I was speaking with a visiting aikido colleague of mine recently, a gentleman senior to me whose aikido and opinions I respect. The subject came up of a student we both knew who relocated to another part of the country. My colleague expected to see the student in the near future, and I felt obliged to pass along some pertinent news, or depending on your view, gossip.
I had been informed that the student had taken up training for a time at a dojo in his new hometown. Shortly thereafter, he (we'll say it's a "he") decided to start his own dojo, having consulted with myself and former teachers. The trouble is, when he set up shop across town, he took several of the other dojo's students with him.
Someone in that dojo contacted me and informed me of these events. They felt rather ill done by, and I can't say I blame them. I was quick to assure them that I had not advised or approved of such an action, and expressed my disappointment at the student's behavior.
This was all relayed in synopsis form to my elder colleague, who brushed it off as inconsequential. He said that he didn't care, such things don't bother him, and besides, he wouldn't be losing any of his students anyway. He also said something to the effect that he doesn't believe that students should be forced to stay in a situation against their wishes.
Now, this same gentleman is well known and widely regarded in our circle for his poise and equanimity, so his remarks should in no way be surprising. At the same time, I found his attitude cavalier and inappropriately detached. I realize the sentiments he was expressing are becoming widespread, but to me they seem irresponsible.
Let me attempt to explain. First, the assumption that people should be free to come and go as they choose is so fundamentally obvious as to not even need declaring. This is a practice I have adhered to with my own students, and our doors are open to all sincere individuals who wish to practice with us.
But we shouldn't simply leave it at that. Yes, it's a free country (so I keep hearing), and a student can always take their business elsewhere. But without consequence? Perhaps in some cases, but not always.
While I abhor the idea of actual legal contracts in martial arts training, there are nonetheless basic agreements and understandings that must be in place for our art to reach the profound potential that it offers. Training is a deep commitment among students and instructors that should be reciprocal and gladly embraced. Cultivating a culture of shallow connections hardly belongs in an art like aikido, and leads to a gross commodification of human relationships.
Should a student be "forced to stay against their will" in any training situation? Again, the proposition is so preposterous that it's surprising anyone would even mention it as a stance, one way or another. As if any of us have such leverage to begin with! Even in martial arts business practices where legal instruments are used to enforce a contractual agreement, the culture is clearly afflicted the moment such devices are felt to be necessary. So, like many enlightened-sounding sentiments, taking a position on "not forcing students" is actually a way to end a conversation without really having one.
If we only focus on the rights and liberties of the student, we overlook the consequences of their actions. When students abandon a dojo, they leave behind kohai who depend on the guidance of their seniors. They leave behind sempai who have invested countless hours of tireless devotion in the expectation that the human wealth of the dojo would be extended. When a chief instructor promotes a student toward shodan or beyond, it is with the clear expectation that teaching and administrative burdens will be distributed, and the ability of the dojo to better serve the larger community will be enhanced. Each student that simply disappears is an investment gone bad, no matter how regularly they paid their dues.
The true wealth of a dojo is in the quality of its family of students and instructors. When these things flourish, further resources may be obtained, and hardships may be endured. Everyone wins, and the dojo will grow materially and spiritually. Without these most human of resources, the community withers and dies, or else stumbles forward with anemic desperation.
When you take students from another dojo without regard to the owners, teachers, and student family of that dojo, you violate a living body. When you give rank to a "stolen" student, you are taking credit for work that is not your own. You discredit yourself, and you establish your dojo as competition in a field where there should only be allies working toward the same cause. You disgrace yourself and you debase the art.
People will say that a dojo is better off without such turncoats anyway. There is a measure of truth to this, but it ignores the very deep nuances of complex human relationships, feelings, and authentic needs. Not in all cases by any means, but at times there is a profound sense of loss, a feeling of betrayal, and a genuine grieving.
People will say that any instructor who is in this for the long haul had better get used to seeing the backs of students as they walk out the door, year after year after year. Right again, but I say any instructor who has really become accustomed to it has had to give up a piece of their soul to be so disaffected.
People will say that every time a student leaves, some of the ki of the dojo goes with them, and so enriches the world. Or that when students go to other dojo, valuable cross-pollination occurs and this is how the art evolves. Again I say these are vital truths -- ones that keep me sane during those hours when otherwise I can only weep. But if this cycle of coming and going is devoid of a sense of service, if it is lacking in true purpose, if it is motivated by low urges of convenience or whim, then our art is of no value whatsoever. For however technically talented a student may be, if they do not serve, they are nothing.
Of course, there are many legitimate reasons to leave a dojo. Some are by way of external imperatives, some are in the nature of an entirely forgivable change of heart. There are many many proper ways to depart from a dojo community on good terms. Simple communication is a kiai that has the power to shape the future and project good will far beyond the horizon.
But when a student leaves because a sensei has the temerity to expect excellence, or when a fragile pride is offended by raised voice or a raised eyebrow, when a student gets mad and goes across the street simply because they can, when a self-proclaimed ronin haughtily trains in all the arts without bowing to any master, then is revealed the impoverished face of a malnourished soul. If we take a precarious high ground and affirm the rights of such students but ignore the contagion of their malady, the disease becomes so widespread as to go unnoticed.
It once was that martial arts training was expected to foster the virtues of loyalty, commitment, honor, duty, service, and respect. It would be tragic if our 21st century sensibilities came to regard these qualities as passť. Yet I would trade them all if only love replaced them. Where there is love, these noble virtues appear in abundance, without thought or premeditation or any sense of onerous obligation. Love, or even simple abiding affection, brings people together, keeps them together, and allows them to part with a happy feeling of expansion. Just plain fun, the shared delight of exploration and discovery can be enough.
Love is any action or potential that fosters the quality of life for all concerned. This is both path and destination of the aiki road. We also need liberty, freedom, and personal sovereignty, or else we cannot move forward on the path at all. But the destiny that this journey calls us toward is the enhancement of life. Just this alone is the nature of our practice in all its forms.
Accordingly, we should love our students and let them go as they wish. Still, there is neither love nor wisdom in insouciant indulgences. When a wayward student is utterly ignorant, or worse, apathetic to the consequences of their behavior, the problem is only magnified when instructors and revered elders mirror indifference with indifference.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA