someone with more experience), can teach you only a smidgeon of what you need to know as a martial artist. The rest, the majority of the learning, in fact, is up to you. You can be shown one corner of the room by the teacher. Given that one corner, as a student you should have enough wits about you to be able to discern where the other three are. The teacher shouldn’t have to show you all the rest of the corners one by one.

It made me realize that, as gifted a martial artist as my head instructor was, he couldn’t teach me all I needed to know. Other people had to show me things a different way for me to grasp everything fully. And I had to spend more time working things out on my own to make the knowledge fit my body morphology and ways of movement.
If you are true to the Confucian methodology of learning, then you don’t just learn by rote or limit yourself only to what you learned from your teacher. Learning becomes a way of life; it fills your entire world with opportunities to increase your knowledge and wisdom.

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