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Sensei is No Master
Sensei is No Master
by Stefan Stenudd
Sensei is No Master

Some people who consider taking up aikido are concerned about the tradition of bowing to Osensei's portrait at the beginning and the end of classes. They may hesitate to do this because of certain religious beliefs, or because they are uncomfortable with what seems to be some kind of worship.

I never had that problem, not even as a teenage beginner in the early 1970's, when everybody was supposed to revolt against any authority figures. But I did have a slight problem with calling the instructor sensei.


In those days, sensei was generally assumed to mean master, and in Swedish this word is quite a mouthful. We use it for champions of sports, when they win a national or international gold medal -- but that has nothing to do with aikido, of course. Otherwise, its traditional use was for Jesus Christ. In the Swedish translation of the Bible, that's what the disciples most frequently call him.

I wasn't very religious, at least not in a pious way, but I found it hard to call my aikido instructor something that I associated to the Messiah. Even though aikido became my passion, I thought that such a use of the word would be overdoing it.
Well, there were some instructors that would not have objected to it...

Anyway, when I learned that the term simply means teacher, I got rid of that problem. Still, I would never dream of insisting that my students use it on me, and I think that I will need to get to be an old man before I am comfortable with them doing so voluntarily.

And I don't like it when I see the title Master used for an instructor of aikido or any other martial art -- especially if he (rarely she) uses it on himself. What's wrong with teacher? Is there anything finer we can be to the generations that follow us?

The student's call

In Japanese use of the word, you cannot call yourself sensei. It's used only by others when they address you or talk about you, if they feel that it is appropriate. That's wonderful. You are only a teacher if somebody readily admits to being your student, i.e. turns to you in order to learn something. If you insist on teaching without being asked, you are something else.

Students must be allowed to choose their teachers. That's fundamental in the Eastern traditions. It was also the case in the universities of Medieval Europe. The students picked their teachers, paid them out of their own pockets, and shifted swiftly if they were not pleased with them.

That system had its drawbacks, such as some compromises in academic altitude to accomplish popularity. But I still think that it's better than a situation where students are stuck with teachers, no matter how insufficient they are. If you don't need to deliver, by time you tend not to.

So, this voluntary fundament of the dojo is a blessing. You only keep your students as long as they feel that they learn something valuable from you. That means you have to continue working on your own improvement, and you have always to be sensitive to the needs of the students -- the needs as you see them, because those are the only needs you can ever hope to fulfill.

When you give the students what you feel they need, some of them are likely to disagree with you and leave, because they are convinced that you are wrong. In those cases it's definitely better that they go, than that you adapt to their demands against your own conviction. They should always be free to leave and find other teachers. In that way, the student is the boss.

Of course, the students that learn the most are the ones with the least hurry to execute that power. Those students remain, even though they are uncertain about what they get from you. The wisest of them stay just because they are uncertain about what they get.


In aikido and the other martial arts, the instructor is usually the most competent practitioner in the dojo. That's so established we regard it as self-evident. Considering the complexity of our arts, it definitely is. The instructor has to demonstrate each technique, and show the students hands-on how to do it right.

But in sports, the person leading the training is rarely even an active athlete. Sports trainers are coaches, standing by the side, bossing the athletes around, analyzing what they need to exercise, and how they should perform in order to increase the chances of victory. That's often true also for complicated sports that demand refined skills.

The standard situation in sports is that the coach is never as good at the game as the players are. This may seem to be a drawback, but it has its pedagogic advantages. For example, a coach is quite free to demand much more of the athletes than what he or she is able to achieve. Also, it fosters a respect for the athletes, and puts them in the center.

In the martial arts, sensei is often regarded with a reverence that makes the students little more than decorations around that leader, as if practice were a kind of sermon, with sensei as the priest, maybe also the divinity worshiped.

But for sensei in a dojo as well as for the coach in a sport, the true aim is the same: heightening the ability and achievements of the practitioners. Two very different paths toward the same goal. So, sensei can learn from the coach, and vice versa.


Returning to Morihei Ueshiba, he is honored with the title Osensei, great teacher. That says it all. The focus of the title is not his own abilities as an aikidoka, although they were no doubt phenomenal, but his ability to develop the skills and the insight of his students. As far as I understand, that's where he really excelled.

The strongest evidence of this is the diversity of aikido his students show. Although they had the same teacher, their way of doing aikido is worlds apart. It's quite difficult to find two Osensei students that do aikido in a similar fashion.

Any teacher is able to develop students that are mere copies of his or her aikido, but a great teacher inspires the students to find and express their own aikido. That's the only way to go about it.

We all have to begin our aikido journey by copying the movements of the instructor, in order to familiarize ourselves with them. By time, though, the movements become increasingly natural to us. Then they start to be our own, as if we were the inventors of them.

In a way we are. Each person learning aikido is sort of reinventing it, so that it becomes a natural expression of that individual. If aikido doesn't move to that stage, it lacks meaning to its practitioner, and the most sophisticated aspects of it are unreachable.

You can see it with Osensei's students. When you see one of them doing ikkyo in a certain way, you are immediately convinced that this is the way to do it. Still, when you see another Osensei student do ikkyo very differently, again you are convinced of the same thing. It's quite amusing. And it's the foremost trait of a formidable teacher.

Well, it must be Ok to call such a teacher Master.

Stefan Stenudd
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido
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Old 01-05-2009, 08:10 AM   #2
Dojo: Circulo de Aikido
Location: rio de janeiro
Join Date: May 2005
Posts: 29
Re: Sensei is No Master

Thank you, that was a very fresh perspecive on what a teacher should represent to his students. It obviously comes from a very humble and illuminated perspective.
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