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About the Sensei

I received a question from a reader (D.M.):

Could you elaborate about the relationship between the student and his sensei? Was it kind of a servant master or slave master relationship? Was the character of the sensei to be taken up by the student? Did the student worship the sensei?
This is an excellent question. The relationship between the student and his Sensei is the heart of Karate training. While it might be possible for a student to learn some Karate without a Sensei, most Karate experts learned from their Sensei over many, many years.

Of course, the relationship between the student and his Sensei will differ depending on the type of Karate being learned, where it is learned, why it is being learned, when it was learned, etc.

I will address myself to my understanding of the relationship between a student and his Sensei in traditional Okinawan Karate. My own two Sensei of Shorin-Ryu are both Okinawans (one lives in Okinawa and one lives here in Hawaii). I am not Okinawan. I am half-Japanese and half-Caucasian.

The first part of the questions asks "Was it kind of a servant master or slave master relationship?" In my experience, the answer is no. There is no sense of master or slave/servant -- quite the contrary!

A Karate Sensei has a wonderful skill that he can impart to students who are willing to work very hard for a long time. In the process of practicing Karate under a wise Sensei, the student will realize many things about life and himself. In this process, he will become a more well rounded human being, a better person. Karate works on the character as much as it works on the body -- or at least it should.

The student is in a prison of sorts. The Sensei helps the student to escape, to climb out, to become free. The Sensei is not a master and the student is not a slave.

Or, perhaps the student is a slave -- to laziness, arrogance, pettiness, weakness, etc. The Sensei tells the student, "You can become free from these things. " Practicing Karate will make you strong, both physically and with respect to your character.

Now it is possible that there are Sensei who are masters and students who are slaves/servants. I have never desired to train under such a Sensei, not have I ever desired to be such a Sensei.

My own feeling about my Sensei (plural) is that they are like my own uncles, even my own fathers in Karate. I respect them so much, but not in a formal sense. I respect, admire, and appreciate them in a family sense. My Sensei gave me my Karate life! How can I ever repay them for such kindness -- especially since I was such a poor student?

The next part of the question is: "Was the character of the sensei to be taken up by the student?" Hopefully so. The Sensei is a role model for the student. The student does not only learn to move like his Sensei. Hopefully, many of the Sensei's positive traits will rub off on the student by years of training. But the student should not merely become a clone of the Sensei. The Sensei helps the student to realize his own best traits. The Sensei helps the student to become the best he can be -- not the best that the Sensei was.

The last part of the question is: "Did the student worship the sensei?" I'm sure that some did (and do). If you think of your Sensei as a god or deity, then it is natural that you will worship him. But since Sensei are humans, it is foolish to worship them. Should we worship humans? I'm sure that there are some Sensei who like to be worshiped and are happy to accept money and presents too!

The feeling I have for my Sensei is gratitude. If not for them, I would have not learned Karate -- or I might have learned a limited or negative form of Karate. Because I am grateful to my Sensei, I do not want to let them down. I have to try my best.

I cannot repay my Sensei, because they do not need or want anything from me. The only way I can repay them is by trying to be a good Sensei myself. If they teach me and I just keep it to myself, so what? But if they teach me and I teach someone else, then the line continues. Karate skills and attitudes are things that you have to pass on.

These are just my own thoughts. I think that I have the best Sensei in the world! Every lucky student thinks that he has the best Sensei in the world. It is natural.

Having great Sensei does not make me great -- it makes me humble. But it does give me one advantage -- a great Sensei understands Karate, can break it down into its smallest parts, and teach each and every detail, all directed to maximizing the student's body dynamics and movements. A great Sensei can explain what each movement means. It really helps to have a great Sensei!

A great Sensei can help a student to become free, both in movement and thought.

Now that was a good question. Thank you very much to D.M. (whose grandfather was a truly great Sensei)!


Charles C. Goodin