The Old Model Doesn't Apply
There was a time when one simply did not teach until a level of "mastery" was attained. One got certified to teach by ones teacher. It was a one to one transmission, teacher to student. A given style might have a very few people ever certified. Some styles passed out of existence because they never certified another generation of teachers or the certified teachers got killed in battle without passing on the knowledge of the style required for certification. But the style might simply pass away rather than allow an unqualified teacher to take over.
So one could have assumed a certain level of mastery and would therefore have been justified in suspending his own judgment and preferences to throw himself into the care of such a teacher.
But those days are long gone. Very few styles of martial arts have stringent requirements about who teaches and who doesn't. Emphasis has been on spreading the arts and this has demanded instructors in large numbers. Far larger than could ever have been taken to any level of real mastery in the time allotted.
Most folks are lucky to have a teacher who is basically competent. Plenty of people are running dojos or teaching whom I would not say that about. If one is REALLY lucky, one might find a teacher who would qualify as what I would call an "expert". Having trained with some folks whom I would say were "masters" of their arts (in the old tradition, not what it means in its degraded sense today, when one hesitates to even use the term for bad associations) I would say that they are very rare.
Most Americans have little or no understanding of real mastery as it applied when it meant that one had received the transmission from ones teacher and had the documents to back it up. There was a time in the West when there were Masters of the Martial Arts. In England, for instance there was a certifying board of other masters who would provide grading. It was extremely difficult to attain master level and it really meant that one was absolutely at the very top of a large pyramid of weapons experts. In the time of Henry VIII however, the state started to sell the grades in return for cash, much as officers later purchased their commissions. It was the end of the guild system as far as martial arts was concerned.
A visitor once made the mistake of referring to a certain American teacher (who was a Nidan or Sandan at the time) as an "Aikido Master" in front of my own teacher. Sensei basically went ballistic and were had a LENGTHY discourse on what a "master" was and was not.
Discussion of who should and shouldn't be running dojos is almost impossible at this point. What's the criteria? As has been noted in numerous other discussions rank no longer means anything other than a lengthy association with a senior teacher and often not even that. It isn't about the ability to "win" in tournaments as most Aikido has no competition. And even if it did, it's not usually the successful competitor that has the highest level of mastery... it's that old guy that everyone thinks is past his prime.
All that is required to run a dojo is merely the ability to name and demonstrate the corpus of techniques of ones particular style at a level which prospective students would find impressive. Once they sign up, the limitations of the teacher usually become the limitations of the student, so ten years down the line, everyone still maintains that same relative position.
If a school is successful over time it is so first and foremost because the students are "happy". Most practitioners are "hobbyists". They are not Budo practitioners who will structure their entire adults lives around their training. They participate at various levels of commitment, some more than others by magnitudes. But if the training were not "interesting" and "fun" they wouldn't be there.
So when a student looks at schools, he or she might find that the school which seems to have the largest number of students, that has been in town the longest, etc is not necessarily the one whose teacher is at the highest level, the one at which the training is the most stringent. In fact the opposite my a very well be true.
The largest and most successful dojos are often run by teachers whose real talent lies in "care taking" not their high level of technique or their tremendous ability to teach the art. And the students generally don't care that it's true. They may be aware that other teachers are in the area who are technically more proficient or who consistently turn out students of a higher caliber. They will stay with the teacher who attracts students like themselves and who can make those students feel special and valued.
Occasionally, you do get the reverse effect... the student who mistakes the brutal, abusive teacher for the "real thing" over others who are far better teachers of the art. The masochists mistakenly think that if they are getting hurt, being yelled at, and generally exploited by their teacher they must be getting the goods... not like those weenies across town. But this is just another symptom of the lack of ability to tell what a really great teacher might look like.
Pretty much as soon as the martial arts were deemed important to the larger community and were actively encouraged to spread widely, first to the Japanese public and later to the world at large, it was all over for the transmission. It's not that there aren't folks around who got that type of master / student training. It's just that there could never be enough of them to spread the various arts around the world, into all sorts of small communities around the globe. So most folks who practice might seldom if ever put their hands on a real high level teacher. Their entire experience of the art might be through students of students of a master instructor.
The only way to approach this is to be very clear about what you want from your training and find the teacher who can take you there. This might require training with several teachers over time as one progresses (in Zen one is said to have three teachers before one is off on ones own). I wrote an article about being clear about how you structure your training, who you train with, and what you want from the training. it's in the archives somewhere.
You can't really talk about the competency of teachers because the students want totally different things from those teachers. There are folks who are terribly technically deficient in my mind who are clearly experts at providing a satisfying experience to their students over years and years. Are they incompetent really? There are technically amazing teachers who cannot teach effectively, even some whom I would call masters (the Founder perhaps?). Are they competent from the standpoint of being teachers, no matter how good they are?
No, it's a total mish-mash and the only advice I'd give folks is to be clear about what they want and then "caveat emptor" after that.
Last edited by George S. Ledyard : 02-19-2009 at 09:12 PM.