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.