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Aikido and Independence: On Not Finding One’s True Master

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by Peter Goldsbury

Aikido Journal #119 (2000)

Aikido is a martial art full of paradoxes and some of these are due to the way in which instructors introduce and teach that art, especially to non-Japanese. I myself started practicing aikido because it was not a competitive sport. I was fed up with the traditional English diet of cricket and rugby, and marathon running was a painful and solitary activity. Aikido seemed much more congenial. You had to have a partner, there was no competition and so you could proceed at your own pace, without the need to break your neck training for the next tournament. Instead, there was simply training: the same complex aikido movements repeated hundreds and hundreds of times. We were also taught that aikido could be practiced by people of any age group and required a “total absence” of physical strength. On the other hand, our instructor decided that we were not in good shape (he saw no contradiction with what he had said about physical strength) and so we regularly did ten-mile runs just before the two-hour aikido practices. As a long distance runner I was not fazed by this, but I defy anyone to tell me that this regime did not require rather more than a “total absence” of physical strength. Now, of course, 30 years later, I know it all had a place in the aikido scheme of things, rather like the divine plan for mankind.

Aikido was presented by one of my teachers as an art of mutual benevolence. Through the rhythm of attack and defence, aikido partners were in fact contributing to one another’s well-being. Aikido apparently had strong ties with Shinto, an ancient Japanese belief system populated with innumerable deities and ancestors, whose sole exertions were to ensure the well-being of the entire human race. We were taught that the Japanese emperor also played an important role in these exertions, but his connection with the Shinto deities—and with aikido—was never precisely explained.

Another teacher strongly denied the links of aikido with Shinto and instead stressed its links with Zen Buddhism. Aikido, we were told, was based on the ancient sword arts of the samurai, who all embraced zazen. We should do the same. We were encouraged to sit in impossibly painful postures and think deeply about nothing. Those who did not do this deeply enough received encouragement in the form of a sharp blow (hard enough to draw blood or cause bruising) across the shoulders with an instrument called the kyosaku. This training was supposed to deepen our spiritual awareness of aikido and its techniques, which nevertheless always had to work and sometimes resulted in severe injury. We were also encouraged to practice with wooden swords, sticks and knives, but without knowing why, beyond the fact that they were weapons and made the practice rather more realistic and exhilarating. The teacher was regarded by outsiders as a complete monster, but was much loved by his students. I myself think that, of all the teachers I have had, he was the one who forced his students to face several questions and attempt to answer them honestly: Why am I practicing aikido? What is my real commitment to the art? Do I really think it will change my life and if so, how?

Yet another teacher, a wonderful man in his early seventies, who loved to neutralize fierce attacks from the young bloods in the dojo, had no truck with zen. He denied that 0-Sensei ever practiced zazen and always stressed the motto, “Ken before Zen.” He thought that the time we spent doing zazen could be spent much more profitably practicing with the sword, preferably in a traditional sword art such as Katori shinto-ryu. He did not have much time, either, for the sword practice known as aiki ken.

All of these teachers apparently claimed to enjoy a close relationship with 0-Sensei and always called on him as the main witness to the truth of their positions. This caused me to wonder how it is possible that instructors of the same martial art, dedicated to bringing the truth to millions, could offer three seemingly contradictory versions of aikido and also be so different in teaching methods?

The striking differences between teachers and teaching methods leads to another set of questions, especially for Western practitioners of the art: what role should the teacher play in one’s “aikido life?” Is it best for an aikido practitioner to have one teacher only, or several simultaneously, or a succession of teachers, and in the latter cases, who is that practitioner’s real Master? (At the risk of sounding sexist, I hesitate to use the other title.) Is there a natural progress towards independence in aikido? In what circumstances should one leave one’s (“own,” or original) teacher and go to another?

East vs. West

I think such questions are relevant for a large number of aikido practitioners and not just those outside Japan. I think the usual paradigm of an “aikido life” is based on educational and cultural assumptions which are fundamentally Japanese and this situation is to be expected. The prospective aikidoist goes to a dojo, signs up and practices there for the rest of his/her life. The shihan in charge of the dojo, who is supposedly well on the way to being the living embodiment of all the aikido virtues (for this is why he/she is a shihan), becomes wholly responsible for the person, who signs a blank check, so to speak. Even if the person practices only once a week, or even once a month, he/she is still regarded as a deshi (disciple) of that shihan and the relationship obviously deepens over the years. The student might eventually open a satellite dojo, but this will still be regarded as part of the shihan’s organization. But if there is a conflict for some reason, then all contact with the shihan is severed. The student becomes a non-person in the group and either has to find a new organization or gives up aikido altogether. There are uncomfortably large numbers of disgruntled ex-aikido students around, even in Japan.

In the so-called “Western” countries education proceeds according to a different set of values and, while there is obviously the same level of commitment to aikido as in Japan, these values also operate. The role of the teacher is not so absolute and students are culturally brought up to expect some sort of transaction. Dojo fees are paid, but something is deemed to be given in return: a syllabus, for example; a fair measure of explanation of what to expect; and, for the higher ranked dan-holders, a recognition of status and a measure of independence. Students are considered to be responsible for their education and are used to making choices based on logical possibilities, with the teacher playing a more subsidiary role. Of course, these are the Western standards, but their implementation depends on the breadth of vision, or lack of it, among the shihans (at present predominantly Japanese).

The questions raised above perhaps reveal differing attitudes to teaching and learning and their importance was brought home recently as a result of a training course I attended. The visiting instructor, a highly respected Hombu shihan, also stressed that the “Homeric” age in aikido, wherein disciples ascended to Wakamatsu-cho and personally pledged their total dedication to the Founder, was over and that modern aikido was much more of a commercial operation. But he also emphasised the point that aikido nowadays needed to have textbooks. It was noted that aikido is now taught in Japanese high schools and that there had to be a common syllabus. The implication clearly seemed to be that in today’s aikido world, teaching should not be left solely to the whim of instructors. Teaching aids such as textbooks, and perhaps videos, were necessary. The instructor added that he now gives actual lectures about aikido during his instruction courses. Note that this instructor was thinking about teaching aikido in Japan to the Japanese, not abroad. He had learned his aikido, moreover, at the hands of the Founder himself, who did not formally teach (in the sense of covering a specific area of ground in a specific time), who did not, of course, use textbooks or any other visual aids beyond a fan, and who did not even use names for the techniques.

This instructor’s attitude is at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of my earlier teacher, who had also been taught by the Founder in the same way. Still definitely in the “Homeric” mode, he felt that the most important task of aikido students was to consider the degree of their own commitment to the art (only 100% commitment was really considered) and find the right Master. If this task was not achieved, there was no point even in starting aikido. By implication, having a succession of different teachers was of value only if it was a search which led to a conclusion. Of course, it also followed that if one found one’s true Master, that was it: all other teaching aids were valueless. However, like the visiting instructor who swore by textbooks, this teacher has taught generations of highly committed and technically able aikido students.

One vs. Many

In the rest of this article I will discuss the question whether this teacher is right, with a sidelong glance at the questions raised earlier relating to education, commitment, and maturity. I will consider two cases: (1) that of a committed disciple who has one teacher throughout his/her entire aikido life; and (2) a committed disciple who has several teachers, successively or simultaneously. I do not have in mind here the professional aikido teacher. Like that of a monk, this is a very special calling and appeals to few. Rather, I am thinking of the hundreds of students in Japan and abroad who organize their existence around aikido, who always live within commuting distance of a dojo, and for whom the regular practice sessions are the focal point of their social activities, of their entire lives, in fact.


I suppose that the first case, that of the committed student who has trained under only one teacher, is regarded as the norm in aikido, though I have no supporting evidence (the sociology of aikido not yet being an accepted discipline) beyond current literature on aikido and my own experience of practicing aikido in ten different dojos in three different countries. Even at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, where there are many different instructors and the practitioner is encouraged to take each instructor’s practice as it comes—choosing one’s instructor being discouraged, longtime students will usually single out one teacher as “their” teacher in some special sense.

Having one teacher only throughout one’s aikido life might be thought to have many advantages. There is only one style to be learned, even if this changes over the years; the teaching methods become familiar; and students and teacher come to know one another intimately. If the teacher has learned his trade from the Founder or his son, then the technical level will also presumably be very high. I think that the matter of one constant method of executing basic techniques is very important in the earlier stages, up to about 4th dan. It gives a strong foundation on which to build and a reliable basis for future creativity. At a deeper level, the need to forget one’s own questions, silent objections and personal preferences and to model one’s techniques 100% on the teacher’s, has always been an essential element of training in the martial arts. Nevertheless there is the constant danger of “ossification”: the hardening of attitudes which accompanies the hardening of the joints, and also of a certain lack of maturity, in the sense that the student is not encouraged to take seriously different, but equally valid, ways of doing the same techniques and thus is not encouraged to develop independent judgment about them. This judgment becomes increasingly important as the student progresses up through the ranks and is absolutely crucial if the student becomes a teacher, or becomes independent from the shihan.

Another problem with my teacher’s almost mystical insistence that one find one’s true master—or abandon training, is that it gives an awful lot of responsibility and freedom to the student, who does not necessarily know what to look for. Of course, he could reply that the student will know immediately when he has found the right teacher, but this is precisely the point. If the teacher is not 0-Sensei, then matters are rather less simple. The situation recalls the days of the samurai in Japan, when young men with nothing better to do went off in search of adventure and ended up as disciples of a master, or dead. It is sometimes forgotten that these people sat at the top of a social pyramid and were supported by hundreds of people who did not have the leisure to consider the question of finding their true master. An important aspect of aikido as a postwar martial art is that it is meant for these kinds of people, also.

I think that such a conscious choice is made by very few aikido practitioners, for the simple reason that outside the big population centers there are very few teachers around, even in Japan. A person hears about aikido, goes to watch a practice at the nearest club, signs up and becomes a regular member, possibly of a very large organization headed by a Japanese shihan, with whom he comes into contact only at gradings or summer schools, if these are held. By no stretch of the imagination can this person be said to have chosen his teacher. He might be said to have chosen the organization in some sense, but this is quite another matter.

The situation is different if the student signs up at the main dojo, where the shihan teaches, but even here I doubt if there is often a conscious process of choosing. What are the alternatives? Another aikido organization? Karate?

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