Always a student
The lone ship at sea
After the birth of my son three years ago, evening budo classes became a thing of the past. Which is fine, mind you, I actually enjoy my family, so I'm not complaining. After that, my main option was to go to aikido classes at noon during the week, during my lunch break. But I didn't have a judo option, and since I could rarely make it into a Saturday morning class anymore, I didn't have a jodo option either (is it jyodo, or jodo? I can never settle on one).
So I started a noon class for both: Monday and Wednesday judo and Friday jodo. Which went well for awhile, until my work moved further away from the dojo which stretched my lunch hour to the breaking point and I had to start coming in for early morning classes (thankfully, judo and jodo classes were already in place!).
Again, I never minded the noon or morning classes; they're a great bunch of guys. What I missed was the presence of anyone higher ranking than me! I hold dan grade ranks in all three, but I still consider myself a student; if and when I teach, I feel like an "adjunct professor" at best. I enjoy teaching, quite a bit, and for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I learn a lot when I actually try and convey something I thought I understood to someone else.
But I still need instruction, I still need help, guidance (and so do the students under me). I still need a sensei (or several!)
There was some enlightening discussion on the KUBK forum not long ago about the nature of the sempai/kohai relationship (you can read the thread here). The gist of the matter was, the system works well (at least in budo) when dealing with kyu grades or large gaps in rank and experience, but once the parties involved grow into the dan grades, a more horizontal structure takes its place, where people are interested in "better ideas, the greater skills and the more natural human relationships."
I agree with that, of course. It makes sense, and describes well what I had been experiencing all these years but never recognized.
At the same time, I can't but wonder if it isn't still necessary to retain a few "sempai" or, perhaps more appropriately, a sensei. I've still got a number of years ahead of me, but I'm no beginner, either. I can teach, but good heavens, I don't know everything! I still feel the need for a guiding hand, someone who is not only somewhere on the same path as me, but quite a bit further down that road. I wonder if I will ever outgrow that? Will I be a sixty-something year old 7th dan or 8th dan still needing guidance from a 90-something 9th dan?
I don't know. I would imagine that eventually, a transition must take place. It's something I'd love to ask a sixty-something year old 7th dan or 8th dan, for sure!
For now, I need help. I try to make as many special training sessions, such as shochugeiko and kangeiko (summer and winter intensives) or godo-geiko (inter-dojo "play days"), or a series of Saturday classes whenever possible. That's one of the main reasons those events exist. I also look to other sources for guidance such as books, DVDs and, though for some reason it shames me somewhat to admit it, YouTube. (There are some charlatans, certainly, but I think there is some genuinely valuable information out there, you just have to do some digging.)
I'm not looking for some mystical oracle, some archetypal Mr. Miyagi type of "guru" who will give me all of life's answers in the form of cryptic riddles. I'm not looking to engage in hero worship, either. If anything, the presence of a sensei keeps me humble. Sometimes, you need two reference points to gage where you are in the process (I'm not a pilot or a boat captain, but I'm sure there's some sort of profound object lesson that could be extrapolated from either profession): those behind you and someone ahead of you. (Triangulating your coordinates? Some silliness rattling around in my head as a result of too much TV as a kid.)
Anyway, I'm grateful for my sensei, my senpai. I try to take advantage of them whenever I can. Maybe, someday, I might be able to return the favor to someone coming up the path behind me.