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Sensei (先生) is a Japanese word that is literally translated as "person born before another". In general usage, it is used, with proper form, after a person's name, and means "teacher", and the word is used as a title to refer to or address teachers, professors, professionals such as lawyers, CPA and doctors, politicians, clergymen, and other figures of authority. The word is also used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill: accomplished puppeteers, novelists, musicians, and artists for example are addressed in this way.
The two characters that make up the term can be directly translated as "born before" and implies one who teaches based on wisdom from age and experience.
The word prefaced by the adjective 大, pronounced "dai" (or "ō"), which means "great" or "large", is often translated "grand master". This compound term, "dai-sensei", is sometimes used to refer to the top sensei in a particular school or tradition, particularly within the iemoto system. For a more senior member of a group who has not achieved the level of sensei, the term senpai (先輩) is used – note the common use of 先 "before"; in martial arts, this is particularly used for the most senior non-sensei member.
The Japanese expression of 'sensei' shares the same characters as the Chinese word 先生, pronounced xiānshēng in Standard Chinese. Xiansheng was a courtesy title for a man of respected stature, but was pronounced SenSeng in Middle Chinese. In modern Standard Chinese it is used in the same way as the title "Mr." Prior to the development of the modern vernacular, xiansheng was used to address teachers of both genders; this has fallen out of usage in Standard Chinese, though it is retained in some southern Chinese dialects such as Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka where it still has the meaning "teacher" or "doctor". In Japanese, sensei is still used to address people of both genders. It is likely both the current Southern Chinese and Japanese usages are more reflective of its Middle Chinese etymology.
In Sanbo Kyodan related zen schools, sensei is used to refer to ordained teachers below the rank of rōshi. However, other schools of Japanese Buddhism use the term for any priest regardless of seniority; for example, this title is also used for Jōdo Shinshū ministers in the United States, whether they are ethnic Japanese or not. In the Kwan Um School of Zen, according to Zen master Seung Sahn, the title Ji Do Poep Sa Nim is much like the Japanese title "sensei".