Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Re: The Essence of Training
I think it is worth considering what Aikido was when it started and what it has become...
When the Founder taught, Budo was a serious pursuit. To train directly with the Founder, you had to apply and be accepted. Someone he knew and respected had to vouch for you. You had to be serious, not just for yourself, but also because not to be serious would embarrass the person who had been your sponsor.
Aikido was not taught publicly. O-Sensei would occasionally do demonstrations and these were considered historic events in terms of Aikido history. They were not commonplace.
After the war, things changed. Kisshomaru Ueshiba became the Nidai Doshu and the senior members of the Tokyo Aikikai like Osawa and Arikawa Senseis helped him create an art that would be taught to the public. O-Sensei continued to teach wherever he was at the time. He traveled between Tokyo and Iwama, stayed in Osaka for extended periods, etc. His focus was still on training his personal deshi although now his classes were mostly open to all levels and included the general membership of whatever doho he was visiting at the time.
So how did he view this art? I can see nothing that would indicate that he ever dreamed that this art would become a part time hobby for a bunch of middle class folks in Europe and the US. Yes, he felt that Aikido had the potential to transform the world. But that is the operative concept... Aikido would transform, the world! not the world would transform Aikido.
If this were a koryu, there wouldn't be these discussions. There would be a set curriculum that had to be mastered. You might progress or not depending on the effort you put in. But you wouldn't even be having the discussion of whether this amount of effort or that amount of effort was fine. No one would say that your koryu was whatever you chose to make it. The art is what it is. You adapt yourself to the requirements of doing that art; the art isn't going to change for you.
Aikido on the other hand is changing constantly. It has gone from an extremely exclusive activity requiring total commitment to a part time hobby done by people for whom it is, at best, a third priority after family and career. What does this mean for the art? Does what a nice middle class professional with a family training a couple times a week have anything in common with the art that the Founder created as a transformational practice?
There is a vast difference, I think, between an art that the practitioner must figure out how to adapt his life to pursue and an art that is adapted to fit the circumstances of the majority of the practitioners. In my Blog I recently expressed my issues with folks who show up to train with my teacher year after year and never get any better, wasting his time and the time of the serious students who should be soaking Sensei for everything he's worth while he is still around. Why do they keep showing up not having progressed? because they simply do not put the effort into doing so.
In the old days the choice was to train or not. No one forced anyone to train... but if you decided to train you were serious. The discussion here is largely about what Aikido is for the practitioner, what does training mean to the practitioner. I think that the question might be rephrased as what to do you think Aikido really is and are you willing and able to step up and make the commitment to do it? Each of us has some relationship with an organization or a teacher(s) who define the parameters of the art for us. Why not look at those parameters and decide if one is willing to do what is necessary to master those elements?
I think that one needs to ask the question whether Aikido as the third priority, spare time activity that folks seem to want is really Aikido, the Budo founded by Morihei Ueshiba. Is it Budo at all? If one trains without any expectation of eventual mastery of the principles, conceding that only the small group of teachers at the top of the Aikido pyramid, what is the point?
Of course, I am a professional instructor. I make my living doing this. So, having a large group of folks out there supporting me is great. But I didn't get into this so that I could support myself (thank God, because it is a wretched way to make money). I became a teacher so I could spend more time on my own training and to be an integral part of the transmission from the Founder, to may own teacher, Saotome Sensei, and through me to as many students as possible.
So, despite the fact that I really appreciate the support I get ever time a student shows up at one of my seminars, or joins my dojo, or even purchases some of my dvds, the fact remains that I cannot do what I have worked so hard to be able to do without students who will make enough commitment that I am able to pass on what I have been taught.
A teacher cannot teach without students. He or she cannot teach what it took them thousands and thousands of hours to master to folks who only want to give it hundreds of hours of effort. It's that simple. When folks decide to train but drastically reduce the time and effort they are willing to put into the training from what had been done before, they make the transmission impossible and actually effect the art itself. Time and time again, I ask, is there something fundamentally valuable about doing mediocre Aikido?
I know that some folks are quite conscious of this. They see themselves as "patrons of the art". They know they won't train enough to be good at it. But they see supporting the teacher and the dojo as a "good" in itself. They don't see themselves so much as "doing" Aikido but more as "supporting" Aikido. Frankly, I couldn't get by without folks like this, so I am not demeaning this attitude at all. But I think these folks are clear about what they are doing.
But, if the vast majority of folks in an art are not really intending to master the fundamentals of the art, could you say they are really training? And can any art that is largely composed of practitioners who have no expectation of mastery, who will not make the commitment to allow the transmission to take place, survive over time still possessing any depth and breadth? Or will it necessarily shrink to a size which allows "success" for the majority of folks training. Will it inevitably be deemed unnecessary to master everything ones teacher understood but rather will be sufficient merely to attain a level of skill attainable by the effort and commitment folks are willing to make?
Of course, in any activity there will always be someone at the top of the pyramid. Someone will always be more talented, more committed. But is there not a floor below which one could say that it really isn't Aikido any more? Do we keep expecting less of our students because they are unwilling to give more?
My own dojo is at a fifteen year low in membership... I have already made accommodation to the fact that that almost all my students are career folks with families. There are large blocks of instruction I was given by my teacher which I have never taught to my students because that would simply take away from what I consider more central to their development. I trained every day and a serious student at my dojo trains three times a week plus occasional weekend events. I made my "container" large enough to hold what my teacher offered. Now I find that I cannot put what is in my "container" into the smaller "containers" of the typical current day practitioners. I feel ok about what I am able to give my students. I think it has depth and some breadth. I do not feel as if I have been faced with having to dumb down what I am passing on below that minimum level that in my mind still represents my own baseline which keeps it still being Aikido as I have known it.
So, I guess what I am saying is, perhaps what is needed is a "discussion" with oneself of what Aikido really is? Is it a transformational practice? What kind of effort is required to make it so? Is it a functional martial art? How much work will it take to make it so? Or is the art just a hobby with no real depth or efficacy? Then clearly whatever commitment one is willing to make will be enough... Is there an art called Aikido that has some defined dimensions? Or is Aikido defined by each individual based on whatever he or she feels like doing? Most importantly, I think one has to ask if taking the time, money, and effort to do Aikido at less than minimal level is worth doing? Is there something important happening or is the art for you merely something you find "fun"? An activity you "enjoy".
I guess I would submit that folks pursuing the art with less than the minimum amount of commitment required to at least make it the transformation practice the Founder intended or to work hard enough to have some level of actual functionality in a martial sense, are hurting the art. They are bringing this amazing pursuit down to the mundane level of a cross between video games and going to the gym. Video games are fun and going to the gym is healthy. Is that all Aikido really is? I think it is far more than that. I think we need to stop telling everyone that what they want to give the art is all fine and start talking about what it really takes to do Aikido. Folks need to decide whether they are willing to do Aikido or the commitment to do so is too much. That's the way it used to be and I think it needs to be again or Aikido will keep degenerating to the point at which no one even remembers when it was something more. I just don't see the point in doing something less.