Showing posts with label Sensei. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sensei. Show all posts

Monday, December 10, 2018

Who Is Your Teacher?


 
My first iaido teacher, the remarkable Takada Shigeo Sensei Photo Copyright Peter Boylan

My teachers are in Japan. These are the people I look to not only for how my budo should be, but also for how I aspire to be as a human. A true teacher is not just someone you learn technical excellence from, but human excellence as well. In the dojo we train in the rawest, most basic expressions of conflict, power, and life. I don’t think it is possible to learn raw, fundamental lessons such as how to throw, strike, choke and break a fellow human without picking up other lessons about living from the people doing the teaching.



In the dojo we study and practice under the close direction of our teachers. There is no other way to do this safely. My teachers have all earned my respect and love not just for their technical skill (which is enormous) but for the humanity with which they lead and teach. My teachers, the people I readily claim, and who, I am proud and humbled to say, freely claim me as their student, are human beings. They have flaws and weaknesses. They are also remarkable budoka who continue to work at improving their budo, their understanding and themselves.



I’ve known my teachers, trained with them, been scolded by them and gotten an occasional “OK” from them (that being the highest praise I’ve ever heard them give). In the dojo we have earned each others’ trust. I've trained with my teachers for more than 25 years. At each step along the way, I have learned that they are exemplary human beings. I know that can't be said for everyone who teaches martial arts, and I am extremely lucky to have found teachers of such high quality.



Kiyama Sensei's budo life stretches back to the 1930s with training in judo, kendo, iaido and jukendo in school during wartime Japan. He has seen just about every excess that can be committed in the name of developing a student’s spirit and technique. He can recall training in kendo bogu (armor) in the summer heat until people had to go to the side to throw up, and then come back and continue training. This was supposed to develop spirit. Instead he points out that people died all too frequently from that effects of that sort of training, so he doesn't teach that way.

Kiyama Hiroshi Sensei at home Copyright Peter Boylan



Kiyama Sensei is my second iaido teacher. My first teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei, introduced me to Kiyama Sensei early on in my iaido journey as an excellent teacher. When Takada Sensei died, I was left without a teacher, and Kiyama Sensei accepted me into his dojo. It took a while before I was really his student though. I had to go through a keiko with him to discover what sort of person he was, if he was the sort of person I wanted to be learning from and emulating. It was clear from the way he treated everyone, from the 70, 80 and 90 year old members of the dojo down to the 7,8, and 9 year old members, that he respected his students, cared for them, and treated them well. It was also clear from the way his students treated him that they really cared for him. The bows at the end of class were not perfunctory. The school age students would approach him after class to say “Thank you” and he would offer some advice or help with their practice, and the “Arigato gozaimasu” that came from both the students and Sensei was clearly sincere. What kept the classes in order and running smoothly was the obvious respect the students had for their teacher, and the teacher had for the students. It didn't take me too many practices to realize that this was a place I wanted to be, with a teacher well worth learning from.



I respected Kiyama Sensei right away, and soon I learned to trust him as well. It’s not enough for a student to trust the teacher though. The teacher must also trust the student. This is especially true in koryu budo where transmission and the continuance of the system are always in question. Gendai budo are generally large organizations where testing and advancement are outside the control of any one teacher. In koryu budo, transmission is all about the teacher-student relationship. If the teacher doesn’t completely trust the student, the student isn’t going to learn anything much. The teacher isn’t concerned just with helping the student develop and learn the art. The teacher must think about the quality of the people who will be the next generation of teachers in the art, and who will be responsible for the art after she dies. There aren’t any dan ranks to collect, just teaching licenses. With each of these, the teacher is saying to the world around him and the teachers who have gone before him that this person is worthy to care for and extend this hundreds of years old tradition into the future. It’s not like giving out dan ranks for technical skill.

A GREAT GIFT FOR SENSEI!!



A lot more rests on the relationship between the student and teacher in koryu budo because the arts are usually small and closely held. They aren’t meant to to be spread as far and wide as possible the way modern judo, kendo, iaido or aikido are. Just as the student entering a dojo wants to be sure the teacher and the dojo are right for her, the teacher looking at students has to be sure each is right for the continuation of the art. This isn’t a concern when the art has a global structure and rank system with hundreds or thousands of dojo around the world. It’s a critical concern when the art may consist of as little as one teacher and 4 or 5 students. Even within larger koryu budo systems, which student receives a teaching license is a critical issue. Concern for how new teachers represent the art and pass on the precious teachings never leaves the mind of current teachers.



How do you earn your teacher’s trust? Start by showing up for every practice. Be sincere in your training. Be honest, helpful and genuine. Show your interest in the art through your actions. Help out with the operation of the dojo. Take care to learn the art as your teacher is presenting it. Don’t let the words “But so-and-so does it differently.” ever leave your mouth. Learning isn’t a  competitive art with people are looking for the newest variation of a technique to surprise someone with.



Once you’ve found a teacher worthy of polishing you, and you’ve done the hard work to be accepted as their student, what do you do to maintain and fortify your relationship? Now you have to work harder. Don’t fall into the trap of letting practice with Sensei become an automatic activity that you do without fail but forget to look for the treasures in every practice you attend.



I’ve known many people who are interested in techniques and physical skill but are so satisfied with who they are that they leave the bigger lessons their teacher has to offer on the dojo floor, never taking them to heart. They show up for every practice, but they somehow manage to learn nothing but technique.  The lessons on how to respect others and yourself, how to be an exceptional human being, float past them like an evening breeze that doesn’t even ruffle their hair. Go into each keiko looking to discover treasures. You’ve been lucky enough to find a good art and a good teacher. Treasures such as these do not sit on every street corner, and much like precious silver, require care and time and effort to polish and maintain. Be mindful that what you are learning is rare and don’t let treat is as an everyday affair. Show Sensei at every keiko that you are all there and you know that you are receiving a wondrous treasure.



Your teacher makes significant effort to share her art with you. For any good teacher, teaching is not transactional. Teaching is a gift and an investment in the student. Your teacher is also a person. Do you take the time to know more of your teacher than just the teaching persona they wear at the front of the dojo? Some of my most precious lessons in budo have come from my teachers outside the dojo while eating, laughing and sharing. Great teachers are exceptional people, in the dojo and out, but if you don’t make the effort to get to know them as people in addition to them being your teacher, you’ll miss out on many extraordinary aspects of their personalities. Buy them a cup of coffee. Accept graciously when they want to buy you a cup of coffee. Help out when they need it.  Ask a question and pay attention to the answer. Listen when they want to talk about something that doesn’t seem related to the dojo. You never know what Sensei might be trying to share with you.



Who is your teacher? Why did you choose them?
 
Special thanks to my editor, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Visiting My Teachers



Kiyama Hiroshi Sensei


I don’t get to see my teachers nearly as much as I would like these days, but I got to visit Japan for a while in September, so of course I spent as much time as I could with my teachers and fellow students. The trip is always one of the highlights of the year for me.

Kiyama Sensei is 93 years old now, but you wouldn’t guess it. Even when I met him 25 years ago I would not have guessed at that time that he was 68. He had such a fierce and powerful demeanor that I knew him for quite some time before I realized he’s only about 5 feet (152 cm) tall.

My first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei, introduced me to Kiyama Sensei. I vividly remember later running into Kiyama Sensei at the annual Kyoto Budosai. Dressed in formal montsuki for the enbu, he was a powerful figure. Walking around the grounds of the Butokuden with him, I was awed and very nervous because his demeanor was so very correct and commanding. I’ve encountered many powerful budoka, but very few convey the sense of power and command that he does. Many people put on their budo demeanor when they step into the dojo, and take it off when they leave, but Kiyama Sensei never completely sheds his. He moves,not with regal grace, but with solid grounded bearing that projects a stern and unflinching power.

Kiyama Sensei always has a something of that correct and commanding spirit about him. . In the dojo Sensei is one of the most powerful presences I have ever encountered. , but when he teaches kendo to elementary and junior high students he
is also a kindly, if gruff, grandfather figure who teaches his students how to behave in the dojo and how to approach difficulty with spirit and dedication. For me, visiting Kiyama Sensei is one of the highlights of any trip to Japan. Whether we get to do any training or not, I always come away from the visit having learned something and inspired to train more diligently.

This year my visit coincided with a kosshukai for training in the latest points of the Kendo Federation’s iaido kata. I had been hoping that the miserable heat and humidity that is typical of summer in the Kansai region would break before the kosshukai, but the luck wasn’t with me. The day Kiyama Sensei and one of his senior students picked me up at the train station for the drive to the gymnasium started hot and got hotter. The gymnasium is typical of gyms built during the Showa period, which means it doesn’t have any heating or cooling. The best you can do in the summer is open the few doors and windows and sweat it out.

Sweat is exactly what we did, even when standing still. I was worried about Kiyama Sensei in the heat, but he kept going, looking better at the end of the day than I did. He wasn’t teaching that day; instead he was there as the guest of honor and the senior practitioner in the area. Even though Sensei wasn’t officially teaching, don't think he didn’t do quite a lot of teaching anyway. Whenever the official instructors were busy working with other students, Kiyama Sensei would come over and make corrections to my cutting form and my movement, and I wasn’t the only one to get his attention. Sensei is always clear about what he wants all of us to improve on. In my case, he wants to see more koshi in my movement and more “sspaa!” in my cuts (don’t ask. Sensei knows what he means, and I’m pretty sure I understand him, but I haven't figured out how to describe it).

After we had spent the day training and sweating in the stifling gym, Kiyama Sensei suggested a group of us go out to dinner. There was Sensei and four of his students, two 7th dans and two 5th dans. We retired to a wonderfully air-conditioned restaurant with ice water and other delightful cold drinks. We talked about the importance of seme (sense of aggressiveness, the feel of the attack) in iaido, and how much more sppaa! I need to get into my cuts. The conversation found its way around to the fact that two of us are looking at taking rank tests in the near future, and what we need to improve to have a chance of passing. Sensei and the 7th dans chatted back and forth while I listened and resisted the urge to start taking notes on my phone.

https://www.amazon.com/Musings-Budo-Bum-Peter-Boylan-ebook/dp/B071Z6T2QP/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1496863573&sr=1-1&keywords=peter+boylan
Christmas is coming!  Share the Budo Bum around the dojo!

This is the part of the visit that I was most looking forward to. I’ve been training with Kiyama Sensei for more than 20 years, and I still look forward to every keiko session. The informal conversations are special treasures though. Sensei will talk about his teachers and sometimes share stories about them or training when he was young. These gems fill out my understanding of budo in Sensei’s life, and help me understand how I want it to be a part of my own. With his 88 years of training, I can see in him the beauty, grace and strength that have come in part from that training. My goal is to achieve some fraction of what Sensei has become.

I can always sense Kiyama Sensei’s strength. When we get together in a relaxed setting, in a restaurant, at a coffee shop or in Sensei’s home, the feeling of strength and the grandfatherly care combine in a gentleman whose advice and insights I
treasure. He is a pleasure to talk with, especially about budo, and with the group we had, the conversation flowed along like a lively, little river. I won’t go into all the advice I got about my cuts or my posture or the dozen other areas of my iai that everyone took the time to critique. Sensei succeeded not only in giving me plenty of advice, but also in trimming my ego back to a healthy size.

While I was in Japan I also got to train with my jodo teacher, Matsuda Sensei. We trained together several times on this visit, and he worked me hard every time. Visiting Matsuda Sensei is always a compelling experience. He doesn’t keep his own dojo, but moves among dojo run by several of his senior students. Each dojo is unique. One is a karate dojo that is rented one evening a week for jodo. Another is an elementary school kendo dojo that can be borrowed on the weekend. The most beautiful one is a gorgeous dojo on the first floor of the teacher’s home. Training at any of them is thrilling. I get to work with a wide variety of Matsuda Sensei’s senior students, every one of whom pushes me in a different way. Matsuda Sensei’s senior students are 6th and 7th dan teachers in their own right, and they all can take me out to the edge of my ability.

The biggest treat for me though is being able to go out after practice with everyone. We practice specific techniques in the dojo. It’s a place of quiet respect for the seriousness of what we are studying. We’re busy practicing, which doesn’t leave room for conversation. After practice we sit down and ask those questions that we didn’t have time for in the dojo, and we deepen our understanding of things we thought we understood. Sensei is still Sensei, but he’s a lot more approachable over food and drink in the restaurant afterwards than he is during practice. This is the time to ask that question about seme or zanshin that’s been bothering me. In the dojo, with Sensei casually showing all the openings in what I was sure was a pretty good technique, I forget that he’s a truly wonderful person as well as a great martial artist. Talking with Sensei, and getting to laugh with him, is a fascinating experience.

I’ve known my teachers, trained with them, been scolded by them and gotten an occasional “OK”from them (that being the highest praise I’ve ever heard them give). And I have also gotten to know them as people over the last 25 years. They have shared their skills, their lives and their memories with me. They have shared themselves. The people you choose as teachers should represent a lot of what you want to become. You'll absorb a great deal more than just good technique from your teacher, so take your time when selecting one to make sure she is a person worthy of learning from. My teachers have shown themselves to me time and time and time again that they are gentlemen of the highest quality. Training with them is always exciting and enlightening.

Special thanks to my editor, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How To Be A Good Uke



In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata.  The other person is not the teacher.  The other person is their uke 受け.  Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher.  The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.

Uke is your training partner.  Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology.  So aikido and judo use uke 受け.  Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀.  Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner.  You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.

For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?).  For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.

I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.”  I don’t find these descriptions very helpful.  What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective.  Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage.  I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice.  The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.

I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article.  What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi.  Hopefully we can get a conversation going.

The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition.  This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice,keiko 稽古, renshu 練習.  This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo.  As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.

Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either.  Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.  

Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke.  Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack.  What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.

Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple.  Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while.  A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else.  As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.

Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be?  If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though.  If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore.  Practice means doing it right.  Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them.  If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.

This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand,  grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force.  If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training.  I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.

This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.

Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place.  This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife,  a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing.  Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything.  If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly.  Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.

I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either.  They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.

Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out.  Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it.  This requires uke to consider what they are doing.  What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability?  Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”

Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.

This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though.  Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training.  This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).

Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things.  The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place.  Uke has a huge amount of responsibility.  It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on.  This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for.  Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.

Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does.  Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Makes A Great Dojo



I noticed that I’ve been writing about what things aren’t quite often lately. This is an attempt to write about what something is.  What makes a great dojo? The dojo is the center of budo practice, and finding a great dojo is tougher than you’d think, even in Japan. When we look for a great dojo, what are we searching for?

“Dojo” is an old term for a place where one studies the teachings of Buddhism.  When Sanskrit was translated into Chinese, this was used to describe the spot where the Buddha completed the path to enlightenment.  It was the dojo 道場.  the way place.  The word dojo therefore, was ancient when the Japanese martial arts instructors in the Edo Period (1604-1868) began using it to describe their training halls.  

The usage has drifted a long way from the original meaning of the place where enlightenment was achieved. The ancient Japanese applied it to mean places where the teachings of Buddhism are studied, and within Buddhist organizations in Japan, this meaning is still used. The meaning though wandered further when some Edo Period martial artists started calling their training halls “dojo.”  Now the word is commonly used throughout the world.

I’ve seen many gorgeous dojo in Japan, from the stately Butokuden in Kyoto, to the lovely and peaceful dojo at Kashima Shrine, to many small, private dojos that are delightful pockets of beauty. The longer I train though, the more I come to understand that a dojo, no matter how lovely, is empty space that we have to fill with life and breath.  I’ve noticed that both non-Japanese and Japanese alike will use “dojo” to refer to the members of the training group, not just the facility.  This recognizes that it is really the people who make the empty space into a dojo, not the designated purpose of the space.

Interior of the Butokuden. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan


It’s the qualities of the people and their relationships that make a dojo great. I had a discussion with a some friends about what they feel makes a great dojo.  A lot of the ideas were about the physical space and things that are nice.  While I agree that a beer fridge is a wonderful thing to have in the dojo office, I’m not sure it’s a necessary component of an excellent dojo.  I’ve had great experiences in the parking lot back of Sensei’s house, and lousy ones in gorgeous, dedicated spaces (with beer fridges!).

The things I look for in a great dojo are the people.  I find that if you’ve got good people, the physical space will get taken care of.  On the other hand, if the people and relationships aren’t good, the physical space won’t keep things together.

The number one item on most people’s list of requirements for great dojo, and what everyone thinks about first, is the teacher. Having a good teacher is important, because the teacher sets the example for everyone else of how things are supposed to be in the dojo. In a merely good dojo, the teacher can be anywhere from a competent technician to world class, but they will likely maintain a somewhat distant teacher-student relationship. The teacher never stoops down to the students level.

In a great dojo though, the teacher is more like a head student than a teacher standing above everyone at the head of the classroom dispensing the lesson.  These teachers are every bit as much students of the art they are teaching as the newest beginner.  They find a joy in polishing their own skills, and discovering new things about their art that is as strong and fierce as that of any student.  This joy in practicing, improving, and discovering new things about their budo, and the teachers ability to share this with the rest of the dojo is what stands out for me in the teachers at great dojo.  The teacher’s personal skill level is almost incidental.  It may only be a few steps ahead of the students, but that’s fine.  The teacher is leading the dojo on a great, joyous journey of improvement and discovery, not dispensing wisdom and correction from on high.

This sort of teacher demonstrates and establishes the critical respect and trust that, for me, has to permeate a dojo for it to be truly great.  Because these wonderful teachers are sharing a journey with the students, they naturally treat everyone as respected and important members of the dojo. In a great dojo, everyone is contributing to the activity of learning and discovery, from the most senior members to the the lady whose dogi  is so new you can still see the creases from the package. As hard as it is for beginning students to believe, they are critically important too.  They don’t know what’s supposed to work on them, so they only react when techniques really do work. In great dojos, that respect is there for everyone, regardless of rank or experience.  The teacher sets the example, and everyone in the dojo respects the teacher and each other deeply and sincerely.

I’ve written about the unusual trust that can develop between martial artists before. In great dojo, this feeling of trust is everywhere. Students trust the teacher and each other. In great dojo, people who can’t be trusted are not welcome to train. If someone cannot be trusted to treat their partners with respect and to protect their partners body and health as if it were their own, that person will be gently but inexorably rejected by the dojo. Members of great dojo are great people, though they never think of themselves that way. They trust each other and take care of each other.

That trust and care means that people watch each other and go out of their way for fellow students. Trust isn’t just about what we do with the techniques. It means trusting each other enough that we can pull each other aside if we see a problem developing and bring it to each other’s attention without engendering anger or resentment.  This really differentiates the great dojo from the merely good ones. There is always a sense of zanshin regarding the health and safety of all members in a great dojo.

I mentioned above a little about the value of beginning students in a dojo. In great dojo, all the students are seen as valuable, and are valued for the variety of knowledge and experience they bring to the group. Great dojo have members with a huge variety of budo and conflict experience. These dojo usually have a good share of students who train more than one martial art, and usually a sprinkling of law enforcement officers corrections officers and military veterans. All of these different sets of experience and viewpoint are valued and drawn upon in a great dojo. Great teachers and members of great dojo aren’t intimidated by people who practice other arts and have different experiences. They treasure such members for the variety of perspectives they bring to the dojo. Instead of ignoring everything that doesn’t fit within a narrow orthodoxy, these members will be called on to share their perspective, regardless of their rank in the dojo.  No art has a complete knowledge of every aspect of conflict, and law enforcement officers can bring one set of perspectives about violence, while students of weapons arts can bring valuable understanding of the real capabilities of weapons to dojo that practice arts that primarily focus on empty hand technique. In great dojo, everyone with expertise and perspective are will find themselves called on in class to share what they know, especially if it is different from what most in the dojo expect to be true.

This is the next thing I look for in great dojo, a ruthless desire to reexamine everything students and teachers think they know about their art. In these dojo there is no sacred orthodoxy.  Instead there is a constant search for greater, deeper, more complete understanding. Recently I’ve been in a number of Aikido dojo that are notable because they are inviting people from other traditions and styles to teach and share their arts, even when it calls into question they way things have been done in that dojo. These are great dojo. Their search for understanding and mastery doesn’t end at their door.  Instead of closing the door on anything that contradicts their understanding, they invite those teachers with different perspectives in.

Only training in one art, and never experiencing other arts and perspectives leaves you with a very skewed understanding.  No art is big enough to contain everything there is. I’m not saying you have to study everything. There isn’t time in one life to do that. Great dojo and great teachers realize they don’t have all the answers though, so they make a point to expose their students to a variety of styles and perspectives. Kodokan Judo includes some efficient techniques versus knife and sword. However, if you only practice them with people who aren’t experts in the use of those weapons, you won’t understand all the ways things can go wrong. A few hours with a qualified swordsman can clear up a lot of misconceptions about the real maai and speed of the weapon.

A poor dojo declares theirs is the only way, and discourages students from seeking other perspectives.  A good dojo acknowledges that other ways and perspectives have value. A great dojo makes sure students encounter multiple perspectives and ways of doing things by having them demonstrated and shown in the dojo so students can get a taste of them.

Great dojo don’t rely on just one teacher either. A great dojo may well have one exceptional teacher, but they aren’t limited to that teacher. I always love going to study in Japan. The dojo I am a member of there are filled with high level teachers. Imagine dojo where the median rank is 5th dan. This sort of dojo is quite common in Japan. At the dojo in Kusatsu, I can remember nights when there were four or five 7th dans and an 8th dan on the floor. I started iai in a little country dojo with two 7th dan iai teachers. The kendo dojo had 7 teachers with 7th dans in kendo.  This was in the countryside.

Great dojo develop depth and encourage breadth among their teachers. My iai teacher, Kiyama HIroshi, is 7th dan in iai, jodo, and kendo. He has lesser ranks in judo, karate, and jukendo as well. The other teachers in the dojo are 6th or 7th dan in iai, and most have dan ranks in at least one other art. If Kiyama Sensei can’t teach, the people teaching the class in his stead will all be highly experienced teachers as well. Great dojo have room for many people to be great. It is assumed that everyone can become great, and it’s expected that everyone will to the best of their ability.

This leads to the next element of a great dojo. No one is ever satisfied with where they are. There are no destinations in a great dojo. Everyone, including the top teachers, are still striving to improve their skills and understanding. Everyone is encouraged to keep pushing forward along the Way.  Any Way 道, including budo 武道, is a path, a journey. Great dojo always quietly remind all the members, beginning students and senior teachers, that the way doesn’t have an end point. Everyone is always trying to improve. When I train in Japan, the senior teachers will teach, but if you watch, you’ll see them quietly training as well. Omori Sensei, even though he was 8th dan hanshi and 90 years old, still trained every time he came to the dojo. He would often play with the kata at such a level that I had trouble understanding what he was doing. Seeing a 7th dan teacher ask her fellow 7th dans to critique her technique and accept their comments and work to integrate them into her kata is a marvelous experience. People may hit plateaus, but they always keep working, moving forward until they get off the plateau.


There are many elements that make up a great dojo, but for me, they are about the members of the dojo.  A big, spacious building with a beautiful shomen and lovely decorations, stacks of equipment, and a refrigerator stocked with beer is pointless if the people are arrogant and callous, unwilling to learn anything new or different, and indifferent to their partners’ health and welfare. A great dojo is filled with concern for everyone who trains there, from oldest to newest, and they are always striving to transcend their current level of understanding, even if it means giving up ideas they had thought incontrovertible.