View Full Version : Bk Review: On Mastering Aikido--D.Linden

Please visit our sponsor:

AikiWeb Sponsored Links - Place your Aikido link here for only $10!

06-01-2004, 03:20 PM
The question of what aikido is and will become is contentious. Considering other examples of cultural transmission--Chinese Ch'an Buddhism in Japan, e.g., lost its literary character in becoming Zen (1)--I believe that Aikido is similarly destined to take on features of its host culture, either consciously or, more likely, inadvertently. For example, many dojo outside Japan proudly sport their KAMIDANA probably little suspecting that, "In contemporary Japan... KAMIDANA serve to establish a link to a particular Shinto institution (JINJA, JINGU, TAISHA, etc.) Maintaining this link requires regular ritual performances. Training halls that do not want to maintain links to a particular shrine do not need a KAMIDANA."(2) That is, KAMIDANA connect a dojo to a shrine; Americans think they put up a God Shelf and that's it, so actually, Americans' KAMIDANA are empty of this intended purpose here.

One can also observe technical differences appearing in practice, especially with regard to UKEMI which has progressed from simple flopping breakfalls to very soft falls in some schools ala Donovan Waite. And despite roots in Japanese tantrism, shamanism, and the indigenous stew of Buddhism, yin/yang, Confucianism, and KAMI worship, which is Japanese religiosity, one seldom hears reference to aikido philosophy that goes beyond invoking such terms as blending and harmony: Change is inevitable, intentions notwithstanding.

A more deliberate effort to adapt aikido to its American practitioners is Dan Linden's On Mastering Aikido: Nine Dialogs on Principles-From Black Belt to Master. Dan, an Aikido Schools of Ueshiba 6 DAN and a longstanding friend of mine, has a dojo in his backyard wonderful in both physical and spiritual beauty. It's truly a pleasure to visit and train there. He has asked me to review his book for the online community, which I am pleased to do.

On Mastering Aikido is 222 pages and consists of a six page glossary and nine chapters, all in dialogue form (which I found distracting). The tone of these talks is didactic, the sensei leading his students to understanding through Platonic (Q/A) Method, but folksy ("Now, get back to work, please. We have a deck to build.") There are several references to Florida aikido teachers that folks outside of ASU might not understand and a couple of places where I would have appreciated a citation. There is no index. The chapters are:

1. Use the Force, Luke

2. The Nexus and Break Points

3. The Center

4. Defining Aikido

5. On Spirituality

6. On Timing

7. On Technique

8. On Triangulation in Aikido

9. Strategy


Linden makes every effort to demystify aikido through comparisons with familiar experiences such as basketball, guitar playing, or driving. I appreciate this and believe it needs to be done. As Japanese is the lingua franca of aikido, noting which concepts he was interpreting--KI, MUSUBI and SHIKAKU, HARA, KOKYU, WAZA, etc.--would have been helpful to folks who have been juggling these issues in Japanese, admittedly a quibble.

Some will no doubt take issue with the title of the book-"Mastering aikido?! That takes a lifetime!" But I think the lifetime thing is an issue more economic than pedagogic (what business wouldn't want lifetime customers?) and I suspect that one may even find there a hint of subconscious reverse-racism: "Round-eyed masters?! Really!" I think here again Linden is right to speak of the issue forthrightly in these terms and take some of the gas out of the whole concept of mastery.

Whether I found myself agreeing, as above, or disagreeing--I did each in roughly equal measure--the book challenged me to re-examine my beliefs and assumptions about aikido. Linden states without demure what he knows will be controversial, indeed, provocative, ideas. He is quite forceful, e.g., on the fate and responsibility of non-teaching practitioners: "Sandan is about where most people really stop progressing unless they start their own dojos" (p. 92). (He has personally chided me on the point. Having, at long last, begun teaching regularly, I discover in unsuspected ways how right he is for I can feel the difference teaching others has made in my own training.)

Moreover, Linden believes that aikido has a responsibility back to its representatives such that,

"[I]t is time to see that mastership (sic) is not some elusive dream, but one that is attainable and an accepted goal....It seems only in modern Aikido is a student to stay a student for life and never be recognized for his skill and achievement by being granted 'mastership' and be released from his Shihan. I hope that my teaching will help change that for there are many masters already and many more to come" (p. 205)

...not a point to endear him to folks who want to keep students, as well as their tuition, and not have to suffer competition in the market place.

While I am persuaded by his arguments concerning the place and duties of rank, I found myself less sanguine regarding his effort to define aikido for American consumption: "...you can study all the spiritualism, and Buddhism and Shintoism you want, but all you need is a fundamental core of morality and ethics to be what O'Sensei (sic) wanted us to be (p. 105)." No mystic or scholar myself, I can still see the impoverishment of aikido's spirituality by reducing it to ethics thus. To be sure, the philosophy is arcane. Moreover, materials purporting to explain it are either opaque, the author taking little trouble to write to the average reader (3), or fatuous, the author intoxicated with any and all similarities he can gather from widely disparate times, cultures, and undertakings (4).

Nevertheless, with perseverance (5), one can gain insights into the world of the founder and, along with the recollections of his students and his own biography/utterances, perhaps triangulate toward his meaning for us. Of course, there's always the caveat that where one draws the line defining aikido will be an individual decision. Linden stops at morality; I read on into the history and evolution of Japanese spirituality; one friend stopped reading thus until he found someone to practice Kotodama with; Peter Goldsbury moved to Japan, mastered Japanese, and reads the Kojiki-one of the texts founding Shinto (as distinct from KAMI worship)--and the Reikai Monogatari-Omotokyo's chief guru Deguchi Onisaburo's exploits traveling in the spirit world.

To sum, agreeing or disagreeing, I found On Mastering Aikido stimulating, at times contributing to my conception of the art directly or forcing me to refine my views myself. He broaches important issues which we will face, and indeed are already facing concerning the future of aikido. On Mastering Aikido is available directly from the author at http://www.onmasteringaikido.com/order.asp for $25.


1. With the first efflorescence of Zen during the Hojo regime in the 13 Century, Chinese Zen tutors were critical of their Japanese students' failure to grasp Zen (See Martin Collcut's Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan, p. 89). (Interestingly, in a 1986 conversation with Hisamatu Shin'ichi, Suzuki Daisetsu, ever-popular author of Zen and Japanese Culture, was quite harsh in his estimation of foreigners', i.e., non-Japanese', grasp of Zen. Concludes Robert Sharf acidly, "Zen, it would seem, was simply too much for the Western mind." p. 28, Sharf, Robert. "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism." History of Religions, 33:1 (August, 1993): pp. 1-43)

2. William Bodiford, personal communication (3 Nov 2003).

3. The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido by William Gleason, for example. A learned book with a wealth of information (I find more each time I return to it), it often lacks context---and citations--and doesn't condescend to address common sense issues seemly contradicted by spiritual ones.

4. See especially, e.g., John Stevens' The Philosophy of Aikido where he invokes the association of, variously, Pythagoras, Lincoln, Aristophanes, Dante, Picasso, Rebbe Yaakov-Yitzak, Tantric/Gnostic/Sufi/Native American/Christian values, Iglulik Eskimo prayers, Meister Eckhardt, Navaho benedictions, and the Hawaiian Hula.

(An exception to these examples, albeit all too brief (apologies to Peter for pestering him on the remaining installment) are Peter Goldsbury's rich contributions to our understanding entitled Touching the Absolute: Aikido vs. Religion and Philosophy Part I and Touching the Absolute: Aikido vs. Religion and Philosophy Part 2. Respectively, http://aikidojournal.com/article.php?articleID=2 and http://aikidojournal.com/article.php?articleID=54)

5. To pick a few notable examples out of a hat--Carmen Blacker's The Catalpa Bow presents Japanese spiritualism with particular reference to shamanism, which had great affinities with the founder's own beliefs. Helen Hardacre's Shinto and the State situates the founder's religion and personal guru, Deguchi Onisaburo, in the time of the militarists' thought police and suppression; it gives new perspective on what it means to call Omotokyo "Shinto". Peter Dale's The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness takes a very critical look at how the Japanese understand and present themselves and the section on Kotodama is a must read for those looking for magic and secrets. To understand the aforementioned excellent Spiritual Foundations of Aikido more clearly, I find Susan Blakeley Klein's Wild Words And Syncretic Deities useful for suggesting several possible patterns of interpretation of Japanese esoteric spiritual texts (in From Buddhas And Kami In Japan: Honji suijaku as a combinatory paradigm, Edited by Mark Teeuwen and Fabio Rambelli).