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Off and On
Off and On
by Ross Robertson
04-26-2009
Off and On

For as long as I've been doing aikido, I've been really passionate about the idea that aikido must go beyond the mat. My teachers often said that we must take our training off the mat and into our daily lives. We must make aikido a part of our continuing existence. It must be relevant to our work, our family and social life, our health, our arts, politics, philosophy, education, and recreation.

Thus, aikido is a way of life. Without pursuing the discipline as a path, or michi, it cannot truly be aikido. Practiced only as a diversion, only as a hobby, it may be aiki - something, but it is not aikido.

The Wikipedia article on the subject has some interesting things to say: "In Japanese, a Do implies a body of knowledge and tradition with an ethic and an aesthetic, and having the characteristics of specialization (senmonsei), transmissivity (keisho»sei), normativity (kihansei), universality (kihensei), and authoritativeness (ken'isei)." It's the idea of a specialization applied universally that pertains here.

(Apropos of nothing in particular, I also find it interesting that the entry lists "Aikido" as "the Way of harmonious spirit," and "Hapkido" as "the Way of coordinating energy," even though the kanji are identical. Personally, I find the translation of "Hapkido" more accurate and more useful than the one used for "Aikido.")

Anyway, all of this is well and good, except it's the usual sort of thing that gets me into trouble with people who don't want aikido to be narrowly defined, and then proceed to defend their right to practice it with their blinders on. In my opinion, such people can have their Aiki Social Clubs, their Aiki Dancing, their Aiki Fight Clubs, their Aiki Book Clubs, their Aiki-Not-Really-a-Path-So-Much-as-a-Mass-Transit-System.

Now, please... before you throw your tanto at me, people who know me will attest that I am very tolerant of a wide variety of aikido practices. It's not about style or lineage per se, it's more about sincerity, commitment, devotion, and an eagerness to bring the lessons of the mat to the larger world. Aikido can (and should) embrace all of the things in the above paragraph which I have just derided. It's not that they are necessarily bad things in and of themselves, it's just that they are bad by themselves. Aikido should be many things within the dojo, many more things outside the dojo. Specializations applied universally.

That said, I'm faced with something of a conundrum. The successful spread of aikido means that some of its philosophy and methods are making their way out of the dojo and off the mat. Little by little we are seeing the aiki approach seeping into (some) business practices, environmental awareness, military strategy, judiciary practice, and more. For example, Obama's oratory style was dubbed by one commentator as "debate aikido." http://www.npr.org/templates/story/s...oryId=96649317

I should be thrilled. I should be ecstatic, every time there's any evidence that the world is moving toward a closer accord with aiki thinking. In fact, I am. But my concerns are now starting to run in the opposite direction.

In taking aikido off the mat, I'm very worried that people will think that it can leave the mat.

For all its giddy, fortuitous diversity, aikido remains a very specific (specialized) practice. Aikido is learned in a dojo space with a group of people communicating body to body. These people inherit and transmit a lineage, which may adapt and evolve, but remains essentially aikido.

Reading books (or web articles) or watching videos or attending lectures or demonstrations are all fine things to do. They may inspire you to take action, and you may do good things in the world. I certainly hope so. But without time spent on the mat, it's not aikido. How much time? The practice of aikido is an endless path, so there really is no point you can step off and say you don't need to practice any more. Occasionally I will hear someone say something like "Oh, I feel like I've always practiced aikido my whole life, so I don't really need a dojo for that."

No. Your way of life may be perfectly wise and sustainable, and you'll hear no criticism from me if that's so. But don't call it aikido if you don't get down on the mat and sweat and exchange breath with someone pushing, pulling, and twisting you around. Preferably someone you love and fear.

There are many good and interesting and useful places in the world to learn and grow. Aikido is not necessarily better than some of these. But they are not aikido. Inside the aikidojo is a place like no other, and its mat is a world of concentrated reality.

However much our beloved Aiki O Kami Sama is extended into all other spheres of human affairs (may it be so!), we must return to the mat to drink from the source. In fact, I believe it cannot abandon the mat and still be aikido.

When humans stop trying to kill one another, when we have all adopted sustainable practices in all domains, when the need for combat self-defense becomes obsolete, even then the urgent experience of aikido remains unchanged.

If the walls vanish and the whole world becomes a dojo; if the mat extends to the streets and fields; if practice becomes indistinguishable from living; then "on the mat" and "off the mat" become meaningless.

Yet even then, there will still be walls, there will be mat, street and field. There will be practice and there will be living.

Do, by all means, take your practice of aikido off the mat. Just remember that aikido can only be found on the mat. Let there be lakes and rivers of Aiki that permeate the landscape. Let there be clouds of rain that nourish us all. Even so, it is within the dojo that the headwaters and the oceans of aikido are found. The dojo is at once the source and the destination of our practice.

April, 2009
Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

www.stillpointaikido.com
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Old 05-02-2009, 10:44 PM   #2
billnorr
Dojo: still point aikido center/ austin texas
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Re: Off and On

From our many conversations, and from what I have had the privilege to read of your philosophy, I must say that in principal, I do agree with you Sensei. Aikido is from the mat. It is a marshal art that, as I understand it, was developed with the intention of finding ways to end conflict.
One can want peace, and one can do many things to change the world so that it will become less violent. One can change the way they live, and by their actions, a peaceful way might infect others, and so on and so on. And, I hope that is what will happen over and over again in this world. But I understand what you mean when you say we must recognize that we must confront confrontation, in order to learn how to get beyond confrontation.
Aikido, by its very essence, is of the mat. And, I believe, as you so creatively state, each hour on the mat shows us how, as we carry on beyond the mat, we can conduct a more just and right life that will grow into a world with less violence. But we can never become so complacent as to think we can progressively practice and expand the principals of Aikido without going back to the mat to relive and relearn, the basics and the fundamentals of how violence and conflict can be transcended, so as to end the conflict.

Once, again, your creative way of presenting the practice and philosophy of Aikido is appreciated.

Billn

Last edited by billnorr : 05-02-2009 at 10:46 PM.
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Old 05-03-2009, 05:01 AM   #3
Susan Dalton
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Re: Off and On

I was one of those people who had philosophy in my head, but who had little connection between mind and body. My head had all kinds of lovely ideas but my body didn't know what to do with them. The slightest of confrontations and I froze. I like how you put this--it does take years of sweat and frustration, of actually doing aikido before my head starts to "get" philosophy. Often words my shihan says make sense much, much later than when I hear them. Thanks for this column, Ross. I enjoyed it so much I won't go on my usual rant about Wikipedia.
Susan
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Old 05-03-2009, 06:12 AM   #4
Mary Eastland
 
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Re: Off and On

Thank you...the understanding that comes from long term, commited practice is profound and must be felt to be understood.
Mary
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Old 05-03-2009, 06:45 AM   #5
Peter Goldsbury
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Re: Off and On

Hello Susan,

Does Wikipedia need a rant? Do you think you should expend the energy? I gather the article is a 'stub'. I am not quite sure about Wikipedia stubs. In the UK, cigarette stubs are usually snuffed out, after the cigarette has become too short to hold. Clearly, the article is not notable for its intellectual depth or penetration, but I never feel closely enough associated with Wikipedia articles to consider editing them. They are stuff that people write (though in some fields the articles are really brilliant, but not, alas, in aikido). Writing for AikiWeb is so much easier. People know who you are and can engage with you in a much more rigorous and also personal and friendly way than with Wikipedia.

I think I am one of the people who started with aikido with the mat. In my first practice, I made very close contact with it and did not know how I did so. The mind and body came later and the philosophy very, very much later. I can remember arguing severely with a university friend who told me that aikido was a 'martial art based on love'. At the time (early 70s), I was training at K Chiba Sensei's dojo in the UK (when aikido men were men and women were women, etc etc). Actually, it was Chiba Sensei who taught me that training off the mat should be a reflection / parallel of training on the mat. There should be no difference between the two types of training. However, the only Senseis I have met who actually embodied this idea in their own lives, in my opinion, were Sadateru Arikawa and Hiroshi Tada (and definitely not K Chiba, by the way).

In previous articles, Ross discussed aikido off the mat--and in a previous article we discussed the ethical aspects of this. Ross seemed to me to believe that aikido was intrinsically ordered to the improvement of humanity--and clearly O Sensei believed something similar. However, I think that the way O Sensei believed that this improvement was to be achieved was nothing like the way we believe this now (in individual ethical terms). For O Sensei the improvement in humanity depended on the correction of the relationship between three worlds of Omoto and so for O Sensei aikido was largely a matter of ritual. The aikido waza were a type of Shingon mudra, ordered to achieving a degree of enlightenment (here and now), which O Sensei believed he already possessed.

So, the issue for me, with Ross's latest article is:

To what extent does pursuing a michi (path) require its own ethical system?

I am sure that you can see that this initial question leads to two further questions:

Inside the dojo, to what extent does pursuing a michi require one to pursue a particular ethical system, in terms of individual training?

Outside the dojo, to what extent does the ethical system pursued inside the dojo need to be manifested outside the dojo?

I think that this issue is very relevant to the issue that you yourself raised in your own article. It seems to me that the Japanese Sensei had very good reasons for subjecting the boy to such a harsh encounter. He was forcing the boy to toughen up, which is what all Japanese boys are supposed to do. This toughening process happens in schools and dojos all over Japan and is the basis of the Japanese concept of fighting spirit. You might want to believe that this concept is actually bankrupt, but I do not think so. I think that in every culture boys are taught to be strong.

Very best wishes,

PAG

Quote:
Susan Dalton wrote: View Post
I was one of those people who had philosophy in my head, but who had little connection between mind and body. My head had all kinds of lovely ideas but my body didn't know what to do with them. The slightest of confrontations and I froze. I like how you put this--it does take years of sweat and frustration, of actually doing aikido before my head starts to "get" philosophy. Often words my shihan says make sense much, much later than when I hear them. Thanks for this column, Ross. I enjoyed it so much I won't go on my usual rant about Wikipedia.
Susan

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Old 05-03-2009, 06:48 AM   #6
Peter Goldsbury
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Re: Off and On

Hello Mary,

I entirely agree.

Best wishes,

PAG

Quote:
Mary Eastland wrote: View Post
Thank you...the understanding that comes from long term, commited practice is profound and must be felt to be understood.
Mary

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Old 05-03-2009, 10:16 AM   #7
Susan Dalton
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Re: Off and On

HI Peter,
I teach English (and aikido as a PE course) at a community college, and I teach students who have never done research to do short research papers. So I gripe about Wikipedia as a source, just like I gripe when they find something off the Internet and stick it in their papers as a source, and we find they're citing a 2nd grade project. It's my English teacher thing. Ross has heard my Wikipedia rant before, but I"ll give you the very short version. Several years ago, one of Wikipedia's editors who claimed to be a professor at a "leading Eastern university" (whatever that means) was discovered to be a 19-year old community college dropout. So although one can often find excellent information on Wikipedia, it's not a reliable source.

About my column, the incident didn't happen in Japan. It happened in a YMCA-type setting in the US, at a dojo where I was considering enrolling my child. I do agree that I was an outsider to this dojo culture and the sensei knew the child much, much better than I did. (I didn't know him at all.) Still, I thought the teacher's behavior extreme. I tend to be fairly self-righteous, and often when I go back and reread what I've written years before, I cringe. When I dug out this old article, I thought I might feel that way, and I know one of my teachers thought I over-reacted, but today I feel the way I felt that night. I decided that teacher was not the one to teach my child. BTW, I wrote him with my objections and we engaged in a civil dialogue. According to him, the parents of the child involved had no problem with the incident, and as far as I know the child continued his practice in that dojo.

About embodying aikido off the mat, I think it's a process, just like learning "good technique". "Little by little" applies here as well as on the mat.

Thank you so much for reading my article, and thank you for all your research, study, and hard work documenting the history and traditions of aikido.
Susan
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Old 05-03-2009, 11:40 AM   #8
mathewjgano
 
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Re: Off and On

I really enjoyed this article. Thank you. It hits home for me in a handful of ways, the most notable being the fact that for the last 10 years I've barely stepped on the mat, but thought about "Aikido" plenty (and tried to apply it as my core "way"). I'm sure it reflects in my nearly 1000 posts here on Aikiweb. I've noticed that when I do step back onto the mat, there's generally a different tone to how I behave and that it's generally more lucid feeling.

Quote:
Peter A Goldsbury wrote: View Post
To what extent does pursuing a michi (path) require its own ethical system?
Hi Peter, I'm having a hard time processing this question, so I appologize if I'm missing the point entirely. To my mind, any time a person is present, there are ethics involved, so in that sense any michi will have its own set of ethics, but depending on how rigid the demands of conformity are, those ethics will change somewhat over time to suit the subsequent generations' needs and tastes. I suppose the issue that comes next is to what extent a michi is defined by the ethics found in its practicioners...or to what extent the michi is defined by its practicioners.

Quote:
Inside the dojo, to what extent does pursuing a michi require one to pursue a particular ethical system, in terms of individual training?
If I view the michi as having a relatively fixed set of ethics, I think the practicioner must somehow include those ethics in order to walk that path. For example, in the Aikido lineages I know of, the idea of not hurting your partner is a rigid ethic. Accidents happen, but the intent of not harming our partners must be actively engaged or we "fall" off the path...forgetting for the moment that interpretation of what constitutes harm will vary.

Quote:
Outside the dojo, to what extent does the ethical system pursued inside the dojo need to be manifested outside the dojo?
I guess that might depend somewhat on whether intent is considered enough in an ethical system, but my uncertain opinion is that for it to be a michi, it must actively apply outside the dojo just as much as inside.
What do you think?
Take care,
Matt

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Old 05-03-2009, 12:54 PM   #9
sorokod
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Re: Off and On

Quote:
Peter A Goldsbury wrote: View Post
Does Wikipedia need a rant? Do you think you should expend the energy? I gather the article is a 'stub'. I am not quite sure about Wikipedia stubs. In the UK, cigarette stubs are usually snuffed out, after the cigarette has become too short to hold. Clearly, the article is not notable for its intellectual depth or penetration, but I never feel closely enough associated with Wikipedia articles to consider editing them. They are stuff that people write (though in some fields the articles are really brilliant, but not, alas, in aikido). Writing for AikiWeb is so much easier. People know who you are and can engage with you in a much more rigorous and also personal and friendly way than with Wikipedia.
In "software development speak", a stub is a superficial/partial implementation of the full functionality.
Regarding Wikipedia, I urge you to reconsider not participating in the wiki game. On the upside, Wikipedia articles have greater visibility then anything else out there.

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Old 05-06-2009, 07:11 AM   #10
Peter Goldsbury
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Re: Off and On

Hello Matthew,

I am rushing to meet Jun's deadline for the next column, so my answer will be brief. Forgive me for saying so, but I think you are all over the place. I think ethics have to be seen as a system of rules--and the issue then is the status of the rule, and the possibility of exceptions to the rules. The issue is how these exceptions are to be treated. Some comments:

Quote:
Matthew Gano wrote: View Post
Hi Peter, I'm having a hard time processing this question, so I apologize if I'm missing the point entirely. To my mind, any time a person is present, there are ethics involved, so in that sense any michi will have its own set of ethics, but depending on how rigid the demands of conformity are, those ethics will change somewhat over time to suit the subsequent generations' needs and tastes. I suppose the issue that comes next is to what extent a michi is defined by the ethics found in its practitioners...or to what extent the michi is defined by its practitioners.
PAG. Well, it was a question, initially directed at Susan, who appeared to me to believe that the instructor's treatment of the boy contravened some ethical system or other. I mistakenly assumed that the instructor was a Japanese in Japan, where the connection between a budo and an ethical system is not as clear as it would be in the US, for example, where the ethical system is both coherent, clearly expressed and completely distinct from a particular situation. The problems then lie in the gray areas.

I do not understand your statement that, "to my mind, any time a person is present, there are ethics involved". What do you mean by being present? Do you allow for any actions that are ethically neutral, such as getting up in the morning, collecting the newspaper and making breakfast? Where ethics are involved, what is the nature of the involvement? As a reference point or as a Kantian-type moral imperative? The prohibition on lying, for example, can be argued to be a categorical imperative and Kant allows no exceptions to the rule. Many, especially Japanese doctors treating terminally ill patients, have found this imperative too severe. The rest of your statement is unclear to me, since this initial statement is unclear.

Quote:
Matthew Gano wrote: View Post
If I view the michi as having a relatively fixed set of ethics, I think the practitioner must somehow include those ethics in order to walk that path. For example, in the Aikido lineages I know of, the idea of not hurting your partner is a rigid ethic. Accidents happen, but the intent of not harming our partners must be actively engaged or we "fall" off the path...forgetting for the moment that interpretation of what constitutes harm will vary.
PAG. Well, I think that the idea of not hurting your partner is not at all a rigid ethic--and a moment's thought will show that it cannot be in a budo that is fundamentally martial. The early samurai were vexed by the Buddhist rule against killing, because they embraced Zazen as a method of relaxation, in order to kill more efficiently. So, where is your rigid ethic? So, are you thinking about what is desirable, or what is actually desired?

And you are not allowed to forget important parts of your argument.

Quote:
Matthew Gano wrote: View Post
I guess that might depend somewhat on whether intent is considered enough in an ethical system, but my uncertain opinion is that for it to be a michi, it must actively apply outside the dojo just as much as inside.
What do you think?
Take care,
Matt
PAG. I can see your point that ethical budo training inside the dojo must lead to ethical budo behavior outside the dojo, given that the michi is an ethical system that is objective in its application: the validity is not affected by particular situations. However, how does the intent of an act change the ethical dimensions of the act? If you 'did not really mean' to commit adultery, because you were drunk, or you wanted to teach your incalcitrant wife a lesson, would this make the act any less adulterous?

Best wishes,

PAG

Last edited by Peter Goldsbury : 05-06-2009 at 07:13 AM.

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Old 05-06-2009, 07:15 AM   #11
Peter Goldsbury
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Re: Off and On

Quote:
Susan Dalton wrote: View Post
HI Peter,
I teach English (and aikido as a PE course) at a community college, and I teach students who have never done research to do short research papers. So I gripe about Wikipedia as a source, just like I gripe when they find something off the Internet and stick it in their papers as a source, and we find they're citing a 2nd grade project. It's my English teacher thing. Ross has heard my Wikipedia rant before, but I"ll give you the very short version. Several years ago, one of Wikipedia's editors who claimed to be a professor at a "leading Eastern university" (whatever that means) was discovered to be a 19-year old community college dropout. So although one can often find excellent information on Wikipedia, it's not a reliable source.

Susan
In this case, I agree. My Japanese students do the same thing and find it hard to understand my subsequent discourses on the iniquity of plagiarism.

PAG

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