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"The teachings of one's instructors are only to provide a minimum of assistance; applying these through one's own training is the only means of making these teachings one's own." From the 1997 issue of "The Aikido" by Aikido world headquarters in Tokyo. Volume 34, #4. (Really, from the walls of the men's change room at our dojo.)
"The instructor can only impart a small portion of the teaching; only through ceaseless training can you obtain the necessary experience allowing you to bring these mysteries alive. Hence, do not chase after many techniques; one by one, make each technique your own." Budo
"The teachings of your instructor constitute only a small fraction of what you will learn. Your mastery of each movement will depend almost entirely on individual, earnest practice." Aikido
Kisshomaru Ueshiba expounds on this in Aikido:
"The fourth rule relates to the assimilation of techniques. Aikido has a few thousand variations in its techniques. Some students are apt to chase after an accumulation of quantity rather than quality. However when they look back on themselves, they are sorry to learn that they have gained nothing. Soon they lose interest. As innumerable variations of each technique are possible we instructors always emphasize the significance of "repetition" to beginners. When you practice each basic technique, over and over again, you master it and then are able to use the variations."
"When the Founder first came to Tokyo, among his earnest students was Admiral Takeshita. He wrote down all the techniques that he had learned under the Founder. They amounted to more than two thousand, and yet there were more. He was deadlocked, finding that he could do none of them well. After careful consideration over several days, he understood the Founder's advice, "you should study, using the seated exercises as your base." He practiced it and then at last became able to manage the techniques so well that he could acquire others which he had not yet been taught by his instructor. For an elderly man of sixty years, it is the same: repetition of the basics is the secret of improvement, no matter how awkward or unskillful one may be."
Pieces of the bare text of the exposition refer to me of the importance of personal effort and exploration, and that the instructor is not the source of all knowledge. Kisshomaru Doshu on the other hand focuses on telling the student to not try to acquire more and to constantly repeat the basics, to do what we were shown and not embellish. I had difficulty with the paradox.
As martial artists, we have minimal training on how to teach. No one else can do the work for you, very true. If I do my absolute best to imitate the sensei, I am a poor copy. I am not able to absolutely perceive everything that is happening with my eyes, nor am I able to feel absolutely everything being done when I take ukemi. I cannot read any minds, so there is a great deal happening mentally that I do not have access to. Maybe the teacher can tell me what the principle beneath the surface movement is, but that's no guarantee that I understand what I am being told. I need to learn to feel what Aikido is, and then constantly hunt for it.
I know beginning teachers who would use this rule to divest themselves of responsibility, which I think is an abuse of the fourth guideline. If the student is confused, they just need to train harder and it's the student's fault. Tell them, "Just keep showing up." Lessons and understanding get withheld because "that's not basic enough for you." I was told once, "I had to figure that out for myself, so you should too." I feel the student has the responsibility to train, teachers have the responsibility to teach. My student's failure is my failure. The best teachers can see how to guide you to your own potential, or they can give you ideas that will help you find your own way.
The story of Admiral Takeshita was very inspirational to me. (I've wondered at what made over 2000 techniques - did he write katatedori Shihonage, Shomenuchi Shihonage, and Yokomenuchi Shihonage as three different techniques? Maybe count every single variation as a separate technique?). Get a sense of a good Shihonage, and every Shihonage starts to improve. Get a good Kokyu Doza, and a million things become more possible. There is a level of fundamental body movement and integration that is at the core of many basic techniques. In Takeshita's story, I saw there was a short cut to learning an infinite number of responses - study the basics. The spontaneous, limitless creation of technique could be possible through understanding the basic tools.
Kawahara Sensei told us at Shodan we should be self-correcting. Not running off and doing whatever, but that we had learned enough to know what a bad Shihonage felt like, or that we knew when to switch to kaeshiwaza or henkawaza. When something went wrong, we could examine our timing, our placement, our structure and balance. We could move beyond, "This doesn't work!" Or, "I can't do this!" and arrive at "How can I do this better?" With this understanding, it's a short leap to improving techniques I think I already do well.
I believe with a good understanding, I can also dissect a basic technique and see the possibilities within. Yokomenuchi Shihonage contains a dozen other techniques like udekimenage and kokyunage.
Good understanding of a basic also means that I can extrapolate - a basic idea can be slightly modified, or done in reverse, or used in combination with other movements to make something more advanced. Yokomenuchi Shihonage is Yokomenuchi Koshinage. I can see how movements relate. Empty hand or weapon do become the same. Kansetsu, Koshinage, Osae and Nagewaza are the same movement. Musashi tells us one to one duels and battles with 10000 a side are the same. I can't avoid acquiring more when I look at the basics.
So how did Shioda, Tomiki, Saito, Tohei and so many others end up so thoroughly different from each other? Different body types, different times and needs, different thoughts on what was important? For beginning students in these systems, there are very few basics in common with other systems. By advanced ranks, many different Aikido lineages start to resemble each other.
How do we as students know when to follow, and when to explore? How do we as teachers know when to back off and let a student know they can head off on their own? How do we tell when a student isn't ready to drift off on their own? What criteria are we applying, and can we communicate it?