Everyone who starts on the journey of Aikido begins for a reason. For myself this reason has evolved a great deal over time. It only makes sense that over time your relationship to your practice, to the dojo and to your teacher should take on a different tone.
You cannot learn Aikido without a teacher. A teacher is like a guide on your journey. You would not dream of navigating the Amazon or climbing Mount Everest without a guide. It requires complete faith that your guide knows the way and can get you safely to your destination. Otherwise you would probably not survive. You may think that you are just as old, or just as smart as they are. But in the jungle or on that mountain you are not. That is why in Japan a teacher is called sensei which literally means, one who was born before you.
Having travelled the path many times before you, a guide or teacher can see many things that you simply cannot. Remember Mr. Miyagi in the movie Karate Kid. “I say, you do. No questions.” Mr. Miyagi knew the way. Daniel-san knew nothing about how to get there. At first he resisted his teacher’s guidance. However, Daniel-san was very unusual because the reality is, most people would quit day one after that kind of treatment from a irascible old Okinawan man.
“No questions” is a difficult concept for most Americans. We question everything and this is good and bad. The problem is that when we begin we don’t often ask questions that get us where we need to go. Not one of Daniel-san’s many questions would have gotten him one step closer to where Mr. Miyagi was taking him. He needed to trust his teacher – at least in the beginning. So Mr. Miyagi would firmly reply, “No questions!” We also tend to ask a lot of questions because it helps us regain a sense of control in an unfamiliar situation.
Wild animals teach their young to hunt and survive. They learn all these intricate skills without a single question. And yet we think that our many words and questions will bring us greater understanding. The opposite is actually true. We’ve got to learn a new language. The language of listening and observing. A martial artist must learn to listen and observe because the language of martial arts is not words but action.
Being a real student requires a certain amount of abdication to one’s teacher that nearly all American’s find distasteful. Occassionally students will reach a point in their training where they completely focus on perceived flaws in their teacher. Perhaps they are overcoming their own initial idealism about their practice and their teacher. Perhaps they need to justify why they resist abdicating to the process of learning. This is the point where their own progress is derailed. It’s a point where I think any student in any field of study arrives at some point. Only by successfully negotiating through this point can you ever hope to approach mastery in anything.
Learning Aikido is not just showing up at the dojo and moving your arms and legs around. It is the study of relationship. And one of the most challenging relationships you will ever have is the one with your teacher. Not because of the teacher, but because of what it requires for you to be a real student.
In my experience there are three different types of people in the dojo. Most people first enter the dojo as a customer. They come in to watch to see how good the teacher is. They are evaluating whether he is worthy to be their teacher. They want to know how much lessons cost and possibly how long it will take to get a black belt. In their mind they are simply buying lessons and a rank for a fee. The customer has certain expectations and if those expectations are not fulfilled they will leave. Their training will last until their first disappointment. One day practice will not be fun, or they will get hurt, or the teacher will say something they don’t agree with. It could be anything. The customer cannot learn the art because they have no teacher, only a vendor.
The second kind of person is a cult member. These are people that tend to exalt the teacher and from that pedestal there is nowhere to go for the teacher but down. A true teacher is merely a student at a different level. In Aikido we use the term “sensei” for the teacher. This world literally means “born before.” It doesn’t mean guru, wise one or all-knowing one. It’s just somebody who is further down the path who can point out the way and ease the progress of those who follow.
The third kind of person is hopefully the person that everyone in the dojo ultimately becomes. And that is the student. As long as the teacher is a mystical figure for you then you can never approach the art as something you can personally attain. As long as you are merely buying a black belt you can never treat the art seriously. Your relationship and your respect for your teacher are essential to your progress. If you cannot find it in yourself to respect your teacher then you should not be in that school. Treat your teacher with kindness, but do not expect them to be your buddy. If your teacher shows some kindness or familiarity with you at a social event or shares something personal with you then show your respect by maintaining your decorum when you return to training.
As I gained experience in Aikido my teachers and I would sometimes go out for a beer and have some long talks. I was honored by that trust because they knew that it would be respected. Learning aikido is a process of personal transmission. Your ability to maintain a positive and productive relationship with your sensei is one of your top priorities.
~Philip Greenwood, Sensei