Monday, February 24, 2014

The Budo Teacher - Student Relationship



I write a lot about my teachers, how important they are to me, what they teach me and our relationship.  With a few exceptions though, you don’t see me using their names.  I wrote about a big Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku recently, and never said who was teaching it.  I don’t usually publish my teachers’ full names either.   That makes it difficult to check and see if I really do some of these things or if I’m just blowing smoke.

In the budo I practice, the teacher-student relationship is very strong, very important and central to the nature of the budo..  The classical ideal for relationships in Japan is that of the parent and child, and many aspects of the budo teacher and student relationship resemble that.  The teacher is ultimately responsible for what the student does and says in public, just as a parent is responsible for what a child does and says, and the student is expected to look to the teacher for direction and to support the teacher publically, even when there are differences of opinion.  This is quite different from the way teacher-student relationships work in the USA, where I grew up and did my initial budo training.
 
Everything I say and do will be seen in classical budo circles as a reflection on my teachers. If I’m behaving badly or making ignorant or foolish comments, people in the budo world will complain to them and ask about the kinds of things they are teaching me.  It’s my responsibility to be a good representative of my teachers, and to do nothing that might embarrass them or cause them problems.  If I say something, it will be seen as being authorized and approved by my teacher.  My teachers will be held responsible for cleaning up any messes that I make.  The classical budo world in Japan is small, and you’re almost never more than a couple of degrees away from someone. 

My teachers each took a risk in accepting me as their student, but they didn’t do it lightly or quickly.   No one makes you sit for weeks by the temple gate in a typhoon before they accept you as a student, but you don’t become someone’s student just by signing the roster and paying your monthly dues.  Wayne Muromoto has a nice story about people who go to a teacher but don’t get taught the real thing.  These people aren’t real students, the teacher doesn’t trust them, doesn’t teach them genuine art, and takes no responsibility for what they do when the leave.

When I came to Japan, I joined a great local Judo dojo, paid my monthly dues and went to every practice I could.  I wasn’t a student though. I was guest.  I wasn’t a student until I had been there at least a year.  After that first year I started getting invited to dojo social events and trips, and most notable for me, my name appeared on the dojo member board.  The teachers were taking public responsibility for me.  At that moment my status went from being another guy who trains there, to Yoshikawa Sensei’s student.  Up until then, if I did something stupid in practice or at a tournament, well, I was just a guy who was passing though.  After that, I was Sensei’s student and if I did something wrong, I wouldn’t be told directly.  Sensei would get chewed out for not having taught me properly and he would be responsible for the consequences of my actions.  I would only hear about whatever pain and embarrassment I had caused after Sensei had started cleaning up the mess. 

If things work this way in a gendai budo like Judo, they are even more intensely personal in a koryu bugei.  Koryu bugei are not openly taught public entities like Judo or Aikido or Kendo.  They are more like family treasures shared with just family and close friends whom you deeply trust.  It takes a long time to really earn that, and it’s not always an easy relationship.  The responsibilities and expectations can be quite high.  I have on occasion made mistakes which my teachers have taken me to task for, whether it is something simple like doing a poor job during a demonstration (I now hate and fear youtube.  Any mistake I make in public will be preserved and broadcast for eternity!) or something more serious such as how or what I am teaching.  I learned early on to be really careful about public behavior so I don’t embarrass them.  They worked really hard to teach me the ins and outs of navigating the budo world so I won’t embarrass them or anyone, myself included.

I first entered the koryu budo world by invitation of a sword smith, an artist of the first rank.  Knowing Nakagawa Sensei lead me to my first iaido teacher, who introduced me to others, where I encountered a Shinto Muso Ryu student who introduced me to her teacher who introduced me to his teacher, who accepted me as his student and who introduced me to his teacher who graciously welcomes me into his dojo as a student of his student.    There were a lot of introductions along that path, and many people who stood to suffer if I didn’t behave well and respectably.  Now that I have been accepted as a student, everything I do reflects directly back on my teachers.

The responsibility isn’t just a one-way street though.  As I said, if I make a mistake or cause a problem, I may not hear about it until after Sensei has started cleaning up the mess.  If I’m responsible for being a good representative of my teacher, he is responsible for teaching me well and taking responsibility for any problems I may cause.  The closer the student-teacher relationship, the bigger the responsibility this becomes.  Initially this responsibility is only within the budo world, but it can grow to include all sorts of aspects of life outside the budo world.  Teachers have been known to help people find jobs and arrange marriages and secure loans.  Teachers accept a lot of responsibility when they accept a student.

Just as the teacher accepts responsibility for the student, the student accepts responsibility for the teacher.  Teachers are not ultimate paragons of humanity.  They have been known to drink too much, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and engage in feuds, just like everyone else.  Once you have passed beyond that probationary period and are really someone’s student, that’s all your responsibility too.  If Sensei drinks too much somewhere and makes a mess, it’s his students who make sure he gets home OK and clean up after him.  If Sensei has a fight or a feud with someone, you are automatically included on Sensei’s side.

The web of relationships and responsibilities extend far beyond just the teacher and student involved in the core relationship and can have wide ranging impacts.  It’s no wonder teachers take a long time before they consider a student to really be “theirs.”  Students should really be spending that probationary period looking very closely at the person they are considering studying with as well, because the responsibility is a two way street, and just as the student’s public behavior reflects on the teacher, the student is judged by who their teacher is.

All of this is to say that, for the most part, I don’t freely publish my teacher’s names and contacts.  I have friends whose names have been used without their permission to gain access to their teachers, and I want to protect my teachers from people like that.  A fraud will eventually be discovered and treated appropriately, but it’s my responsibility to make sure my teachers don’t have to deal with one to begin with.  So if I don’t go putting my teachers’ names out there, please forgive me. 

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