At 56 years old I’m enjoying Aikido more than I have in years. That’s in large part because of my Sensei Bobby. There is still wonder in pursuit of the way and the art. There’s much to discover and learn. That joy is also homage to our history with our Sensei Dan.
We both have the privilege and honor of Sensei. We never lose that we are part of Sensei’s legacy as well.
“The Sensei” is a brief essay (below) I wrote about a year ago, which, much like my book, was an homage to Sensei Dan. Dan was not only my Sensei, but he was also like a Father to me. I’m forever grateful to him.
Sensei always saw and listened for the greater within me, even when I couldn’t or wouldn’t see or hear it. I’m the greater man because of him.
Funny. I rarely called him Dan. Even watching Super Bowl at his house I still would say, “Hey, Sensei…”
Sensei is a way of being. As sensei, you are granted the honor and privilege of guiding someone on their own path of discovering their own greater within. During their journey, you say, “You did it. Not me.”
Yet, we all know better. Because sensei is about love. He or she fosters the completion of the student’s journey. So we all thank the senseis in our lives. Along with Sensei Dan, my senseis are Jerome, Richard, John, and a few others.
Sensei is vital in the journey. We all love them and are always grateful for them. I love you, Sensei.
In Japanese martial arts, you call your instructor “sensei” out of protocol and respect. In Japanese, sensei means teacher. My reverence for sensei evolved over the years, particularly in my relationship with Sensei Dan.
I have the privilege of being called “Sensei” when I teach Aikido. For those like me, who dedicate their life’s pursuit in martial arts, the word Sensei is sacred and along with it comes knowing responsibility. We honor Sensei without any significance. Sensei selflessly serves others. In my early years as Aikido instructor, I would tell my students or friends “Call me Jon.” The real Sensei was Dan. Being older now, I feel more comfortable with the title. I am privileged and honored to be called Sensei. I am distinctly aware that I still have much to learn.
Sensei in whatever your pursuit, be it martial arts, tea ceremony or public speaking, is the surrender to mastery. Master never calls himself so, rather humbly accepts that he or she still has much to learn on the path. The coolest aspect, Sensei gives away everything that he or she has so that the student can claim their greatness: become greater. Create from nothing. Give away everything to return to nothing. That is Sensei.
Often times you see depicted in the classic martial arts movies: The Master withholds the telling secret until the appointed time for his or her student. The student learns this cloaked secret, and can now defeat his or her treacherous rival. Really this doesn’t happen, only in the movies. Sensei constantly gives way what he or she knows, but the student must possess the power for listening to Sensei.
In the beginning, as students, we get only so much from Sensei’s teaching, because of our listening to him or her. Sensei is all too aware. The student gets it when his or her listening is present. From experience, this demands tremendous patience and dedication on Sensei’s behalf. Paradoxically, I learned from Sensei Dan that there are no great secrets in martial arts or Aikido. They are always in your face in plain sight. Your job is to listen, see, and practice. The path of mastery is simple. However, simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Absolutely not.
Think of the tree falling in the forest. If the grand secret screams out loud, but no one is around to hear it, then it shall remain unknown. Unbeknownst to the Sensei’s students, they must powerfully evolve their listening. Ironically, old school Sensei never tells that to his or her students. Being the somewhat ‘new school’ sensei I would often tell students, “Work on your listening.” More times than not, they didn’t get it. Perhaps, giving that up is the wisdom of old school.
Sensei Dan definitely knew more about this than I do. Students will get it when they get it. The great Sensei gives everything away all the time. You have to be aware, prepared, and get it.
Clint Eastwood was the guest on “In the Actors Studio” with James Lipton about 20 years ago discussing his career as an actor and director in his films. One of Lipton’s students asked Eastwood what he should do as an actor to develop his craft. Eastwood told ‘the kid’ that he should “master the art of listening”. That was the most valuable thing to do as an actor. Really Clint was talking about more than just acting. He was talking life.
The path of mastery recreates and alters the way that we learn as a whole. Only from that space can we begin to generate and invent. My goal in every Aikido class was to discover something new, either from Sensei or someone I was practicing with. It could be the smallest thing. As our relationship transformed Sensei would refine, tweak my technique. That made the profound difference. The training evolved into a subtle refined conversation about mastery. Dan told me early on that your Aikido gets better by teaching. By teaching, you learn from others, and really you learn about yourself. It’s trite and true: The journey of mastery is self-discovery. This journey exposes your best and your worst. You work on your worst. Don’t sweat the best.
Aikido has a lot of moving parts: the hands, the throw, body movement, breathing, and so on. Sensei constantly said, “Move your feet.” So when he demonstrated the technique in class, no matter how involved, I would watch his feet. I consistently saw something new. I passed this epiphany on to other students, too. No matter how complicated the technique looked, I said, “Watch his feet.” Now, I gave away something that made a difference for me. Hopefully, someone listened for it, as well.
Sensei is your personal inspired guide in your pursuit and in life. I remember when I got my shodan—first-degree black belt—I was so happy. That was one of my happiest days. I told Sensei Dan, “Thank you.” Dan said, “I didn’t do anything. You did it.” We were both nearly right. I had accomplished becoming a black belt but, Sensei’s modesty and humility aside, I could not have done it without him. Sensei was the Man for me. He will always be the Man.
A few years later I was talking with another of my senseis, Richard. I was taking the transformational education course that Richard led for my own growth and transformation. During one of the breaks, I talked with Richard. I told him about the unique joy of being Aikido sensei. Richard shared that when he led courses in Tokyo, students would call him, “Sensei”. Richard confessed, “It’s kind of cool being called ‘sensei’.” Richard is the great Sensei who altered my life along with thousands of others. Yeah, it is very cool being honored as Sensei. I’ve been fortunate in my experience. In many ways Sensei transcends teacher.
Every hero has his or her Sensei. Often times they intertwine: one becomes the other. This is their poetry. That is how life occurs. Sensei and Hero define each other. Sensei leverages the Hero’s possibility out of partnership and legacy. Sensei and Hero inspire the next generation of Sensei and Hero. They make the world a better place. We are all the greater for them.
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