When people want to find a martial arts teacher, do they often think of mister Miyagi? Or Some similar lone white-bearded master who is tending to their farm? We fantasize that we might stumble upon them, and they will take us on as students and slowly divulge the secrets of their arts. The hermit, practicing faithfully and avoiding trouble. This is the bujutsu bum. The word bum might have negative connotations and conjure up a lazy life where someone sponges off of another. It appears selfish. The martial arts bum, however, can be the same as the wandering ascetic.
Every religion and philosophy have their version of the ascetic or bum. The misconception of these types of monks is that they are selfish and care, not for others. Though some bums might have very selfish motives, the reason for their existence is to learn deeply through that lifestyle and help others achieve a more peaceful life using what truths they have come to understand.
Why is it that most people seem to gravitate towards the bright neon lights of certificates and sparkling family names? It is because those things equal quality?
I remember a teacher I once learned from who was quiet and humble. He had no affiliation with any major group or system. He had indeed studied with a famous teacher but held no teaching certificate from them. My teacher was kind and engaging and honest. Looking back, it was his honesty at what he knew and how he taught me that was so appealing. I never cared that I was learning in that fashion. I have always been attracted to smaller interesting pieces than the larger dazzling ones that intrigue much of the public.
People assume a link to Japan is essential. They also believe that all martial arts coming out of Japan is of the same quality. Koryū or Kobujutsu seem to tingle peoples 'that's gotta be official' bones. In general, quality is not by association with groups or countries. Don't be fooled by a connection to Japan, believing it to be the only place to find quality martial arts. I have seen dozens upon dozens of martial arts school websites proclaiming they are in this or that group, or that they have this or that family name. They make claims of being a sōke and that they are the founder of a style or school. I have touched on this before. The term sōke (宗家) used by martial arts schools, to be blunt, is (especially outside of Japan) a bit silly and usually not proper. It certainly doesn't mean founder at all. Creating and or running a world organization on "sokeship" is a whole other level of strangeness.
The use of the word sōke is a clever way to try to connect one's self to Japan or Japanese arts. There are also those inside Japan that have used such titles to establish something that, in the end, just doesn't matter. Except, of course for marketing purposes. It is much more proper to use any number of English words and phrases if you wish to be known as the founder of something.
I suppose if you want to make money, then you have to attract students. People go off the deep end, however. They are bursting with the desire trying to attach themselves to some famous family in Japan or creating resumes and biographies that indulge a potential student's imagination. It seems many people are duped into joining and affiliating with such systems based solely on these empty credentials. There are a few good sensei teaching koryū arts without using such titles and affiliations in Japan.
Truth is a deep foundation.
The importance of honesty in martial arts is paramount. Instead of embellishing or outright lying, simply try being honest and teach on your own merits. There is no reason to connect yourself to an imaginary martial arts organization. Even some real ones also just are not worth the time. Why would you want to learn how to use a weapon from someone that can not be honest? It is hard for the potential student to know what is what and who is who. I understand that. If you get to a teacher's bio page and there is nothing there clearly stating what he learned, take a pass. If it is, on the other hand, full of many ranks and connections to organizations, do yourself a favor and try searching for them on the internet. You will likely see the bigger pile of lies beyond the veil. Be wary of too much and too little. If a teacher doesn't tell you the name of their style or their teacher, then they are hiding a bigger problem. There are no secret martial arts schools in Japan. Be Honest.
Dear teachers don't build your school on lies and deception. Talk about your school and art honestly. Sure, you might get a lot of detractors and crap slingers, but at least you are honest about what you are doing. I would much rather learn from a shodan in jujutsu who is honest and cares about me then learn from someone claiming to be a 9th dan and a president of The World Jujutsu Soke Council. It's just like any relationship. If it starts off based on lies, it will not turn out well in the future. We can never judge well how much damage can be done later on when we start off a relationship on lies and deceit. We have to be careful about the lies we tell ourselves as well.
Show me the money! No wait, Don't!
Teachers should not be nickel and diming students. Testing and selling books to them isn't inherently wrong, but it can become a very abused situation. The frequency of buying things that directly profit the school or teacher needs to be looked at carefully. As a teacher, we should have higher standards. If you need to replace windows in your dojo or you want a fancier car, just be honest and explain what the money is for.
There are some myths or misconceptions regarding money in the martial arts. I would like to address them and offer my opinions and experience.
• Budo should be taught free of charge.
Why this is a thought some people have is confusing to me. While there might not be a reason to overcharge, there is certainly nothing wrong with someone making a living teaching martial arts. If a teacher doesn't charge his students, that is a wonderful thing. The situation might be the rent is high, and it just can't be helped. Maybe the teacher is only really teaching and gives the school a lot of their time. What's wrong with helping to support the teacher then? Of course, I wouldn't want to support frivolous things such as an extended vacation to Costa Rica. If a teacher is kind and supportive, paying a reasonable fee is typical. Some teachers in Japan charge monthly tuition. Others don't. The majority of schools and teachers do have a fee, though.
• Paying for budo tarnishes the spirit of budo and its ancestors. "It's spiritually bankrupt to charge money for budo lessons.", Said a Japanese martial artist to me once. I think when people bring that argument up, they are ignoring how things worked in the past. You paid for the lessons. And if you didn't pay cash, you paid in some other way through hard labor. Many people were studying martial arts as well because it gave them a way to make money and not starve to death.
You do have to be careful of thinking your teacher is a god and go along with every single thing they ask for. If there is some doubt asking is normal. For example, they hike up the tuition from $80 to $110. Asking why isn't rude. It is also reasonable to give your teacher gifts. Not monetary gifts but food or some other thoughtful gift. Tabaco and alcohol gifts should be presented with caution, in my opinion. Not all teachers imbibe, and some have issues with alcohol. I would instead not support a bad habit. I love pizza, but I don't want to receive a lot of unhealthy gifts like that. In Japanese culture gift-giving when visiting someone (or a dojo) is customary.
Teachers (and students) shouldn't be standing by while others are bullied and harassed. Real martial artists should call out those that abuse others. Teachers that retain abusive students are not fit to teach martial arts. Many martial artists from the turn of the century espoused about not misbehaving towards others and how anyone involved in budo should not fight, verbally or physically with others. I have tried hard to follow this advice in recent years and curb my temper towards people that mistreat me with malicious intent.
Gossip and gang mentality is a real thing in today's internet age. Over the years it has gotten worse. It is something to keep in mind as a student or a martial arts teacher. Some koryū people in Japan certainly don't put their school's teachings into what they do on the internet. Not showing their real names or directly mentioning someone doesn't free them from the responsibility to avoid misbehaving. It's especially bad if you're connected to a school and you engage in some harmful speech towards others. You might just find yourself excommunicated with a big black mark on your budo record. For me though the stone in my heart for being malicious is a more significant issue. And that is why I try to avoid behaving in such a way.
Don't be seduced by the names and certificates. Find martial artists with a pure heart and teachers with a good playbook. It is some times the hermit that has sacrificed being popular or famous that can teach you a better way. The sword flashing around is what catches everyone's attention. The foundation, their feet usually go unnoticed by the general public or beginners. I believe in martial arts having a good heart is our foundation. Without that, waving around a sword doesn't mean a darn thing.
It seems like a narrow passage and high bar, but students and martial arts teachers must have some checkboxes marked. Honesty and the willingness to admit mistakes and try harder are a few necessities in my view.
Saneteru Radzikowski is the head sword instructor of Shinkan-ryū Kenpō. He lives and teaches Iaijutsu and Kenjutsu from Nara, Japan.