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Used to the Hollywood depiction of oriental masters, in the tradition of Mr. Miyagi, it’s easy to mistake the Sensei-apprentice relationship as mere quircks of old age that the youngling gets used to, Yoda phrase construction like. In traditional japanese culture, and to a lesser degree asian cultures generally, the relationship is more in line with worship, unquestioning obeyssance to the Sensei being the minimum expected. The student must treat every one of the teacher’s opinions and whims as god-given truths. For western eyes, that might feel like an hierarchy thing, or even, translating it to capitalism terms, a form of exploitation. But an alternative reading is that the teacher is treated as perishable asset, as something that must be kept from spoiling. The student never argues with anything not because he is changing his opinion, but to avoid changing the teacher’s. The discipline being taught is not a concrete list of facts and methods, with independent objective reality, but a living, breathing, particular point of view. Even if the teacher was wrong about something, the mistake itself would be precious. The Sensei is like a clean spring that must be protected from all contamination — even to the point of isolation.


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