Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Putting Martial Arts Teachers on a Pedestal

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at The Budo Bum. The full post may be read here.

“His technique surpassed human ability.”

“This is exactly how ****** Sensei did it. We want to do it exactly as he did.”

“Nobody can ever equal ******* Sensei.”

“My karate teacher’s teacher was the best ever, that’s why our system is the best!”

“******* was unbeatable.”

“He was a living kami.”

“If he says it works, it must work.”

Teachers who can’t be questioned, for whatever reason, are dangerous to their students and themselves. They seem to inexorably fall into the trap of believing their own propaganda. It happens all the time, in all sorts of arts. As soon as students start going along with whatever sensei does because sensei’s technique is the ultimate, the perfect, the divinely inspired (take your pick), teachers are trapped in an ugly downward spiral.

 The problem for the teacher is that since their students always go along with sensei’s technique, the sensei stops getting honest feedback with regard to their training and teaching. As a result, the teacher’s technique inevitably begins to deteriorate. They can’t avoid it. Any time their technique wasn't right they would feel more resistance, which would tell them they need to sharpen fundamental practice and technique. When their students always go with the flow, the sensei never gets that feedback, and therefore never experiences a technique working less than perfectly. As a result, the sensei has no way to know if their skills are sharp or dull.

 The result is the teacher’s technique gradually becomes duller and duller. However, this can’t be blamed entirely on the teacher. The students are lying to themselves and their teacher about the quality of the techniques. Without opportunities to train with people who recognize a teacher’s imperfections, the only possible result is a slow deterioration of the teacher’s skills. 

 This is sad for the teachers and the students.

 There is a phenomenon in martial arts of students deifying teachers. It can happen in any art with superlative practitioners and teachers. In the world of Japanese budo I’ve seen it in both gendai and koryu arts, and it’s a sad phenomenon no matter where it happens. Budo teachers are human, maybe especially human.

 To be a martial arts teacher is to have a high degree of skill.  Being skilled at martial arts means possessing a certain type of power. Those with skill are seen as being able to subdue, control, or just plain beat into the ground anyone who threatens them. A few people with bad attitudes and/or impulse control problems are even seen as being dangerous to just about anyone because they won’t wait to be threatened. They’ll pick the fight just because they are confident they can do it without getting hurt themselves.

 As a kid growing up, the power to physically subdue someone, or pound them into the ground, was a very attractive power. I was a skinny kid with allergies and not a clue how to relate to other people, so I was picked on. A lot. I didn’t realize it then, but later I figured out that I caused a lot of the issues just by being so socially inept. That doesn’t make the schoolyard abuse any better, and while I was going through it I fantasized about having the superpower of being unbeatable. It was a wonderful daydream.

 The temptation to revel in power is strong. I understand that temptation. When I started training Kodokan Judo in college, the realization that I was becoming good at grappling was shocking, and the temptation to abuse this ability was powerful. In my case, my friends and sempai were more than happy to remind me that I was thoroughly human and quite beatable. As I moved through the kyu ranks, it was easy to idolize my teacher and attribute more than normal wisdom to him. He was very human though, and he never implied that anything he did was perfect or that we should blindly copy his technique or his life.

 When I see students of any teacher proclaim that their teacher’s way is absolutely correct and that one should not deviate from the teacher’s example even a little, I worry about those students and that teacher’s legacy. When students start idolizing a teacher and idealizing the teachings, I can only see bad things happening. A teacher who is never questioned and never challenged in any way is trapped. That teacher can’t sharpen their skills by practicing with their students.


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