“Serious practitioners of Aikido face the same situation that O-Sensei
faced: an uncertain future with no guarantees about the final outcome.”
I agree with most of what George Ledyard says in his article, but it does somewhat beg the question regarding change in Aikido. Certainly, the winds of change are blowing. They have been blowing from the outset!
When O Sensei and a few followers left Sokaku Takeda they could not have foreseen the development of modern-day Aikido. Similarly, when O Sensei instructed Bansen Tanaka to recruit the sons of wealthy parents as students, or entrusted Hombu Dojo to the care of his son Kisshomaru, he could not have foreseen the creation of a corporate Aikido. When the founder left Tokyo for Iwama, sick in body and mind, I feel sure that his intention was not to create a definitive style of Aikido as a legacy for future generations. Given what we know of the founder’s life, it is not unreasonable to assume that he was engaged in Shugyo to mend his ailing spirit. Everything he had believed, not least the spiritual uniqueness and divinity of the Japanese people (and therefore himself), had been called into question by the events leading up to and following the Second World War. While the nation was preoccupied with material survival and restoration, O Sensei set about a process of spiritual reconstruction that was to take many years. When he left Iwama, both he and his Aikido had changed.
O Sensei was always moving on, and everyone else has been playing catch up, trying to emulate, imitate, advocate, dispute and incorporate ever since. While O Sensei has left the building, the characteristics that were there at the beginning, schism, financial insecurity, and finding one’s own way (Do of Aikido), are still fundamental preoccupations – as any teacher running a dojo will tell you. It seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Serious practitioners of Aikido, those in it for the long haul, face the same situation that O Sensei faced: an uncertain future with no guarantees about the final outcome.
Is there anything that O Sensei left behind that can help us to navigate through our own confusion – because confusion there is, an abundance of it? If O Sensei were to take even a casual glance at an Aikido internet forum today, it is doubtful that he would recognise his own creation. He might well ask, as he often did: what are these people practicing? In the face of change, uncertainty is natural, but uncertainty multiplied by fear results in confusion. Did O Sensei leave anything behind? Yes, he left us with ourselves! Not this or that teacher, not this or that technique, not this or that explanation, but an untapped and rich resource of human potentiality that each of us can mine if we can only “become one with the universe”. What could be simpler; what could be more difficult? Fear is what prevents us from moving on.
One thing that O Sensei did not leave behind was a management model. O Sensei only managed himself, and everyone around him – even to this day – struggled to keep up with him. The principles of expansion and contraction are key principles evident in many Asian spiritual practices. It is not surprising that the expansion of post-war Aikido has in turn given rise to fragmentation and contraction. This is natural. If one looks closely at one’s own practice and development, expansion and contraction is happening all the time. This is movement, this is change. It’s ironic that individuals, some very experienced, and organisations – some well established in Aikido – are resistant to this process. Fear cuts ki, stagnates, and militates against movement and therefore change. What is being practiced?
When shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints are worn out, what are we to practice? Do we want to be one with the universe, or in bits with the universe? There is considerable irony in the fact that many teachers who advocate the way of unification, are themselves in bits through severe physical practice. They must see scope for change more than anyone else. I’m sure many of the better teachers are proactively seeking it, and not worrying too much about the consequences.
The information super highway assists in creating, and exacerbating, appetites for all kinds of things, but offers little in the way of real satisfaction. We are confronted by many options and choices. When the Berlin wall came down, many easterners had to undergo therapy to cope with the bewildering array of choice that left them confused and unable to make simple decisions. Shopping for a tin of peas became a frightening endeavour. It helps to know what you want, why you want it, and what you are going to do with it. In a recent conversation with a Japanese Shihan he said, indirectly asking a direct question, “What is Aikido? I think this is a very interesting question.”
If you spend your time chasing teachers, that is your practice and that is what you get good at. If you spend your time sitting at the feet of a master, that is your practice and you will probably get haemorrhoids. If you spend time trying to acquire aiki skills, you will simply get good at trying. There are countless examples of students attending the classes of masters with excellent aiki skills who can’t do what the teacher is showing, but still they go. Everything changes. Aiki skills come when you are less driven by ambition, and stop trying to imitate someone else. What am I practicing at this moment is a question we should all be asking in our dojos.
In a sense managing change is an oxymoron. It can be resisted, it can be adapted to, it can be embraced, but the only sure thing is that it will always happen – it is a force of nature. We are part of that nature, and if we have the courage to unify ourselves with that nature and realise that it is our natural heritage as human beings then change will be less problematic. This unification is not something that a teacher can give you, a teacher can only facilitate. The student must do it themselves. The fact of the matter is that such facilitators are rare in Aikido, or anywhere else. O Sensei could not give what he had to anyone; he simply encouraged people to find it for themselves – to be one with the universe. While there have been obvious gains in terms of accessible knowledge and experience in the expansion of Aikido, perhaps what has been lost is the simplicity of a teacher and a few students practicing and growing together. In his travels around Japan this is what O Sensei did, spending time with different teachers and a few students. It is, after all, how he began.