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Old 06-02-2004, 02:05 PM   #36
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Dojo: Senshin Center
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Re: The Nage/Uke Dynamic - Guidelines

I must again apologize Giancarlo for this reply taking me so long to complete. I think you have raised some very complicated issues -- ones that most folks believe they can simply dismiss as irrelevant and/or feel they can simply gloss over them with one cliché or another or even the usual slogan of "just practice." It is clear from your thoughts that you are a very reflective teacher, and if you will allow me to say - that can only be a great benefit to your students, no matter how one likes to discuss these matters (or not).

No need to qualify what you say in this last part of your post -- I think it, along with everything else you have written, is very relative to what one sees in the guidelines. That you are keen-sighted enough to pull this out says a lot. I agree with you when you say that freestyle practice has the potential to reveal to us the habits -- some good, some bad -- that come with us, through us, and to us, via our training. Moreover, we can indeed consider those habits "baggage" when much of that training has taken place and/or was transmitted in a way that the issue of spontaneity was understood as an irrelevant element (or an easily solvable problem) of training. Constant re-evaluation, as you suggest, is then in order. I think Mr. Threadgill, in his latest contribution to Aikido Journal, is making a similar point when he says the following:

"Without the dynamics experienced in actual conflict there is simply no impetus to adapt or improve. The status quo seems fine because the status quo is never challenged. Some budo conservatives may disagree with this view, but Takamura Sensei believed that any budo system that never encouraged a direct challenge to its core principles was ultimately no more than calisthenics. He felt that the core principles of a ryu must be tested if it is to remain true to its origins. A challenge to the effectiveness of the ryu if made within the proper context of its goals can be an opportunity for self-examination, learning and potential growth. Properly managed, a challenge is the spark that keeps a martial art ‘martial.'"

Yes, I am also of the position that some completely new teaching frameworks are in order -- particularly when old frameworks are obviously ignoring the issue of spontaneous expression. It is only that I would follow the same caveat that Mr. Threadgill is suggesting elsewhere in his article. I am not sure on where you would fall regarding this, but it is hard to imagine, based upon what you have said thus far, that you would disagree with the following. He writes:

"Change must be very deliberate and intricate…[because] change risks obscuring information and knowledge gained through many generations of experienced teachers. The consequences of corrupting the knowledge and wisdom imparted by generations of teachers can be devastating to a ryu. [Change] can cripple a tradition by leaving its core teachings in disarray…[but] deliberate and methodical change can be good…[such] change can be embraced within the confines of both modern and classical budo without compromising the core teachings of the art…[for] without the flexibility to adapt certain aspects of classical bujutsu to the modern environment [traditions would eventually become] irrelevant anachronisms."

That said, and because I do not doubt that you are very capable of such deliberate and methodical change, I think we might be better served if we drop the Koryu/Aikido contrast altogether in considering and/or reconsidering our own positions. I think we are very capable of addressing the concerns you have thus far raised, for you, and for your students, etc., without necessarily having to make use of the contrast you are wishing to draw between Koryu and Aikido. I get what you are saying in said contrast. Moreover, I get how you are trying to use it. However, I think in the end it may come back to haunt you (us) since it is not very accurate -- particularly regarding your understanding of Koryu pedagogy in regards to shu training. I just don't think it will be all that helpful in the long run because I think it is glossing over an important epistemic shift that took place in classical bujutsu at the end of the pre-modern and/or the beginning of the modern period in Japan.

Undoubtedly, there are today examples of classical Budo that are indeed as you describe, but there was a time when that was not so, and so, we must acknowledge, there is probably still now a place where that is not so. Mr. Threadgill's article and his description of his teacher's position, at the least, lend itself to that possibility. That is to say, Koryu were not always about the pure transmission of form in the manner in which you describe. I have written about this elsewhere. At a certain point in history, and not before that, there came a time when it was more "advantageous" to a given art to undergo a kind of "museum death" than it was to remain alive. As such, some arts became transmitters of form in the exact way in which you have described earlier. However, such a description cannot account for all traditional arts and/or even a given traditional art before this point in time. Thus, one is very likely to posit that what you describe is not necessarily an aspect of Koryu but a degeneration of Koryu that has more to do with this epistemic shift than it does with the actual pedagogy of a certain tradition. However, museum deaths happen all the time in any lineage -- even in Aikido. So I think it would be more beneficial for us to simply talk about lineages that experience a "museum death" in contrast to those lineages that remain living arts, rather than denoting one thing to one type of tradition and the other to another type of tradition. That said, allow me to summarize the contrast you are wising to make in this manner:

In some lineages, there is a circular and co-dependent set of relationships that negates change, invention, adaptation, and to a certain degree spontaneous expression of the art. This is caused by the status of authority being co-dependent with the practice of not questioning. In other words, only those with authority have the right to question a given kata, by and/or for whatever means, but only those who do not question can be given authority. In the end then, any type of objective standards -- no matter how beneficial - that lie outside of the person of authority become irrelevant and with them so to does any set of questions based upon said objective standards. In the end, self-reflection is not possible, and deliberate and methodical change is beyond the capacity of even one's imagination. In contrast, in other lineages, it is not like this at all (differences to be further discussed below). In the former lineage a type of "museum death" occurs, where tradition becomes more artifact than art. In the latter, the tradition does not become an irrelevant anachronism because its aliveness allows for an artistic expression that is built upon a consistency that exists between the art's objective ideals and the practitioner's subjective expression of those ideals. Not being reduced to artifact, such a lineage remains an art. Aikido, as any martial tradition, should be based on this latter structure and not on the former one.

Yes, that said, let us let folks do what they want with their Aikido. Only a beast would openly disagree with that. However, let us let them do what they want with their Aikido not because such openness is directly related to some kind of absence in Aikido's pedagogical structure. Let them do it because of issues pertaining to civil liberties and human rights. That should be enough. If a person wants their Aikido to be "A" and not "B," or "C" and not "B" -- go for it. Another person (even an instructor) has little right, let alone any actual power, to prevent such things from happening. However, this is not the same thing as suggesting that all expressions of the art must be deemed equally valid, or even valid while allowing for degrees of validity, simply because there is really no position of authority in Aikido, etc. For while there may be no central position of authority in Aikido's governing structures, like there may be in lineages that experience a museum death, there still remains a set of objective standards by which one can judge validity or a lack of validity -- particularly the objective standards put forth by the particular expression in question. I think we have to allow for this.

For while one has to appreciate the degree to which you wish to utilize the philosophical discourse of civil liberties and/or human rights in your approach to teaching we have to at some point allow for the probability that not everything is Aikido. In other words, if we cannot say, or if we are not prepared to say that everything is Aikido, then at some point we cannot say that every subjective expression of the art is valid to some degree. More importantly, if everything could be considered Aikido, if every subjective expression of the art to some degree has to be considered "valid," then the idea of deliberate and methodical change becomes a moot point -- right?

This we can realize whether we are talking about martial effectiveness or not. Validity, no matter what expression is before us, requires, at some level, a degree of measurement. Eventually something is going to fall outside of that measurement, and that means that eventually one is going to run into a subjective expression that has to be considered invalid. Therefore, concerning the issue of validity, and still attempting to address the issue of deliberate and methodical change, allow me to suggest the following. At some level, a given subjective expression must achieve two things in order to be considered valid: 1) A consistency with the tradition as a whole and/or with parts of that tradition in specific; and, 2) An internal consistency carried on throughout the length of its own thoughts, its own practices, and its own institutions. Note: Contrary to common perception, it is actually the latter condition that negates most subjective expressions as invalid -- not the former.

Consistency is at the heart of the deliberate and methodical change that Mr. Threadgill is talking about and that I would recommend. This, I feel, is how we have to understand his phrase, "made within the proper context of its goals." Consistency is also at the heart of any valid subjective expression of the art. In addition, this consistency is what is often missing in the lineages that experience a museum death. It is also consistency that most beginners, because of their limited exposure to the art, simply cannot possess. By marking validity with consistency (or invalidity with the absence of consistency) one can allow for multiple expressions of Aikido while avoiding the extreme position that EVERYTHING is Aikido. In this same way then, or in like fashion, through consistency, we can allow for the subjective experiences of the student to find a place in the overall training process, particularly in regards to spontaneous expression of the art, without robbing the instructor of the authority to say, "not like that, like this." In other words, as we do not want to open up to a degree where we have to say that everything is Aikido, we also do not want to negate the instructor's capacity to say, "not like that, like this." We do not want to limit the instructor's capacity to instruct, to transmit the art, and to propagate his/her lineage. One can address both concerns, the one you posit and the one I am positing here, by utilizing consistency as a marker for what is valid.

Undoubtedly you are wishing to address one's (a teacher's) own will to power as it plays itself out or has played itself out in the "popular" training systems we all have encountered thus far. Equally without doubt, the reconciliation of this will to power is both tantamount to the overall effectiveness of one's pedagogy and the capacity to express the art spontaneously. I can agree with all of this, but I would not so readily negate the authority that comes to the teacher who allies him/herself with consistency. A teacher, a priori, requires enough authority (derived from consistency) to be able to say, "not like that, like this," but this is not all a teacher does in Budo. As a living art is not solely a vessel for the transmission of form, so too is a teacher not only a transmitter of form. A true Budo teacher is a mirror through which or by which a deshi can come to see, determine, and ultimately reconcile one's attachment to self and to the habitual ways of being that are dominating his/her life. In short, a sensei is not a coach. The sensei/deshi dynamic is central to the cultivation of the spirit for each - the teacher and the student. It is through the interaction, the give and take, the exchange, the back and forth of two beings, one governed by the authority of consistency and one coming to be so, that Budo offers us not just the capacity to express ourselves spontaneously but the capacity to address the most basic human need of spiritual maturity. Therefore, as a student must monitor his/her desire to train under a coach, so too must a teacher monitor his/her desire to be a coach. A great fear and/or an attachment to the various elements of spiritual immaturity can lay hidden in both desires to avoid the mirror of self-reflection that comes to us, and is supported like in no other way, by the sensei/deshi dynamic.

Spontaneous expression is not all there is to training in Budo. Thus, the role of sensei is not totally fulfilled simply be equating his subjective expression of the art with every other subjective expression of the art. Jazz musicians that can improvise are not Budo masters. Budo training involves a "fusing," if you will, of a reconciliation of subject and object with a moral/spiritual position on the nature of existence and of creation. The mentor/disciple model, which is found through the world's contemplative traditions, is paramount to this fusing. It does not function merely as a means of transmission -- where information goes from one place to another. It is the relationship itself, the dynamics of being in one, which is the true engine for the fusion I am trying to delineate. In that capacity, in the fulfillment of this role, a teacher must be primed to act as mirror for the student. The clarity of this mirror rests upon several things. Some important ones are that the teacher learns to reflect without condemnation and without attachment to his/her own subjective experiences, and that the teacher, through this relationship, comes to reconcile his/her own will to power. However, without the authority that comes to one through consistency, a teacher can reflect nothing. The student that faces such a teacher will see nothing. In this role, the role of spiritual mentor, the teacher feels the most need, and hence the most pressure, to address his/her own will to power. If he/she cannot do this, it will become obvious to all -- but for those most attached to their current perceptions of self and the issues of pride, fear, and ignorance that underlie that attachment.

In other words, opening validity up to the infinite subjective expressions possible of an art like Aikido will not necessarily get an instructor to address his/her own will to power and/or the negative effect it may have on the potency of one's pedagogy and/or the possibility for spontaneous expression. This is because such an opening marks more a de-investment of oneself (the instructor) from Budo praxis than it marks an actual investment in that praxis. If all subjective expressions carry within them a sense of validity -- whether we rate that validity or not -- the responsibility to serve as mirror for another is totally absent from the overall training and teaching model. When consistency of thought, practice, and institution becomes equal to inconsistency then all that one is left with is an "I'm okay, you're okay" kind of mush. It is precisely this kind of mush that requires little self-reflection, since validity is thought to be present outside of consistency and prior to anything else. Yet it is precisely and only through self-reflection that we can actually address our own will to power as teachers. For these reasons, I am sensing that I would be much more cautious than you would be concerning how and why certain (or all) subjective expressions of Aikido can (or should) be considered "valid." Therefore, I would like to propose another alternative.

It is self-reflection that I sense is at the heart of your triadic model for instruction. Traditionally, outside of communication circles, what you are describing is in Sanskrit called "upaya". It is one of the marks of the awakened mind -- the ability to teach or transmit according to the needs of the person before you. Whereas it is not so prevalent in "popular" Aikido today, upaya has a secured part in the underlying Buddhist structures that are at the heart of Budo. Upaya, whose source can be said to lie in self-reflection, is ultimately an act of compassion. It is through upaya, and other acts of compassion, that a teacher comes to reconcile his/her own will to power via a constant process of self-reflection. (Like you, I cannot see any great value in a teaching that comes from a teacher that lacks the mark of upaya. ) This self-reflection, in my opinion, relates mainly to the consistency of which I spoke above. That is to say, a teacher must self-reflect to note the needs of a student as they relate to the teachings being transmitted, as they relate to one's own studying of those traditions, as all of these things are held up to a consistency of thought, action, and institution. As I noted earlier, this is the doorway to the deliberate and methodical change that Mr. Threadgill is talking about in his article.

So personally I would turn to cultivating myself (as teacher) through acts of compassion rather than in de-investing myself from the role of instructor when it comes to reconciling my own will to power. Such acts, I hold, should stem as much as possible from a sense of servitude -- which I have discussed elsewhere in earlier replies to your post. This has always been the traditional solution -- seen across the world's religious traditions. In fact, we can see this exact thing in the mentoring Deguchi gave Osensei. This is from an article recently posted on Aikido Journal and translated by Stanley Pranin. The article reads:


"While Onisaburo was lying along side Ueshiba during one of these [periods of fasting], he remarked, "Ueshiba, I can't help but see you as 'Kongosan' who stands and guards the Buddha."

[Osensei said,] "Sensei, Kongosan is the deity of strength, isn't he?"

"Yes, right strength!" Onisaburo answered. These words of Onisaburo struck the heart of Ueshiba. "The martial art of right strength!"

"Sensei, please observe my martial art." [Osensei requested]

After the fasting period was over, Ueshiba gathered together the martial arts practitioners and strong men around Ayabe in the big ball of the Omoto Headquarters and demonstrated a Daito-ryu match.

At that time, many practitioners of different martial arts pitted their strength against Ueshiba one by one, but no one was able to defeat him. Each was dispatched in turn with a Daito-ryu joint twisting technique. Word spread immediately in Kyoto and Osaka that a terribly strong martial artist was to be found at the Omoto Headquarters. He was repeatedly challenged to matches, but, of course, no one could defeat him.

[Onisaburo said] "You are too strong. A sign in your face reveals that serious trouble awaits you. In order to avoid this, do the following."

Onisaburo told Ueshiba that this was a part of his training and called it "geza" (training in humility). Ueshiba immersed himself in this training of being the caretaker of footgear. One day, a huge man weighing about 250 pounds carrying a thick bokken as a walking stick appeared at the Omoto Headquarters asking, "Is there somebody here named Ueshiba?"

"Please come in, sir."

After Ueshiba took the huge fellow's footgear, he led him into the guest room. Then, washing his hands he introduced himself saying, "I am Ueshiba."

Realizing that this was the same man who had taken his shoes, he said, "Are you kidding? You are Ueshiba! I was wondering what kind of martial arts man he could be. And you are only the caretaker of shoes. Well, I'll give you a lesson anyway."

The large man took Ueshiba to the hall. Ueshiba stood empty-handed facing this huge man with a wooden sword. There he stood, his knees showing, the image of a shoe caretaker.

"Damn!" The giant of a man struck at Ueshiba with a shout. But his blow was deftly dodged. He lost his balance forward. At that instant his wrist was swept to the side sending the big man spiraling into the wall backwards.

(end quote)

In this passage, Osensei demonstrates "right strength." That is to say, he demonstrates the strength that comes to us through the position of authority but that is nevertheless cultivated in acts of self-reflection, humility, compassion, and servitude. In my opinion, if we truly want to drop the baggage of impotent paradigms, we should do the same and practice more servitude throughout our pedagogies.

Again, I must say that I'm a truly grateful for your replies. They have been most informative and most helpful in refining my own position, etc. I would like to send you some things I've been working on for the purposes of possibly continuing this discussion. If you are interested in seeing them, please email me at and provide me with your mailing address.

I look forward to many more communications.

Kindest regards,
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