So let’s go on to a discussion of teaching authority using my koryu experience. I should mention that I have been talking about the authority that a teacher feels within himself, rather than what others feel about him. Formal certification by an external source is considered in this respect for how it affects the teacher’s self-image. I must say that I have never been much concerned with what the man on the street thinks about my qualifications to teach because I don’t consider teaching to be anything special. I do understand that some folks put a lot of their self-image into being a sensei, and some students desire this a lot, but in my case it’s just been a necessity of life. I taught because that was how I got space to practice. Now I teach because, in large part, that’s how I keep practicing. As I’ve become older and more injured, being in charge of my pace of practice lets me extend my career.
On to the koryu arts where I have no paper to hang on my walls. None of my old school training has included any sort of formal testing or certification and the one time I was offered an administrative rank (representative of the school for North America) I turned it down with the explanation that I was that person already, and didn’t need a piece of paper to prove it to anyone. If you’re the guy who has the contact with the teacher, you’re that guy.
So there’s my main koryu authority, the authority of being taught. I am borrowing the authority of my teacher, he taught me and has perhaps given me permission to teach what I know. However, in a very real way that authority is self-assumed, I have as much authority to teach the art as I invest in my sensei to teach it. Like I said, no paper trail of certification, I just assume he has the right and ability to teach me, and I assume I have the ability to learn and pass it on.
The authority of being taught. It’s the flip side of the authority of having students and one doesn’t work without the other. To teach you need some sort of knowledge to pass on and you need students to pass it to. It’s the lineage of teacher to student that, in a very real sense, is the authority. No amount of paper certification can save a school if there are no teachers and students. Witness the number of old certificates that can apparently be bought in used book shops in Japan. By owning a certification in a school you do not acquire any knowledge of the school itself, even if the certificate contains the names of the kata and maybe a verse about training. It’s a statement of achievement, not an instructional aide like a book. Witness the old Western sword schools that have been revived by study of manuals. You might argue that they are not legitimate because they are not an unbroken chain of instruction, but there is no doubt that they have revived something of the old arts. What they do is dangerous and effective, if not exactly as the author taught it.
Back to borrowing your teacher’s authority. You give yourself as much teaching authority as you give your teacher, but is paper certification any more certain than this? Does a piece of paper from your teacher saying you’ve got permission to teach any more valuable than verbal or implied permission? You must accept that your teacher’s paper has authority. In fact you must accept the whole chain of paper from founder down to you is legitimate and at no point was there a purchase of a grade or sloppiness in testing a student. You must assume no lazy transmission at all. Paper or no paper, this direct transmission of teacher to student will always depend on a solid chain of instruction and the end student, the fellow now teaching, must accept that the chain is solid. This is the koryu way, there are no overseeing institutions to check on my teacher and his certification as he hands that certification over to me, and no books or video to check claims against (beyond a generation or three back) so the authority is ultimately self-given as it is accepted. It is only to others that koryu paper means anything, not to the student or to the teacher, and given that some students are told they should put their paper away in a drawer rather than wave it around the dojo, it is doubtful it was ever meant as anything but reassurance.
Why should a lack of paper certification bother anyone in the koryu? Self doubt, feelings of fraud are common in anyone who has studied the budo. A nagging feeling of not knowing it all, of missing some obscure principle. Having a piece of paper is something solid to hang on to. The paper is an external validation of permission to teach should the student forget tha the teacher told him it was fine. Something to look at and hold like an old blanket. Is there a need to show that paper to others who may doubt? Perhaps, if that doubt is bothersome. Is there a need to show some paper to new students? Again, perhaps but in my opinion, my opinion of your teaching ability isn’t going to change no matter what paper you hang in your dojo.
My 7dan certificate in iaido reassures me that I have permission to teach, but it doesn’t mean I “can” teach. The problem is that this reassurance is just the same as having no permission at all. To be reassured by the paper means I have self-doubt about my authority to teach which means I doubt my ability, and therefore I doubt the paper.
There’s a nasty pair of truths here. If you have no self-doubt of your authority to teach, you are full of ego or braggadoccio. If you have self-doubt you are casting stones at the glass house of your art.
You know, that very contradiction is what drives any art forward, and why the koryu have changed and adapted and survived to this day. Teachers driven by doubt and ego simultaneously, to improve the art. You need both the doubt that there’s something more and the ego that tells you that you can find it.