In my gongfu (kung fu) class at Oakdale Wing Chun Club today, teacher David Wong took a few minutes to make some observations about greed. He explained that in learning gongfu, sometimes students get into a mental trap of wanting to learn more and more techniques, without really taking the time to become competent with techniques they have initially learned, and having a feel for the depth and efficacy of those basic techniques. Sifu Wong said, “They always ask for more. ‘Show me more! Teach me a few more movements!’ They do not work with what they have.” In the end, the mental greed actually becomes an obstacle to mental clarity and reading. The alternative is patience, and a feeling for what is sufficient to learn and work on for now.
Greed is traditionally understood in Buddhism as one of the “three poisons” that derail the pursuit of enlightenment. The other two are ignorance and anger. I am convinced that fear and ego have a relationship with the three poisons, maybe in a chicken and egg kind of way. For myself, this means that the key to removing greed as an obstacle to learning, is to drop self-centered thinking and adopt an attitude of humility, letting the teacher run things and trusting the teacher instead of asserting my ego and trying to run my own show. One of the interesting things that spins out of having humility, is the openness to learn something at all times and from anyone, regardless of their level of experience or mastery. Coincidentally I read a story today that relates to this point:
Because Master Dempei of the Shamisen (three-stringed instrument) was always listening attentively to other players his pupil asked him, “Why, Master do you listen so eagerly to such boring paying?”, to which the Master replied, “With such an attitude you cannot make any progress. However bad the player, there are aleays a few good parts that other players do not have. It should be interesting to listen to them.” (from Immovable Wisdom: The Teachings of Takuan Soho, by Noboku Hirose)
As far as fear, the other thing I do is track down any fear I may have concerning my own rate of learning and mastery, publicly displayed or held within my own mind. To sever the fear, I find it helpful to remember that I got into studying gongfu or shufa in order to get away from frantic thinking and behavior. Therefore greedy behavior defeats the point of my own intentions at the start! I actually enjoy the feeling of relaxation that comes over me in setting aside frantic thought or what Chinese Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai called “hurry worry” in George Crane’s Bones of the Master. Then it becomes clear to me, and is only confirmed when I look at the people who I consider as having mastery, that the path of progress never lies in the accumulation of techniques or anything else, but rather in the quality of even what few things are known, performed and lived. I think there is a very big and important difference between the life of quantity and the life of quality.
“Be happy without cause and make the best of what you have!”
~ Wang Foudeng (gongfu master), quoted in the Bubishi
Hotei Admiring the Moon