After hearing me comment about what a great day I’d had at Judo practice, a friend of mine lamented the fact that there is no one senior to her in her koryu budo dojo. At that Judo practice I enjoyed myself and learned a bunch. Because I’m not the most senior person in the room there, I can relax and absorb what is being taught. I don’t have to worry about how to teach a particular point or think about what we’re going to do for the entire practice. I get to learn. Yes, if someone junior to me seems ready to learn a particular point I’ll work with them, but it’s always within the framework of the class someone else is teaching. I can focus on learning and practicing as a happy student.
I understand my friend’s lament. Where I’m at, if I want partners to train iai and jo and kenjutsu with, I have to teach them. There is no one senior to me for quite a ways. I’ve known lots of people who wanted to be the big kahoona teaching martial arts. Having arrived at that position by the simple expediency of moving to a place where I’m the only option if you want to learn the stuff I do, I can let you in on a little secret. It’s not fun.
In fact, I don’t know of anyone who’s teaching that wouldn’t trade in their cold, windy, exposed position on the top of the heap for a nice, cozy spot somewhere down the side a ways. At the top, all the responsibility is on you. You get to worry about what to teach and how to teach and and why the people aren’t catching the point of your carefully thought out lessons. Plus you get to worry about the dojo have space and enough money to cover expenses and that someone is there on Thursday night to lead practice because you are attending your daughter’s recital and gee, I thought I remembered how to do this kata, but now I’m not so sure….how did that entry go? When you’re on top, it all comes back around to you. This is a particular problem outside Japan where dojo don’t usually have decades and decades of history.
In Japan most of the dojo I train in are lead by people in their 70s and 80s. Many of them have more than 70 or 80 years of budo experience under whatever is left of their well-worn belts. Imagine a dojo where the median rank on the floor most nights is 6th dan. That’s pretty common. Training in a place like that is incredible. You absorb lessons without even realizing it because the atmosphere is so rich with experience. Your training partners as often as not started practicing decades before you were born and the head sensei started decades before that.
You don’t have to worry about what teach or how to teach it. There are plenty of seniors doing that. You just go and absorb everything you can. Some of it you forget and other lessons you don’t realize you’ve learned until they bleed from your bones and muscles and heart when needed. Secure in the knowledge that whatever question you might have someone around you will be able to answer in more detail than you can handle, you can relax and just focus on your training, on improving your budo and yourself as much as possible.
When, for whatever reason, you find yourself at the top of the heap with people around you calling out “Sensei”, that security melts faster than ice cream in an Arizona summer. This is especially true if you’ve only got a couple of decades of experience under your still all too new belt. I still have loads of things to learn about all of the arts I study, not just Judo. For iai and jo though, most of the year I’m the only teacher around for me to rely on. I don’t have all the details of every kata nailed into my head yet. This is a problem for my training. I can teach my students a lot, but they aren’t nearly ready to work on some of the things I’m doing, so I have no practice partners nearby.
I’ve got a pile of kata that I was introduced to at the most recent gasshuku. Anything I don’t remember and don’t have written down somewhere is lost until the next time I can get together with a senior student or teacher. Of course, the nearest senior for my Jodo practice is at least 600 miles away. For iai, it’s 6,000 miles. I don’t get those checks and memory enhancements nearly as often as I’d like. I can get together with a senior in Jodo a few times a year, but getting to Japan is a lot tougher.
For my students, I hope our dojo is a great place with a good mix of juniors and relatively senior folks. This way they can learn and grow as quickly as possible. For me improvement is comparatively slower and takes more effort. It’s also lonelier.
A big part of budo, especially koryu budo traditions, is all the stuff that is not techniques and kata. There are discussions of history and traditions of the system. Koryu bugei traditions are not just collections of techniques. There are stories and anecdotes that enrich and enliven the tradition. These are not supposed to be dead, fossilized collections of dried and desiccated memories from ages past. These are living traditions that flow on from the past into the future. These stories and memories provide an important part of the foundation and understanding of how the technical practice relates to the world outside of the dojo. Without seniors and peers, all the responsibility for sharing and remembering this part of the art is yours.
Being sensei sounds great. It’s a fabulous idea right up until the moment it becomes reality. Then you discover that it is lonely and stressful. Every buck stops with you. If you have any questions, there’s no one ask. You’re on your own. If you don’t know or don’t remember something, you’re just out of luck. You never have the luxury of relaxing and letting someone else handle it. If you want to learn something then you’ve got to figure out how to do it right. You don’t get to ask anyone. You’re sensei, and you’re all alone.