If we can become settled, or perhaps resigned, in ourselves to being without constant technical supervision from our sensei (and let’s face it, after 5 or 10 years our sensei isn’t on our backs constantly anyway, we’re lucky if we get a correction once a month, the rest of the time he’s looking at those who still listen when he says “tip higher”), what is it that we miss by being elsewhere?
I mentioned being in an organization and being sponsored through gradings as non-tech benefits to having a sensei, but providing we still have one we don’t need to be in the same town for that. We just need to have a sponsor somewhere up the chain of command.
One thing we will benefit from by being in the loop is to be in the loop. I mentioned fads in grading earlier and I should explain that a bit further. If we are near our sensei and he is up the ladder far enough to be in the loop, we will know about something like changes in sageo control for iaido gradings, or whether or not the top-top guys are talking about timing during tournaments (in which case you’d better be ready to see a stopwatch come out during the grading). These “fads” are something that I’ve always warned my students about so that they go to a grading expecting that things will be “changed at the last second”. Stuff is never really changed that late unless you’re out of the loop but sometimes that loop can be pretty small. At one time in our federation I was told “the loop” was the restaurant the sensei from one dojo visited for lunch after Sunday class. If you weren’t there you didn’t know what was going on.
Things ought to be easier now that we have email and other modern marvels but you still get the SOP field kicking into effect. It’s Someone Else’s Problem to share the decisions the top sensei make in the restaurant or perhaps announce in their own dojo. So a non-tech benefit to having a sensei further up the food chain is being closer to the loop if not in there.
See what I did there, food chain, restaurant…
Can a sensei teach you how to be a better person? Of course, if he’s a nice person but your dad can do that too. Stuff like that isn’t sensei-specific. Stories of the past masters? Yep of course, but there’s books and again any of the old guys can give you that. Stories of his own teacher? There’s one for you, and those are wonderful to know. Thing is, those stories are usually told in relation to some sort of technical point. Are these necessary to learning the art? I was asking my daughter the other day who her “grand-teacher” was, what her violin lineage was, and she didn’t know. She knows her teacher is amazing and that he trained in Poland but that’s about all, he hasn’t mentioned his teacher and she hasn’t asked. I hope she does because knowing that your lineage goes back past last Tuesday gives you a sense of participating in history. But necessary to learning? She’s pretty good if I do say so, even without the stories.
Those lineage stories are relevent with regard to your original sensei, but if your sensei passes away what does it mean to join another sensei and learn his lineage, especially if his lineage is not yours? This happens in the kendo federation where we have multiple koryu lines but the grading lines run on different tracks… wow crap metaphore. Your koryu lineage is with your original teacher, but if you want sponsorship to pass your next grading (and at a certain point this counts… get over it) you go with the guys who are connected no matter which koryu they follow.
Even in the koryu and even in the same lineage there can be interesting situations created with the death of a sensei. For instance, let’s say a teacher in Canada has studied under a high ranked sensei in his line in Japan and got his rank there. That teacher dies and now a young fellow is in charge. Does our Canadian sensei put himself under the young headmaster? What if that Canadian teacher gave the new headmaster his first lessons in the art? Again it comes down to political considerations, does our Canadian teacher want more rank? If so he’s got a new sensei who is also a kohei. Fun yes?
Of course our Canadian teacher can always start his own organization and start giving out his own paper. He may not have any choice, I’ve seen new headmasters come in and boot all the foreigners out. Why not? If they’re doing their own thing anyway and have no firm connections with Japan any more, why go to the bother of trying to get them back in, maybe best to say “you’re good to go, good luck” and cut them loose.
The sensei – student situation goes both ways and a junior sensei may not feel comfortable taking on a senior student. I’ve been there, I’ve got folks in my dojo who have been teaching martial arts for decades longer than I have. It’s a different relationship than from the kid who walks in cold. It’s a lot more technical and a lot more careful for one thing. There’s a lot more explanation and discussion and a lot less “just do it”.
So there it is, there’s the art-specific stuff, the politics, that is necessary to continue in the same art or organization and for that you need a sensei. Unless you’re at the top I suppose but who wants to be there, I bet the best headmasters are the most insecure about their technical abilities and wish most they still had a sensei.
Then there’s the person-specific stuff, the stuff where your sensei becomes a lot like your dad. I get that, my budo training began after my father died so there was always a bit of substitution going on for me and I can honestly say that I learned a lot of dad stuff from my sensei. But as I said, you get that from any mentor, it doesn’t have to be your budo sensei.
Finally what about teaching? Tricky, is that included in the technical side of things? Are we taught to teach or do we learn by watching our own sensei teach? Can we learn how to teach by watching other sensei teach?