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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2002

“Sensei:” Some Considerations

Gil Gillespie

"Sensei" is one of those unique terms that, though understood conventionally by the community that uses it, allows many interpretations and nuances, inviting lasting confusion and dialog. Within the martial arts community, "sensei" is understood as "teacher," and the acknowledged Japanese translation is generally given as "one who has gone before." Virtually all budoka are comfortable with this definition and accept it at face value.

Yet within the budo community the dialog persists as to the actual role of the one who as instructor in his art is called "sensei." Even with an accepted definition there are layers of meaning, quite similar in their "understood" implications, to the Jewish title "rabbi," which is also conventionally defined as "teacher," yet which possesses great depth and expands far beyond the parameters of that definition.

Is a martial arts instructor a spiritual leader? A leader of a community? Should he be? Or should he merely disseminate the most effective and correct fighting technique as promulgated by his respective art? What should the student expect from this relationship? Which end of this continuum is appropriate? Or is it somewhere in between?

These questions form the crux of an ongoing and recently more intense dialog regarding the essence of "sensei," its implications and expectations. I have never been a rabbi, or any ordained spiritual leader. I was, however, a public school teacher and coach, and my budo experience has increasingly placed me before groups of budoka as their instructor. I would never call myself "sensei," although my kohai do when I teach, only that their dojo etiquette remain consistent. As these classes unfold, how do I see myself vis-à-vis the question at hand? As the senior student that night I owe the other students more than just leading the techniques. I owe them instruction. I owe them the richest, most fulfilling budo experience I can encourage to evolve during that class.

Yet I must recognize my limitations, and theirs. Many junior instructors voice the self-indulgent refrain, "This is where my art is," and then conduct the class as their own private laboratory with the students as their personal research tools. More perceptive, and more correct actually, is the perspective, "Where is THEIR art?" Another pitfall of fledgling instructors is the overblown lecture, which is seldom as interesting to the listeners as it is to the speaker. People come to train, not to listen.

I am much closer to our mudansha on The Path than our sensei and senior instructors. That should never be overlooked, although that does not mean I can never challenge either myself or my kohai. So from my vantage I am closer to the understanding of "coach" than "sensei." "Coach" is another of those terms whose meaning is particular to the milieu. There is a world of difference between the former college athlete teaching elementary school phys. ed. because his eligibility has run out and the man who has over years molded groups of disparate individuals into selfless, committed units striving toward a goal. Both are addressed as "Coach."

Again the layers of meaning and understanding color the picture. My own coaching experience on the scholastic level mandated that I be more attuned to the development of the entire individual than to mere success in competition. That philosophy never left me and I have seen it played out even at the callous professional level. Vince Lombardi may have said "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," but to a man his former players maintain a veneration that transcended loyalty and became family. The former Boston Celtics maintain that spirit and those ties with curmudgeon mentor Red Auerbach. This paternal relationship proliferates more easily in the collegiate ranks, exemplified by the life imprint of people like Dean Smith of North Carolina basketball and Joe Paterno of Penn State football. Their players and others maintain a close relationship long after their performing careers end, consulting with their "coach" about life's larger perspectives throughout the remainder of their lives.

The quintessence of this relationship would have to be that of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and his touch on the lives of his players. People in the sports world will always speak of him in awe and not merely for his championships and array of hall of fame players. John Wooden exemplifies excellence in life and sports; he never wavered from instilling the living definition of student-athlete, and insisted that a college degree be the least of his young men's accomplishments. One of his players, now in the hall of fame, said that they never considered leaving early for the riches of professional basketball. They treasured the experience and never wanted to miss the excitement and challenge of practice, which was richer than the games, because of the depth of the interaction and learning that took place there. For the title of his autobiography John Wooden chose references to neither victory nor championship, but rather They Call Me Coach.

So all well and good, but how does "coach" transfer to "sensei?" The segue is realized through the relationship that develops and is forged over time. In Japanese budo we know it as the sensei-seito relationship. The stigma of sports and competition polluting the purity of budo, which is decried by many masters (including men such as Mochizuki and Ueshiba), does not invalidate that understanding. The goals may differ (or in the case of tournament fighters become quite congruent), but the bonds that grow through prolonged training define the nature of the relationship. In praising one of his best all time players, former St. John's University basketball coach Lou Carnesecca singled out "his monastic devotion to the rehearsal." That rings of a budo dojo!

One major difference is that a sensei is still expected to "do it," whereas coaches are almost invariably "retired" and serve merely as guides and sideline instructors. In a budo dojo the instructor is not only of senior rank, but almost always he is the most advanced technician in attendance. Many times there are younger, stronger, faster yudansha in class who could conceivably outclass their instructor in a purely physical sense. That changes nothing in the equation of the sensei's position as the instructor and in the students' respect for that title, independent of the man who holds it in that class.

These bonds are not superficial and develop only if the student manifests a serious commitment and follows it up with unflagging determination. No matter how devoted the student may be to the impersonal refinement of technique or enhancement of combat proficiency, the gradual deepening of his relationship with his sensei becomes a corollary of his training. In brief military or police training programs this is impossible due to the omission of the paramount ingredient: time. The trainee may glean various techniques, but the sensei-seito relationship only comes to fruition through thousands of hours over many years. The first time my sensei referred to me by name on the mat remains an honor not even equaled by my later attainment of dan rank, which I now realize is merely something that happens to all budoka if they just stay around!

So the relationship is not only wrought over time, but it must be earned. As budoka we are all familiar with the extraordinarily high attrition among mudansha. Only a small percent of those who begin budo training actually persevere. Many sensei will not even teach beginners, leaving that instead to their sempai cadre. Even more painful and wasteful in a sensei's eyes are the students who begin to manifest some power and grace around third kyu or even attain shodan and then just disappear. So an instructor measures his commitment, and this reciprocal relationship is neither assumed nor superficial.

As this relationship defines itself over time, the sensei perceives the totality of his student. His instruction goes beyond mere technique. Some students will need to learn confidence; others will need to learn to trust their partners; others may need anger management. My budo instructor suffers from the debilitating neuro-muscular ailment myasthenia gravis. After the conventional medical community had exhausted its resources and he thought he would have to face the rest of his life as a weakened cripple, his sensei (our Japanese shihan) took him under personal physical and psychological care. The treatments were based on deep breathing with meticulous maintenance of proper postures and specific movements. Twenty years later only my instructor still survives from his original diagnosed group.

Naturally the bond shared by these two gentlemen is singular and is not presented here as a blueprint for the sensei-seito relationship. It is, however, representative of the potential that exists when a sensei takes a holistic approach to teaching the entire person, beyond technique, and the student earns the sensei's acknowledgement of the depth and sincerity of the student's commitment. The Japanese grandmaster of one of the oldest lines of koryu swordsmanship emphasizes this very "sincerity" as the most important character in true budo, and his kanji brushwork for it graces the opening page of that ryu's manual. To a man the fine sensei in my experience have repeated that sincerity and perseverance are much more sought after among their students than natural athletic or fighting ability.

Yet at issue here is the nature of martial arts instruction. We have arrived at the second oldest and least fulfilling inquiry into the nature of training: "It's not about fighting" (the oldest and least fulfilling reply, of course, is "Just keep training!"). As frustrating as it is to hear, the latter is true. The validity of the former is defined by the student's goals for training; and again the "X factor" in the mix is time. Over time a student's goals for training refine and change. A relationship develops with his sensei. Even the most hardened fighters undergo an evolution of their character; budo literature is replete with descriptions of this phenomenon. They may not all undergo a mystical transformation like Ueshiba Morihei, but they realize there is something more, and they teach it.

Technique becomes the vehicle for learning principle, in both budo and life. In yet another of those budo paradoxes, this widening of a sensei's teaching perspective is ancillary to instruction in the art; he is still firstly and principally a budo instructor. And in another paradox, the student has no right to expect anything beyond budo instruction. He enters the dojo as a beginner and a stranger. He must demonstrate the above commitment and sincerity over the passage of time - a great deal of time. The sensei-seito relationship will take on its own distinct and individual flavor. Neither the sensei nor the student can will it, accelerate it, or force it. It just happens, like promotions and injuries.

There is nothing inherent to impel any instructor to take this approach. Each must choose his own path, and there is nothing at all improper in choosing to merely teach technique and the art as experienced. Many instructors prefer this view as do many students. They find it simpler, less entangling, and even more pure. It is merely my own observation that teaching "the whole person" is more fulfilling for both. If, as Joseph Campbell taught, we are the vehicles of our consciousness, then there is a time for a fill-up, and a time for a tune-up. Teaching only technique can be seen as a fill-up, whereas a holistic approach to "the vehicle" is analogous to a tune-up. Somewhere along the line the need for the overall health of the vehicle will manifest itself.

Many will insist that budo is budo and they will attend to their particular tune-up elsewhere, thank you very much. Allowing each his own I merely try to stay on The Path, believing full well that it is all about this step, this moment, and any destination is an illusion. I will never "arrive." None of us will. Each class is its own experience in The Now, and they just all add up. In the end, that's what validates the seemingly unfulfilling cliché "Just keep training." It doesn't matter if we ever use our training "in the street." It doesn't matter if budo builds character or reveals it. Remembering that the origin of the word "dojo" refers to an area for a spiritually physical discipline within a Buddhist temple, I treat my training space as my sanctuary. My fellow budoka and I have left the mundane world outside and gathered to walk The Path together for a while.

And among us there will be one we will call "sensei," who will be teacher, technician, critic, coach and guide. But most of all he will be a companion on The Way.