Sotaku-doji: the chicken and the egg, the zen master and the disciple

There is a Japanese phrase from zen teachings that reads:

啐啄同時 – Sotaku-doji

The image it suggests is this:

Imagine a chicken and her egg. When the chick is about to hatch it makes a scratching noise inside the shell. Hearing it, the mother chicken comes along and gently taps on the outside of the shell, aiding the chick to step out into the world.

In zen this refers to the relationship between the master and disciple. After years of strict shugyo the disciple reaches the cusp of enlightenment. Sensing this, the master says the right word or does the right thing just at the right time, leading the student to comprehend, to finally perceive Truth, to reach enlightenment.

Long time kenshi 24/7 readers probably already realised that I spend a lot of time reflecting on not only how to teach (kendo), but watching how it is taught by others. Over the years my initial approach to teaching has changed massively and, although I hope I still remain quite a flexible person in this regard, I have come to develop/realise my own preferred style of both teaching and learning. In particular, I don’t like overly verbose instruction and will only rarely (and to direct students or kohai) give advice. Even then, any advice given is always done with a caveat, allowing the advised to reflect and decide what – if any – change or response is needed, and in what manner. After all, even 15 year old beginning students are independent individuals who must take control of their own progress.

Living in Japan and thinking like this can be difficult sometimes. First is the expected role of the teacher in Japanese society, in both the classroom and the dojo: instruction occurs in a single direction with generally no option for discussion. Dojo in school environments are usually highly regimented and strongly hierarchical. Teachers can sometimes seem like overlords of sort, shouting and barking orders (sometimes even on the shiaijo). Any success of school teams is often attributed to the teacher’s instruction rather than the students hard work (remember that students stream in and out whereas some teachers can stay decades in the same school). Outside of the school environment things tend to be much less one-way but, still, the hierarchy exists. If a hachidan says that water is wine, there may be little you can do but agree.

Modern kendo (as well as Japans education system) was, of course, developed in a highly militarised period of Japanese history and, after the war, many teachers (again, in the classroom and in the dojo) had a background of military training and/or service. This, I suspect at least in part, helps to explain the current situation.

Anyway – somehow I’ve drifted in a different direction – the reason I am thinking about this now is that the other day someone gave me unasked for advice. Of course there was no ill-will involved, but I couldn’t help thinking that the person wasn’t taking into account the possibility that I might be busy working on other things. His advice was actually quite useful but – and this is the key message of this article – I didn’t actually need nor want it at just that time. (Please don’t think me ungrateful … I was actually busy working on something else at that time.)

Lets go back to the beginning: had the mother chicken broken the shell too early then the chick may have hatched underdeveloped and died or lived a short life. If she hadn’t heard the noise of the chicks scratching, and had it not been strong enough, then the chick would’ve never hatched. In the same way, the true zen master would only give the right advice at the right time.


Things to perhaps consider when teaching

* Asking questions vs giving advice

Sometimes it’s better to wait for the student to ask a question before dishing out random advice, this way you can respond to what the student is seeking/working on, rather than deciding by yourself what you think they should do. If they don’t ask questions then leave them be.

* Giving advice vs sharing perspective

I often embed advice in stories of past experience or discussion about what I am personally working on. Although it might seem a roundabout way, I think that some students are more engaged and interested in these informal chats.

* Causing reflection rather than giving orders

Of course, how you teach depends a lot on the personality of the individual students under you but, in general, I think reflection and self-realisation/decision is one of the keys to not only progress in general, but the students long-term shugyo strategy.

* Having a spirit of empathy and understanding

Teaching requires that you are in-tune with your students and you understand their needs. Don’t attempt to force the students to do exactly as you do…. because they are not you.

For more info about Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills, please click here.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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6 replies on “Sotaku-doji: the chicken and the egg, the zen master and the disciple”

All of the lessons and concepts that are the most clear to me as a student are the ones that my teachers have allowed me to arrive at by implicitly poking me in the right direction rather than explicitly breaking it down for me.

Not to say that explanation is not required sometimes, but if is a process rather than a statement I find the application of this new knowledge a lot more intuitive.

A very interesting article for someone learning as well as teaching, cheers.

Great one. Enjoyed reading this. One thing I’ve thought about recently is that sometimes a student hears things at the right time as well. Even though they may have heard them before, it’s only at certain points that a comment, or advice, makes sense.

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