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Everything in Black and White

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by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #119 (2000)

Our dojo scored a world-first the other day when two high-ranking Japanese senseis conducted a class wearing ordinary street clothes, while all the students wore dogi and hakama!

This drastic deviation in dress code came about because the senseis were here on holiday and had not intended to train. I persuaded them to take the class at the last moment and there was no time to arrange uniforms for them.

As we do not use the hakama to designate rank, all of our students wear it, including beginners, so the only legs without the correct covering on this occasion were those of the teachers. They were not worried, nor did they lose any respect from the students when they rolled up their sleeves, took off their shoes and stepped onto the mat. We had a very relaxed and enjoyable aikido session.

It was a different story when I turned up as a spectator at a dojo in Australia and did not let on (not having been asked) what my rank was.

I was watching the class when one of the instructors came over and invited me to join in, even though I was in civvies. “We don’t stand on ceremony here,” he said, ushering me onto the mat and pairing me off with a huge, bearded fellow who looked most impressive in his nice white dogi and black hakama.

I must have looked pretty scruffy in comparison and felt uncomfortable in more ways than one as it was mid-summer and I soon began sweating profusely.

My partner initially assumed I was a complete beginner and seemed annoyed to be stuck with me, then became quite angry when my first throw landed him rather heavily on his back. I had not done this deliberately but he was rather stiff and fell like a ton of bricks. A heated training session followed and it was a liquid Lynch that poured himself into a taxi to return to his hotel, though I had rather enjoyed myself.

It was the first time I had ever trained in street clothes (and incognito to boot) but perhaps I was in good company, as there are some old pictures around that show O-Sensei himself on the mat, sans the correct aikido outfit, training in trousers and shirt sleeves.

Times change, and it is now possible to pay over $500 for a deluxe aikidogi (jacket and trousers only, hakama not included), according to a catalog I have.

I was intrigued to learn, too, from a new book on the history of Japan-New Zealand relations, that several of the original handful of Japanese settlers who arrived in this country over 100 years ago were “jujutsu performers” attached to circuses! Many of them went on from these humble beginnings to become solid citizens.

But what a contrast they must have been to present-day aikido instructors who demand business-class or first-class air tickets and a substantial fee over and above expenses when they visit foreign countries. One does not begrudge them this, of course, since it has taken a while to achieve this recognition. No doubt they can afford to wear deluxe dogis too.

On the other hand, many who have followed in the footsteps of Morihei Ueshiba, clearly have difficulty filling his shoes, and some of them would have the opposite problem with his hats, humility not being their strong point.

Because thou sayest thou art rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable and poor and blind and naked; I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye salve that thou mayest see. Revelations

All of us involved in trying to teach aikido to others probably have moments of concern about how far we should attempt to imitate O-Sensei, when we know we are a long way from his level of perfection, both technically and spiritually.

He was able to deal with all sorts of physical challenges with consummate ease and spoke about the deeper meaning of life with a conviction born of direct experience. When he says “Aikido is love,” it has a powerful impact, whereas when others utter these words we are often left with the feeling, “That’s all very well and good, but what does it really mean?”

Comparing what we teach with what we think the founder taught, it is easy to feel a bit of a fraud, as if we are “decked in borrowed plumage” or, as the Japanese expression has it, “doing sumo in someone else’s loincloth.”

We can look the part and even talk the talk, but “walking the talk” is not so easy. It may be a measure of O-Sensei’s genius that this problem exists for most of those who came after him.

I remember the late Doshu saying after a demonstration, “I have shown you how one might deal with multiple attacks, but I am not claiming that I can actually do this myself.” It seemed to me an example of honesty and humility we could all learn from.

Meanwhile we go through the motions, wear the proper white raiment, and achieve a certain amount of credibility amongst our students, even though we know that we are probably as far from the original aikido as the fading carbon copies of a blueprint, which become less recognizable with every generation. Thinking this way can be depressing, but it can also be strangely liberating.

Although I have become a disciple of the Buddha, my heart is not yet absorbed in enlightenment. I am like a prodigal son who has forsaken his father. I now see that in spite of my learning I am not able to put it into practice, I am not better than an unlearned man. It is like a man talking about food, but never eating and becoming satisfied. We are all entangled in these two hindrances: knowledge and learning, and vexation and suffering. I can now see that it is all due to our ignorance of the eternal and tranquil nature of true Mind. Pray, my Lord Tathagata, have mercy upon us all; show us clearly the mysterious enlightening Mind, and open our true eye of enlightenment. The Surangama Sutra

As they say, sincerity is a wonderful thing and if you can fake that you’ve got it made.

Unavoidably, aikido training is a kind of pretense. We are continually showing people how things might work, and thereby exposing ourselves to criticism from the contest-oriented arts (or sports), where at least you can prove something by winning or losing.

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