The Heart of a Teacher
February 1, 2004 · 11:30am EST · Posted by D. Seidman
Fujiyama Dojo
P.O. Box 20003
Thorold, ON, Canada
L2V 5B3
(905) 680-6389
"...I know that some of you have asked the exact meaning of the word "sensei". And I know that some of you are eager to start your own dojos, and begin sharing the knowledge you have acquired throughout the years. But translating the word would not help you to understand your role as teachers any better. Even if you spoke perfect Japanese, it would not help you to be a better teacher, because language is not the issue. However, I can give you a mental picture of it. Imagine yourself giving up many of life's indulgences and privileges that you take for granted, stepping into an unprotected circle and being asked to offer the best of yourself, while you are being judged by a group of people who at times will fear you, at times will admire you, at times will resent you, at times will confide in you, at times will need you for what you are, and at times will hate you for what you are. A group of people whom you will look upon as your own children, knowing that most of them will see you as a stranger, people whom you will wish to protect, knowing that many of them will discard your advice. Of the time with that group, much of it will be spent experiencing disappointments, ignoring offenses, feeling the pain of seeing some of them losing much of what you taught them and walking away. Less frequently come satisfactions, expressions of gratitude, or even recognition. Of that group of people, eighty percent will abandon you; ten percent will take what you have offered them and do nothing with it; five percent will take what you have offered and do their own thing with it, acknowledging you only nominally, and four percent may remain attentively by your side. But only one percent will actually appreciate what you have offered, without looking at the price tag, without resentment, and will strive to preserve its value and honor, long after you are gone. So you want to know the meaning of the word "sensei"? Look at the circle once again. Do you see yourself still standing there after all that, not just without hate, without resentment, but willing to do the same for yet another group? Well, that is what it means to be a teacher... That is the true meaning of the word. And you know why it is worth it? For the sake of that one percent... because that is from where a real teacher comes! Stepping into that circle takes a great part of your life away, but it gives you the privilege to bring forth a better life in someone else, who will in turn step into that circle, and do the same for others. And if we are good teachers, they will be much better than ourselves, and do a much better job. That is what the word "teacher" means, and to those of you who understand it, and are willing to step into that circle, go with my encouragement and my blessings! There are many who have been there before, and did well. To them, we owe the privilege of being here today. That there is much pain along that road is undeniable, but there is also no greater satisfaction, if one has a little bit of courage, and as much love as one could carry on one's shoulders. The courage makes the pain go away, while the love makes the satisfaction last forever. If I had a thousand lives to choose from, I would not have chosen a different one, because, when my time comes to leave, I will know that I have done, or at least tried to do, something of value when I could. And if I die trying all that would mean is that those who come after me must hurry up. There will be no need for tears. Someone should cry, however, if I have been too weak, too selfish, or too stupid not to leave a successor who is so much better than I was. Being a teacher also means guaranteeing to the best of our abilities that the work goes on." (Excerpt from a speech by Onishi Akisaburo, given at Jindokan Dojo, 1992. Transcript and translation by Yoram Yaakovi. Used by permission of Mivtzar newsletter.)

I have chosen this fragment of Onishi Sensei's speech to begin this little article, because no other description of a teacher is more apt nor more real to me. I confess that this old teacher's words scared me out of my wits, but also fired up my determination, when a particular incident put them into perspective.

One day a self-defense instructor, a long-time friend, came to our home to have dinner with my father and me. During a dinner conversation, I made mention of the old teacher's visit, and handed him the transcript of the speech at his request. He read it, thought about it for a moment, and then, tossing the paper on the table top, shrugged and said the words that opened my eyes:

"You do not have to worry about any of that. You DO NOT have to be like him, right?"

I did not answer. I looked at my father, and saw that his eyes were fixed on me. When he spoke, his words were to the point, as usual, and, as usual, conducive to understanding.

"Yes," he said. "Those words would apply to you only if you wish to be a teacher like Mr. Onishi." I knew he was inciting me to think, and think deeply.

I remember my years as a student, and later as a senior student. In those years, I learned many things. The first things I learned were about how many ugly sides my personality had. I desperately wanted to think of myself as a good person, but the more I learned about myself, the more obvious my faults became: my incredible selfishness; my tendency to lash out with my tongue; my penchant for sarcasm; my pathetic skill of rationalizing every rotten thing I have said or done ... and so much more. Still, Onishi Sensei, who on many an occasion was on the receiving end of these "niceties" of mine, quietly filed them under "human traits" and did his best to point me back to the right road, instead of slapping me silly, which is what I deserved.

I also remember the times I felt insulted when my fits of anger, resentment, depression, or just plain old rottenness, were met with a smile, a hard advice, or even light laughter. I wanted to show my feelings and push them in and up, so that they showed to their greatest extent. I wanted them to rule the moment, but Onishi Sensei always made teaching rule the moment. I ended up with a lesson I did not want to receive. I felt frustrated and hurt then, but as I grew in understanding, I began to see that what I thought to be my sacred right to express my discontent with whatever, was no more than covert aggression, which is a temper tantrum with a pseudonym to make it sound more sophisticated. I cannot deny the fact that, some time ago, my fragile ego would have taken offense at this definition, which I would have seen as a belittling of my inner turmoil. It is not, and I am grateful to my father for putting it before my eyes once and for all. As he well said, intellectuals like to intellectualize their shortcomings, artists like to dramatize them, and very small people use them as weapons... I had a combination of all.

In other instances, I wanted to be coddled and comforted, or at least be permitted to retire to my den where I could curl up and enjoy the bitter stings of my so-called wounds. See, if the pain is allowed to be felt freely, we can give ourselves license to indulge in a few thoughts of remorse, or even wrath. Most of the time, Onishi would respond with his trademark phrases: "Now is the time to work harder", or, "Go and help those who need help".

"Why should I do that?" I often retorted. "There is no one helping me!" And by saying this, I had turned my sensei into "no one", and his help into nothing. Still, his answer was always, "Yes, I understand."

How dared he downplay my anger, and my frustration? What a rage I built because I wanted to express my feelings against what I perceived to be unjust treatment.

How hard the lessons, how extreme the demands, how insensitive his responses, I thought. But how much I learned! How much strength I gained as a human being and as a teacher when I truly understood what Onishi Sensei was doing!

And how terrible I felt when, after his death, I learned from his wife that Onishi Sensei actually shed quiet tears before his home shrine after one of our conversations. She thought he was just very worried about me, Mrs. Onishi candidly told me, because he lit incense and prayed for me.

I vividly remember the conversation. He might have been worried, but I could have also hurt him more than I was aware. I recall that I was, as I usually was when I thought tiredness gave me license to be, at my nastiest when I listed for him all my past and present thankless efforts for him and the dojo. How insulting I must have sounded when I described the extent of my sacrifice, and by doing so telling him he was undeserving of it, and diminishing his own efforts to a mere dribble, and when I announced how much better off I could be if I had chosen another path. Worse yet, I felt liberated after I exposed my feelings of anger and frustration. Today, as a teacher, I know that I dumped on his shoulders what I removed from mine. Today, I know that every time he taught me anything, he knew that I covertly viewed my emotional, physical and material efforts as much more valuable than any teaching he offered me.

I had displayed the great possibilities in my life, and devalued his own life in one single shot. He knew I had done that, and he was right. The old man had been right for a long time! I thought often of having done too much, and that diminished his teachings before my eyes. He knew there were times in which I doubted everything. Still, he smiled and said nothing about it while he kept on teaching. Why he did so, I never understood until I became a teacher myself. And I do not mean the simple act of standing before a group of students who call me "Sensei", passing on techniques and tidbits of wisdom. I mean until I began to care beyond the limits of myself; when I asked what I wished I did not have to ask; when I rebuked what I wished I did not have to rebuke; when I no longer could sustain my reputation of being nice, and forsook that and much more for the sake of educating.

The more I taught and the more students came to me with the same conflicts I had many times presented to my teacher, the more I realized many things which I would rather not enumerate right now, but suffice to say, added regret to my shame. And more so because I did not have the chance to say "I am sorry" to a great teacher who helped me to experience life beyond the seams of my breeches.

The more I tried to tell myself, "I don't need this", the more I knew that I was the one who needed it the most.

I bellyached when I should have meditated about his teachings. I wandered about in my own thoughts when I should have tried to immerse myself in technique. I wallowed in self-pity when I should have been glad that I could do what I did. I paid so much attention to my own philosophy that I missed or forgot a great deal of his teachings, and now all that is lost forever.

Onishi Sensei...

He was a big ugly old man, with a bald round head, a pot belly, and enormous hands, but what he taught me was beautiful, and made me a much better person than I hoped to be, as I began to control my temper tantrums. When I brought my feelings before my father, he looked at me sternly, as he has always done. "I wish I could say that you were not foolishly blind," he said, "but you were. If I was your teacher I would have asked you to do twice as much. I am grateful to him because he had to repair much of the mess I made of you. But do not feel too bad. Sometimes we have to lose it all and walk in the desert for forty more years before we can get to where we are meant to be. I am quite sure that your teacher understood that, and forgave you." I hope he is right. I hope that Sensei forgave me.

He taught me how to listen to my anger and subdue it so it would not alter my perception. He taught me how to look at my emotions without letting them alter my decisions, and to accept the decisions I made as being the path before my feet. And all this in a subtle way. He was kinder to me at times when I thought he was being too demanding, and I learned more about my weaknesses at times when I thought that my "normal existence" was being shaken and its foundations cracked. He ransacked my precious life niches so I could stand more solidly on any ground. He redefined my sense of identity, so I could leave behind stereotypes and crutches of personality and be self-identified by a noble talk, rather than by gender, idle idiosyncrasies or indulgences. He enriched my life beyond measure. And all that without giving a single command. He appealed to my own conscience and my own nature and saw strength where I saw weakness. I resisted, because feeling weak is a comfortable place to be. It provides many allowances. Still, Sensei persevered to take me out of that stinking hole, so I could be a real budoka, while at the same time quietly ignoring my not so covert resentment towards him for forcing me to see my weaknesses. Regardless, I could not help but learn, and despise the comfort zone where one simply abandons any effort. I learned to feel satisfaction for being able to take a step into the unknown every single day. Sometimes that is what it takes for a teacher's feeble knees to learn to support the weight of a whole class. He taught me to do that, without ever giving a command, and enduring my ill feelings. For all that, I failed to thank him, because I was too busy considering how much I had invested, not knowing until it was too late that what I considered a loss had been instead a sublime gain.

I realized that there are some of you who, not having been a student of Budo for a long time, or have been a senior student or a teaching, might not quite understand what I mean. Do not let my words discourage you. There is much pleasure in the process, in the learning, and in the offering of the knowledge, and this must be pointed out even though pleasure is not our reason for perseverance. Duty is.

My difficulties were exacerbated by my own deficiencies. I used introspection to justify and support my negative feelings, not to defeat them, and this made my growth painfully slow.

I am a slow learner, and much more in touch with my feelings than most Gentiles I've met along the way. By being in touch with my feelings, I mean that I was someone who ruminated on emotions until they tasted bitter. I wanted to do my best, but I took so many twists and turns to get there that I suffered all the way, until I realized that I had made the right decision to begin with, even though I came dangerously close to messing it all up countless times. But not every budoka would have to experience the same tortuous path. Some of you will make a commitment, and whatever wave may come crashing against you, you will experience the pleasure of standing firm against it. You will make a decision, and the decision, in turn, will make you. No regrets. No second thoughts. This is not a proverb or a platitude. It is the definition of a true budoka.

A true teacher has experienced all those ups and downs. He knows that without them, we have so much less to offer as teachers. They know we must stand at the centre of that circle. Those among you who now learn, or have learned, under a good teacher will relate to my words and understand. Thos among you who are already teachers will also relate to my words and remember.

Some of those good teachers are no long with us. Some are still inside that circle, striving to offer what is to them the greatest treasure, although sometimes, to our shame, we take it as so much less.

I write this article motivated by the approach of the anniversary of Onishi Sensei's death, but it is an apology dedicated to ALL TEACHERS. To all the teachers who have suffered disappointments and betrayals, and still smiled and forgave. To all teachers, live or departed, who have stood in that circle, I offer my deepest apology. I offer it, because I was one of those who failed to appreciate you. I offer it because now I know what it means to have the heart of a teacher, and it shames me to have been so foolishly blind that I did not see it sooner.

"You do not have to worry about any of that. You DO NOT have to be like him, right" said my friend. By my father's look, I understood that he, too, knew what the question really meant, and prompted me to analyze my answer. I did.

To ask me if I do not have to be like Onishi Sensei would be like asking me if I DO NOT have to be a good teacher.

Do I have to be like Onishi Sensei?

My answer? YES, I DO! And if I would not do so, let no one call me teacher.

To all those great teachers who have endured less than able students like us, we offer you our gratitude for your tolerance and compassion, and a million apologies for our smallness and our ignorance. We have no excuses to give, only the promise that the work will go on.


" . . . Of all the virtues a human being could have
Love is the hardest to understand,
the hardest to explain,
the hardest to offer,
the hardest to receive,
and the hardest to cultivate.
Any fool can experience rage to the fullest,
but it takes more than intellect to experience love
with the same intensity,
because love is the virtue closest to wisdom.
Some say it surpasses it.
Some say one is the result of the other.
True love is rooted in strength
as cowardice grows from selfishness.
True Budo requires selfless love
to uproot selfishness
so a teacher can walk, secure in himself,
even when he steps alone into the darkest fog
or an isolated and uncertain mountain path.
Therefore, it is love that proves courage
and must be the first and most important virtue tested
in those wishing to teach Budo."
- Akisaburo Onishi (1913 - 1994)


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