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R.A. Robertson
05-13-2008, 12:15 PM
I was speaking with a visiting aikido colleague of mine recently, a gentleman senior to me whose aikido and opinions I respect. The subject came up of a student we both knew who relocated to another part of the country. My colleague expected to see the student in the near future, and I felt obliged to pass along some pertinent news, or depending on your view, gossip.

I had been informed that the student had taken up training for a time at a dojo in his new hometown. Shortly thereafter, he (we'll say it's a "he") decided to start his own dojo, having consulted with myself and former teachers. The trouble is, when he set up shop across town, he took several of the other dojo's students with him.

Someone in that dojo contacted me and informed me of these events. They felt rather ill done by, and I can't say I blame them. I was quick to assure them that I had not advised or approved of such an action, and expressed my disappointment at the student's behavior.

This was all relayed in synopsis form to my elder colleague, who brushed it off as inconsequential. He said that he didn't care, such things don't bother him, and besides, he wouldn't be losing any of his students anyway. He also said something to the effect that he doesn't believe that students should be forced to stay in a situation against their wishes.

Now, this same gentleman is well known and widely regarded in our circle for his poise and equanimity, so his remarks should in no way be surprising. At the same time, I found his attitude cavalier and inappropriately detached. I realize the sentiments he was expressing are becoming widespread, but to me they seem irresponsible.

Let me attempt to explain. First, the assumption that people should be free to come and go as they choose is so fundamentally obvious as to not even need declaring. This is a practice I have adhered to with my own students, and our doors are open to all sincere individuals who wish to practice with us.

But we shouldn't simply leave it at that. Yes, it's a free country (so I keep hearing), and a student can always take their business elsewhere. But without consequence? Perhaps in some cases, but not always.

While I abhor the idea of actual legal contracts in martial arts training, there are nonetheless basic agreements and understandings that must be in place for our art to reach the profound potential that it offers. Training is a deep commitment among students and instructors that should be reciprocal and gladly embraced. Cultivating a culture of shallow connections hardly belongs in an art like aikido, and leads to a gross commodification of human relationships.

Should a student be "forced to stay against their will" in any training situation? Again, the proposition is so preposterous that it's surprising anyone would even mention it as a stance, one way or another. As if any of us have such leverage to begin with! Even in martial arts business practices where legal instruments are used to enforce a contractual agreement, the culture is clearly afflicted the moment such devices are felt to be necessary. So, like many enlightened-sounding sentiments, taking a position on "not forcing students" is actually a way to end a conversation without really having one.

If we only focus on the rights and liberties of the student, we overlook the consequences of their actions. When students abandon a dojo, they leave behind kohai who depend on the guidance of their seniors. They leave behind sempai who have invested countless hours of tireless devotion in the expectation that the human wealth of the dojo would be extended. When a chief instructor promotes a student toward shodan or beyond, it is with the clear expectation that teaching and administrative burdens will be distributed, and the ability of the dojo to better serve the larger community will be enhanced. Each student that simply disappears is an investment gone bad, no matter how regularly they paid their dues.

The true wealth of a dojo is in the quality of its family of students and instructors. When these things flourish, further resources may be obtained, and hardships may be endured. Everyone wins, and the dojo will grow materially and spiritually. Without these most human of resources, the community withers and dies, or else stumbles forward with anemic desperation.

When you take students from another dojo without regard to the owners, teachers, and student family of that dojo, you violate a living body. When you give rank to a "stolen" student, you are taking credit for work that is not your own. You discredit yourself, and you establish your dojo as competition in a field where there should only be allies working toward the same cause. You disgrace yourself and you debase the art.

People will say that a dojo is better off without such turncoats anyway. There is a measure of truth to this, but it ignores the very deep nuances of complex human relationships, feelings, and authentic needs. Not in all cases by any means, but at times there is a profound sense of loss, a feeling of betrayal, and a genuine grieving.

People will say that any instructor who is in this for the long haul had better get used to seeing the backs of students as they walk out the door, year after year after year. Right again, but I say any instructor who has really become accustomed to it has had to give up a piece of their soul to be so disaffected.

People will say that every time a student leaves, some of the ki of the dojo goes with them, and so enriches the world. Or that when students go to other dojo, valuable cross-pollination occurs and this is how the art evolves. Again I say these are vital truths -- ones that keep me sane during those hours when otherwise I can only weep. But if this cycle of coming and going is devoid of a sense of service, if it is lacking in true purpose, if it is motivated by low urges of convenience or whim, then our art is of no value whatsoever. For however technically talented a student may be, if they do not serve, they are nothing.

Of course, there are many legitimate reasons to leave a dojo. Some are by way of external imperatives, some are in the nature of an entirely forgivable change of heart. There are many many proper ways to depart from a dojo community on good terms. Simple communication is a kiai that has the power to shape the future and project good will far beyond the horizon.

But when a student leaves because a sensei has the temerity to expect excellence, or when a fragile pride is offended by raised voice or a raised eyebrow, when a student gets mad and goes across the street simply because they can, when a self-proclaimed ronin haughtily trains in all the arts without bowing to any master, then is revealed the impoverished face of a malnourished soul. If we take a precarious high ground and affirm the rights of such students but ignore the contagion of their malady, the disease becomes so widespread as to go unnoticed.

It once was that martial arts training was expected to foster the virtues of loyalty, commitment, honor, duty, service, and respect. It would be tragic if our 21st century sensibilities came to regard these qualities as passť. Yet I would trade them all if only love replaced them. Where there is love, these noble virtues appear in abundance, without thought or premeditation or any sense of onerous obligation. Love, or even simple abiding affection, brings people together, keeps them together, and allows them to part with a happy feeling of expansion. Just plain fun, the shared delight of exploration and discovery can be enough.

Love is any action or potential that fosters the quality of life for all concerned. This is both path and destination of the aiki road. We also need liberty, freedom, and personal sovereignty, or else we cannot move forward on the path at all. But the destiny that this journey calls us toward is the enhancement of life. Just this alone is the nature of our practice in all its forms.

Accordingly, we should love our students and let them go as they wish. Still, there is neither love nor wisdom in insouciant indulgences. When a wayward student is utterly ignorant, or worse, apathetic to the consequences of their behavior, the problem is only magnified when instructors and revered elders mirror indifference with indifference.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

David Warden
05-19-2008, 11:06 AM
Thank you for your thought provoking column. This is very timely for me and has helped clarify my situation. I have been off the mat for five months due to a back injury and your article made me realise there are two reasons why I have not yet returned not just the one I thought. My primary reason is the fear that I may not be able to do Aikido again and in not restarting, I am delaying answering this important question. At the moment I believe I can return instead of definitely knowing I cannot. The now realised second reason holding me back is what has happen in my local dojo in the last five months. This is not the forum to discuss the how's and why's but the harmony in the dojo is in turmoil and rifts are appearing in the family foundations. Perhaps a normal situation for many but not something I am used to seeing in my short time in Aikido. It would appear that the fear of this disharmony has also been holding me back. I have spent the weekend thinking about the support I can offer the potential new instructor at the dojo. However reading the column today has reminded me that my
thoughts need to be extended to all my dojo family, my instructors (past and future) and the head of the organisation and that I do have an obligation to repay them in some way for what they have all given me. Back on the mat tonight then. Thanks for all your other columns, I always enjoy reading them. Regards

R.A. Robertson
06-27-2008, 01:13 PM

I really appreciate you sharing your situation. I would be very eager to hear how things have gone for you, such as you feel comfortable divulging.

I hope sincerely that by now you have found your way back into practice, and that you find it rewarding.

Please remember that a dojo is not a sanctuary. Though it may provide refuge from time to time, and though it certainly should foster health, it's real purpose is to study and experience conflict.

In nature, all growth is through division, yet unity remains. What your dojo is/was going through sounds very common, very normal. It's our actions that point toward or away from health.

From your message, it sounds as if you've made a conscious decision to be a part of the system that is health-giving. There's no better aikido than that, and it's what our studies should be about.



Robert Cowham
07-21-2008, 06:21 AM
Hi Ross

A difficult subject and tied up with so many considerations around human relationships.

In my personal view, I think you are painting the picture a little too negatively.

For example:
When a chief instructor promotes a student toward shodan or beyond, it is with the clear expectation that teaching and administrative burdens will be distributed, and the ability of the dojo to better serve the larger community will be enhanced. Each student that simply disappears is an investment gone bad, no matter how regularly they paid their dues.

I have seen plenty of situations where students do take on more responsibilities and things work very well (at least for a time). And yet I have also seen promotions be used almost in a sense of trying to put obligations on to the recipient, and as a form of emotional blackmail. There can also be a subtle form of boosting one's own importance by having more senior students.

Maybe I am misinterpreting your point about "investment gone bad" but I disagree strongly :)

We all have interactions with other people all the time, and thus typically have some sort of effect on those people. This is often not a lasting effect, but it certainly can be. Within a dojo setting the interactions tend to be deeper, particularly where there is student/teacher relationship present. So if someone leaves a dojo then they have still been altered by what took place within that dojo.

I have visited dojos and had relationships with teachers that have had a lasting effect on me, even though I have subsequently chosen not to study further there (sometimes for practical and sometimes for other reasons). I feel a loyalty to a something larger than just individual teachers (articulating precisely what this is is one of my goals!), even though I do feel that too. Sometimes loyalty to the individual is not enough and I have moved on.

The teachers I most respect (and use as my models) are remarkably clear and consistent in what they do. They are also very generous with their time and energy and what they pour in to their students. They also don't seem to have their own ego bound up in what their students do or do not do. Two rather different examples are Suganuma sensei and Inaba sensei. Suganuma sensei has built up an organisation consisting of around 100 dojos in and around Fukuoka in Japan and I find his whole attitude and approach very nurturing and supportive (there is a lovely pictorial bio on http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Dojo/8846/biopage.htm). Inaba sensei is different - a relatively small direct organisation at the Shiseikan, but with growing influence overseas. His teaching method is quite personal and direct, the major influcence being his study of the koryu Kashima Shinryu with Kunii Zenya. And yet I have seen Inaba sensei pouring his energy into visitors and also university students who typically only train for a couple of years before giving up budo when they get a job. He thinks for the long term, and he knows he has had an effect on them that will continue, even if he never sees them again.

I will stop there for now - interested in your thoughts?


Robert Cowham
07-21-2008, 08:01 AM
And after posting the above I read Joe McParland's response to your Potter article (http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showpost.php?p=209863&postcount=5) - what an excellent response!

It articulates things much better than I did.


R.A. Robertson
07-25-2008, 01:58 PM
I will stop there for now - interested in your thoughts?

Hi Robert,

While I never try to be a provocateur, I am aware that some of my articles are likely to touch a nerve. This is one such article. Given that, I must say I'm very impressed by the respectful tone of the responses so far. I'd like to begin by thanking you for that.

I'm no slave to hierarchies, and there are many instances of loyalties being misplaced or abused. I am a huge proponent of students choosing their instructors, their dojo, their affiliations wisely. Once a choice is made, I think a community thrives to the extent that its members actively commit themselves to serving that community, and orienting that community to serving others... and with fair expectation they will be served in return. And because things change, it's a contract that is always up for renewal. There are proper, honorable ways to do this.

Everyone brings value. But I believe it's a mistake to believe that everyone brings equal value, or that everyone is always doing their best. An honest instructor has an obligation to call forth the best in students.

I also believe that the exchange between the instructor and student is never equal. With my own instructors, I never imagined myself their equal, nor did they do anything to disabuse me of this sense of inequity (authentically humble gentlemen though they were). Rather, I was told to "pay it forward." There was no realistic way I could pay them enough for what they were giving me.

People come and go, and instructors die. Because of this, many people find it tempting to serve some greater cause, something more lasting -- a philosophy, a principle, an ideal, or an institution. But I always ask, what then, do these serve? Such pursuits can be noble and wise, but only if we examine if they truly serve to foster a better world, and not simply as an escape vehicle for dodging messy, flesh and blood human relationships. Naturally I like being surrounded by principled people, and I hope to make myself worthy of such company. But I've too often seen principles adhered to regardless of the suffering caused.

On this count, I offer the same objection to this way of life as the one you raise. Namely, that such beliefs and practices are prone to misuse and abuse. In both cases, it is the abuse that is wrong, rather than the loyalty to a person, a group of people, or to a system of thought and practice.

My goal with the article is not to say one is better than the other, but that they must coexist in right balance and proportion.

Many instructors will score huge points with their students by affecting an air of dispassionate distance and humility. It is not considered polite to even ask if this behavior truly serves the students' needs, or if it might be a very cleverly veiled form of self-aggrandizement.

As has been said before, "a false humility is the worst form of conceit."*

Many thanks for the exchange. I am enriched by what you offer.

*attr. Rochefoucauld via Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Robert Cowham
07-29-2008, 05:07 AM
Hi Ross

I think we are evolving towards common ground :)

As to the relationships thing, I totally agree that there are good ways to go about handling them, together with the inevitably difficulties that will arise. As you say, it is a contract up for renewal with proper honorable ways to do this.