In my previous life as an academic, I taught sociology for twenty years. Now I teach karate. Obviously, there are necessarily stark differences in curriculum and pedagogical methods between the classroom and the dojo, but I’ve learned there are also profound differences between their very conceptions of teaching.
Just as obviously, there are many kinds of teachers and teaching in the university, so generalizations are always suspect, but I still think that the cultural concepts and foundations of teaching karate are distinguishable from those of the academy. And while I would never claim that the former are essentially better than the latter, I do believe that the differences can illuminate the nature of teaching in a singular way.
Any karate ryū 流 (school or system; literally, “flow”) is identified by its keitō 系統 (lineage), the succession of sensei who taught the karate of that ryū and passed it down from generation to generation. It is keitō which establishes the legitimacy of a practitioner. Its importance is regrettably demonstrated by how it is counterfeited. The generally warm and welcoming karate masters of
learned to be leery of foreign karate tourists who ask to be photographed with
some sensei and then go back to their own countries and claim to be disciples. I have the privilege of being descended from the highly
respected Seibukan lineage of hanshi 範士 (master teachers) that runs from Matsumura Sōkon
Kyan Chōtoku 喜屋武,Shimabukuro Zenryō 島袋善, and Shimabukuro Zenpō 島袋善保 to my own sensei, Dan Smith. The
authenticity of what I teach is unimpeachable, regardless of the limitations of my teaching.
Yet there is another crucial relationship of lineage to teaching, one that turns on the special relationship of sensei 先生 (teacher of the Way) to deshi 弟子 (apprentice to the Way). While sensei is conventionally translated as “teacher,” that translation misses something crucial about the divide between Okinawa and Japan, on one side of the Pacific, and anglophone North America, on the other. In
Canada and the
it is doctors, lawyers, and CEOs who are the prestigious professionals. Teachers
rank far below them in the social hierarchy. It’s very different in Okinawa and
United States ,
where there is a traditional reverence for teachers. If someone is a highly
accomplished and respected surgeon, lawyer, or business person, they are called
sensei. Even a young man who is
popular with women is lauded as sensei, although sarcastically. The esteem
accorded to the sensei is such that no one there calls themselves sensei, for they would be regarded as
vain, arrogant, and terribly ill-mannered. In Japan North
America, things are different, even in karate. Here, people
sometimes sew patches on their uniforms that say “SENSEI.” I know one idiot who
signs his e-mails as “Sensei ________”
and another whose Facebook name starts with Shihan 師範,
which means “master teacher.” They think they are asserting their stature, when
all they are doing is advertising their ignorance.
Real teaching in karate-dō is nothing like that. Each time I teach, in my mind I hear the voices of my sensei and my sensei’s sensei. Their teaching always animates mine; their spirits are manifest on the dojo floor. I glance to shōmen 正面, the front of the dojo, where the photographs of the hanshi of Seibukan hang and watch, and get filled with resolve. It is not merely the expertise, generosity, and patience of the instruction I have received from those sensei, although I am deeply grateful for everything they have done for me. It is the realization that these extraordinary teachers have devoted their lives to karate, and now they have entrusted the teaching of it to me, among others. In the lineage of my ryū, I have become the link between them and my students. It is this profound awareness of lineage, of a duty to the line of teachers that came before, that is unlike teaching in the academy, regardless of how much a professor might respect their own doctoral supervisor. In karate-dō, if I fail, then the lineage is broken.
And this is the other side of teaching, the opposite of elevating oneself by calling oneself a sensei: teaching karate puts me in the bind between feeling the obligation to teach perfectly and the acute recognition, surfaced exactly by that obligation, of the deep imperfections of my own karate. I have seen this same bind expressed by other teachers, although I think I feel it more acutely, given that I came to karate late in life and to Seibukan even later. Of course, teaching perfectly is an impossible demand, regardless of how tangible and necessary it is. But this impossibility is a gift. I see karate-dō, the Way of karate, as a Way of teaching, in part precisely because I see it as a way of forcing me to face my inadequacies and limitations―not just as a practitioner of karate, but also and more importantly as an flawed and fallible human being―and never give up working on them. Especially in this place and time, where loving yourself as you are and asserting your general wonderfulness has become the standard of pop-psychological health, that is one of the most essential and life-changing lessons of karate-dō can offer. So that is lesson I try to give my students. We work together on the impossible. They and my teachers deserve nothing less.