(this article mentions kendo specifically, but can apply to any budo)
I often get email from people abroad wishing to join Eikenkai or Yoseikai pracises when travelling through Osaka, and the odd email about people wishing to look for dojo in places outside of the Kansai area. The usual format is “Hello, my name is X and I am Y grade.” After that I may get more information, for example where they practise, the duration of their experience, and – less commonly – their teachers name. People with experience in training in Japan, however, find that when first entering a dojo they are usually asked these questions in the reverse order, i.e. the initial question asked is “who is your sensei?”
Over the net, if someone tells me their age, duration of experience, and grade I can make a pretty good guess of where I think they should/may be technically. Generally. However, this is just what it is: a guess. I can’t possibly know how they do kendo or – more importantly – their attitude to it. This is where telling me your teacher becomes very important. If I know your teacher – either personally, through word of mouth, or reputation – its a much better indicator to me about your method, style, and purpose for practising, which is arguably more important than simply how good you are. Even if you are not so experienced now, if your teacher is well thought of then I know that you are going in the right direction. These people – i.e. those I can easily profile – I am more inclined to spend more of my time to help out. In the same vein, I know that the initial treatment you receive when attending a new dojo in Japan can be affected (both positively and negatively) depending on your answer to the initial “who is your sensei?” question.
Of course there are many times when people mention instructors whom I don’t know, and at that time mentioning your teachers-teacher can be useful. Since I study mainly under a couple of teachers, one being relatively well known (in Japan) the other not so, I often qualify the other sensei when I go to a new place by telling a little bit about his background.
How many people actually know their teachers teacher and what qualifies as a ‘teacher’ anyway? These questions might seem sudden, but they are an important part of this discussion. Let me tackle these questions in reverse.
A teacher is someone you learn from and study under for a (somewhat long) duration. Someone – at least in the earlier stages of your kendo career – you simply copy. If they are a good teacher you will never outgrow them. They should hopefully also be someone who has reached a proper teaching level. It follows that I do not – and I hope you don’t either – consider someone my teacher if I do kendo with them at seminars once or twice a year, even if that spans multiple years or even decades (if they are Japanese then they almost certainly don’t consider me their student in that situation anyway, despite what I or you may wish to believe).
Your teachers teacher is obviously someone that your teacher spent many years studying under, and is possibly someone who you have never met. What good is it knowing about them anyway? If your teacher is serious he/she probably limited themselves to a small number of instructors and studied under them for a good many years. What they learned from their teacher is what they imparted to you. So your teachers teacher has, in effect, influenced your own kendo as well (fundamentally so). So when someone asks you “who is your sensei?” or “whats your experience?” its not only much more useful (to the experienced questioner) but may even be more ‘correct’ (in a traditional manner) to tell them not only your immediate teacher, but your teachers teacher as well (especially if your teacher is not well known). If you list a few dojo’s or multiple names (or heaven forbid, you can’t think of anyone who you would gladly call your ‘sensei), then I’d say you’ve not just gone of on a dangerous tangent, but you are not doing ‘Kendo,’ at least in an orthodox manner.
Kendo is – as I’m sure you don’t need a reminder of – a physical tradition that is taught not through websites, books, and certainly not through video, but is a living tradition taught and learned physically and verbally. If knowing your teachers teacher is to (start to) know your own roots, then it follows that not having a teacher means you have no base.
Unnatural selection a.k.a. the bespectacled watchmaker
Like a lot of people when I was in my teens I often wondered if the strange people living in my home were actually my relatives – their ideas seemed so alien to me I suspected that I might have been adopted!!! As a poor student living hand to mouth I was often bitter about being born in a family that was far from wealthy. As you can guess, I was (am?!) quite an ungrateful son! We can’t choose to whom we are born nor (at the moment anyway) whats going to pop out in the maternity wing. Luckily, kendo-wise, we DO have the ability to choose, for want of a better word, our parent(s) and our genealogy.
What we are taught and study in the dojo is simply the physical (and verbal) teachings of generations of instructors. From your teacher you simply inherit what they were taught and these teachings are, if you will, part of your kendo DNA. Naturally, choosing a ‘bad’ teacher leads to a dubious (even bleak at times) future.
So when you go to new hospital or visit a new doctor and you are asked about any congenital conditions in your families background, maybe you will recall your first visit to a Japanese dojo when they asked you “Who is your sensei?”
Obviously peoples learning experiences and situations are different. Some people may not even be interested in their teachers teacher or further down the line. But for those of us that take the study of kendo seriously, researching and discovering your roots is, I believe, vitally important.
The kanji for KEIKO means – as everyone knows – to ‘reflect’ on the ‘past.’ One basic meaning of this is ‘repetition’ – to repeat what you have (and your teacher, and their teacher, and… has) done before, polishing and refining it.
I remember *Ken-Zen dojo’s Ebihara-sensei stop and tell the class one day:
“Everything you do in the dojo has been done before. You might think you have made up some new technique or strategy for attacking but thats rubbish. Its all been done before. Just repeat kihon. This is keiko.”
(I paraphrase – I have a strong memory of the scene and the gist of what was said, but not the exact words. I was a young and immature kendoka in Ken-zen in the mid/late 90s… I hope my understanding of Ebihara-sensei’s words are correct, in content if not in words.)