Following a Master

followIt is customary in martial arts practice to refer to a high-profile teacher whom many practitioners draw inspiration from. Today, the true Japanese Budo master has almost disappeared. Nevertheless, many of us express their preference by officially stating which Master we are following or inspiring our practice to. In my opinion, those statements need some clarification.
Besides certain “stalking” occurrences where someone’s tailing his own master, observing his behavior during the day, skulking in the shadows at night outside his home, “following” a master means attending his seminars and training “classes”.

For the lucky ones who leave nearby the master, enrolling in his dojo will be enough; the less lucky must spend money for traveling in order to see their source of inspiration regularly during a year, so they can claim to be “followers”. In my Aikido curriculum I am also stating that I “follow” Philippe Gouttard’s teachings, the French master from the FFAAA. I have several reasons to, anybody has their own for both practicing Aikido and which master to follow.
For what concerns me, I’d like to point out what I mean about “following” and what the word “master” (or Sensei) really means.
keep-calm-and-follow-senseiAs of now, I’ve aged beyond the half-century. I don’t need any master, in the sense of a guide along the Way. After having lived 50 years, anybody should know life enough and maybe it’s time to use our experience to help younger people along. Philippe Gouttard is not my “Sensei”. He certainly is and Aikido Master, he is far more experienced than me, he’s 10 years older than me, he’s been practicing Aikido 30 years longer than me – and at a far greater level! When I’m stating that I follow Philippe Gouttard, I do it when I’m asked and for clarity’s sake, so that who happens to join my dojo gets an idea on the Aikido I’m trying to practice. The verb “trying” is fundamental in this sentence. The mere statement that I follow Philippe Gouttard should not lead you to expect my Aikido performance to be comparable to his by any means. Everything I’m able to achieve on the mat is also to his credit; but all the errors or nonsense I do are exclusively my fault. This is so because any teacher, from me to the Aikido world number 1, can insist on his teachings to boredom but this won’t guarantee even his closest students will do as he taught. In simple words, do not expect me to appear as a “miniature” Philippe Gouttard, a kind of inevitably bad replica. Each of us has his/her own body and we use it in different fashions. It is important to comply with certain physiological principles and that’s what I’m trying to do in my practice, putting a lot of effort into passing those principles to the ones who have chosen to train with me. I draw my inspiration from Philippe Gouttard for those principles, I like his practice, a prefer his to that of others, that’s why I try to see him as often as I can during the year. But I don’t imitate him (at least I try not to). What’s wrong in my opinion is trying to find Philippe Gouttard’s Aikido in my own practice. First, I am not him; second, my background and experience are not even comparable to his. pasq_philippe2The point here is that imitating a master or Sensei leads you off the Way. What a Sensei is trying to do, if he his a true Budo Sensei, is bringing out your true self. This is not something you achieve by creating imitators, clones. I agree we must comply with the principles a Sensei is teaching. But what I’m trying to do is to acquire them, to put them into practice and to absorb them by means of the chance I have of passing them on to the ones who are training with me. By trying to explain them, to transmit them, I make the principles my own; I find my own way to demonstrate them and to teach them, which is not necessarily the same way as Philippe Gouttard’s, but most probably a different way. Obviously, I could make mistakes or I could do something that Philippe Gouttard himself would not recognize as its own teaching. Everyone has the right to prove him- or herself, to interpret, to make mistakes in the attempt to absorb the technique (but always within Aikido’s principles – avoid resorting to kicks and punches, which are proper to other martial arts, when your technique is not working). Without this, how can we think we can be teachers?
The Budo master uses the technique as the only means to reach the heart of the practitioner’s true self. At the beginning, some degree of imitation, some technical rigor is necessary, we must focus on the external form of the technique. A beginner musician will have to study the technique to play the instrument before creating art through of it. But this won’t have to last a lifetime. I find rather surreal that teachers with 30, 40 years of experience still have anything to learn from a mere technical point of view. They’re supposed to be venerable 50 or 60 years olds, how can I believe they still need guidance? Sure, it is true in Budo you are never “accomplished”, growth should be continuous throughout a lifetime. What does not convince me is that after decades of practice someone still declares to have a master to follow as a guidance along the Way. I won’t deny that between a great 70 years old master and a 50 year old expert there still is a big difference. What I fail to understand is that the 50 years old expert still needs the great master who will explain him how to do kotegaeshi. If this is the case, something must be wrong…
In the old good times, when there were no damn ranks, they used to release a certificate of total knowledge transmission, the Menkyo Kaiden. The Master publicly stated that a certain person had learned from him whatever there was to learn. That was it. This person was from then on able to proceed alone along the Way, trying in turn to pass on his own knowledge. What would be the point of releasing that kind of certificate to an elder, one who is close to the end? I mean: what’s the sense of “following” a Master, to have him as guidance along the Way throughout our lifetime? Usually, the Master is actually much older than the student. But today it is not seldom to see Masters and students of comparable age. I just can’t figure out how they could call each other master or student. I can understand it when the student is some 20 or 30 years younger than the “Master”. But if after 20 or 30 years the student has not cut the umbilical cord yet and still questions his/her own way to perform ikkyo, this is paradoxical. It is even worse when the so-called Master would not cut the cord himself. He would be like a parent who does not want the children to grow up. Fear of being dethroned? Fear of remaining without students, nor power or control? Who knows…
sensei13In my opinion, the word “Sensei” is pretty much abused (therefore even the word “student”). I don’t want someone my own age to address me Sensei. What I would be his/her Sensei for? Maybe he/she is more experienced than me in life. I can show him/her some techniques, certainly not how to follow the Way! Those who call themselves students of a certain Sensei, usually tend to imitate him, often in performing “allegedly” beautiful movements or technical gestures. I call them clones. A clone is the negation of Budo. They are eternal kids that would like one day to be like their fathers. Many embellish themselves by claiming they’re students of a certain Sensei, as if it were a sort of credit. Actually, each one of us is his/her own Sensei and student at the same time. We should not attempt to avoid this responsibility. It is way too comfortable to follow a teacher trying to repeat his technical gestures and grow as good as to perform them in an almost identical way. So what? Now that we have learned that, we could switch to a different martial art and learn new gestures. Sure, holding several dan degrees in various disciplines improves our curriculum. Such people could make a great show at a circus or at demonstrations. Budo has nothing to show off. Sometimes it might be necessary to show what we do during practice in order to attract new practitioners. But more often this is just exhibitionism, pure ego, a further negation of Budo. We’re always back to the same issue: unfortunately, today everybody struggle to show off. We are struck by teachers with spectacular techniques and we don’t go deeper than the exterior aspect, we don’t ask ourselves whether there is any substance behind the form. That substance has nothing to do with lethal techniques during combat. Nonetheless, many continue to prepare for the fight, following the deadliest Sensei.
Good for you…