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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > September, 2004 - Transmission in Aikido
by George S. Ledyard

Transmission in Aikido by George S. Ledyard


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In Zen Buddhism, "transmission" or inka has been at the heart of this spiritual Path since the Buddha held a flower and Maha Kassyapa smiled. Since then the Robe and Bowl have been handed from teacher to student for hundreds of generations. This type of direct transmission of the essence of an art from teacher to student has been considered essential in Eastern spiritual practice and has been especially important in the martial arts.

I have heard Chiba Sensei speak eloquently on the need to find one's "Teacher" in Aikido. The commitment that one makes to one's teacher, the putting aside of concerns for oneself that this requires are, in his mind, crucial elements in the proper transmission in budo. Without a proper relationship with a "qualified" teacher it is too easy for the individual to go astray, becoming entangled in the trap of self indulgence because there is no teacher student relationship to act as a check on the ego.

Saotome Sensei in his book, Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, refers to seminal spiritual experiences in which his one on one interaction with the Founder was an integral part. O-Sensei, in these instances was clearly acting in the manner of the "Teacher" as the one who transmits the art directly to the student.

Peter Goldsbury Sensei, on the other hand, wrote convincingly in his article for Aikido Journal about "Not Finding One's True Master". It would clearly be his position that, not finding one's teacher, in the sense that Chiba Sensei meant it, is not only not a disadvantage but has a number of positive aspects. However, when one reads his article it seems to refer primarily to mastering the techniques of the art, on becoming proficient on the techniques whether under one or several teachers. These I would consider this the Omote of the art. If one considers what might be called the Ura, the more intangible aspects of the art that can go beyond the mechanics of proper technique, it might be more difficult to say whether there can be "transmission". I think that there can be under the right circumstances.

I am inclined to think that the necessary pre-requisite for what we might call "transmission" is one or more intimate relationships with a teacher or teachers who have reached the level at which they actually have something of a deep nature to transmit. It is clear that Goldsbury Sensei felt that he had not found his "True Master" yet it seemed equally clear that many of his own realizations concerning Aikido had developed as he was forced to find his own truths in contrast to the ideas of his teachers. So even though Goldsbury Sensei didn't develop the type of relationship envisioned by Chiba Sensei when he referred to the Teacher / Student relationship he did do his training under a series of highly skilled and experienced teachers whose influence appears in his Aikido both in terms of what he chose to embrace and what he chose not to.

However, in modern Aikido the majority of practitioners do not have the option of training directly under a Shihan level instructor or instructors. Most students of Aikido train in dojos run by teachers of middle rank, teachers who by their own admission aren't "masters" of their art. They are "expert" enough to adequately pass on the principles of Aikido to new generations of students but at the same time they are themselves still working out the deeper aspects of the art. This has changed the nature of the teacher / student relationship.

Most non-Japanese are incapable of having the kind of relationship with a teacher which for the Japanese would have constituted the old uchi-deshi and soto-deshi relationships. In fact Saotome sensei always said that when one found an American student who wanted to have that type of relationship with a Japanese teacher he was often not someone who one wanted to teach. What was normal for a student from the Japanese culture was not necessarily appropriate for the character of a Westerner.

Consequently most students of Aikido have a more detached view of their teachers than what the "transmission" model demands. Students pay their dues and come to class. Most have a long list of expectations which the teacher must fulfill. If he does so the students is happy and loyal, up to a point, and may feel that he or she has a close relationship with that teacher. But quite often the expectations of the student are not in concert with what the teacher wants or is willing to impart. In that case, the formerly content student may suddenly find that the art or the teacher isn't "doing it" for them as it had been. They may quit or they may take the alternative route of leaving the teacher and finding a new teacher.

I have been told by some folks who went through this process that their next choice of teacher was based on finding someone who would primarily leave them alone while allowing them to maintain some connection with a group that represented the larger Aikido community and conferred some appearance of legitimacy to their own ranks and those of their students. In other words what they really wanted to was have an avenue for recognition which specifically did not have the elements of "transmission" that are contained in the close teacher student relationship. All they had to do was invite the teacher out to do a seminar once a year and the rest of the time they would be on their own.

The extreme cases of this type of thinking end up associating with organizations in which there is no central figure who acts as the senior teacher. There are a number of folks who have received very high rank from organizations which don't even have ranking authority from any legitimate Aikido source. In other words the persons granting the Aikido practitioner his "Master" status don't even do Aikido. There are actually a fairly large number of people who take this route because it can be done without developing any of the traits which are required to have a close relationship with a real teacher. One can set up one own style of Aikido and get rank and certification from an organization.

The problem here is that "transmission" doesn't come through an organization or a style. If it is to take place in any way that approximates what was traditionally meant it requires one to have intense and prolonged exposure to at least one teacher who is functioning at the higher levels of the art. I do not think that it requires one to find ones "True Master" as Goldsbury Sensei discussed it but I do think that it does require that at different stages of ones training one is focused on working out the deeper aspects of the teachings of at least one teacher. One might do this with a series of teachers over the years and end up feeling as if one has several major influences. But it does take a commitment over time. Simply taking a hodge podge of seminars with a variety of different teachers each year won't accomplish this. One must decide that, at least for a time, one will focus on the teachings of one or two teachers. One must seek them out wherever possible and work on what they have taught when one isn't with them in person.

This model places more responsibility on the individual student than the old system. No longer is there the teacher whose word is law, who directs all aspects of the training, on and off the mat. The student now feels that it is ok to work on what he or she wishes to work on, ignore what they don't wish to address, train when it is convenient, etc. The problem with this model is that it is often unconsciously designed to protect the individual from having to face various issues which he doesn't wish to deal with. In this model one is essentially attempting to do the "transmission" to oneself. Only change that is comfortable is permitted, conflicts with others, including the instructor, leads to a search for a new training venue.

I think that it is the exceptional individual who can develop his Aikido to a high level under this model. It takes an individual who is never satisfied with where he is, who can be a beginner, over and over, as he encounters different teachers, even different arts. This kind of person must look at every teacher he meets, every art he encounters, every video he watches, as opportunities to get a new viewpoint on what he has been doing. He has to be the kind of person who will, after 25 years of training, rework everything he is doing, even at the cost of going through a period in which his technique doesn't work very well, just to get to the next level.

I think that O-Sensei was just such a student. Clearly he went through a kind of traditional "transmission" under Takeda Sokaku. Accounts refer to the very formal relationship in which he treated Takeda Sensei as his Teacher, deferring to him, even waiting on him just as any deshi would do. It is equally clear, however, that he went his own way in his training, eventually creating the art we know as Aikido. He did this by opening himself up to new ideas and practices. In a sense he made the Universe his teacher. He considered himself to be a vessel which the Kami filled, allowing him to channel the "Divine Techniques" through him.

Contemporary Aikido presents the student with tremendous opportunities and a number of impediments. While the number of people who are expert enough to teach the basics of the art has proliferated to the point that few people have any trouble finding a place to train, there are still very few places where the teacher has reached the level formerly associated with what the uchi-deshi of the Founder attained. If the current generation of teachers doesn't challenge itself to constantly push to take their Aikido to the next level, the students below them will become stuck as well. The very availability of different styles and approaches can lead to the trap of "dilettantism" in which only shallow understanding of a broad curriculum is attained. Or the opposite trap can snag the unwary. The very breadth of the available instruction can lead the student to take the "safe" approach of picking just a particular style or teacher's approach and defining that as the "true" Aikido, thereby narrowing down the field of investigation to something more comfortable and seemingly attainable.

With the thousands of practitioners doing Aikido these days it is no longer possible to rely on the old transmission model of "Master to student". There simply aren't enough "Masters" to go around. There aren't even enough Shihan level teachers to closely supervise even the various teachers functioning around the world. So it is a reality that we are at the point where most students of Aikido will be called on to do their own "transmission". If this is to work, they need to be as strict and uncompromising as any "Master" would have been. They will have to motivate themselves, finding new directions for their training and not simply wait for someone else to give their practice direction. If this happens we will get to the place in which we are all each others "Masters" and "transmission" will not only take place vertically but horizontally. This would in itself go a long way towards realizing O-sensei's dream of Aikido uniting the world.


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