(With a nod to Dan Millman)
On September 23, 2012, my father, Miguel A. Morales, passed away in our family home in Southern California. It was the first time anyone close to me had died.
Events happened as quickly as his death, and he was ceremoniously celebrated a few days later, much to the surprise and dismay of many of his coworkers who had been with him only a few weeks before at the dental lab where he’d worked for the past twenty years.
My father had been a dental technician for close to sixty years. He made removable partials and dentures—false teeth. He had been so proficient at it that he had earned the title Master Dental Technician. But he didn’t just make false teeth.
He created masterpieces in what must have been hundreds of thousands of peoples’ mouths, most all of whom he never personally met. Growing up, I used to call his completed cases “jewelry for the mouth.” But they were more than that.
Each dental prosthetic brought back people’s self-confidence, their dignity and their vibrancy. My father gave them back their reason to smile. In short, he created magic.
As only a gifted craftsman could do, he had infused each and every one of his cases with his own special light so that every denture became an extension of him.
And he did so by asking himself one simple question which I’ll get to shortly. But first, let me share with you my original intention for writing this blogpost.
I’ve been called everything from a tequila expert to a tequilador (which doesn’t exist) to a tequila wiki. I’ve even been referred to as a “tequila national treasure” (*blush*).
But, it was my good friend and tequila brother, Jason Lerner, owner of Masa Azúl, one of Chicago’s premier restaurants and tequila bars, who’d first referred to me as sensei. From there, others in our close-knit tequila familia began calling me by that nickname.
My first reaction was to think of the late actor, Pat Morita, who portrayed the crotchety Mr. Miyagi to Ralph Macchio in the original movie, The Karate Kid, and to his famous line…
“Wax on, wax off.”
I’ve considered myself a student of tequila for years, but never as a teacher or a guide even though I often find myself preaching in the tequila aisles of local liquor stores on the beauty of handcrafted, small batch, micro-distilled tequilas as if reciting lyrical haikus or bible verses.
From vintage kung fu movies to cartoons like Kung Fu Panda to Japanese anime films, senseis are always depicted as older characters dressed in flowing white robes with long white beards and possessing amazing martial arts abilities that defy gravity. They are the embodiment of wisdom.
The idea of having become a sensei was foreign to me and a bit scary.
Was I even worthy of such a title of respect? Was I wise in the ways of tequila?
I decided to do some research on the term itself.
The two Japanese characters above are what comprise the word sensei. Sen means before and Sei means to be born. Therefore, the literal translation of sensei is someone who is born before or one who has gone before and implies someone who teaches based on wisdom from age or experience.
In Japan, it’s used to address anyone from a doctor to a lawyer to a teacher, even novelists and musicians. Essentially, it’s used as a term of respect to anyone who has achieved a level of mastery in an art form or other skill. Think Master Distiller, Maestro Tequilero or Master Dental Technician, here.
In Spanish, teachers are known as maestras or maestros. Throughout Latin America, those individuals who have graduated from universities are referred to by their advanced educational degrees such as licenciado (lawyer or economist), or ingeniero (chemical, civil, naval engineer).
Similarly, in Spanish we respectfully refer to our elders as Don or Doña (how many tequilas can we name that start with those terms?). Frequently, my father was affectionately called maestro, professor, or Don Miguelito by dentists and coworkers.
In Japanese, sensei can also have a negative connotation when used by overzealous supporters and fanboys who fawningly address charismatic business, political, spiritual or cult leaders. The Japanese press sarcastically uses it to describe a popular figure’s delusions of grandeur or self importance.
In English, sensei commonly refers to a martial arts instructor. In business and industry, a consultant who advises on operational and organizational strategies is known as a lean sensei.
At heart, though, a sensei is someone with more experience who can guide others along their chosen paths.
In Zen Buddhism, where one of the basic tenets is the idea of understanding life, it suggests that when one does achieve this level of enlightenment or mastery, one is newly born. This rebirth is not physical, but spiritual.
And here’s where it gets interesting.
In Japan, anyone who teaches anything is called sensei, regardless of their age. For the sake of convenience, the term is also used outside of the classroom, the boardroom, the dojo, and anywhere else where instruction takes place.
If we adhere to the original meaning of sensei as one who is spiritually born before others, then only those who understand life should be called sensei.
And this brings up another provocative question…
If a sensei is truly a teacher, should that person be referred to as sensei when he or she is not teaching, say, outside of the classroom, the dojo, or the dental lab?
The Zen of Preaching in the Tequila Aisle
If you love tequila the way I do, you don’t turn it off after you give your presentation to a group of novices and certainly never to a group of experienced tequila aficionados and enthusiasts.
To me, a sensei is behaving like a teacher even in your daily life. Not because you have to, but because you want to.
You live, breathe and preach tequila 24/7/365. On and off the court, on and off the playing field, in and out of the boardroom, and yes, for me, even in the tequila aisles of liquor stores.
In Judo, a virtuous sensei guides his students in the pursuit of knowledge or ken shiki, which is based on the core of the sensei’s experience. So, like I said, just as compelling as the need to teach is the insatiable urge to learn all I can on the many facets of the tequila industry and to keep learning as a beginner does.
In bushido, the way or code of the samurai, there are seven virtues that these noble warriors lived and died by. One of the most important was respect.
Respect for life is essential since each life is related to other lives and these millions of relationships maintain life on Earth. Creating better relationships without disturbing them is what respect is all about.
One of the other tenets of bushido is the demonstration of respect, called honor.
We can all agree that every mixologist, small batch tequila distiller, artist, craftsman, journeyman jimador, Master Dental Technician, or whatever your trade or profession is, live a life of honor if they infuse their creation with the light of respect.
What’s really important is the person, the artist or craftsman, behind the creation of that lovely extra añejo we sip or that exotic car we desire.
It is the respect of all forms of life that really matter.
I mentioned earlier that my father suffused each and every denture he had ever produced with a part of himself—his light– by asking himself one simple question…
“Would you wear this denture in your mouth?”
Throughout his life, my father created wearable works of art as if he was going to place these in his mouth. A myriad of smaller questions added up to the bigger question, too.
Was it the best possible design? Was it comfortable? Did it look natural? Would it survive daily use?
Out of respect for our customers, patrons, clients, readers, Facebook and Twitter followers, in fact, the entire human race, we should ask ourselves these same similar questions before attempting our daily tasks.
Would I drink this cocktail? Would I buy this car? Would I wear these shoes? Would I listen to this song? Would I serve this dish to myself? Would I sip this tequila?
What better way to honor those who support us by treating them as we would like to be treated?
Sounds like the Golden Rule, doesn’t it?
No doubt, those successful tequileros responsible for the tequilas we love to sip and collect ask themselves the same questions each and every day.
That’s how my father, Miguel A. Morales, lived and died.
On Another Level
Having researched the world of the sensei and the samurai, I discovered one more important element that took this game of Tequila Street Fighter to another level.
In the Japanese martial art of aikido, its practice is known as Do or the way, and the person who keeps the way is called Doshu. There are two definitions of doshu, as well.
The first is master of the way and the other is keeper of the way.
While every top teacher in an aikido organization should be considered Master Doshu, the truth is that there aren’t many (if any) since most all of them follow the teachings of somebody else, living or dead, or that of an already established philosophy.
There can be many keepers of the way, but there can be only one master of the way.
And like a Japanese koan, one can only be a Master Doshu when one instructs completely independently of any philosophies or teachings of others, whether living or dead.
A good example of doshu would be Bruce Lee.
Originally trained in Wing Chung, Lee rejected more traditional styles and dared to develop his own “styleless” style which he named Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist).
We can all recall examples of doshu in any profession. In tequila circles, it could be argued that Don Felipe Camarena and Robert Denton are doshu for bringing the legendary El Tesoro de Don Felipe to market at a time when boutique tequila was unheard of.
In the mezcal world, Ron Cooper certainly qualifies as doshu for bringing us Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals and an entire industry with them.
Tomas Estes should be considered doshu for bringing terroir to light with Tequila Ocho. Surely, we can name several others who have produced groundbreaking tequilas and other agave spirits.
In his soul, every true doshu is a trailblazer, setting his own path. To do so requires courage and perhaps even a touch of arrogance.
I would venture to say that if you can’t name the doshu of your favorite tequila, it probably doesn’t have one.
Something to Aspire To
At the time of his passing, my father and I had very little in common. Truth is, if it weren’t for sports, we’d have had nothing to talk about. We agreed on very little.
He didn’t get what I was trying to accomplish as a tequila journalist and the idea of other people’s missing teeth didn’t appeal to me at all. To my father, if you couldn’t place it in your mouth and wear it, it wasn’t any good. Yet, for the short twelve days he spent dying in the hospital, I began to see a lot of him in me.
His physicality (he was solely responsible for turning me into a gym rat!), his figures of speech, quirks and idiosyncrasies that I had inadvertently adopted, and a few of his good—and bad—traits that I had claimed.
During the wake and the funeral, some of my father’s closest coworkers spoke about his attention to detail and how he had affected their lives both in and out of work.
That’s when it hit me…
My father, in his way, had been a sensei to all of the people he had worked with at the dental lab and to the dentists for whom he had worked for. But because he had served in his vocation for so long, he was much more.
He was a master of the way—doshu—and he had lived a virtuous life of bushido, like the ancient samurai.
I didn’t always experience my father as a sensei or a doshu. He was emotionally distant and remained stoic to the very end, but if I learned anything from his passing, it’s to ask just one question…
Would I want to read this?
If the answer is yes, then I will reach a level of mastery that all legendary tequilas achieve under the guidance and care of their doshu.
And if I infuse each written piece with the light of respect, then I will surely leave a legacy of excellence reserved only for the most sought after collectable tequilas and the most highly regarded sensei.
In Loving Memory of Miguel A. Morales