Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Teachers Who Can't Share


I run into people all the time who sincerely believe that training in another art or with another teacher is a terrible and disloyal thing to do. I also bump up against teachers who tell their students they should never train with anyone else, and that their art is the best so they shouldn’t try anything else.  

To me, this is pure foolishness and unrestrained ego. No art is 100% complete and perfectly prepared for every possible turn of events. Even the great sogo budo that were born in Japan’s Warring States period (circa 1467 - 1603) and include a range of armed and unarmed skills,  - even techniques for fighting while in armor or street clothes - don’t have or even attempt to have a kata for every conceivable situation.

I think back to the great martial artists of the last few hundred years in Japan, and I can’t think of any who trained exclusively with one teacher.  Even now, I can’t think of any arts that expect and demand 100% exclusivity all the time. I know of arts, such as Kashima Shinryu, that ask beginning students not to train in other arts without getting their teacher’s permission, but this is more about making sure students learn good fundamentals without getting them mixed up and messed up by training in systems with different - or worse - conflicting principles. Even then, they don’t insist that a student train only with one teacher.  Once the student reaches sufficient proficiency with the fundamentals, training in other systems is not forbidden. 

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Historically, I look at teachers like Kano Jigoro, Ueshiba Morihei, and Kuni’i Zenya, and the subsequent  development of their own systems. None of these teachers and developers could have achieved anything close to what they did without training under multiple teachers in multiple systems.  Kano Jigoro received licensing in two different koryu jujutsu systems before he founded Kodokan Judo. Even after founding the Kodokan, he continued to train and learn from other systems, most notably adding instruction from Fuse Ryu to strengthen the Kodokan’s groundwork.

Ueshiba Morihei studied a lot of stuff. He studied judo in a dojo his father established with a teacher brought in for the job. He studied jukenjutsu in the military. He learned a chunk of Yagyu Shingan Ryu.  Even after he had mastered Daito Ryu and founded Aikido, he continued to study and learn, taking keppan with Kashima Shinto Ryu.

Kuni’i Zenya was the soke of Kashima Shinryu. However, he was sent to train in Maniwa Nen Ryu as well. He took what he learned from Maniwa Nen Ryu and used it to refine Kashima Shinryu (don’t let anyone tell you that koryu budo never change.  They are like rivers. They continue as the same river.  The Nile at its headwaters is very different from the Nile as it enters Egypt, and even more different as it passes through the delta into the sea.) Kuni’i Sensei would not have become anywhere near the martial artist he did without exposure to more than one system.

I look at my teachers, and none of them has been exclusionary in the own practice or in their expectations of their students, so I suppose I am prejudiced in favor of being open with students because that is a notable element of my background. I started my budo journey in Kodokan Judo, and my teacher there encouraged his students to take advantage of any training opportunities in the area. Almost as soon as we knew the etiquette well enough to not make any major faux pas Earl started suggesting visits to another local judo dojo to train on days we didn’t have keiko at our dojo. I got over to the dojo at the YMCA fairly often, got extra keiko and a different set of critiques on my technique.

My sword teacher, Kiyama HIroshi Shihan, may well be the poster child for cross training. He has 7th dans in kendo, iaido and jodo, as well as decades of koryu iai and jo practice. He also has dan ranks in Shito Ryu karate, jukendo, and judo.  There may well be other stuff that’s just never come up.  

Matsuda Shihan, my jodo teacher, has a license in Kukishin Ryu as well as in Shinto Muso Ryu,  plus he has dan ranks in iai and karate to go with his 8th dan in jodo. He actively told me to go train with a senior jodo teacher he had great respect for.  He said I should take any chance I got to train with this man.

So my background definitely predisposes me to be in favor of being open with my training. My teachers have always been open to me learning from others.  There are limits of course.  If I’m doing iai with Kiyama Sensei, I would never object to anything because some other teacher I had seen did it differently from Kiyama Sensei’s way. I have too much respect for my teachers to insult them like that. Kiyama Sensei was a senior teacher before I was born. I can’t imagine that I’m going to come up with anything that he hasn’t seen dozens of times already.

Matsuda Sensei is perfectly open with my questions about things I’ve seen or heard from other teachers. He’s happy to talk about these things in the right time and place.  During his lesson is clearly not that place. If we are doing free practice, or outside the dojo, that’s the time and place.

All of these experiences with my own teachers make me suspicious of teachers who won’t ever let their students train with anyone else. In such a situation, who gains? I don’t see any great benefit for the students, or for the teacher. I can see the point of limiting the outside training of beginning students who are just starting to get control of their own bodies. I can understand teachers who don’t want students to confuse themselves and slow down their development by mixing their learning with multiple instructors giving them potentially conflicting advice. This is a temporary situation, though. Once a student has a firm enough foundation, they can train with other people, even take up additional martial arts without damage to the art they started with.

Not allowing students to train with anyone else is a red flag to me. This is not the early Tokugawa Era with people wandering around challenging each other to duels with live blades or even wooden substitutes. People aren’t in danger of losing their government stipend or even dying if they lose a challenge match. We aren’t protecting our techniques and strategies in order to to give us an advantage when we have to fight our next duel.

This is the 28th year of the reign of the Heisei Emperor, or the early 21st Century to much of the rest of the world. Duels don’t happen that often these days. This is the age of YouTube after all. There aren’t many secrets left. Almost everything can be found somewhere on the internet with the minimal effort of a Google search.

When I hear of a teacher who won’t let students train with anyone else, I always wonder what their reasoning is. And then I wonder if the problem isn’t with the students, but with the teacher. I’ve never been able to come up with a valid reason for limiting students’ training myself. I have  seen a number of reasons that reflect poorly on such teachers though.

There are teachers who are quite capable martial artists, but who are also insecure human beings. I can see how an insecure teacher would worry about students liking another teacher better.  Telling them not to train with anyone else is a simple way to make sure they don’t discover someone they like training with more. It doesn’t solve the problem of students leaving, but it may slow them down, and maybe it makes the insecure teacher feel a little more in control.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who had an overabundance of confidence and no actual skills. They tell great stories, often about how they trained in Japan or China with secretive masters. Their descriptions of the awesome secrets they learned and how powerful their skills are can be truly amazing. Their only concern is that if their students train with other people, they might realize that all their teacher has to offer them are some great stories, and no real skills. These folks have a genuine concern. If anyone were to check with folks in Japan or China or wherever they say the trained, their teachers would be even more mysterious, because no one could find them. In this age of Facebook, it takes about 15 minutes to find experts living anywhere in the world who can check on things like this. Best for these teachers if their students never talk with other martial artists, and definitely don’t let them train with other folks. Students figure out pretty fast that what they’ve been taught is empty sound and fury when they are repeatedly knocked on their rear ends by strangers.

Teachers are humans too, with all the possibility of the angelic and the risk of the demonic. The vast majority of teachers strive to be the best example they can be in the dojo, and lead students to higher levels of being, not just higher black belt ranks. There are others who are there only for what they can get out of it, whether that is the satisfaction of lording their rank over others, having people show them respect and excessive deference, or just collecting a lot of money from students every month without having to give anything more than the illusion of teaching something.

Even when a teacher has a lot to offer students, if they are so insecure, or so into controlling others, that they can’t bear to see their students get some training from someone else from time to time, they are crippled as teachers. Someone like this will feel threatened when a student gets good enough to be a teacher herself. Their own fears and insecurities will hobble them and prevent them from giving students their best teaching. Behind every decision and every interaction will be the fear that students will leave.

I can’t recommend that anyone train with a teacher who can’t stand to see them train in some other art or with another teacher if a good opportunity arises. For me, cross training is essential to understanding my primary art. Training with a good teacher is essential to learning an art deeply. I can’t see how a teacher crippled by insecurity or mad with the need to control others can be a good teacher for anyone. If a teacher says you should never train with anyone else, that should be a loud warning signal to find a different teacher.

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1 comment:

Justin Case said...

Interesting article, but may I come with another perspective? I am absolutely agreeing with you when you say about having a Sensei open to you as student in trying to learn different martial arts, but to have 3 Sensei in same art is not always good - especially if these 3 are not having the same lineage / systems. I think that a 5th dan Sensei will not have a problem if you go to train with a 7th dan Sensei who's actually one of the heads of the organization, but I highly doubt he will gladly accept you to go train with a 4th dan on other lineage and try to bring in his classes what you learnt in other's class. If I am remembering right, I read an article where the author was saying that a Student has just ONE Sensei in a specific branch of Martial Arts - is true that the same student can try several Sensei, until he finds THAT ONE. And I think he is right, in a way that each Sensei is passing down his understanding too, not just the technics. Between student and Sensei a relation is starting to grow, and I think that your Sensei is the one that can vouch for you at any hour of the day or night. Yes, you can go meet others, train with others, but don't bring what you learnt there in your class without having a discussion with the Sensei. Avoid uncomfortable moments.