Dojo: Senshin Center
Location: Dojo Address: 193 Turnpike Rd. Santa Barbara, CA.
Join Date: Feb 2002
Re: Culture of Martial Mediocrity?
*Long. Skip if you need to.*
I think there are two interrelated issues here that have to be explored more deeply if we are going to get a better grasp on what we are all doing and/or trying to do and/or saying we are doing. These two issues are: a) Trying to gain a more accurate understanding of the "personal" in Aikido practice; and b) Looking deeper at what spontaneous training is and why it is vital, in my opinion, to our practice. With the first issue, we want to make sure that we do not dig ourselves into a hole by suggesting that while spontaneous training may be vital to our practice, it is not something that can actually be part of a teaching curriculum or part of a larger culture -- that it must remain an individual thing. We want to make sure that we do have space for such training, not just at the level of the individual but also at some level of system. This is necessary if any such culture that we are trying to describe is to be addressed, because right now, "as is," we already do have folks that address spontaneous training at an individual level. It is having little impact on the overall culture's understanding of forms training. On the second issue, we want to be quite clear on three major aspects of spontaneous training: why do it, how to do it, and what is it. We need to do this in order to determine how it may differ from forms and/or the practice of forms training and/or from what is often going by the name of "spontaneous training" today (commonly). The first issue I can address today. For the second issue, I will require more time and will have to get back to you all later. (Apologies.)
One will see that there is much overlap between these two issues. Thus, I think one will still come to see a little of what I personally mean by "spontaneous training" even though I will not be discussing that practice in detail here. In relation to some of the other things that have been said thus far, I think one will see that for me such training is ultimately a spiritual matter. I do not hold it to be an alternative for folks that do not want all that "spiritual mumbo jumbo." In fact, for me, if a person really wants to cultivate himself or herself spiritually, such training is perhaps even more vital toward that end than it is toward the end of martial effectiveness. Here, I may come to differ in my position from many of the folks that would wish to use spontaneous training as a cure to all that ails Aikido because of its "spiritual" attractions.
Personally, I would not suggest that the main and sole goal of such training is to become effective martially. Rather, spontaneous training for me is about the reconciliation of form and non-form. Thus, it is Budo's particular way of addressing the subject/object dichotomy. Reconciling this dichotomy is very much related to cultivating a non-attachment toward dualistic thought, which in turn allows us to experience the ultimate Oneness of all creation. For me, martial effectiveness is a by-product and/or at most an interrelated consequence of such training. It is not the goal of such training. Martial effectiveness merely comes about because of the particular method that one is using (i.e. martial arts). (Note: In addition, I think one should point out that "martial effectiveness" does NOT mean "martial invincibility.") In this way, martial effectiveness is very much like developing a low center, a strong back, a good digestive system, and very supple joints in the legs, from doing zazen. Such things, while not separate from the practice of Zen sitting meditation, are not the goals of such training -- so too with martial effectiveness and spontaneous Aiki. (More on this when I try to address the second issue later.)
As for the first issue of how to better understand "the personal" in Aikido training, I think it is important to not over-extend the notion of "personal journey" too much when it comes to our Aikido practice. To be sure, no one wants to say that a deshi can have all of this just handed to them by someone else. However, before we start subverting the whole notion of transmission and/or of mentorship, let us note that there is a lot of room between "having something handed to you" and something being "yours and yours alone." When it comes to Aikido, because of its universal aspects and aspirations, it is important to seek out some alternatives to these two poles and/or even (I encourage) to find a way off this entire spectrum of given options.
Paths like Aikido, like Budo, are indeed made of things like personal investment, personal experience, personal realization, etc., but these things are not necessarily akin to our modern notions of extreme relativism and/or what can be called a "constant interpersonal alienation." It is important to realize that in the end Aikido is about universals and not about individualistic agendas. Aikido is only personal in the sense that it relates to a person, but this sense of person points in the end to a great Oneness of all things, all ideas, and, yes, all people. In other words, there is a sense of person but there is no sense of persona or of an alienation that underlies all things (i.e. that no two things can be alike) when it comes to the art's worldview, philosophy, or its technologies of the Self.
This underlying Oneness is precisely why it is indeed possible to spiritually mentor another and/or to guide another person upon the path of spontaneity (i.e. the reconciliation of form and non-form). Aside from being possible, I would also add, being guided is actually the more optimal of choices for a deshi. To discover one's path to spontaneity for oneself, while possible, is extremely difficult, and thus when combined with the trials and tribulations of existence, in the end, often improbable. Let us note that other traditions that also aim at such reconciliation always place great importance upon the seat and role of a mentor. While these traditions do have a place for those that want to "go it alone," while they do agree that such a way is not impossible, they also have an abundance of cautions marking such a route. They are certainly not on the side of suggesting that mentoring is impossible or of limited value. I would suggest that such a position did not come into vogue until the New Age movement found some footing in popular culture. There, the modern trend toward self-alienation found comfort and perhaps some sense of justification in the position that social intimacy, especially of the mentor/disciple kind, was not only not necessary but also impossible.
I have taken the time to raise this issue here for two reasons. First, I think the current culture of mediocrity (or the current tendency for most aikidoka to not fully invest themselves in the process of reconciling form and non-form/the trend that most aikidoka train in either no spontaneous environments or in ones that remain suspect) is, as others have said here, supported by a lack of teachers capable of the spontaneous application of Aiki. However, the lacking of such teachers is supported by the common belief that the mentoring or the guiding of another toward such spontaneity is impossible. If one were to side with the reality of how little chance one has to "discover" such reconciliation on one's own and actually press their teachers with the expectation of being mentored toward such transfiguration, teachers would be much less likely to find personal satisfaction in remaining "a master of forms." By extension then, the cultural capital exchanged by Aikido institutions into things like rank and title would lose its "gold standard" -- giving the entire Aikido "economy" that now supports the culture of mediocrity a kind of recession. For me then, one serious way of pulling the rug out from the culture of mediocrity is to simply hold an expectation (said and/or unsaid) for one's teacher to provide mentoring in cultivating spontaneity. One way of keeping this culture going is to continue to hold the position that one cannot be guided thusly.
Second, the idea that such mentoring is not possible and/or is not (INDEED!) the ideal way of training, is part of a larger process by which forms have come to be wrongly inflated in terms of what they are and what they can do. In my opinion, this inflated understanding of forms is also a part of the culture we are attempting describe. In the absence of a strong and central interest in the reconciliation of form and non-form, a strange discourse on forms has arisen. This discourse is strange because it has in many cases adopted the terms and phrases of the discourse most commonly used to intellectually mark a reconciliation of subject and object. Without any significant practice centered on spontaneity, today, the practice of forms has often come to be spoken about via a discourse that was initially all about subverting the practice of forms. Now, in many places, forms are spoken about in a language that was first used to mark convention (i.e. form) as a hindrance to spiritual development (i.e. reconciliation of form and non-form/reconciliation of subject and object/spontaneous Aiki). In other words, when reconciliation of form and non-form was an issue, and/or where such reconciliation between subject and object is still an issue (such as in Zen or Christian mysticism, etc.), it was/is often said, as a form of Upaya, that the ultimate realization (you pick your own word) is so BEYOND that we cannot verbalize it, or conceptualize it, etc. With this ultimate realization now no longer firmly holding a place in general Aikido culture, the new "ultimate" (i.e. forms) has found no problem speaking of itself in a way that was first meant to lower its status and significance in the grand scheme of the training or practice. The wrongful adoption of this discourse, for the most part, has taken place completely unchallenged.
Today, forms are talked about as if they are loaded with the great unknown, as if they are the unknowable itself. They are no longer the pure architectural matters of ideal spaces and time. As a result, they, and their environment of practice, have come to hold all meaning by which an aikidoka tends to define him/herself. That meaning has one wrongly associating his/her skill at forms with an ultimate statement about who they are and what they can do. Everything about the current political structures of the art testifies to this fact. This is why today doctrinal formulas, juridical orders, and ritual exactitude are so much a part of forms training for many people. Much is at stake! This is also why you have folks "resisting" in forms and/or gaining a sense of accomplishment when such "resistance" is overcome in forms training. In my opinion, this is also where you get the notion that Aikido waza are inherently spiritual as well as the "confounding" hypocrisy found in folks that do the art for decades and still remain spiritually immature (i.e. defensive, overly aggressive, insecure, etc.)
(On a side note: My experience with folks that do a lot of spontaneous training holds that they can simply ask their partners in forms practice that might be doing something "weird" or "resistant" to "just do the form -- please/thanks." This is in contrast to those that have to define everything about themselves via forms training because they have no spontaneous outlet by which to rightly diminish forms training. Such aikidoka have a tendency -- even a "pressure" - to "figure out" or "force" their partner into the form. I mention this here because I think it was in this thread that the topic of rough nage and/or nage that jump in and out of types of abuse in order to accomplish the "desired" effect was raised. For me, all of this is connected to the current culture of form for form's sake.)
Through the unchallenged adopting of a discourse that was actually contrary to their nature, forms have come to mask themselves as a mystery that is beyond knowing -- beyond being guided toward. There is no real downfall to this position once accepted because the cultivation of forms, unlike the cultivation of spontaneity, does not really suffer from the absence of a guide. Nevertheless, forms are like a kind of Wizard of Oz -- in that they present themselves as this big mystery; only the mystery requires a big curtain to cover the fact that there is really no mystery present at all. In this way, the dominance of forms, but also the acceptance of low-level proficiency as the new "high skill" in Aikido, has benefited greatly from the modern notion that "one cannot be guided to the ultimate." Such a position does much to leave the curtain in place and to keep forms appearing to be mysterious -- appearing to be something capable of actually satisfying the true Ultimate. Therefore, today, it is perfectly fine for one to not learn Ikkyo, or to take a lifetime to learn Ikkyo, because the curtain of the "future" (a time that never sees) leads one to believe that his or her achievement of not learning Ikkyo is somehow a part of how "great and powerful" Ikkyo is as a form. In the end, technical incompetence is spun into statements on the depth of one's teaching of forms and one's teacher as a forms specialist. Aikido can now speak with a voice that resembles the spiritual but remains a practice that is for the most part secular and antimystical (which is a complete reversal from its Founder's position -- in my opinion). As a result, at every level of the culture, the reconciliation of subject and object, that which underlies the spontaneous application of Aiki, becomes more and more incomprehensible -- more nonviable, irrelevant, or even absurd.
In contrast, I propose the following: Ikkyo is not the great Ultimate. Ikkyo is not beyond words. Ikkyo should not take a lifetime to learn. Teacher, book, video, theory, and practice, equally aid the study of Ikkyo. Ikkyo can be talked about and should be talked about. Ikkyo is no big deal. On the other hand, doing Ikkyo under spontaneous conditions without being attached to Ikkyo -- this is the great mystery. Doing Ikkyo under spontaneous conditions without being attached to Ikkyo will fill a lifetime of study. Doing Ikkyo under spontaneous conditions without being attached to Ikkyo is an achievement that benefits greatly from a mentor. Again, if one wants to seriously challenge this culture of mediocrity, one has to challenge the wrongful borrowing of terms and phrases by the discourse on forms from a discourse that was meant to subvert our attachment to forms. In our training, we must make the top the top again. We must stop trying to make a lesser thing a greater thing by merely coming to talk about it in the same way that one used to talk about Aiki spontaneity.
Forms are provisional constructs that exist, for practical purposes, in a sphere of relativity. As such, they make use of, and thus contribute, to a like (mis)understanding of self. That is to say that they are in tune with our wrongful tendency to understand self-awareness as a process of thinking, observing, and measuring. This allows us, even inspires us, to develop consciousness as a subject over and against objects -- moving away from any notion of universal Oneness and thus from a key component of Aiki. In terms of our training, this is why when we see one "forcing techniques" in a spontaneous environment, we also see present the desire to control things -- the incapacity to become One with the attacker. That is to say, when such things are present, we are looking at the attempt to manipulate objects for one's own interest. At the same time, we are also seeing the very process by which one isolates him/herself in one's own subjective prison. In that prison, made up of walls that wrongly posit reality as a purely subjective experience, we become isolated from our experience of reality and thus only able to perceive the attacker as a thing to be controlled. We are closed off to the possibility, or the greater reality, of seeing him or her as a person with which to be in greater harmony with. The worst thing one can do here is to go on the search for more forms that will attempt to alleviate those problems (e.g. forcing techniques, etc.) that have arisen via spontaneous training. Personally, this is how I have understood Larry's initial point -- as a caveat against searching for more forms in the face of difficulties that arise from within spontaneous environments.
The solution is to "break out" of this self-feeding cycle of delusion and/or of false consciousness. To do this, a guide, a person who has already achieved such a breaking out, is most valuable. And to be sure, such a guide, and his/her capacity to guide, is far from being impossible. Here, with the assistance of guide, we come to realize that rather than more forms what is actually required by Aiki in spontaneous environments is a type of self-awareness that sees the self as something to be dissolved. Such a consciousness does not start from a thinking subject, or from construct and convention, but rather from a type of Being which is considered to be ontologically beyond and prior to the subject-object division we normally live and live in. That is to say we are not looking toward a "consciousness of" but toward a "pure consciousness," one in which the subject as such disappears.
This is how we at our dojo understand forms, non-forms training, spontaneity, the reconciliation of form and non-form, and Aiki, etc. It is only our perspective. One's own terminology is sure to be different and/or even appear to be contradictory. This is understandable -- even expected. In fact, this is the very purpose of discussion -- to put different ideas and different terms on the same table. For that, and for the participation of all of you here, I am thankful. I do not mean to say that everyone must practice like this or talk like this. Here, in this last section, I have merely tried to outline some of the major points that I will attempt to elaborate upon in the next part of this discussion and to also support my position that a guide is not only possible but very much beneficial. You can also see that I am attempting to "fuse" martial effectiveness with the cultivation of the spirit by seeing Aiki as the space/time for realizing a great Oneness.
In closing, I would like to leave you all with some relevant quotes by Osensei. I have taken them from readily accessible texts and commonly accepted translations found over at AikidoJournal.com. They are not given here to claim authority on the subject, and/or to make my position beyond refute. Rather, they are offered here as points of reflection -- points that my second post will be attempting to consider in a more contemporary voice. I have tried to choose quotes that do not require too much cultural understanding, but I have also offered some short notes of explanation when the need for such understanding could not be avoided. The notes are marked in parenthesis with my initials "dmv." Other parenthetical notes are from the translation itself. I find all of these quotes to be relative to any notion of fusing martial effectiveness with spiritual cultivation -- with the capacity to execute Aiki under spontaneous conditions and to gain a sense of Union or Oneness with one's attacker (and oneself, etc.) by moving beyond subjective consciousness and/or the small self.
From "Accord with the Totality of the Universe."
"Aikido is the budo (martial art) which opens the road to harmony; it is that which is at the root of the great spirit of reunification of all manifest creation."
"The universe and mankind are as a single body. However, while mankind has the ability to unify with the universe, the fact that he is unable to accomplish this union is his unhappy condition."
"This world and all of Mother Nature's greatness are but one. In this unity there is nothing that defines an enemy, nor does it distinguish a friend."
"Mankind's role is to fulfill his heaven-sent purpose through a sincere heart that is in harmony with all creation and loves all things."
"In the past, there have been a number of superlative masters of martial arts but we should never forget the great number of them who disappeared on the battlefield of this material world simply for lack of enough training in the true spirit of budo, in sincere love, and in the battle against the self."
"Thus, by imbibing the principle of the Universal, and receiving the ki of the Heaven and Earth, when I unified this entire human body, I realized the subtle depth of Aikido that manifests such great power, and attained the principle of oneness with the Universe."
"To put it briefly, the problem with the weak-bodied people of today is that they are unable to survive in a world of absolute accord and absolute non-desire."
"In summary, weak people are the result of not knowing the truth of the unity of mankind with the Heavens and the Earth. By realizing the principle of unification with the Universal (tenchi) and making it active in your daily life, human beings become capable of sending forth the "holy technique of the gods."
From "Takemusu Aiki"
"Now aikido is the name given to our practice of the Way to attain oneness with the spirit and body of the Universe, and the Way of unification with the light of harmony."
"I will tell you then how I, Ueshiba, was able to understand it. I had performed spiritual practices daily in order to rid myself of attachments to anything in the world and I had the experience of seeing my light body, which was once the body of Fudo Myo Ou (a complex figure with many understandings but often associated with wisdom, integrity, and the defeating of one's own desires or passions -- dmv) carrying a great shining light of fire on its shoulders, and at another time I became the body of Kan Zeon Bosatsu (the Bodhisattva of Compassion - dmv). I asked questions to myself and then understood. I have the universe inside me. Everything is in me. I am the Universe itself so there is no me. Moreover, since I am the Universe there is only me and no other."
"Through the union with God we produce techniques that are ever-changing into various forms."
"Everything becomes reflected in me and I begin to understand all just by being here. All attachments vanish and I abide in the breath of our Original Parent emanating light to all things in the Universe."
"In our country, originally, we do not have such sports as people have in Western countries. Some people are delighted to say that the Japanese martial arts have gained in popularity since they became sports. However, this is a gross misunderstanding that shows they do not know at all what the Japanese martial arts really are.
Sports are games and pastimes that do not involve the spirit. They are competitions only between physical bodies and not between souls. Thus, they are competitions merely for the sake of pleasure. The Japanese martial arts are a competition in how we can express and realize love that unites and protects everything in harmony and helps this world to prosper."
"In a sense, with aiki, you purify and remove evil with your own breath of faithfulness instead of using a sword. In other words, you change the physical world into a spiritual world. This is aikido's mission. The physical body is placed below and the spirit above and to the front. Thus, aikido leads the spirit to produce noble flowers and bear fruits."
"In olden times, numerous forerunners and teachers established different martial art schools. We must study these schools as one way of training. However, in order to achieve takemusu aiki, we must assimilate all of history since the Age of the Gods into ourselves, unify ourselves, and contain both time and space within."
"Prayers are also born in the form of martial art techniques when coming into existence. Prayers themselves should without exception be martial arts. Moreover, prayers themselves must also actually purify this world. That is to say, prayers themselves are the same as the execution of martial arts. Thus, those who have faith in God like you (addressing the Byakko Shinko Kai audience) truly need to study martial arts. This is because one is not able to master takemusu aiki without having the virtue of faith, meaning that the practice and execution of aiki lies in learning from the manifestation of the Great God, the Source of True Love and True Faith, under the Great Spirit of Loving Protection of all nature; that is, it lies in working for Izunome2 with the virtue of faith. (Izunome is a deity born from the water purification -- "harae" or "harai" - of Izanagi as he washed himself after having returned from the land of the dead. Izanagi, along with his female partner, Izanami, are primary deities of creation in the Shinto tradition. In later movements, such as in the New Religions, of which Omoto-kyo is one, Izunome comes to represent a notion of perfect union - dmv)"
"In short, you should understand what the Universe is and who you are. First of all, you must understand yourself. Knowing yourself is knowing the Universe."
"We must assimilate Eternal Life and the Universe within and become the Universe ourselves. We become one with the Universe, that is, to become one with Takaamahara ("Higher Heavenly Plain" -- dmv)."
"All things begin when "one stands on Ame No Ukihashi." (The bridge that connects the "Higher Heavenly Plain" with Earth. It is the kami of this bridge, Sarutahiko, that is enshrined at the Aiki Shrine and that at times "possessed" Osensei. dmv) This has gone unchanged in Japan since ancient times. When you pray while standing on Ame No Ukihashi, you must straddle between Heaven and Earth and your mind should not be overly focused on either Heaven or Earth. You must proceed while uniting yourself with the Heart of the Great God through your faith. Otherwise, you will not be able to perform O-Musubi ("uniting" -- dmv) between Heaven and Earth, nor between the Universe and yourself."
"How was I able to understand the true bu that had eluded all others? Where did I find the answer? I had looked for it in all kinds of martial art schools, but I was not able to find it in any school conceived by human beings. Then, where on Earth was it? Everything was within me. I found it when I became enlightened. Well then, how can one achieve enlightenment? The answer is that we must stand on Ame no Ukihashi."
"This world has thus far been the material world of the physical body (haku), but from now forward the spirit (kon) and body must become one."
"Human beings cannot work only through the spirit. We need a physical body. At the same time, if we lack spirituality, we will not be able to truly carry out our duties. We will only be able to carry out true activities when the physical body and spirit are united and assist each other."