The Sensei and the Student

By Ray Hughes

Each one of us is a Sensei and student simultaneously, whether we are in the martial arts or not. This means we are being taught while teaching others virtually at the same time.  Sensei (which means one who has gone before) technically could be used to describe anyone who is passing on information to another, regardless of position or situation. An important question is, “should we treat those who we instruct as we expect to be treated as a student?” Think about that for a second.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the philosophy of teaching karate students. One is the philosophy “the student comes first.”  In other words, the interest of the student comes before the interest of the teacher or the organization. The other philosophy, which prevailed back in the day, but still exists, is the philosophy “the teacher is the priority and focus.”  This philosophy embraces the concept that it is the student’s responsibility to seek out instruction, petition to be “accepted”, to submissively join and obediently follow. Those who started training back in the 70’s or earlier understand what I am talking about.

There are couple reasons why many schools and instructors believed in this “Sensei is the most important” philosophy. First, it is the hierarchical cultural of the Japanese society that has been passed on to the martial art school; the entrenched belief in the power of the Sensei and the low status of the student. Second, is the military structure that in inherent in karate training. Clear command structure and obedience of rank are imperative for combat success. Never question your superiors (Sensei).

Though the above mentioned philosophy seems sound, there are some flaws in this thinking. First, martial art training has changed.  Karate-Jutsu has changed into karate-do, basically meaning it has changed from a combat roll to more of an art experience.  This is not to say self-defense is unimportant, but we are not training for war. This fact alone changes the relationship between the teacher and student. In addition, teaching philosophies between cultures vary.  What worked in circa 1800 Japan is not effective in today’s American culture; probably not even in today’s Japan.

However, the most negative bye product of this philosophy is the enticement of power. This power can be intoxicating, and in many cases, seduces the teacher. You see this phenomenon in governments, organizations, businesses, major corporations, and of course-martial art schools.  Man is weak.  It is best understood by Sir John Dalberg-Acton’s quote “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It is because of this inherent evil, that many of the great masters addressed this in their writings. They talked about humility and the battle of self.  They clearly articulated about the negative of ego; the seven deadly sins of mankind.

The goal of any serious teacher must be to maximize the potential of “all” students; not just those who have been blessed with God-given talent. This training must also go beyond physical development, it must include the mind. Which means the Sensei must practice what he preaches. How can a Sensei teach humility while sitting on a pedestal?  The goal is not to raise the stature of the Sensei or the organization but to improve the student.

The student must come first; for both the student and the Sensei’s development. This doesn’t mean all students have the right to train under any Sensei. The student must be serious, polite, and eager to learn.  The student must have confidence in the teacher and follow the rules of instruction. The student must fit into the chemistry of the school. The responsibilities that come with being a martial art student can be very overwhelming.  It must be explained well, not simply shoved down the throat of the practitioner in a condescending manner.

I can only talk about American people. They seem to do better when things are completely and clearly explained.  Some cynics call this a weakness. When Americans are educated properly they do much better than those who are asked to simply follow like sheep.  Americans will do anything for people they respect, even jump on the sword if necessary.  Yes, there will always be those who will follow narcissistic rulers, but those empires do not last long.  Look at history.

If you are an American instructor, ask yourself what type of instruction would maximizes your potential as a student? How do you like to be treated?  Are you teaching that way?

If you are a student, what instruction maximizes your potential?  Will you be able to remember this when you become a Sensei?

The final question-“who is more important, the Sensei or the student?” The answer is, “both, they are the same.”

The Chandler Martial Arts Center strongly believes in the “Student comes First” philosophy.