About once a year (around grading time when our attention is drawn to it) the upper levels of the iaido section wonder what we’re doing in our organization. The discussion is usually the same each time, we start with why and end up with “because we want access to our sensei”. It has always been that easy for me, as long as my sensei wants a sensei I’ll do what I need to do to get him one.
What’s this? Sensei have sensei? Can you have more than one sensei, is that word plural? Yes, you can have more than one sensei, and I hear it all the time from students around here, “my Japanese sensei says… ” Nothing wrong with that, I can’t imagine how much less I would know if I hadn’t had the chance to study with many high ranked sensei who were all teaching the same thing. The different points of view are like walking around a statue, you get the depth of the thing, the three dimentionality, and you get the proper shape of the thing. The arts are like an elephant and a sensei is like one of the three blind men, each with his own way of describing the animal. Combine the views and you come up with a more complete picture that doesn’t have as much exaggeration of one aspect.
But who guides all this? What does the student do when one sensei says do it this way and another says do it that? The answer is quite simple actually, ask shisho. Shisho is your sensei, YOUR sensei, no a sensei, not one of many, but the one you follow. This is what concerns me when I hear students saying “my Japanese sensei says we should do….”. Unless a student is certain they are smarter than all the sensei out there they shouldn’t be saying “my this or that sensei” at all, they should be having a quiet talk with their shisho and asking what they should do, then they should do that. Never pick and choose amongst many, rather do what your shisho tells you.
Usually a student doesn’t get the chance to pick and choose between sensei, you find one and you follow. But in a large organization with a common practice like the Kendo Federations, you can stand in front of many sensei. You can even, for a few years, pick and choose from all of them and make your own decisions on how to do the waza, but at around 4dan comes a big decision. You can’t cobble a style together from a bunch of different sensei, you have to pick one and start to follow your shisho.
Now, once you’ve done this for a decade or three you can start investigating once more amongst the other sensei out there and see what you can learn about the deep roots of the art, but your style, your basis for understanding will be set by your shisho. You can visit other countries and learn lots, but you’re learning about your own home-country culture, you’ll never become a native of some other place.
So, I stick around in the Kendo Federations (all of which are a lot more concerned with kendo than iaido or jodo by sheer weight of numbers if nothing else) because my shisho wants to learn from the sensei in the federation. I don’t need these other sensei but I also enjoy the blazes out of seeing them. All I really need is my shisho.
How does it actually go around here? The beginners all want to see lots of sensei, especially those from Japan so they vote “stick with the Federation”. The intermediate ranks, who have picked their shisho, can’t see much value in an organization beyond their dojo. The guys at the top, the ones who are the shisho, want to do their best for their students, so they want to stay in touch with the art as much as possible, and so we stay.