Dojo: Aikido Port Townsend
Location: Port Townsend, Wa.
Join Date: Jul 2003
This is a spin-off from the "Equitable?" thread in the General category. For those of you who haven't been following it, it started out as an exasperated posting on how few women (2 out of 35, as I recall) will be instructors at the upcoming Aiki Expo, and quickly turned into a debate on whether or not gender diparity has anything to do with Aikido. Or at least that's how I saw it; if you want to form your own opinion, set aside an hour or two to read it all.
Meanwhile, as the thread evolved, I began to wonder just what does have to do with Aikido. It is pretty clearly more than just a series of techniques, but what else is there to it? The Founder seems to have been difficult to follow, both in terms of philosophy and martial ability, and we in the West are at a remove, due both to the vagaries of translation and to a significantly different set of cultural assumptions. On top of all this — because of all this? — the deshi diaspora that was taking place when I entered the art presented us with a wide variety of takes on the nature of the art.
On the other hand, in many years of visiting many dojo's, some things have remained fairly constant: compassion for the attacker; finding, and then moving from center; practicing being aware; and, with only a few notable exceptions, not just falling down for each other. But I know there's much more to it than that. And yes, I know that there are a lot of descriptions of what constitutes Aikido, but at the moment they don't seem sufficient.
Some would urge us just to 'practice the art that Ueshiba gave us." Right. If I'd been born in late 19th-century Japan, farmed remote outposts for years, fallen in with both a paranoid, highly-skilled fighter and a somewhere-to-the-left-of-Shirley-MacLaine cult leader, and lived through the buildup to, experience of, and aftermath of World War II, maybe I could practice that art. Since I can't, I have to wonder if what I've been consumed with for 30-some years has anything in common with Ueshiba's Aikido.
Yeah, I'm pretty sure it does, but also pretty sure that there've been some changes made. Here's an analogy:
I work in a large old wooden building. It was built in the 1930's, and in its life it has housed a bowling alley, movie theater, truck repair facility, fire hall, guitar maker, cabinetmaker, and currently is host to a sail loft, rigging loft, and a shop that builds and repairs wooden boats. In the course of accommodating all of these pursuits, the building has had to adapt, with walls being moved, floors put in and taken out, wiring rerouted, etc. But it has always been recognizably the same building, not just from how it looks from the outside, but how it feels inside (this from people who were here when it was new). There is something about its character that persists, no matter how much people mess with it.
It could have been otherwise; the place could never be, for instance, a welding shop, shooting range, balloon hangar, bank, or foundry, partly because some of those activities would probably destroy it in short order, but largely because it naturally tended to attract enterprises that didn't require too much fussing to fit in. The building has remained itself because it had a real, if difficult-to-define nature to begin with, and because it would be too much bother to make it into something entirely different.
That's how I've come to see Aikido, as a large, accommodating structure that is somewhat plastic, but you know when you've tried to make it into something that it isn't.
This might sound like the famous definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it." The difference is that we have a formal technical structure to draw on, plus a somewhat less formal spiritual structure. We can only recognize the real thing after significant amounts of study, and then we can point to the details that exemplify it. It's the spiritual side that makes things difficult, the philosophy that tangles me up. Just how does it relate to the techniques? How much, if any, philosophy belongs on the mat? If some does, how much, and how many related issues also belong there? Is it possible to let such issues in without detracting from the art? Is it possible to keep them out with detracting from the art?