Sensei: Journey Assistance Program

The meaning of Senseiship (or Sifuship) is an interesting riddle encountered along our martial arts journey. Our presumptions about being a Sensei are generally a combination of what we see from our own instructors, ideas borrowed from books and movies, and what personal convictions we bring into the dojo with us.


It’s extremely difficult to sum-up what a Sensei “is”, and attempts often lead to a list of things Sensei should or shouldn’t be. Some examples are obvious (no sexual predators) and some not so obvious (philosophical leader?).

Bill Hayes Kyoshi once talked about how Eizo Shimabukuro saw himself in such a role, and suggested that Senseiship is equivalent to being the leader of a “Journey Assistance Program”. The journey of course being the martial path each student chooses to follow; guiding them each toward the truest meaning of their art.

The trouble with this method is ambiguity. Each step along the path is not dictated, nor is it planned out in a convenient spreadsheet. Assisting every student means deep assessment of their needs, strengths, weaknesses, and potential.

The concept of assisting each student individually clashes with the limitations of operating a large school. It also clashes with the western expectation for continuity and equality among all students. Any instructor who has taught kids will attest to the adolescent jealousy that can arise among children (and parents).

Adult students can be even tougher as they have spent years building their sense of self and can easily become intolerant of course corrections that impinge upon their ingrained perceptions.

Looking Inward to Assist Outward

Hayes Kyoshi went on to mention that the only way you can truly light the path for others is if you actually understand how you got to where you are.

Deep self analysis and introspection provides you with the ability to see similar characteristics in others or  a launching point to determine how others are different. By knowing what you’ve done right (and what you’ve done embarrassingly wrong) you can steer students toward a better path. This tends to go far beyond correcting the angle of a down block, although it certainly starts there.

There are many outstanding martial artists who are utterly brilliant and can compete at a championship level. Those people are not automatically Sensei. In fact, artists with an abundance of natural talent can get by with little introspection at all. On the other hand, an artist who has to grind and focus on every detail can in turn see others with a knowing eye.

Do you see how a Sensei need not be a champion as long as they are effective with an earned amount of wisdom?

Do you also see how an individual who happens to be brilliant, hard working, and introspective may become a masterful Sensei?

If this post makes it seem like becoming a great Sensei is difficult, then I have transmitted the idea as I had hoped. It also helps explain why I prefer to be called Mattsan and why I am honored when someone chooses to call me Sensei (and also why I never allow any grand titles beyond that to be used in my proximity).

A Sensei’s journey is constantly inward, but not for self indulgence. It is to better understand everyone and everything outside the body and mind. If the Sensei is lucky, he/she has students to help guide, and in the act can come to better understand him/herself.