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Using the Term “Sensei”

In the martial arts, more than in most activities, members are asked to observe a formalized set of conventions both of behavior and address.

  • We bow at certain times and to certain people.
  • We behave differently within the dojo, especially during formal work-outs, than at a social gatherings.
  • We exercise a greater degree of prudent self-restraint and show more obvious respect toward others than under more casual circumstances.

When one first begins as a student, there usually follows a period of adjustment to the new and strange procedures and rituals. Some accept it readily and enthusiastically, some merely accept because they are told to, and some adjust themselves outwardly but never quite catch the spirit of it. These latter ones may never get beyond learning technique alone. Seldom do the majority of students fully understand the reasons behind such ritual, though most abide by protocol admirably.

One reason for formality in the dojo is the fact that we are engaged in an art that is potentially lethal, whose ostensible intent is martial, which implies elements of threat, competition and conflict. In order to neutralize or hold in check some of these more destructive elements, we must exaggerate their opposite – harmony, deference, respect and humility. We must create and maintain an ongoing context of mutual trust if we are to engage safely in an activity that rides so dangerous a borderline. (Perhaps this is why those who practice only tournament martial arts can allow their unbridled egos so much latitude – it’s only another sport, after all.)

Observing formalities – particularly those regarding forms of self-restraint or humility – also benefit the student because they teach the discipline needed for effective martial arts training. Leaving the ego at the door helps get the student out of his/her thinking mind, for when one is busy thinking about, verbalizing, questioning or considering the self, one is not doing, not in the moment.

But so much for general ritual. Because of questions brought to me over the years and because of the encouragement of other instructors, I am attempting here to focus on one of these formalities – addressing one’s martial arts instructor as “sensei.”

One of the first desires one has upon joining a group is to become comfortably familiar with their fellows. But, despite the fact that close relationships are often formed, this attempt to achieve such casual familiarity goes only so far in the martial arts class, where a deferential respect is paid those of higher rank, especially the sensei.

Why address another person by title, especially in this supposedly egalitarian republic of ours?

Why raise one person, all their frailties intact, above others? For both the student and the instructor there are profound benefits, without which the heart of what we know as the martial arts would be lost or jeopardized.

First, by calling the instructor sensei, the martial artist establishes and reinforces his/her position as student – one whose primary function is to learn. In the ordinary world outside the dojo, we are so busy trying to compete that it is difficult to open ourselves to the possibility of real learning. Thus, we remain closed systems, too threatened to take a new look at ourselves,

Without this, the possibility of growth in the martial arts and in our lives is slim if not impossible. After many years of teaching both martial arts and high school English, I have encountered many very bright students who were so busy proving their own point, or desperately trying to cover their insecurity, they blinded themselves to something greater than their own fear. This is the real danger of basing one’s life on competition with others; it is based on the fear of losing.

We all know beginning students and even more advanced ones who, in a social situation, when surrounded by people of much higher rank and greater wisdom, wasted their opportunity to learn by speaking too much and listening too little. To be a good student in the martial arts – as in many other areas – is to be receptive, open rather than closed.

Once we sincerely address another as sensei, we open up areas of possibility far beyond the limits of our narrower selves, expanding our real potential. Having called forth the best student in ourselves, we are really ready to learn.

Having taught English for so many years has given me a profound respect for the effect of language. In large part, we create much of our own world. It tends to answer to our conceptions, and we conceive by “languaging”. How we treat someone or what we call him/her often affects what they are apt to become for us. In calling someone sensei, we not only pay respect to him/her but also call forth the best in that person as an instructor and as a person.

If a teacher fully accepts the role of sensei, he/she will strive to become the best role model, arbiter of disputes, leader, parent, counselor, martial artist, and channeler of knowledge that they can be. The sensei will tend to rise above his/her self-interest and toward something greater. This will benefit students more than a friend or acquaintance could. To call the instructor by his/her first name is to invite both the student and the teacher to take a lesser role.

We form many types of relationships during the course of our lives – parents, lovers, friends, business associates, acquaintances – but few are more important than those developed with those we choose to learn from.

Decades ago, many progressive parents thought it better to be a “friend” to their children rather than an authority figure, an acknowledgment that they were also mere human being. There is something to be said on behalf of this decision; however, too often the valuable function of parent was lost in the process.

Because most of us have only one sensei, we would do well to preserve and maintain that unique relationship. We become honorable to the degree that we honor others; this is the great paradox of humility. To ask whether or not the person so honored really deserves such authority and position is to miss the point. The use of the term sensei, in its truest sense, recalls to both the student and the teacher the path that we are all traveling. The path toward becoming our higher selves.

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