Embers – Oct 2, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

I sometimes think of the map of Canada and put little embers on the places where there are people practising the martial arts that I practice. They are embers rather than fires because this stuff is not popular at all, even the kendo clubs are small unless you look in Vancouver and Toronto.

Small sparks in most places which, inevitably, are individuals who have a love of the art. They learn in University at one of the larger places (or even Guelph, dojo population of maybe 14 at the best of times) and then move back home, or go to work elsewhere and they take their love of the arts with them. They start teaching just so they can get a space in their local squash club, or maybe a local University, a church hall, wherever they can find someone willing to take a chance on a bunch of people swinging swords. They demonstrate, they advertise, they do whatever they can to get a few folks in and pay the rent, and they teach.

They teach not because they figure it’s cool, not for ego, certainly not for money. They teach because there is nobody else. They put up with comments on their qualifications, they agonize about it themselves, but they teach because the alternative is giving up their training. They keep their small ember of practice alive by constantly blowing on it, putting in much more energy than they get out. It’s not fair, they should be in a big club with a high ranked sensei but they’re on their own except for those few times a year that they can visit with their sensei or someone, anyone else who can give them a few pointers to work on until the next seminar. And then they get challenged about how much they can learn with lessons three months apart.

In the meantime, back in the big city where the organization inevitably gets run, the folks in the big dojo lose sight of these sparks in the wilderness. They figure it’s all chatting with each other over lunch after class and driving across town for an extra practice. If the organization notices one of the sparks it’s usually to ask them to do something dull, boring and tedious that nobody else wants to do. Not a problem until they turn around and reject the work they assigned. That’s often the tipping point that extinguishes the spark and one more point on the map goes black, one more enthusiastic student burned out.

Another way the spark goes out is with no support. You can keep an ember alive by blowing on it, but sometimes you have to breath in, when you do that the fire dies. One person in the wilderness is at risk, even one other who can blow a little once in a while can make the difference.

Fires go out by smothering them, neglecting them or rearranging them.

Too much criticism of teaching smothers the remote club as the teacher can only resist so much criticism from up above while teaching down at the same time. You need confidence in your ability to teach correctly and that confidence gets eroded pretty fast when you’re hundreds of miles from your support team. Getting told you’re “doing it wrong” is a lot louder in the middle of the woods than in the city.

No contact at all with that support system can also mean the energy that started the dojo never gets renewed. Nobody can keep blowing out without breathing in. No teacher can expend the energy of keeping a dojo going for years without the occasional jolt to renew the batteries.

Fires need a certain arrangement to keep burning. Scatter the sticks and they all stop burning. Make a teacher on his own jump through too many different hoops and he will get further and further away from what really matters, the practice. Given the amount of paperwork and arguing it takes to keep a club going in the local YMCA, is it really a good idea to keep changing the rules and cranking up the paperwork in the wider budo organization? Sensei in the big clubs can just hand off the work to the juniors, who does the teacher in a club of four beginners hand things to?

Sparks are a good thing when you want a fire, but sparks aren’t a fire yet. They need a gentle application of energy added to what they have in order to grow into a self-sustaining fire. But even when the fire can be left alone for a few moments, those moments need to be spent gathering more fuel. The sparks of instruction scattered from the main dojo need to be cared for by proper support from senior sensei, and once the distant dojo are established, the main organization still needs to do what it can to get new fuel to those fires. It’s no good applying the recruitment methods of a big city (which often amounts to turning students away from the Japanese Cultural Centers where the big city population will naturally go to find a Japanese martial art) to the small towns. Excuses for seminars with attendant press release to the local paper, even advertising from the main organization to raise the profile of the art as a whole is how you grow those embers into fires.

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