Friday, August 17, 2007

The Package

What might this message mean to convey?

Excerpt from (Some Organization's) Guidelines

Promotions and Ranking:

It is important to understand that rank comes from one's sensei and not an organization. This is one of the core precepts of the student/sensei relationship. This holds true for everyone in the (organization).

It seems innocuous enough. Let me add context:

On returning home from work, I found a package on my stoop. It carried the mark of $4.19 in postage with a request that the postman certify the delivery. The fellow who mailed it lives about 1/2 mile away; he drove almost three miles past my home to the post office to mail this package.

The package contained four items:
  1. A certificate of promotion indicating my Aikido shodan rank;
  2. An Aikikai Yudansha booklet, indicating the registration of this rank with the Aikikai;
  3. A nice, handwritten note congratulating me on my first dan promotion; and,
  4. A sterile, printed page with the message that opens this post. Given certain indicators, it was clearly a message tailored specifically for me by the sender rather than a form letter included with every certificate.

The person who mailed me the package was the nidan owner of the club where once I practiced, one of the people who presided over my exam (which results in this package) at the end of this past January, and the same fellow who asked me to leave the club at the end of February.

I suppose the message should be viewed from two points of view, which should be reconciled: there is what the writer wished to convey to me by constructing and including the form with the other documents, and there is my own interpretation of the message---what was said and what was heard, respectively. Since the fellow will not associate with me today, I cannot confirm the intent; I can only offer my interpretation or thoughts.

About ten years ago, my first sensei awarded me my black belt after about four years of solid practice. About ten years later, I spent one year with this nidan, and I offered to test to confirm my rank within his parent organization. I did that, and now, the package verifies, that ranking is formally registered with the Aikikai. In between these two events, and continuing on today, I have worked with many, many sensei---literally, people on this Path who have gone before me---from different lineages, and, yes, each of them is free to assess my own ability or to "rank me" in the context of his own experience and his organization's own guidelines. The accumulated skill and knowledge are my own; your opinion or assessment of my skill and knowledge---your ranking of me---is, I agree, your own, not mine.

Regarding the sensei-student relationship itself, we live in a time where the relationship need not be reciprocal. You may be my teacher and not even know it. You may have written a book or an article that meant something to me. There may be a video posted of you demonstrating a technique that inspired me. You may have taught at a seminar that I attended, or perhaps you were an attendee too and we worked together or I saw how you performed a variation. In a more esoteric sense, we may simply have had an encounter off the mats that affected me and was then incorporated into my understanding.

To the contrary, though, you cannot simply claim me as your student. You cannot even assume that you are my Sensei---in the "personal guide"-sense---by virtue of my training in your club or dojo. For better or for worse, such is the American Path through even the traditional martial arts, especially for a twentieth century martial art that has come to be meant for everyone.

As an occasional teacher myself, I am grateful for those people who believe that I have something to offer them and choose to spend their limited time with me. I share what I know the best I can. I try to be a positive example. I am proud of them when they succeed, yes, but I do not personally claim their success as my own. I certify their knowledge to anyone who asks, and I do it without reservation---without "strings attached"---and I tell them freely that others may judge them differently, so they should not be attached to rank itself.

So, by this interpretation, "rank comes from one's sensei" makes sense to me. Just as one cannot own another's opinion or judgment, a student then cannot own an instructor's ranking of a student.

But there is certainly room for alternate interpretations, and there is no guarantee that the sender meant what I heard...

So, herein also lie more problems with rank, both for students and for instructors. A student may be prone to identify rank with ability, leaving the student to desire and then to chase rank---what someone else thinks about his ability---rather than improvement of his own ability and his own self. Similarly, the instructor may be prone to be enamored with or even abuse the power over the student that comes with the ability to grant the rank the student pursues or to revoke the rank the student has. Or perhaps even the instructor's reputation or ego is fed in claiming that he is responsible for making a new yudansha. The opportunities for pitfalls on both sides are many.

Clearing these obstacles is simply a matter of shattering the illusion that rank has value. It is not difficult to do, especially for the student, but it does require a minor awakening. Perhaps I'm fortunate to have had the chance to think about these issues deeply. I hope being aware of these pitfalls will make me a better instructor as well as a better student.

Perhaps I'm also fortunate to have kept my white belt, which I still don't mind wearing...

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