Location: Lakebay, Washington
Join Date: Mar 2009
Re: Open Letter to My Students
Dear George Sensei,
You have taught me that when attacked with a shomen cut, the safe place is directly under the blade. Enter, connect, tenkan, keep your balance. I hope that I have understood this properly because it is in this spirit that I am responding to your letter.
I am a proud and grateful member of the Aikido Eastside dojo.
When I received your open letter to the members of our dojo, I was taken aback. Your communications are always thought provoking, so I have had to read your letter numerous times to try to understand what you are saying.
At my next class, I called aside some of the leaders of our dojo to ask, "Am I still welcome in this dojo, or should I be looking for a new place to train?" They wanted to know why I was asking. I told them that I could not keep up with your expectations. You see George, I am a leaf. I am not a branch and certainly not a trunk or a root. I am just a humble white belt. I don't train in aikido so I can kick ass in bar fights. I have no desire to open my own dojo. I don't ever expect to master this infinitely complex art and I have no delusions about surpassing your technical skills. I am just a happy leaf.
Please allow me to describe my background. Last month I celebrated my first anniversary as a full member of Aikido Eastside. Next month I will celebrate my 63rd birthday. In October I will have had 4 years training in aikido and aikijujutsu. December was my goal for testing for 5th kyu.
In my previous dojo, I tested for 7th, 6th and 5th kyu. As I was training for 4th kyu I saw that I would have to do 3 man randori, full speed, a la "Path beyond Thought", and full speed kotegaeshi into high, hard breakfalls. I was coming home from training with repetitive stress injuries and decided to change dojos.
My previous dojo only met twice a week. After my first year, I was ready for more. I started visiting other dojos and attending seminars. I averaged one seminar per month for the next two years and have visited more than 20 different dojos. We live in a very aikido rich environment, so I haven't been everywhere, but I have seen a lot.
George, the first time we met, I was overwhelmed. Here was this giant of the aikido world, taking the time to teach me the basics of irimi. I could not believe the generosity that you extended to me.
You gave me permission to attend your classes as a regular visitor. When you saw that I was attending every event that you offered, you told me that you would have to make me an honorary member of Aikido Eastside. You made my day.
When it came time to change dojos, yours was my first choice. It was not an easy decision. I have some very close friends in my former dojo. I have to drive 90 minutes each way for every class at yours. Not an easy decision at all.
When I joined AE, I realized that there was a great deal of basic knowledge that I was missing. I decided that I should join your beginners program and have been happy and challenged there since. You call it a beginners program, but I think of it as a basics program. It is a lot more challenging than the title indicates and the instructors are some of the best that I have met in the aikido world. Any one of them could open a dojo in my local community. I would happily join and have enough challenge to last the rest of my life.
When you sent this letter to AikiWeb, I was hurt, offended and insulted. It feels like you have slapped every member of our dojo across the face in front of the whole aikido community. I must object. I think that you have mischaracterized us unfairly.
Fellow AE students have told me that I dare not question you or I would face "The Wrath of God". Really? I thought that we were training ourselves not to be cowards. Aren't we supposed to join with the energy of our partners, turn to see from their perspective and keep our own balance? Should I be afraid to tell you when I disagree with you? I don't believe in master-student relationships. Teacher-student is fine with me. I don't accept masters.
Please allow me to contrast two dojo experiences. My original dojo: I came to my third class to find sensei vacuuming the met. I took the vacuum from him and finished cleaning the mat. Thereafter, every two weeks, I brought my vacuum from home, came to the dojo an hour early, and cleaned the mat. Very, very rarely did another member offer to help. One day, I even shut off the vacuum and asked my training partners, "In the other dojos that you have belonged to, did you have maid service?" "Well yes, we did. That is what we pay dues for." They thought this was amusing.
At Aikido Eastside: While you were on vacation, a junior member of the dojo organized us to come together. We stripped the walls bare, we built you a new private office, we built a new dojo office, and we remodeled the entryway. Then we painted every wall in the dojo. Two offices, two changing rooms, storage room, entry and mat area. Then we replaced every work of art and cleaned the dojo thoroughly.
We did this solely to express to you our love, admiration, and gratitude for what you have created at AE.
Yet you characterize us as unresponsive and disrespectful aikidoka.
I have read and reread your letter many times. Each time I see something different. Right now, I am hearing a painful cry from the heart. The aikido that you have dedicated your life to is changing in ways that you can not control. You know that we are irreversibly interconnected and that the universe is constantly in motion. Still, you hope to preserve O Sensei's art unchanged.
The aikido that I am learning from you is not the same as the aikido that you learned from Saotome. Saotome did not teach the same aikido that he learned from O Sensei. And O Sensei did not pass on Takeda's art unchanged.
We struggle to preserve and protect our legacy, but it will not remain static. The aikido that we pass on will be created by us. In our own hearts, in our own lives, in our own dojos.
I think that you should be proud of the dojo you have created. It is a magnificent place to train. Studying at Eastside is like trying to drink from a firehose. To take full advantage of all of the opportunities that you offer is almost impossible. For a person that is making aikido a centerpiece of their life, AE may be the best possible place to train.
Regrettably, this does not describe me. Every day I wish I had found aikido as a teenager. I would have been a better person, lived a better life and helped to make the world a better place.
You and I see many things differently. There is only one aikido area where I am certain that I am right and you are wrong. You stated that if one persists in training until mid-yudansa level, that one can have a transformative experience. But, I am just a white belt, and aikido has already changed my life for the better. My wife of 27 years will testify to this. Friends that have known me for 40+ years have told me. I am more compassionate, braver, more patient as well as more persistent. I am more connected with others than I have ever been.
I was not seeking this when I began training. As a 59 year old man, I thought I was a fully formed person. I was wrong. Aikido has changed me for the better. I paid attention. I polished my mirror. I forged my blade. I persisted. But aikido did this for me. Neither religion, nor counseling, nor group therapy has ever affected me this way.
Please do not discourage people that are stumbling along their path. I know that you would not do this intentionally. But you are a very intimidating man. Your words have power. Please be more careful how you use them.
Whenever I visit another dojo, I am always asked, "Where do you train? Who is your sensei?" For the past year, I have been proud to say "I train at Aikido Eastside and George Ledyard is my sensei." Now I am afraid that people will think, "Oh, he's one of those bums that won't even support his own dojo. Why should we welcome him here?" I think that you have done real damage to our reputation.
This year has brought some unexpected financial challenges and I have had to reevaluate my spending. Aikido Eastside dues, gas, wear and tear are costing $6,000 per year. That is before buying and single book or DVD or attending a single seminar. Each seminar cost a minimum of $500. You talk of 3 seminars a year, but don't mention Dan Harden coming every six weeks, or Howard Popkin coming 3 times a year or Kenji Ushiro coming from Japan or the two randori intensives each year. Our neighboring dojos also host great teachers. Senseis like Endo, Nevellius, Choate, Doran and many others come every year.
My finances, just like my training, my health and my safety, are my own responsibility. No one else gets to decide for me how much is enough.
Since receiving your letter, I have watched my enthusiasm and motivation run down hill. It is easier to find reasons not to make that long drive and harder to fight the temptation to stay home. In class, the joy I had experienced, is gone. As I look around the dojo, all of my peers are missing from class. Perhaps I am missing them because I am not coming as often. Perhaps it is the school vacation and summer has finally arrived. Perhaps they feel as l do and just have not found a way to tell you.
In the metaphorical aikido forest, you are a giant maple tree. Broad of shoulder, strong of limb, reaching for the sky. Keep reaching George. Keep growing. We leaves need you. We cling to you for nourishment, support, and inspiration. But never forget, my friend, without leaves, the forest will die. We have been created to depend upon each other.
I have decided to take a sabbatical from aikido. I need some time and distance to contemplate, and reflect on what my training means to me, and how I want to proceed.
Please accept my resignation from Aikido Eastside.
I have tried to communicate in this letter, my respect, admiration and affection for you. I hope that in the future, I will be welcome to train with you again. If you feel otherwise, please let me know. I don't like to go where I am not welcome.
Sincerely in musubi,
P.S. I am sending a copy of this letter to AikiWeb and to some of my personal mailing list. I would be grateful to you if you would forward this letter to the adult membership list.