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Old 07-04-2011, 03:50 PM   #1
George S. Ledyard
George S. Ledyard's Avatar
Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Posts: 2,670
Open Letter to My Students

Hi Everyone,
After much reflection in the post Olson Sensei aftermath, I decided I needed to write something about what I see as the purpose of our art and how important the Dojo community is in preserving and transmitting it. I wanted to wait until I wasn't upset any more about the abysmal attendance at the event, which by the way, did not even break even. I was, at the time, embarrassed that my guest brought seven students all the way from Montana while the majority of our own folks, and especially our Beginner student population did not participate at all. Anyway, all that is what it is. My initial reaction was to read everyone the "riot act", which I realize simply isn't productive or effective. People cannot be forced to care about something they don't. So, I have decided to explain what I believe about Aikido, and what I see as the mission of Aikido Eastside. Folks can decide what these things mean to them, personally.

Aikido is a form of Budo. Budo is basically the use of the martial arts for personal transformation. Aikido as Budo is a "Michi" or Martial "WAY" (the "do" in Aiki-do). O-Sensei, the Founder, actually believed that through Aikido, the whole world could be brought into a state of harmony; he called our art "The Way of Peace". For him, Budo was a life and death matter. Given the right level of commitment one could truly become a better person, less fearful, stronger, braver, more compassionate. One could, in his or her own Mind and Body understand that everything in the universe is essentially connected. His creation of Aikido represents a radical transformation of how Budo was viewed historically. It is a unique art. It is not a "hobby", it is not a "sport", it is not a "workout", it is a Michi, a Way. The central maxim of Aikido is "masakatsu, agatsu" "True Victory is Self Victory".

I was blessed to stumble on to Aikido 35 years ago. My teacher, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, trained under the Founder himself, for fifteen years. He is one of the true giants of post-war Aikido. Sensei's mission has been to create a line of "transmission" for the teachings of his teacher and to try to prevent the decline that often sets in after the Founder of a given art passes on. Josh Drachman and I have been greatly honored to be a direct part of this "transmission". We have been admitted to a select group which Sensei refers to as the Ueshiba Juku (named after O-Sensei's first dojo back in the 30's). To Sensei this represents the fact that we are in the direct line of transmission from the Founder, to himself, and then to us. I once asked him if that meant that at some point in the future, one or more of my own students would be a part of the Ueshiba Juku and carry on the "transmission". He replied "Absolutely!"

This is what Aikido Eastside is about. It represents the base of support for a number of us who are trying to attain some level of mastery in this amazing art. It is the place we come to work on our own understanding, it is the place we come to share what we know with the generations who are coming along afterwards. We serve as a support for other absolutely amazing teachers who come through to share their mastery with us and help us along this Path. I don't think that many of our members actually realize what we have here at Aikido Eastside. Often it takes "getting out" to realize what you have. We literally have people moving to our area to train with us. We have people coming from all over the US and even overseas to attend events. Some come specifically so that they can work with our students because they are know to be such great partners for` this training.

But this entire enterprise is dependent on committed participants. Without students who are "hungry", teachers cannot teach, no matter what their level of skill. We are totally co-dependent in our community. A student cannot progress without good partners. Teachers cannot teach without wiling students. Nothing we do is in isolation. People often think that it's not up to them, that someone else will make the effort. They can simply show up to the dojo and learn some interesting stuff, get a bit of exercise, pay dues for the privilege, and go home. If the issue were simply the survival of the Dojo over time, that would be fine. But that isn't what this whole thing is about. A Dojo literally means "Place for the Transmission or Practice of the Way". We have no equivalent in our culture. The success or failure of this transmission is entirely dependent on the people involved.

Aikido, and Budo in general, is endangered. Modern life places ever increasing demands of people's time, we are convinced that we need to fill our time with more and more things, just to keep pace. The number one reason for folks quitting or not training as much as they say they'd like is "lack of time". I have talked with various teachers and virtually all of them say that it is difficult, if near impossible, to find people who wish to train like we trained. Yet the fact of the matter is that every single person who ever mastered some art or pursued a spiritual path had exactly the same amount of time as we do. There have been 24 hours in a day since pre-history. If people allow themselves to become convinced that their time is scarce, then the very things that in an affluent society such as ours, in which we are not completely focused on not starving each day, we could be pursuing, making ourselves better, making our world better, then arts which contain what I call "old knowledge" will simply die out. They may still exist, just as you can see lots of Aikido being done out there, but in fact, there is very little truly deep Aikido being done. The tendency is to shape the art to fill the needs and abilities of the participants. Without a critical mass of committed folks, the art declines. Even the truly committed end up constrained by the fact that there are few who can or will train with them. Their own ability to achieve excellence is dependent on have a place which is supportive of that endeavor and offers an environment focused on attainment.

I realize that only a very few will ever devote themselves to any art the way my peers and I have done. It is the natural order of things that there always be a pyramid of sorts in which the number of the folks at the top is exponentially smaller than the number of folks at the bottom. There are an infinite number of gradations in this "transmission" of Aikido. Some will take their understanding to great depth and others will just touch the surface. Regardless, there is a certain commitment required to really participate in the "transmission". Below a certain level of time and effort, nothing is really happening... nothing is really being transmitted. I have never had the expectation that more than a few of our students will go the distance and run dojos of their own some day. It's a fact that less than ten percent will even stay long enough to get a Shodan. But what I do expect is that when the students are training, they do so seriously. That what they are doing and learning is really at some place along the continuum of of the knowledge we are attempting to transmit.

When people tell me they don't have time to train due to job, family, other concerns, what they are saying is really that it simply isn't important enough for them to prioritize their training. I won't use myself as an example, because I realize that I am not in any way, shape, or form typical or representative. But I think we have one of the finest examples I know of right at our dojo of someone who has managed to combine all of the elements of a typical person's life and still take his Aikido to a highly accomplished level. Alex Nakamura Sensei has had a family, a career, etc and still, he has been on the mat three times a week year in year out for 40 + years. When folks tell me they can't do that, I simply disagree. They could, but they choose not to. This is every person's right and responsibility. To choose. People will each choose differently, according to his or her individual concerns. But everyone should understand that these choices do not occur in a vacuum.

The folks in our dojo represent a tiny minority within our society. The demographics say that only one percent of the populace has any interest in martial arts at all. Of the folks that do train, a very small minority has any interest in the traditional arts, of which Aikido is one. Kids do Tae Kwan Do, and these days young male adults (the bilk of martial arts participants) want to fight and are doing Mixed Martial Arts. So the Aikido community in general represents a miniscule segment of the population. Then, consider that fact that of the many Aikido that do exist, only a small number can offer the chance to attain real excellence. I think it should be obvious that, whereas the numbers would indicate that Aikido is doing ok, not what it was fifteen years ago, but ok... the real issue is that while the art has grown, the commitment level of the students involved in the enterprise has not. Aikido, in the sense that it has anything to do with the art founded by O-Sensei is quite simply endangered. So, in a certain sense, the folks that do train and do care about this art of ours, have a greater responsibility rather than lesser to help save the art from a possible demise. When everyone assumes that someone else will make the effort, that someone else will support that seminar, that someone else will clean the dojo before the guest arrives, that training happens when there's spare time (which there seldom is), art is doomed.

Ikeda Sensei expressed his belief that this is simply an inevitable process. I am simply unwilling to accept that. Our school's mission is to "transmit" the art on some level that the Founder would find respectable, that my teacher, Saotome Sensei, feels justifies the efforts of his entire adult life. The dojo is at a fifteen year low in membership. This is due to the demographic issues I previously noted. Some teachers have reacted to this shift by designing the training to better fit the concerns of the larger population. They create what my good friend, James Bartee (retired Secret Service Agent), calls "happy dojos". These dojos survive because they have made the practice so user friendly that it has very little to do with the art as conveyed by my teacher. Dojos have become social centers where like minded folks get together and interact doing some interesting things and getting some exercise. But when this happens the "transmission" is broken. Nothing of any great depth is occurring, no great skill can be attained. Whatever personal transformation is taking place is very shallow. I will not do this. I have consistently resisted the temptation to dumb down the art to get more students. I have refused to construct our training to make people feel "as if" something of value were happening when it really isn't.

This dojo exists to allow anyone with the talent and motivation to become truly excellent at our art. I fully expect that some of our students will be top level teachers someday, part of the leadership of the art after I am gone. Whether or not people can or will make that commitment themselves, I hope they can see that it is an admirable effort and needs to be supported. I want every single person at our dojo to experience an Aikido that, at least on some level, has "aiki", helps them understand how we are all connected, that gives them some capability martially, helps them to understand Mind-Body-Spirit unification, etc.

Now Josh Drachman Sensei and I are actively on this Path, albeit substantially further along than you. To this end there are things that happen in the dojo that are, first and foremost, geared for our own training. The visits of Howard Popkin, Dan Harden, Ushiro Kenji, etc are really for our own training. We share it with interested folks. If we share the expense collectively, it is maintainable over time. But if it wasn't, we'd be finding a way to do the training anyway.

The Aikido seminars, on the other hand, are largely for you. Whereas I get a lot out of them myself, I don't need to do these for my own progress. But you folks do. In any dojo, there is a dominant paradigm as to how an art is taught, how it is explained and demonstrated. There is a certain point in ones training at which, if you were going to "get it" the way it's being taught, you would have already. Change in perspective is crucial. That's the primary reason there are seminars. Over and over my friends who are teachers talk about how one of their students had some epiphany at a seminar when they finally understood something their own teacher had been saying all along. It was the change in the perspective that did it.
When I invite a teacher to our dojo, I do so because I think that, at some level, this teacher is at the top of his or her game. We have hosted some of the finest Aikido in the world within our doors. When we get to the point at which only a quarter to a third of our membership participates in one of our Aikido seminars, then basically the process is broken. We are in serious danger of losing that critical mass needed to maintain excellence at our dojo. We have some fantastic instructors developing. But I am not seeing where the folks are in the pipeline coming along behind them, progressing in such a way that it pushes the seniors forward, rather than the seniors trying to pull folks along.

Basically, when a certain point is reached at a dojo, where not enough folks are interested in training at the three times a week (consistently) that it takes to progress, when dojo events happen and only a handful support those events, when the same very small group consistently shows up for the work parties that maintain the dojo, then that dojo is in trouble. Now perhaps our dojo is ion trouble because Aikido is in trouble (which is actually my belief) or perhaps there are things we are doing wrong. In any case, I think we need to take a look at what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we have that so many are envious of and we are treating so cavalierly.

Many of my fellow teachers have solved these issues by being extremely hands on, very control oriented, by building up the "Sensei Mystique" I have always seen that as a trap, personally. When folks start to invest that much in a teacher, there's a point at which that teacher starts to think he or she deserves it. That's a trap and it isn't my style. I have noticed that at none of the dojos at which things are run that way, are they producing top level students who will be leaders in the future. So, in exchange for running a very tight ship with folks who really respect and listen to their teacher, they sacrifice (this is just my opinion) developing students who are independent, capable of progressing on their own, keeping the dojo going after that teacher is gone. I have not done this. I have been purposely low key on the whole "Sensei" thing. I ask the membership to do certain things, they do what they want anyway. It's fairly amusing how, the more I have pushed for certain things to happen over the years, the less likely they were to have happened. That's fine for me. It keeps me humble... no one can think I get too big for my britches when I get so many reminders of how little power or influence I actually have.

But I will say that I feel I have a number of students who look to be better than I am when I am gone. I have a dojo which would survive quite nicely if I were not there tomorrow. I have students whom I have made sure they have the personal relationships with teachers who could help them keep progressing if I were suddenly not around. I have set up blocks of training that have been kept going by the efforts of my students, not by my own efforts. Because I have had a hands off relationship with my students and the dojo, I have allowed those folks with the desire and the capacity to develop into leaders. These leaders within the dojo will someday be leaders within the whole Aikido community. I am not willing to sacrifice that in order to make people more responsive to my own leadership.


I have only one expectation of our students... that they are trying to be better. Otherwise they are wasting their own time and money and the time and effort of those teaching them and the partners who are training with them. I don't care how fast someone progresses, that's largely a matter of ability. O-Sensei was once asked which he would choose if he had two potential students in front of him, the one with great ability or the one who would work the hardest. He said that the one who works the hardest wins out every time. I am not asking that folks make Aikido the center of their lives. But I am asking for folks to do the minimum required to progress. I am asking that folks treat their membership in our dojo community as something important to them and not just an after thought. When we have a dojo cleanup, folks should consider it a responsibility of membership to participate, even if they can't actually go to the seminar... We hold three Aikido seminars each year.. just three. Participation of the membership in those three events is expected. Of course I have said this many times before and folks continue to ignore me. But I am saying this once again. IF you have the time, money, and commitment to take advantage of the other training we are offering, then great, bonus training for you. But our Aikido seminars are an integral part of your training and a responsibility of membership. When folks don't participate, they are essentially saying they don't respect me, they don't appreciate the dojo, and the don't really care about their training. When your instructors are telling you how important it is that you show up for an event and you don't bother, you are telling them their opinions don't matter. When I invite a close personal friend to my dojo to teach, a man who turned out 45 or so people when I taught at his dojo, and 2/3 of our own folks do not show up for even a part of the weekend, it is insulting to that guest and it's embarrassing for me. It makes those of us who have put so much of our time and effort into this art feel like we have been wasting our time because so few people care at all.

If you are a member of this dojo you are connected to every other member and the effort as a whole. Choosing to do less than you are capable of holds others back. I am not talking about the extraordinary effort to attain mastery or become a teacher. I am talking about the bottom line, baseline effort required to simply get better and to support the place you require to make that effort and the folks you rely on to do so. There is a point for any art at which the number of folks willing to make that effort can be outweighed by the number of folks who are not. At that point the art either gets dumbed down, which is what is happening to Aikido, or it ceases to be vibrant, developing and it loses it's vitality. Thinking that it is someone other than yourself who will determine which direction Aikido goes is a mistake. It is up to each of us, if we care at all about the outcome.

I have attached a document which has been posted on the board at the dojo for several years. It is supposed to be given to each new member when they enroll but this has fallen into inconsistency. So I am attaching it now for folks to read. I would especially point out the requirements that be met in order to be promoted past 4th Kyu. People are totally free to determine how much they train etc. But it is my job to set the "standard" for the dojo. This is something my teachers told me specifically. It isn't my teacher, or our organization... it isn't in comparison with any other school. It is my personal responsibility to set the standard for my students. So, folks are free to train any way they wish. But, if they wish to get ranking through me and Aikido Eastside, then a certain minimum effort is required. This is an effort standard, not a performance standard. It based on my assessment derived from several decades of practice of what it takes to progress in this art for the average student (not the talented whiz kid or the fanatic).

Thanks for your time. These things need to be said periodically, I think. Some folks have been around long enough to remember several of these, while others may have never heard this all before. I just want people to be conscious and intentional about what they are doing. While these are my expectations, no one is under any compulsion to meet them... that is entirely up to each individual.
- George

(Original blog post may be found here.)
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