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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > December, 2004 - Transmission in Aikido, Part II
by George S. Ledyard

Transmission in Aikido, Part II by George S. Ledyard


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Back in September I wrote a column on "Transmission in Aikido". Since that time I have traveled a bit teaching seminars in various parts of the country and I found this to be a recurrent topic of conversation. Earlier in the Fall I had a chance to sit and talk with my own teacher, Saotome Sensei, and I found my thoughts on this subject becoming even more clear.

With the huge growth in the popularity of Aikido around the world, we find that the number of practitioners, teachers, and dojos has increased at a much faster rate than the system has been able to turn out what we will refer to as Shihan or "Master" Level Teachers. Consequently, the number of people who have had the good fortune to train under one of the Founder's "direct students" is extremely small. Even the number of folks who have received their instruction from a student of one of these deshi of the Founder is a small minority of the total number of folks training.

So we find ourselves in a situation in which the majority of the dojos operating are run by mid-level students of the art with ranks in the second to fourth Dan range. The primary way in which these teachers are able to continue to progress is to attend regional weekend seminars, perhaps get to a Summer Camp, and if they are lucky enough to have a dojo that is large enough or centrally located enough, they might host a Shihan level teacher themselves.

It is here that I believe the current system is breaking down. In my experience the best of the Shihan level instructors (those that trained directly under O-sensei and those that did not) have not stood still in their own development. I have been doing an archiving project in which I am burning my library of VHS tapes which go back to the mid-eighties to DVD in order to preserve them for future generations. It is clear from watching these videos that my own teachers have gotten better over the years, that their technique has become even more sophisticated and refined, that their understanding of what they knew has deepened. The "Bar" so to speak has risen...

This fact doesn't represent a problem for the direct students of these teachers, those that train in their own dojos or get frequent personal contact with them. They are actually pulled along behind their teachers to higher level practice. But it is my perception that for the folks that do not have prolonged or frequent exposure to the Shihan level instructors there is a gap that is becoming increasingly difficult to bridge. Many, if not most, of the folks running dojos around the country (US or Canada) are run by people who did not receive their foundational training under the Shihan with whom they are currently affiliated (if they are affiliated at all).

Given the fact that in the United States there were originally only two or three organizations that covered all of the Aikido dojos and today we have more than a dozen, one can safely say that many of the folks running dojos originally trained under the auspices of some other organization. I think it is common place for people to have trained in more than one style, often with widely varying stylistic differences and requirements. Some organizations do little or no weapons work, others put a strong emphasis on weapons. Some organizations stress many years of basics with little or no exposure to advanced concepts until fifteen or twenty years of experience, others offer a very wide technical exposure, encouraging the students to try more advanced concepts fairly early in the training careers.

In my own organization, the ASU, one finds many students and even dojo-chos who joined the organization over the years because of books, videos, and even personal exposure to the Shihan level teachers who preside over the training. In many cases, although these people are part of the organization and are ostensibly there to follow the direction of the organization Shihans, they do not in fact have many total hours of actual mat time with these teachers. I think this is very common in any of the larger organizations and even some smaller ones.

As noted before, the original system for "transmission' was geared for a small and very personal environment. I can remember a time when my teacher knew the first name of every first kyu in the whole organization getting ready to test for Shodan. The majority of the teachers running dojos were students that either Saotome Sensei or Ikeda Sensei had trained themselves. That time is gone for virtually any organization of size with which I am familiar. This has created a gap in the transmission process.

I see two concurrent trends within Aikido. Both of these trends leads to a situation in which there are "two Aikidos". In both trends the art is transmitted to the direct students of a given Shihan expressly with the creation of future teachers in mind. Here we find an attempt to transmit as much of the teachings of the Founder and a given Master teacher's understanding of the art as possible. The standards are usually strict, the training demanding, and the Shihan is clearly attempting to pass on the "full meal deal" so to speak. But then one of the trends is based on the assumption that most students of Aikido, now that it has grown to such a vast community, aren't going to be teachers and the material and methods geared for creating a generation of new instructors aren't necessary or appropriate for the "masses" who are pursuing the art as a sort of hobby but not as a serious Path or way of life. So, once the Shihan in question has created a group of students to whom he has done his level best to transmit as much of his knowledge as possible, he then assumes that the "masses" are incapable of getting to the more sophisticated techniques and principles and he begins to restrict his instruction to the basics.

One can see this explicitly in Japan in many arts, not just Aikido. In many cases arts such as Shodo, Chado, Ikebana, traditional crafts, music etc. are simply culturally relevant hobbies for the modern Japanese person. But for the foreigner who has packed up everything to move to Japan and live, these pursuits are serious, life altering commitments. This finds the arts in Japan in a situation in which often, the senior practitioner(s) of a given art is a foreigner. In Aikido in particular, often the training being offered to the average Japanese student of an art is not done on a model which is attempting to take that student to "mastery" but rather to make the practice of the art enjoyable and healthful, interesting up to a point but not so complex that it would demand too much from the students. The manner in which the average student trains is quite different from the way in which the aspiring professional would train both in intensity and content. And even the young instructors in training are not getting the kind of broad and sophisticated instruction their own teachers had received from the Founder. Instead, their instruction is geared to creating teachers who can present the basics of the art to a public that doesn't have much need for a high level of sophistication.

I see much the same thing happening in the West. Aikido has here long enough that most of the Shihan teachers, Japanese and Western alike, have created a generation of teachers who, at least in the old days would have been considered Shihan, or Master Instructors. These are students who have attained a level which in the Classical arts would have represented the first level of teaching certification. They would have been given certificates which said that they were fully capable of teaching the essentials of a style but had not yet achieved the highest level of sophistication in that style. In modern Aikido this is represented by a Sixth Dan (although due to the vagaries of ranking and politics one can find a number of Fifth Dans who are functioning at this level of sophistication).

In virtually all cases these new Master Instructors are the product of the own teacher's whole hearted efforts to impart as much of what they know and possible. Certainly in my own case, I know that any gaps in my technical education are my own doing and not the product of anything held back by my teacher. He stuffed us so full of knowledge that it has taken years and years just to digest it. As best I can, I am attempting to do this with my own students (at least in accordance with their desires, capacity, and commitment).

Where I see the problem occurring is when I travel around and I meet the many dedicated folks who are responsible for the phenomenal growth in our art. These folks typically have 7 to 15 years of experience under their belts. Due to some factor like relocation, political issues, re-affiliation, or some such they have made the commitment to open their own dojo and take on the responsibility for the "care and feeding" of a new generation of students. The issue for these teachers is that they are simultaneously attempting to be the next link in the "transmission" of the art while still working to master the essentials of their particular style themselves. Given the extremely high level of the teachers with whom they are affiliated it is quite difficult for these mid-level instructors to bridge the gap between their basic understanding and that of the teachers under whose "direction" they are supposedly functioning.

If these instructors are lucky, they will have two or three opportunities each year to train with their own Shihan level teachers. They will take whatever lessons are offered at these events (a weekend to a week long in duration) and go back to their own schools where these lessons will form the basis for their own practice till the next year when the cycle repeats. During that year they will impart as much as they can to their own students in the course of attempting to master the principles / techniques themselves. The issue at stake is that in many cases the foundation which these instructors have is not sufficient to allow them to get close enough to what is being taught by their Shihan level teachers of for them to be able to work on these things unsupervised. Often their initial understanding of what was being taught at the seminar was so far from what their teacher was doing that even with a lot of practice they have little hope of getting it right by the next year and in fact run the risk of imprinting some negative elements into their technique which will later have to be undone.

Internationally, I see little or no evidence that this state of things is seen as a problem that needs to be addressed. In fact, in my opinion, the current system serves to institutionalize this situation. There are "two Aikidos". One is what is taught to people who clearly are on some instructor track. With these students the attempt is made to impart as much of their own teachers knowledge and experience as possible. The other Aikido is a modernized, simplified version deemed by those at the top to be appropriate for popular consumption. It is Aikido-Lite. When this is the conscious approach taken by the leadership, the seminars and camps conducted by the senior Shihan teachers of the organization become yearly seminars on the kihon waza; basics, basics, and more basics. Little or no attempt is made to pass on the more subtle elements of the art along the lines of what the Shihan received from the own teacher, the Founder.

Some high level teachers have not pursued this approach and do attempt to pass along as much of their own knowledge as possible. But the foundation on the part of the mid-level teachers is not sufficient to allow this process to be successful for the average instructor. There simply isn't enough regular feedback for them to aspire to this high level of sophistication by simply taking techniques and concepts they have only briefly seen and then attempting to work them out on their own without more than twice yearly feedback. So there exists a generation of instructors who are "left behind" so to speak. This means that their students are also left behind and it is extremely difficult for them to get the foundation required to later attain the top level of expertise.

I think that in most cases the leaders of the Aikido world simply accept this as a normal state of affairs. But what I see is that the mid-level teachers and their students haven't bought into this model. Most of these folks, in my experience, don't see themselves as having signed up for Aikido-Lite. They are aware that they aren't being taught weapons, that they never see instruction on martial application of technique, that things like kiai and atemi waza get little or no attention, that there is little or no talk of the Spiritual side of the art. The folks that aren't being fed the Aikido-Lite diet are equally frustrated because they recognize that they aren't moving towards what is being modeled for them in any systematic way. I am often told how lucky I am to have had the instruction I have had because it prepared me to have a legitimate shot at understanding what our teachers have been doing. These folks often feel left behind by the folks that can train directly with the Shihan teachers or their direct students.

In some cases folks are happy doing Aikido-Lite, they don't want to know how broad and deep their training might be because it would demand that they make a greater commitment to their training. But in the majority of cases I find that people out there in the Aikido hinterlands are starving for more input. I teach seminars all over the country and I find that people are not just receptive but actively seeking more and better input. From this experience I have formed the opinion that the current setup isn't working for the majority of folks at the bottom of the Aikido totem pole. The various Aikido organizations around need to make a concerted effort to systematize a teaching hierarchy which "delivers the goods" so to speak to the smallest dojos with the most junior instructors under their auspices.

The solution here isn't more exposure to the Shihan instructors themselves. In most cases these teachers are a resource that is being utilized to its limit. My own teachers travel almost every weekend, conduct multiple camps each year in the US and still manage to make a visit or two overseas to see their students there. I don't see how it would be possible for the mass of students to get more exposure to these teachers.

The under utilized resource within the Aikido community, at least in North America, is the group of senior deshi who have been training with the top Shihan for thirty or more years. Typically these teachers are at the Fifth or Sixth Dan level. Most are just starting to travel around to teach and aren't burned out by the travel. They have flexible schedules as they aren't in the kind of demand the senior Shihan are. They are still at the stage of their own training in which they are just starting to understand what it is they have been taught all these years by their own teachers and they are excited about sharing that knowledge with others. In short, these are the very people who can bridge the gap between the top level Shihan and the mid-level instructors out in the hinterlands.

The single greatest obstacle to taking advantage of this tremendous resource is the "Japanese Mystique". While most Aikidoka would deny any particular bias here, in fact one finds that people vote with their "training dollars" so to speak. For instance, if my dojo hosts a seminar with one of the two Shihan level instructors who head our organization, I can expect to have anywhere between 60 and 80 people attend all or part of the weekend (90% of our own students will attend). People will travel form all parts of the US and Canada. Representatives of at least half the immediate area dojos will be there. If I hold a seminar with one of my own organization's "second tier" instructors, perhaps a 6th Dan direct student of one of our Shihan, I can expect very few, if any, students from outside our own dojo and perhaps only half of the registered members of the dojo will attend. This is in an area in which 16 Aikido dojos are within a half hour driving radius, including other dojos in our own organization.

In the fifteen years I have been hosting seminars, this pattern has not changed. It has held true even when I invited a teacher with whom many of the area dojos had a direct relationship. I would still have more people from their dojos attend a seminar with a Japanese Shihan with whom none of them had any formal relationship than if I hosted one of the teachers associated with their own dojos.

Now some of this phenomenon is understandable. We all wish to keep some sense of a personal relationship with our own teachers. Most of us get to train with them only a few times a year, if we are lucky. But what I have observed is that this infrequent exposure is not sufficient to accomplish "transmission" of what it is the teachers are attempting to pass on. As we noted above, not all of these teachers are even looking at these seminars and camps as a way to accomplish transmission. They are merely a way to give their organization some sense of unified identity. But even when the Shihan involved are trying to pass on the real essentials of their style of Aikido, many of the students are not at a high enough level to see what is being taught. Many times the mid-level instructor will attempt to take his lessons back to his own dojo where he can work on them till the next year, perhaps pass these lessons on to their students. The problem is that what they thought they saw the Shihan doing was not close enough to what he was really doing for these folks to make a creditable effort to perfect the techniques later on.

What is needed here is not less exposure to the Shihan level teachers with whom we are all affiliated but more exposure to the students whom they have been training for thirty or more years. In most cases in North America these students are non-Japanese teachers. In my opinion training with these teachers has a distinct advantage. In most cases Western teachers are more verbal; they simply explain more. The old model of "stealing" the techniques of ones teacher was designed for close personal and frequent association between teacher and student. It is just plain inadequate to pass on an art with the breadth and depth of Aikido to people who will only see their teachers two or three times a year. Someone needs to "oversee" the training of these folks in a more direct way than is currently being done.

The model I am proposing would involve establishing semi-formal relationships between the dojos out in the hinterlands and various second tier instructors in a given organization. Regular, periodic exposure to a couple of the second tier instructors would allow the mid-level teachers to train people who would have the time and inclination to nurture them and bring them along, specifically helping them move towards a place at which they can begin to appreciate and benefit from what the top Shihan teachers are doing. This model would also allow the top teachers to focus on something other then just basics when they come for seminars or preside over camps. Given that the second tier instructors regularly attend many seminars and most camps, they are in a unique place to help interpret what is taught at those events. It would be their responsibility to take what the Shihan are focusing on at a given time period and reinforce that teaching throughout the year as they travel around.

In some cases this is already happening on an informal basis. My own dojo has a relationship like this with Gleason Sensei. He comes out from Boston every Fall and has for over five years. He knows my senior students, has a sense of how they are progressing and they also can see, not just repeated coherent presentation of his interpretation of the principles of the art, but also the fact that he is changing as well. We have established a symbiotic relationship in which the dojo serves as a source of support for him as a professional teacher and we benefit from a very close and personal relationship with a gifted teacher.

I myself have this type of relationship with a few dojo heads around the country. This has happened because the head instructors of these dojos want someone senior with whom they can actually interact, ask questions hear the old stories passed on, etc. They want to be able to ask someone "what was that thing Sensei was doing last camp?" or "how is that sword work done that is in Sensei's video?" They need someone to see what their interpretation has been of what the Shihan have been doing and steer them back on the right track so that the direction of their training doesn't go too far astray.

What I am proposing is a model which would be overt and formalized in which the various organizations, regardless of style, attempt to promote the second tier instructors (5th and 6th Dans) as a necessary resource for the majority of folks in the organization to utilize in their attempts to follow along behind their Shihan Teachers. It is necessary that the folks out there in the hinterlands treat this resource as an important one for their own progress. It is necessary that people recognize that, in trying to get to the highest level training, a second tier instructor might be more useful to a mid-level practitioner than simply more exposure to the top Teachers themselves.

Of course, I have a stake in this since I am one of those second-tier instructors. But this is the way I view my function in the Aikido hierarchy. It seems to be the only way in which I can adequately repay my own teachers for the tremendous gift they have given me. So far, people seem, not only extremely receptive to this idea, but they really seem to be benefiting. I can see distinct changes taking place with those folks with whom I have had a relationship for a while. The feedback I have gotten is that, at least the instructors are finding their exposure to the top Shihan teachers to be more fruitful because the training they have done with the second tier instructors has given them a framework to understand what is being done at the higher levels.

So rather than accept the "two Aikidos" model in which a small group of serious people get the "real" goods and the rest of the Aikido population just gets Aikido-lite or are simply left behind to fend for themselves, we make a concerted effort to give everyone in Aikido who wants to make the effort and wishes to "go the distance" the means to progress as far as their abilities will allow. In thousands of dojos around the world people are investing the most precious resource they have, their time. It is our responsibility as senior practitioners to do everything we can to give these people our best efforts. It is the responsibility of every person training to be "hungry", to go after the teaching wherever offered, to take advantage of the resources that are available for their development.


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