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Interview with Bruce Klickstein, Bob Nadeau and Frank Doran (1)

Aiki News #39 (August 1981)

The following interview with Frank Doran, Bruce Klickstein and Bob Nadeau took place in September of 1979. Frank, Bruce and Bob are all teachers of Aikido in the San Francisco Bay area. They have all been training in Aikido for many years and are greatly responsible for the development of Aikido in Northern California.

One of the interesting characteristics of this area is that there has been no major Japanese sensei in this area unlike certain other parts of North America and Europe. I think readers would be interested to learn something about the background of the three of you, your reasons for starting Aikido, and something about your early experiences in the art. Frank, would you lead off, please?

FRANK: One of my past occupations was that of a police investigator and one of the tools of investigation is to interview as many witnesses to an event as possible and to corroborate the information. I see that as being a valid way to investigate O-Sensei’s teaching. And, of course, the witnesses to O-Sensei’s life are the Shihan who were his direct disciples. So, I think it’s very valid for us to, in a sense, interview as many of these Shihan as possible, get their individual accounts, and piece all the information together so we get a true account, as clear as possible, of O-Sensei’s life. So I feel that we should put aside politics, stylistic differences, whatever, and get to the truth of the matter, which is listening to what all these people have to say.

Interesting point. Bob, you trained at Hombu Dojo for three years back in the early sixties. That makes you one of the smaller number of people from abroad who had direct contact with O-Sensei over an extended period of time. So, in addition to being exposed to many of the fine Japanese teachers, you also had a great amount of contact with O-Sensei himself. As a result of that contact, what are the thoughts and principles that left the greatest impact on your mind and that you try to impart to your students in your own teaching?

BOB: I don’t know if because somebody had contact with O-Sensei that they necessarily understood his philosophy. He talked a lot about a spiritual dimension. He was operating from a different dimension than normal. Just because somebody spends time with somebody who is coming from that dimension doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand it. I’m not sure that it’s the amount of contact time. Because he was coming from a whole other world. One person could put in a lot of time and not necessarily understand that world. Someone else could come in and already be interested in that world.

One of the reasons that I ask it, Bob, is that obviously you personally were profoundly affected by it or you wouldn’t have left a good job and a normal lifestyle to devote your life to Aikido and the spread of the art. So, just from a personal viewpoint, what were the things from his teaching that have been the most meaningful to you? What did that inspire in you to lead you to all this activity over the last 15 years?

BOB: I think that before I got into Aikido and before I met O-Sensei, I was looking for a form in which to present manifestation from an energy dimension. A world different from what most people work from. And when I met O-Sensei, he was already doing that. That helped because I wasn’t sure if I was a little insane, hoping that somebody could operate from a different dimension or a different world. And there he was, doing it and saying, “This is natural.” So, he helped me in just that. Just to know that I wasn’t crazy, that there was another dimension to work from. In daily life, one could operate from a different dimension in everything. But, he was one of the earlier ones. He was one of the first. And it was so apparent by how he moved, what he said, by what happened, and by a personal intuition. One could do centering in football, but it’s not talked about. Maybe now, but not 20 years ago. And there he was, and saying, “Yes, of course.” I’m not sure what I learned, but one thing I’m sure I learned was I’m not crazy. He was doing it and my sense of it was right.

Bruce, in your case, you’re a bit younger than these two gentlemen on either side of me…

FRANK: Not much.

But with no fewer strands of gray hair gracing your noble head. You, like myself, didn’t have an opportunity to see O-Sensei. However, you have spent a period of several years in Japan studying with one of O-Sensei’s closest followers, Saito Sensei, who was with him for many years. Going to Japan to study is something that many Americans are doing now, but when Bob went, back in the early sixties, there weren’t many foreigners training in Japan. Frank, you were at Hombu Dojo for a short period of time in 1962, weren’t you?

FRANK: That’s where I first met Bob.

So now it’s becoming a very frequent thing and there are a fair number of foreigners who are going to Japan, getting instruction from the teachers there, and then bringing it back. Not only with the technical understanding they have, but also with a deeper grasp of the Japanese culture. How has the experience in Japan of intense Aikido training and a greater cultural exposure affected your teaching in Aikido? Do you teach differently now after having been to Japan than you did before?

BRUCE: I’d say it was mostly the direct experience of living as an apprentice in the dojo with Saito Sensei. Being in the dojo where O-Sensei taught and lived, the Iwama Dojo, changed a couple of things. First, it gave a feeling of connection, a sense of connection, with O-Sensei. I slept in the room he slept in and trained where Aikido was the center of existence for a long while. And from that lifestyle there, the thing that I brought back that has affected me the most and the direction that I took in Aikido, was that it gave me a very strong reminder that the thing that’s very important in doing Aikido is the day in, day out training. That it’s a lifelong path that you embark upon and that it will take on many forms and many manifestations and many changes over the years, but that it’s the continuous day in, day out cultivating and using Aikido as a mirror for your whole life that’s important. What style you do, what way you train, how good you are, or even how strong you get is not really the important thing. It’s just the continual day in, day out repetition of putting on your gi, getting on the mat, and doing Aikido that’s important.

You touched upon an interesting point there that I know all of you gentlemen have some thoughts on. As you know, Aikido is known by many people inside and outside Japan as a martial art. However, those who have had even a little bit of exposure to it also know that there is some kind of a spiritual dimension to the art, that it has some philosophical aspect, and that it’s something that people use for self-realization or self-actualization. As a result there are many interpretations of the art. Some people emphasize the budo aspect and stress hard training and technical proficiency while others emphasize the more spiritual dimensions by devising special exercises to enhance that side of the development and put less stress on the martial applications of the art. To what point can one be creative or individualistic in his interpretation of the art before it becomes something proper to that person? Not everybody who is practicing Aikido might be recognized as doing that if you go into their dojo. There are some things that are very different. What are the boundaries of Aikido? For instance, Tai Chi is not Aikido. Aikido is Aikido. But what does that mean? Where are the limits?

FRANK: Thank you for the short concise question. (Laughter)

I’d like to hear from all of you on this one.

BOB: I don’t know if I can get this across, but I’ll try. Let’s say that there’s a certain amount of harmony within one’s own body or system. Then let’s say you stand in left hanmi, take a step, and experience this personal harmony. At that time you might say that this action was enough to use as a doorway to change into another dimension or level of consciousness, to change into something “spiritual”. Someone else might say that this action was not enough by itself and that you need a partner to be able to make this shift into another dimension. So you get a partner and you throw them. Then this becomes the action that you use as a doorway to move into another dimension. Then someone else comes along and says that the act of throwing is still not enough. They say that your partner has to hold on hard and offer some resistance. So your partner holds on hard and you throw them. Now you’ve proved that you’re balanced and you use that action as the doorway to enter into another dimension. I’m not sure which doorway is valid, because as soon as you do one thing someone is going to come along and say it’s not enough. I’m not sure which level is good enough to make the shift into another dimension. Maybe the one where you’re standing all by yourself in left hanmi. I think it’s an honesty factor unto each individual.

When you approach it from this viewpoint what role does O-Sensei play?

BOB: He showed that there were in existence other dimensions of consciousness, other dimensions of awareness.

A precursor.

BRUCE: It’s different for everybody though. That’s what’s important. You need to be honest with yourself no matter which one you’re doing. But one’s not right and one’s not wrong necessarily. Saito Sensei related a story that O-Sensei said. He said there is a natural progression of a person through life if they’re guided properly. They start out young and, as a young 18 or 20 year old, it’s proper to get out there and beat heads and bounce each other around. O-Sensei said to young people that they should eat meat, that they should get out there and really get in and really work and get pissed off at people. But, he said that there is a time when you stop eating meat and start eating maybe more fish and chicken. You also start working on other things. And it’s a natural progression as you get older. There is a right path for each individual person and as a teacher you have to be able to guide them along it.

FRANK: A couple of things that Bruce said really stuck with me. One is very clearly the importance of day-to-day training. We’ve all experienced that. We’re still putting on our gi every day and were still searching and trying. You talked about O-Sensei being a great scout and a pathfinder. I think that he ran up and found the whole path and then he came back to the beginning, brought each of us there, pointed and said, “It’s that way.” And that’s all he’s going to tell you. Everybody is looking for somebody to tell us the way to get to the end of the path. It’s like a mystery novel. I don’t understand Aikido at all, but I’ve got the book in my hand. And the more I read into this thing, the more I get caught up in the characters, and the less I know about Aikido. It’s not until I turn over the last page that I’m going to know how it ends.

BRUCE: O-Sensei called it Takemusu Aiki. After years of basics and a foundation from which to jump, there’s a point at which you begin inventing it on all these dimensions at once. New techniques start coming out and other areas open up to you. Another way of describing it is that you almost reinvent the whole thing yourself.

Frank, let me ask you this. is there any point at which you see someone presenting something to students and you feel uncomfortable that they are calling it Aikido? Is there an outer limit that makes you uncomfortable and that you wish that that person would no longer use the name Aikido and call it something else?

FRANK: Yes. And there’s a paradox there, too, because my own personal dragon that I’m working to slay is a dragon inside of me that’s judgmental. You know, this is the way it should be because it’s according to my understanding. And I recognize that my understanding is very limited. It’s just my understanding to date. And so, I’m trying to train myself. I would like to get to the point where I could go to any dojo in the world and walk in and just take part in the training and not form a judgment on it. But, as yet, I haven’t slain that dragon. That dragon is still there and I’m still judgmental. And what I see is that as long as I continue to be judgmental, others likewise are being judgmental. And it’s this whole judgmental ness that causes the disparity in Aikido and prevents us from being harmonious. It’s the whole thing of not allowing other people to simply do their thing. Bob and I have been friends since 1962 and one of the things I’ve always respected in Bob is that although I know very often he looks at what I do and kinda shrugs and says, “That’s Doran,” he never gives me the feeling that it isn’t OK for me to do me. And so, with that same kind of feeling, it gives me permission to allow him to be him and just to do his own thing. It’s like what Saito Sensei said. If the company is turning out a good product, the product will speak for itself. So don’t look at the methods and all that stuff, just look at the product. And so, when I look around, what I see is that what Bruce does in his dojo is vastly different from what I do in my dojo, which is vastly different from what Bob does in his dojo. But, yet, we’ve all been in agreement. When we get together for the Dan exams, we see that the products that we’re turning out, by whatever means, are basically good.

BOB: Frank turns out a good product, Bruce turns out a good product, and I turn out a good product.

FRANK: Isn’t that enough? BRUCE: There’s got to be a real strong clarity in your own ability to weed out what’s right for you and what’s wrong for you at the moment without being judgmental about someone else. You’re not inside them so you can’t decide what’s right and what’s wrong for them. You may disagree with what they’re doing whole-heartedly and think it’s the worst thing in the world to be doing, but you can’t tell that for anyone but yourself.

FRANK: And also, if what they are doing is very, very wrong, they’re going to do it anyway. So all you’re doing is compounding the problem and contributing to aggression. Where is the Ai? Where is the harmony if you make an issue out of that? Why don’t you just let it be. I mean, you know, it’s a free enterprise system.

BRUCE: If it’s a good product, it will get better. If it’s a bad product, it will get worse and it will become obvious.

This is a good point here. We talked about when everyone comes together for the Dan examinations and that although each of your training methods are different from each other’s and from other people’s, each of you turn out a valid Aikido product. There are certain points in which we feel people are not ready for a dan level. Now, what are some of the attributes of that good product? What are some of the necessary characteristics it must have before we put it on the market, so to speak?

FRANK: First let’s say that the interesting thing is though we all on the surface seem to be coming from such vastly different places and we’re all, you know, kinda doing our own thing. When we get in that room following examinations, invariably, time after time after time, we all see the same thing.

BOB: That’s been true for more than 15 years.

FRANK: That’s interesting. So somehow the basics are there. So, I think the issue is not getting hung up on form as much as the principle, and that each of us through our various means are really teaching the same principle. Because when the students get out there and do the dan exams, the only way we can recognize what dojo they train in is by their form, not necessarily by a manifestation of the principle. All of them possess the things you’re talking about. All of them possess extension, flowing ki, whatever you want to call it. It’s all just a matter of semantics, but they all have a sense of base, they all have a sense of movement, they all have a sense of harmony, they all understand hanmi, and on and on about the basics. They all have those essential elements. And when they don’t have it, when they’re lacking in one or more of those, we all see it and it’s absolutely apparent. And not only do we see it, the students watching the examination see it, too. And there is an eye for what is acceptable Aikido in the area, and I say hooray for that. We’re making progress. Because, after all, what are we? We’re elementary school teachers, in my sense. We’re somewhere along the path. We don’t claim to have any great understanding. So, therefore, we’re only teaching from our understanding today. So that puts us at a certain level. And so, great. it seems that the Shihan when they come around are satisfied with what they see, and they take them to a higher place.

That’s also a subject I’d like to bring up, Frank. You’ve been in Aikido about 20 years now in this area.

FRANK: 21 years.

And you Bob?

BOB: Something like 19 years.

OK. And we’re still elementary teachers and we can allow the Shihan from Japan to take students to a higher level. I think I got that from your previous comment. At what point can people outside Japan who have been in Aikido for a long time cease to become elementary teachers and become junior high school, high school, even university professors in their own right? Do you think that can happen someday?

FRANK: Absolutely. Because it’s time. You see, in this case, Bob and I have been in Northern California the longest. One pioneer, if you will, ahead of us was Robert Tann who, as you know, has long since retired. But, we were pioneers and what we had was the same thing that the pioneers had who came across from the East. We didn’t have much equipment. We didn’t have a lot of knowledge. We were young Nidans who had a smattering of training and some ideas. And we came to virgin country where there was no Aikido and you know what we did? We spent our time fighting Indians and chopping down trees and removing shrubbery and boulders and clearing the land. And it’s like we’re burned out now. We’ve done that. And what’s happened is that another generation is here now. And these people don’t have to fight. There aren’t any Indians anymore. And there aren’t any more trees because we’ve cleared the land. What they can do is just walk in and teach. And because of what the pioneers have done before them, the ground is set so that they can go to Japan and get this higher teaching, this finesse or whatever. So you’re in a position now to take it far beyond, and that’s the way it should be. Each generation passes it on. And I’m really clear what my particular function is. I’m too old and have too many wounds from fighting the Indians to start over again with the finesse or whatever. So I continue to plow the land and prepare the land. That’s what I see as my particular mission.

Frank, I could let this easily slip by, but I’m going to take issue with you on this. And I’ll tell you why. Consider the example of O-Sensei. We just saw a movie of him at 52 years old and, because of the perspective we have, because we’ve been exposed to him as an old man, we look and say, “Oh. O-Sensei was young and spirited at that time.” Now, I understand that O-Sensei maintained his body in fantastic physical condition right up to the end of his life. He was flexible, strong, etc. And granted that in statistical terms in our society, one starts to get old at 25 or 30 and go downhill physically, even mentally, at a certain point. What if one were to approach life differently, live a different lifestyle, take care of his body by doing some kind of discipline throughout a lifetime? O-Sensei is a beautiful example of how 45 or 50 years is not particularly old at all and that the prime can be extended farther into what would be normally be called old age.

BOB: Frank is 45 and still swinging.

FRANK: I’m 48 and.. .

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