Sensei

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing the Lake of Bays, practicing karate. It was a grey day. Goose excrement was everywhere, and I had to keep modifying my stances, hopping over greyish-green piles in order to avoid stepping in them—feeling like a flapping, ungainly goose myself. I was cranky because although we’d rented a beautiful cottage (to close the summer, before the start of the school year) facing the water, the water was too shallow to swim in. And I adore swimming.

Plus I didn’t want to practice. I started out that morning with the usual questions. Why karate, for example, and why not another sport? And why not spend the morning lounging on the beach, reading Chatelaine, instead?

I frequently redefine my relationship with karate.

Last year, when the Sensei who founded our school retired, several students questioned their own practice. Many people left the dojo.

One woman who was leaving said to me, “it was all about him.”

I was perplexed by her comment, but I understood it.

On one hand, her comment painted our old Sensei as kind of cult leader, unique and irreplaceable. This is a troubling concept, and, I think, an inaccurate one.

Yes, the old Sensei has a breadth of knowledge difficult to match. He dedicated his life to karate, undergoing decades of rigorous physical training and studying Japanese philosophy. He is also an unabashed human being. In class, he talked often about himself, using his own life as an example of self-development: he talked about how he handled his mistakes in order to suggest to us how to deal with our own.

Our new Sensei is an energetic, savvy person who has without flinching undertaken to lead a group in flux. I’m grateful to him for taking on a difficult task. But I grieve the loss of our original Sensei.

Our founding Sensei encouraged his students to develop their own way, their own relationship with karate. Leaving us behind may have been the most powerful thing he did to continue urging us in this direction. The head of a cult wouldn’t do the same: here is the difference between an excellent teacher and a cult leader.

This past year, I’ve noticed that several instructors embody some of our first Sensei’s characteristics. Several teachers have perfect, precise technique. Others know the etymology of the names of katas. Another instructor openly discusses his own life in order to emphasize a particular training point. In other words, the founding teacher’s teachings live on, embodied in individuals studying karate.

As for me, I’m still figuring things out. On the whole, it comes back to my love of karate. That grey, August morning, I practiced Wanshu. It’s one of my favourite katas, first because of the long movements that require flexibility and leg extensions. I also love it because its movements so clearly embody its name (also called Empi), often interpreted as “Flying Swallow”. I practiced Wanshu until I forgot where I was and why I was cranky. I practiced until the question of why I was practicing fell away.