Outer Inner and Secret

One way to get at the cosmological organization of knowledge in Chinese arts is to think about Outer, Inner and Secret.

Outer is the stuff I can teach by showin' and tellin'.  It is by far the biggest category of knowledge in Chinese martial arts.  A given movement, action, posture or position is either correct or incorrect.

Inner is the stuff a student can learn from interacting with me in a dynamic push-pull/yes-no physical conversation.   It's all stuff that is hard to name.  Though not as big a category as Outer teachings, it is still huge.  Probably the most talked about Inner teachings are structure and root.  These two terms mean different things in different situations.  They can be pressure tested in numerous contexts and nobody really agrees exactly what they mean in words.  But two people fired up in the midst of practice can easily agree on what is what. We know it when we feel it.

mountain-retreat-front-doorSecret teachings take a lot of abuse.  Keeping secrets is widely denounced as a moral offense against modernity.  But the truth is, the real secrets keep themselves.  Secret teachings are concepts, revelations, and experiences which can not be taught.  I can talk about them.  I can show them.  I can write about them.  And to a certain extent, my actions might help transmit them.  But it is just as likely that I'm confusing people and sending them off in the wrong direction.  Secret teachings have to be discovered.  And for such a discovery to happen there has to be a particular openness, a certain milieu, a series of experiences, and a perceptiveness about where to look and what not to do when the secret is found.  The dark irony is that people are discovering these treasures all the time and then just burying them again, unaware.

But the purpose of this post is not to talk about Inner or Secret.  Outer teachings are actually the most neglected. The Outer teachings take loads of practice and hard work.  The Outer teachings store everything else.  They were made by people who lived the secret and inner teachings.  They are the container.  Outer teachings get discarded because people don't understand why they matter, they are easily misunderstood.  Laziness is a problem too.  As is the tendency to be overwhelmed.  Setting aside the time commitment for both student and teacher is so daunting in this day and age that even though the interest may be there, the Outer teachings almost always suffer.  And as my Kathak teacher often bemoaned, "A little learning is a dangerous thing!"

I don't know how to get around this.  Students want Inner, and teachers want to teach it.  But without the Outer container the Inner just spills away.

This fact of modern life leads many teachers to re-formulate their teachings, to create contexts which go directly to Inner teachings, the Aikido dojo is a great example.  Teachers sometimes create whole new simplified Outer teachings to get around this problem, think Jeet Kundo or simplified Tai Chi.  And many teachers just give up.

Ideally we ought to be capable of creating new milieus which will transmit the whole Outer teachings.  When I try to imagine this I see myself focused on a group of 20 year old students.  I suspect that to work in depth on a daily basis with people in their 20's I'd also have to teach economic literacy skills, cooking, simple living, and some kind of emotional release (theater/therapy?).

It makes me want to step back from the whole project of teaching and think about how I might create institutions which would produce students who were ready to learn.  A sort of "Drop out now, ask me how," kind of thing.