Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish
~ Steve Jobs
Some of my 5-month-old
Not too long ago, I learned something very interesting from a good friend regarding the Zen (禪) perspective of the different stages of learning:
Stage 1: A mountain is a mountain (見山是山)
This is the beginning level where we simply use our senses to experience the things around us. There is no profound feel for the subject matter (the mountain). This is the state of mind of the layman.
Stage 2: A mountain is not a mountain (見山不是山)
This is the next level where we use our logic to analyse the subject matter. We see multiple perspectives and dissect the subject into smaller parts to analyse. The mountain is no longer just a mountain as we examine the streams, the birds and the animals within. This is the state of mind of the scholar who studies the subject earnestly.
Stage 3: A mountain is still a mountain (見山還是山)
In this level, we no longer use psychological projection to label things. We see the streams, the trees and the animals as part of the whole that makes up the mountain again. The mountain has not changed, but what has been changed is a more refined sensual feel of the mountain. This realm of feel (心境) cannot be expressed with words. This is the state of mind of the enlightened.
In the discipline of art, it is this "feel" that we should aspire to nurture. The same recipe followed by different cooks will not make the same quality of dish; the same teacher giving equal attention to his class will not have equal quality of work from his students. There is nothing wrong with the recipe or the teacher, the deterministic factor is just ourselves.
While I have yet to attain the realm of feel to fully appreciate the profound teachings of Zen, I strongly believe that the basis of learning anything really well is to first master the fundamentals. Without setting the basics right, it is just a matter of time that things will fall apart. We would be wasting our energies going round and round and nowhere else, just like a hamster on the tread wheel.
The other key aspect of learning as I have always emphasized, is to be truly objective and humble to see our own faults. If we think we are perfect then there is no more room for improvement. The worst case will be to think that we are already in the higher levels of learning but in actual fact, still grappling with the basics. Such will be destined to be stagnated on the same spot like treading hamsters. In our local slang, it is known as "hentakaki" ;-)