It’s odd that I have simply assumed for most of my budo career that you have one sensei in any particular art, and that “everybody knows that”. Apparently I’m wrong, I have met lots of folks in my organization lately who seem to think they’ve got multiple sensei and even multiple, conflicting loyalties amongst those sensei.
I think this may be the result of couple of things. First is the type of organization I’m in (the kendo federation). I started my budo in Aikido and it was a typical heirachy setup, with my kyu grades coming from my sensei and my shodan from Japan. My teacher was the only link I had to the art due to the organizational setup and to the lack of local instructors. There was no doubt in my mind who my sensei was, and even when we had senior visiting instructors for seminars they were my sensei’s sensei, not mine. My Aikido sensei never told us this, and was quite happy for us to learn from the visitors, but it just never occured to us students that we might now have two sensei.
In the iaido world in Canada it started out similarly clear-cut. There were only four of five people teaching iai in the country so geographical realities made it clear that your sensei was your sensei. We also began with koryu rather than the Zen Ken Ren iai and that contributed to the lack of confusion as to who is teaching you. One line from teacher to student.
Enter growth, enter the grading system and enter the ZKR iai instruction for beginners. Now we are seeing a world-standardized set of instruction that comes directly down from Tokyo so that all sensei are teaching the same thing (in theory). If the sensei next door is teaching what you need to know to pass the next grade, the same as the sensei in your usual dojo, why not consider both of them your sensei. Why not indeed? Up to about 4dan it really doesn’t matter, the grading panel is a panel, and the requirements are pretty much all technical. Doesn’t really matter who tells you to stop your draw at an exact position as long as you do it. Beyond 4dan things change a bit and there are some folks who have what I’d have to call a “muddy style” that is going to cause them problems with the grading system.
Growth also brings “assistant instructors” which is something I’ve never experienced in my whole career. All my clubs were small and I was usually amongst the senior students anyway. I never had to try to learn from two or three different people in the same dojo, but I can see that it might give students the impression that they could have multiple sensei, especially if the assistant teachers were not careful to speak with only their sensei’s voice.
We have had 24 years of sensei from Japan coming at minimum once a year to Canada to teach iai and those instructors have been asked to teach our students as if they were their own. That is, to correct them without politeness or regard for the feelings of the local instructors. This is the only way we can make sure we’re up to date with the latest seitei news and views so we have done it happily. However, this being treated as a “foreign student” may also have created the idea in the students that one could have a local and an away sensei. The concept was never endorsed by the visiting instructors of course, in fact quite the opposite, with them explaining at length that you need a single guide to follow in the arts, but students are ever keen to learn and will make their own minds up on what is best for themselves.
Another factor in the modern budo education system is the internet, where one can read about, watch and discuss very senior instructors and what they taught. It’s a rather startling thing for me to read a young student writing “so and so said…” I get a mental stall every time as my brain says to me “how did I miss seeing him in class with so and so” before I realize that the writer is just repeating something he has been told or has read. It’s not that I’m stupid, or that I don’t repeat things that I’ve read of past instructors as well, it’s just that their tone seems to imply that this is first hand knowledge rather than hearsay and again, I think that contributes to a feeling that anybody can be one’s sensei.
In fact I have noticed that even I have started to feel it’s rather old-fashioned to hear someone say “could I attend your class if my sensei allows me to come practice with you”? I will teach anyone who shows up in front of me, but I have always assumed they have their sensei’s permission to do so. I may correct technical details of seitei gata, I may teach them things like Niten Ichiryu where I know their own sensei doesn’t teach it, but there’s no way I’m teaching someone else’s student what only their own sensei should be teaching. Not without permission to do so, and even then it’s going to be carefully stated.
Which brings me to koryu. I’ve actually heard students discussing and even arguing about the correct way to perform a koryu kata, bringing in various sensei to support their arguments as if there was a “correct” way to do koryu and one sensei may know while another may be mistaken. In fact, at more than one seminar I’ve been told by the students in front of me that I was “doing a kata wrong” while teaching koryu. I’m sure they are simply reminding me that I’ve got it wrong (and for some of the more obscure arts we practice, my own students certainly have to remind me). My favourite is when one of their seniors drags them to the back of the class with a hand over their mouth. I don’t know what sort of thunder-face I make when told something like that but it’s nice to know that at least some folks remember the old ways.
One sensei per art, sure you can learn from others but…. one sensei per art. No question of conflicting loyalties and if you ever find you disagree with one to favour another, it’s time to decide you only have one sensei. Let’s hope the one you pick will take you in. Not everyone in front of me in a class is my student, even if mine is the only dojo in which they practice.