One of the things I find truly astonishing about the human animal is the number of teachings and traditions that we have handed down time out of history for thousands of years from teacher to student, person to person. These are things that cannot be learned from books. You cannot learn to dance from a book. You cannot learn to play an instrument from a book. You cannot learn a martial art from a book. You cannot learn Zen from a book.

If nothing else, you need a teacher in order to tell you if you’re getting it right or not, or, if you’re getting it wrong, what you must do to correct yourself. Thus, traditions have been passed down from master to disciple ever since humankind began to walk upon this planet. This is the only way we have of knowing many Native American stories and traditions. It’s how the stories of Homer were passed along until somebody actually wrote them down.

Within the martial arts community that is how various styles of fighting are passed along. There is a master and a student. And the master learned the art from his master. His master learned it from his master, going back to the beginnings of the style. The style of martial arts I practice is Siu-lum (Shaolin) Hung Gar Fu Hok Kuen (Hung Family Tiger Crane Fist).

The style goes back to the Shaolin temple several hundred years ago when a young man by the name of Hung Hei Kwan, a layman, studied kung fu under the supervision of the monk Gee Sim, a master of the tiger style of kung fu. He taught what he knew to Hung Hei Kwan and when the temple was destroyed by the Ching government, Hung escaped and taught the style first to revolutionaries hoping to overthrow the hated government, and later to aspiring students in order to keep the art alive.

So Gee Sim taught Hung Hei Kwan, who taught Luk Ah Choi, who taught Wong Tai, who taught his son, Wong Kai Ying, who taught Wong Fei Hung (very famous and the subject of dozens of kung fu movies), who taught Lam Sai Wing, who taught Wong Lee, who taught my teacher (Richard Cunningham) and his teacher (John S. S. Leong).

That’s a lot of teachers and students. And it shouldn’t surprise you to know that within their style there is disagreement about how some of the techniques should be practiced. Do you make a fist this way, or that? Does the knee point in, or forward?

Within the Tai Chi Chuan community, there is a tradition (I’m not saying it’s true, so don’t come and kill me please. I’m just saying…) that the Chen style of Tai Chi was the first, and held in fierce secret by the Chen family, taking no students who were not related. The only non-Chen student was a man named Yang. He eventually left and started his own school. Yang style and Chen style are quite different. Chen advocates claim that their ancestor did not teach Yang the actual style and kept much of the true style secret. What Yang practiced was a partial Tai Chi, changed in order to maintain the secret. Yang advocates argue that Yang also watched Chen practice in secret and so DID learn all the secret techniques.

So which is the real style? Who knows? Who cares? Both styles are quite effective. Every style within Hung Gar is quite effective. What really matters is whether or not the practitioner believes in his or her own style. However, it can easily been seen that when passing on knowledge, it is very important to consider those whom you trust to carry the knowledge on faithfully. And that, of course, assumes that it is not possible to expand and improve upon the teachings. Students, after all, often times go on to surpass their teachers. Indeed, it is every teacher’s fondest hope.

The Muslims have been fighting with each other for hundreds of years over which guy Mohammed actually named to take over as leader of the faith after his death. That is the primary difference between Sunni and Sheite Muslims. Christians have been arguing for a very long time about who, if anyone, is the leader of the faith. Roman Catholics argue that Jesus placed his student, Peter, in charge of the church. Catholics would claim that Peter was the first head of the church. He named a successor, Linus. Linus (who had no security blanket as far as I know) passed on the leadership to Cletus, who passed it on to Clement I, etc., etc., all the way up, (or down, as may be your opinion) to Pope Benedict today. This is based on a story from Matthew (Remember, we’re doing Matthew this year).

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. (Matthew, Chapter 16, 13-20)

Now many Christian churches have issues with this Catholic claim. First of all, they claim that the very Greek work for church, Ekklesia, means “out-called ones”, and so when Jesus was referring to that “rock” upon which he would build his church, he was not referring, in fact, to Peter, but to the “rock” of his teachings. Another argument would be that Jesus was not talking about an abstract “body of Christ” sort of all-inclusive church of believers, but rather the specific group of people in Judea who had become his students. It is true that the root for the word ekklesia means to call out (as from a crowd). But that does not mean that ekklesia means “those who are called out”. The English word “nice” can trace its root back to a Latin word that means ignorant. That doesn’t mean that when you call somebody nice, you think that person to be ignorant. In the first century, ekklesia meant any assembly of people. The word was used in a political context long before Jesus used it.

Others may argue that Peter was put in charge of the church, but screwed up. Or at least, his successors screwed up, to the point that the leadership of the church is no longer worthy to lead. They had become to corrupt and worldly to lead the church of Christ. This is why God sent Martin Luther to “protest” and break away, creating a truer faith. It always seems dangerous to me to try and second-guess God’s motives for things, or ascribing every world event, or even religious event, to the Divine.

The late Gene Scott, wild haired, television preacher, used to say that Peter screwed up, so God handed the whole business over to Paul. That is why there are so many letters and writings of Paul and so few of Peter’s. Paul is the famous one. He is responsible for most of the Christian theology we have today.

So what about this event, if any of it is true? Did Jesus leave Peter in charge? This story appears in all three of what are called the synoptic gospels, those gospels that basically tell the story of the life of Jesus, the Christ. The fourth gospel, John, deals more with the theology of Jesus and his role in man’s salvation. A version of this event also occurs in John, although in a quite different way. Mark and Matthew tell the same basic story, with the Matthein addition of Peter claiming that Jesus is also the Son of the Living God. In Matthew, Mark, and John, Peter is told that he is to lead the church. In John, the story takes place AFTER the resurrection, when Jesus appears to the disciples.

Since some version of this episode is given in each gospel, it is quite likely that some form of this event did happen somewhere along the way. Matthew, in general, tends to paint a nicer picture of Peter than Mark. It is Peter who walks on the water. It is Peter who finds a coin in the fish’s mouth. Certainly none of those twelve guys understood the meaning of messiah to be the understanding the Christian church today has of that word. To them, the messiah was a political leader, someone who would get rid of the Romans and re-establish the nation of Israel. They had no concept of messiah as savior of the world.

This is, no doubt, why Jesus told them not to tell anybody. He wasn’t the kind of messiah people were expecting. So those words in Matthew about Jesus being the Son of God were almost certainly added by the church in Antioch where Matthew was written. They wanted to affirm the role of Peter in the church. Moving Peter’s words about Jesus to a post resurrection experience, as it is depicted in John makes much more sense.

We know that Paul of Tarsus, the guy who wrote all those letters in the New Testament, refers regularly to Peter and his role in church leadership. So, since Paul talks about Peter as a leader of the church, it is safe to suggest that is the general tradition. Other early church fathers write about the students of Jesus as “Peter and the other Apostles”, thus setting Peter apart.

Yet neither Peter nor the Apostles, nor probably Jesus, had any concept of some kind of universal church as we tend to see it today. There was only a loose group of followers before the crucifixion. There was no church. Much has been made of the Greek words in the statement made by Jesus. Peter’s Aramaic name was Simon Bar Jonah (Simon, son of Jonah). Peter’s nickname was “Pebbles”, or Petros (masculine noun), in Greek. Jesus says that Simon is Petros, (Pebbles), and on this rock (petra—(feminine noun, meaning rock, as in big rock), he would build his assembly. So you have a cute play on words here, a pun as it were.

But Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek to them. He was almost certainly speaking in Aramaic, so that pun would be completely lost. What we can take from each of the gospels, including John, and from the letters of Paul, is that Peter became the leader of the early church. The nature of that leadership may be questioned, however. It is most likely that whether or not that was what Jesus had in mind, Peter did become the leader of what became a universal church, a collection of small regional churches around Asia Minor connected by itinerant apostles and church officials, with Peter in charge.

I tend to look at the church in much the same way as I look at any other discipline or institution. America, for example, is a grown a long way from the government first imagined by the founders. Moreover, we have had good presidents and bad presidents (don’t we know it!). Does this mean we are no longer America? I am certain that Hung Gar Kung Fu is quite different from the art taught by Hung Hei Kwan to his first generation of students and very different from the art he himself practiced. Does that mean it is no longer Hung Gar Kung Fu? Indeed, I am not the same person I was when I was fifteen. But I’m still the same me.

Certainly Peter was the leader of the early church. And Peter did name a successor. There have been many successors, good and bad. That doesn’t mean the church is no longer the church. And it doesn’t make the church any less valid. Yang style Tai Chi is quite different from Chen style. We can only assume that Yang took from Chen what he liked and then changed it. Both Chen and Yang (as well as Wu and Sun) took the same art down different paths and arrived at the same location.

A church (ekklesia) is an assembly of people. It may well be an assembly of “out-called ones,” people who feel drawn towards some kind of connection with the creator-spirit. Whatever path leads you to that godhead is as valid as any other. Jesus talked about love, forgiveness, and service. He said that was the pathway to peace and harmony. The rest is just details. Whatever carries you to that point is good. Even the Roman Catholic Church today teaches that whatever faith takes you to God is what is right for you. Some people need ritual. Some people need dogma. Some people need simplicity.

The apostles had no idea what any of the things Jesus said meant until after his death and resurrection. And everything they taught, was taught through that hindsight, with their own attached meanings. The early church then took the teachings of the apostles and molded them to their own way of thinking. There’s really no way for us to know exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said the things he did except through our own understanding of the truth. We can be guided by those people who knew him first hand, but there are no guarantees that those people really understood what Jesus was saying.

So why even go to church, if you cannot depend upon hearing the truth from any pulpit? There are two reasons. First, it is not easy to live according to the teachings of Christ. One look around the world will show you that. And, as in any other endeavor, such as quitting drugs or alcohol, it is good to have a support group. A church is a group of people all trying their best to follow the teachings of Jesus. You don’t have to agree with all of them, or even most of them. You’re just getting together with them from time to time in order to gain strength. It’s much better to go to a martial arts school than to try to learn on your own. The other students keep you going; they help you maintain discipline.

And the other reason is that, as in other endeavors, you need a teacher, even if that teacher serves no other purpose than to help you focus your own thoughts and opinions. A good teacher forces you to look at things in such a way as to cause you to form your own ideas and beliefs. You have to find your own way to God, but a good teacher can point you in the right direction. But you should not take anything said from any pulpit as being the ultimate truth, since that truth is the truth for the person preaching. It is not necessarily the truth for you.

Karate also descended from the Shaolin Temple in China. But one look at Shaolin Kung Fu and Japanese Karate will show you how far apart two schools can drift from the original teachings of the monks (who also learned from a teacher, Da Mo, who came from India). Yet students of Karate and Kung Fu both arrive, in time, at the same end. And both arts are quite effective, yet about as different as they can be. Bruce Lee tried to take the best from all schools of martial arts and incorporate them into one style—the style of no-style, Jeet Kune Do.

Traditionalists (who make a good point here) maintain that Bruce missed the point because he did not study any one style long enough to really get the core meaning from it. Bruce took what was superficial in a lot of styles and tried to create a new style (of sorts, if no-style is a style). Most masters will tell you that real understanding of the art only comes after many, many years of study. And that real understanding has nothing to do with fighting. Bruce never studied any style long enough to find that understanding.

Going to church is good in that it keeps you focused and on that path. As a self-taught guitarist, I can tell you that people who get lessons certainly make faster progress, or at least more focused progress. Many people argue that they don’t need to go to church to find God. That is true. But there are guitar players who claim you don’t need a teacher to be good either. However, most self-taught guitarists don’t become really good. And most people trying to find their way to God have a hard time seeing that path without someone (or some church) to help point out the way. Most people who are really good at something have a number of teachers.

However Jesus may have passed on the leadership of the faithful, he clearly meant for the teachings to be carried on after he was gone, whether he could see exactly how his story would play out or not. There was no agreement, even among the early churches, as to what it meant to be a Christian. And today, two thousand years later, many people still argue about what that teaching was. Follow whatever faith you choose, you will arrive at the same place, as long as your goal is that connection with the Atman, the Tao, the whatever you want to call it. In the long run, any church or assembly is what you make it. According to Mark Van Duren, “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” A good church does just that. It helps you discover your own way to God.

Some people have said, “You know, if YOU had a church, we would come to it.” And I say that I have nothing to teach at all other than to say you have to look at things for yourself and come to your own conclusions after a lot of searching and a lot of discovery. And you can make those discoveries anywhere. I mean, I could teach you to play the guitar, too. Or I could teach you the art of Hung Gar Kung Fu. But you could learn those anywhere from anyone. The real teacher is Jesus. You have to find your own self in his words. And any church, indeed, any faith, can lead you to that same discovery. In the end, the rock upon which that church is built, is you.