The Teacher and the Student

Generally speaking, students in the West have little understanding of the relationship between a teacher and a student. Many students have no idea how to behave with someone who is supporting them, and in fact may even be intimidated by such a thing. Therefore, as teachers here in the West, we need to be very patient with them, supporting them and helping them to understand the true purpose of such a relationship. After all, we are here to learn respect for all beings, among other things.

In the early years, up to the level of first-degree black belt, a Ki Society student is just beginning to understand the purpose of having a teacher, so we do not expect much.  However, when things move on to second and third-degree black belt, then of course it becomes time to see the student slowly beginning to awaken and relying less upon physical prowess and more on character maturity.

Despite the color of our belts, nothing in nature is black or white.   No one is completely without insight, and no one is completely free of ignorance.  Everyone is somewhere in this amazing process of awakening. 

As a teacher, we want to find the secret to supporting each student. This means discovering, as much as possible, where the student is in this gray area.  Our responsibility is to show the way, provide the student with the tools needed to discover the way, and then help the student remove his or her obstacles to that way.  Of course, we want each student to be able to take the fullest advantage of being here in this body.  The path to being right here right now, always relies on each of us awakening to the full awareness of the mind and body unification and discovering how this unification is best served. 

In addition, we always want to recall how incredibly difficult this process is for each of us.  So, for those who have made it thus far with us we must have the greatest respect, and serve selflessly, with no expectation of reward, including the student’s own presence of, or lack of, development in this work.

This is no small feat for those who are willing to teach. The paradox is that we must discover the true condition of the mind of each student, while at the same time withholding judgement regarding that state of mind.  This seems an impossible task, and will be, if we imagine that we are doing something to fix another. However, once we begin to simply follow the way laid out for us, moment by moment, then the secret begins to reveal itself to us, and “teaching” becomes much easier.

The most common beginning student in all forms of Aikido, including Shinshin Toitsu Aikido, is one who is still idealizing physical prowess, speed, agility, and power.  For this reason, many teachers in Ki Aikido are more focused on teaching the physical side of the practice since they are being unknowingly pushed in that direction by their students. Koichi Tohei Sensei became less and less susceptible to that as he got older.  It happened that he suffered a spinal injury during the second part of his life.  The doctors attempted to fuse his spine, but something about that operation failed, and after this he mostly had to sit in a chair to teach Aikido.  Of course, this completely changed his perspective on what has lasting value in this practice.  Luckily for me, when I began training with Tohei Sensei, I was still young, but had been through some intense spiritual training before encountering Aikido, so I was very strongly influenced by his spiritual side.  And everything that happened with Suzuki Sensei (who I trained with daily and who had a powerful character) just served to enhance, and provide a potent example of, Tohei Sensei’s teaching.

We always want to let the student move at his own pace.  He will hear the teacher when he speaks to the class, and he will watch the teacher move. And if he likes the words and the movement, that’s a beginning.  Then, sooner or later, if he is ever to become a useful person outside of the dojo, he will notice that what he likes about the teacher is the calmness, and he will begin to wonder where the calmness comes from, and how that relates to being true to one another.  Then, if he is ready, he will come to the teacher and ask.

An important rule to remember as we develop as a teacher in this practice, is to never, ever use power consciously.  It is here with us to whatever degree, and that is fine, but we don’t try to focus on it, or enhance it, or use it to influence others.  I know, I know – that is the opposite of the way the world likes to think it works.  Why do we so often not notice that this selfish need for power is the source of all our suffering?

The student must resolve and understand that the responsibility is theirs to be courageous, to face the teacher directly, and to follow the teacher’s instructions carefully. If not, then why train in a dojo with a teacher?  However, most students, whether in the East or the West, find it extremely difficult to follow the teaching without editing it to their own comfort level. 

Of course, for the teachers, it is an art form to learn how to handle this most usual type of student without being offended by their actions. After all, they have come to learn from us so we can’t expect them to know already.

What is important is not whether a certain person is the right teacher for you.  What is important is whether you’re the right student or not.  If, as a student, you labor under the narcissistic illusion that the teacher must be just right in order to teach you, then it may be very difficult to find the perfect teacher for you.  For instance, if when the teacher is teaching you, you have the idea that you accept certain ideas because you like them and throw away other ideas because you don’t, then you may be wasting your time being with any teacher. Whether the teacher is an excellent teacher or a poor teacher becomes a moot point, if as a student, you don’t take full advantage of the opportunity offered.  

The primary skill you must learn when with a teacher is to learn to listen. Once you can listen to the teacher, with a judgement-free open mind, then you can begin to listen to your own teacher who dwells within you.

Please don’t misunderstand.  “Listening” does not mean believing everything the teacher tells you. In fact, as I often say, please don’t believe or disbelieve anything I tell you, but find out for yourself if what I’m suggesting to you works or not. 

Do the work but learn to listen.  It may be that something the teacher says or does sparks off something very positive and recognizable within you, and that’s wonderful. But the teacher will also say things that you have no idea what is meant, and may even sound incomprehensible.  When this happens, instead of rejecting those things, just let them lie there. You don’t have to do anything with them at all. 

My teacher, Suzuki Sensei, told me that on many occasions as he sat listening to his teacher, Tohei Sensei would say things that he didn’t understand.  And then, 20 or 30 years later, Suzuki Sensei would be sitting in meditation, or taking a walk, or doing nothing important at all, and he would suddenly realize, “Oh, that’s what Tohei Sensei meant that day!”  This is because he simply listened to Tohei Sensei without judgement. Since he was his teacher, he didn’t reject anything he said. If he didn’t understand it, he just allowed it to settle there in him, and waited for himself to grow into it. 

So, this is the way we interact with the teacher, and it’s in our own best interest. It is not for the teacher that we do this.  The teacher is doing the same thing. 

Mother Teresa was once interviewed by the Dan Rather, CBS news anchor.  As reported by Mr. Rather, he asked her “What do you say when you pray to God, Mother Teresa?” She answered, “Nothing. I listen.” So, he asked, “And then what is God saying?” And she said, “Nothing. He is also listening.“

This learning to listen without judgement, is the primary function of the Aikido teacher/student relationship.

C. Curtis

Haiku, 2022