Testing: A Zen Story

An old Zen tale runs thus: Master Fayan was giving an audience before the evening meal. He pointed to a bamboo screen. Two monks rose to their feet to roll up the screen. Master Fayan commented, “One gain, one loss.”

This is a famous and difficult Zen Koan. It can be looked at from many angles and bring light into many corners. The one I want to speak about now is the idea of martial arts testing.

I am in favor of testing, yes, even in Kung Fu which generally and historically does far less than, say, Japanese arts. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily believe in ranks and belts which are, when you think of it, entirely different things.

I have conducted dozens and dozens of tests. One peculiar mental shift occurs during a test which might be an  interpretation of the story at the front of this article.  You are sitting there watching two roughly equivalent students performing for the same rank (not competitively, just concurrently) and you mentally pass one of them and fail the other though they are performing at pretty much the same level. Why did one fail? He wasn’t ready yet? He wasn’t reaching what you knew to be his potential? He was just missing something that day? Or he was just missing something.

This completely confuses the moms and dads out there who aren’t able to see the gradations and just want to know why their darlings didn’t make the cut. Its hard to explain to them in objective terms why you made your decision. But the fact that testing is nothing like an objective process is actually the very reason there should be testing. It is, after all, a chance to place the student in a mental box for an hour and pretend to be objective about his skills but really the fox-like sniffing going on in the tester’s brain is much more instinctive than objective. The trained eye and ear can discern progress which the mouth cannot explain. Why one student rises and another stalls is something hard to describe. One of the subtleties is an impression, nothing more than a hint at what the student’s potential might be. Some people are close but have not yet learned their  own possibilities. Needless to say this pulling out from your depths is part of the martial practice.

Testing puts pressure on people. But the pressure is very little compared to any situation where they would  have to use their fighting skills. And the pressure often reveals a higher level of skill and understanding that one would expect.

There’s a completely different way to understand our Zen story. In the first way the two monks are somehow judged by Master FaYan who mysteriously knows which monks has “gained” and which has “lost”. But another way is to judge neither one but simply to realize that the rolling of a screen is a perfectly balanced act where you simultaneously gain something and also lose something.

Watching the test you see the growth of skill as the students lose their inhibitions. For every skill they acquire they lose fear, limits, and sometimes even knowledge or spontaneity. The rolling of the screen could be almost any human act whether it is a success or a miserable failure. The screens disappearing reveals a world beyond it.

Martial arts is not like most other activities and certainly not like cookie cutter testing and awarding going on in some schools. It is very much like rolling up a screen. The idea isn’t always to pass the student or even to make it seem as though the test is that important. Often times preparation for the test is the most important aspect of the practice. As you watch your students test you look for something about the arts that is hard to explain, a readiness to adapt, an ingenious strain, a creative seriousness. You look for loss and gain and, between them, a growing sense of equilibrium.

Master FaYan was quick sighted. He summed up the situation at a glance, in an instant, as a Zen monk, or a martial artist, should do.

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