That would seem to be the heart of the matter. So, in a vague attempt to keep the thread on-topic... It is that what aikido "is" is hazy enough that it allows people to imprint extremely liberal interpretations of what it "is" back onto it. It's hard to single out something people can use as a yardstick to say what exactly even a "liberal" interpretation is. Everyone has to be all the more dogmatic about theirs because every other interpretation becomes a threat to what they see is right, even if they have severed their attachments to aikido in the end. It all comes back to the "how" of transmission, not the "what".
I felt very strongly about aikido while I was practicing it more actively. Then I became disillusioned with it... why? Was it the art itself, was it the founder (O'Sensei), was it the teachers, what is how they were teaching, was it what they were teaching, etc. etc. or was it simply just me? Where was I to peg the fault?
That comes back to why I pointed out yiquan in my example - not to discuss the merit of the content of that skill set, but of the what light it shed on aikido for me and the problems of the learning process itself. When I first came to yiquan, and other Chinese martial arts, I saw the same things played out there. I had the same doubts running through my head. It was the same scenario all over again, just spread out differently, and I was pretty much ready to give up.
Then I came across just one teacher of yiquan, who I thought was slicing through all these issues. It had nothing to do with "what" he was teaching - he could have been teaching me to play golf, it wouldn't have mattered. It was exactly "how" he was teaching that made me want to learn from this guy.
It was a method built off the idea that the real problem of martial arts was not what you were doing, but how you're supposed to teach it. Not only that, but it took the standpoint that everything and anything was open to being questioned, nothing is beyond being objectively tested, nothing is beyond being thrown out, replaced, or reinvented. There was no appeal to the history of the method, there was no appeal to other people who were "greats" of their time, and there was no appeal to even the skill of this guy teaching it. Everything was expected to stand on its own, its value self-apparent - and if it wasn't, you were free to do with it as you pleased to make it so.
So I took that and looked through that lens to my aikido training - past, present, and future. I look at the little nuggets of information I was being taught. How were they being used? How were they "intended" to be used by what was being said? How were they being used in other things totally unrelated? What results could be achieved with these things?
That made it apparent that just as a matter of "what" was being taught, there were lots of ways that I could have been using all of these things - without changing the content and training tools of aikido - that would have made me far more satisfied with them.
And then I went back and I looked at my teachers. What were they able to do? How were they explaining themselves doing it? How were the students receiving it, at least as they understood it conceptually? How were they doing it in the end?
That also made it apparent to me that there was truly not enough attention being paid to just how ideas were being transmitted, let alone what was being transmitted.
Fisrt of all, I agree with your premise that ascribing a set identity to something we call Aikido is difficult. I wrote and article about this year's ago on AJ.
Does Aikido Exist
A level of dissatisfaction is normal, even crucial to training. Ushiro Kenji in his latest book states that "Understanding is the enemy of learning". Our own feeling that our ability and understanding is inadequate is what drives us on.
I think that few teachers I know are happy with the state of Aikido. For the Japanese teachers that often means that they despair of the students today and resign themselves to the loss of the true art. They do not tend to change what they do very radically, in order to adjust to different circumstances. In Japan this has lead to whole styles simply disappearing because no one made the grade to inherit the style.
In Aikido, where there are a million or so people training world wide, it is different. There are many people teaching and training. There is no chance of Aikido simply disappearing. But one should recognize that, as a Japanese art, the transmission is viewed in a hierarchical manner.
For most Japanese teachers there are two Aikidos. There is the Aikido that is being passed on to ones personal, direct deshi. There is active investment in their quality and understanding. I think that most Japanese teachers have made their best effort at passing on what they know to these students.
But folks need to understand that, outside of this fairly small group of direct students, everyone else is an outsider on some level. All those big organizations started by the various Japanese Shihan... people think that when they join those groups they are students of the "big guy". Well, it's simply not true. They are merely members, not deshi. There is nothing like the investment in the training of these members. No one particularly cares if they "get it". They largely exist to support that folks at the top.
"I show you. You get it, not get it, not my problem."
This is the basic Japanese mindset. It has lead to a whole generation of people teaching who are not "teachers" in the way we think of the word in the West. The current hot thing in educational circles is trying to find ways of measuring teacher effectiveness. What a concept!!! How would we "evaluate" O-Sensei from that standpoint? Or any of the other real giants in the art?
In my opinion, the great hope for Aikido is that it has traveled the globe and there are teachers starting to attain some higher level of skill who are not stuck in the Japanese paradigm. I asked someone the other day what he thought his organization would be like if the folks at the top actually cared whether the members got it or not. Wouldn't virtually everything be different? He allowed that yes, it would be completely different.
I love Aikido. I think it is an amazing art and as much as I want it to get better, I have no intention of leaving for greener pastures. But I totally get it when people do leave. People who REALLY want it, have a burning desire for it, are literally driven from the art by the lack of effective transmission. We have teachers who are not accomplished, so they can't teach what they don't know. We have teachers who are quite accomplished but don't know how to teach it effectively. All sorts of hierarchical bs works against effective transmission of substance rather than form. It's a mess.
But I think that things are starting to change. We now have a generation of non-Japanese teachers poised to take the reigns from their Japanese teachers. Many of these folks have been and continue to train outside the art and are developing some real technical depth to what they do. And they have a different mindset about teaching. Many of these folks are quite good at teaching something once they understand it. And they actually care if people get it, so they invest in a way that wasn't happening before.
It'll be twenty years before things have really changed a lot but I am optimistic in a way that I wasn't a few years ago. Hopefully we won't have people leaving because they can't get the goods, which are supposed to be in our art, from the teachers of the art itself.