An Interview with Frank Doran (courtesy Aiki news)

Aiki News: If someone were to ask you the question, “Why study aikido when there are X number of martial arts on the market,” how would you respond?
Frank Doran: I think the question can be answered in different ways. One, when somebody asks me about aikido and whether they should study the art, I really try to direct him to view the other martial arts also because I think that when they see the art that is suitable for them they’ll know. I don’t think it’s a matter of the teacher selling the art. I constantly use the analogy of music. Not everyone digs the clarinet and it’s not right for everybody. It just happens to be right for me. So, in answering why it’s right for me, first, I explored some of the other martial arts. So I had a kind of a feeling for doing that and the thing for me so different about aikido was the fact that it has such a value for you in your everyday life. I really didn’t notice that in the others. And I’m constantly turned on by the idea that in aikido the aim is not to neutralize the attacker but to neutralize his aggressive acts. I really like that.

The idea of looking after the well-being of the attacker, so to speak…

It’s obviously what is so different about aikido. I don’t think it is really so different if you can trace the other martial arts back to their source. I have an understanding, or maybe a sensing that if you go back far enough it is the same, but unfortunately in some of the arts, and maybe even somewhere where aikido is taught–I really don’t know that–people have strayed from the path and the more important goals of total development have been lost.

When did you originally begin your aikido training?
I started in San Diego of all places. Bob Tann was one of Tohei Sensei’s original students from Hawaii. He had just made shodan and was assigned to recruit people in San Diego. I was at that time a hand-to-hand combat instructor assigned to our section there. Our instructors taught judo and karate and when he arrived he was the first one who had studied aikido briefly. Then Tokuji Hirata who was fifth dan was my teacher for three years. I studied with Tann for about six months. Then I went to Guam and did aikido with a couple of shodans there. And from there I went to Japan. It’s kind of interesting because when I went to Japan I had a letter of introduction from my teacher to Tohei Sensei. On arriving, Tohei met me at the door and took me in and told me I was welcome to join him as he was just doing a private lesson with one student. So he took me in and introduced me to this foreigner who was Robert Nadeau. That was my very first exposure to Hombu Dojo, my very first class.

You had been in aikido many years before you decided to become a full-time teacher. What prompted you to make that decision?
Well, it certainly wasn’t financial!

Can I quote you on that?
As far as having stability in a job, you know I had been a police officer for eight years, doing well in my profession. I had the retirement, a good salary, and all that jazz. But the very nature of doing police work despite my aikido training or maybe because of it, made me very aware of the negative involved. We were constantly being dispatched to negative situations and dealing with negative problems. And to stay plus under that kind of circumstance is really very difficult, though good training. And during that time, of course, I was still continuing aikido as much as I could under the circumstances, which wasn’t nearly as much as I knew I needed and wanted. It became so obvious that when I was with aikido people doing aikido I was in a very positive environment. The positive things that were in my being were being reinforced. I would be plussed up doing aikido and zapped out negatively when I was doing my police job. And I knew that it was best for my total growth as a human being to do aikido. The only way I could do that under the circumstances was to give up the profession, the stability, and take a chance on doing that. I had apprehensions because of what we talked about earlier about being a full-time teacher, knowing what a teacher is in Japan and knowing what a teacher is here. So I’m very aware of my shortcomings and I’m also aware that somebody around here has to teach. I kind of felt that it was a calling. I was happier when I was teaching.

What are some of the successful ways you have used to talk about the concept of “ki?”
“Ki” to me is life energy. It’s aliveness. Aliveness is not something that’s Japanese; it’s universal. This aliveness flows through you; it flows through me. It’s a very positive force. All of the energy kinds of games and practices–many of which Koichi Tohei developed–are very useful tools to put someone in touch with this aliveness which is within you. I think the approach that we get in Japan is the very act of doing it. If you just do aikido it will teach you. And I think that’s a very valid approach too. There are just so many ways of getting it across. I think what I try to do is use both approaches. Does that make sense?

In Northern California last year a different kind of organization came into being. In Aiki News we published the guidelines of the organization, most of which were pretty much your creation as far as the expression of the ideas. Of course, this loose-knit organization has been in existence now for nearly a year. It appears to have operated very efficiently. Communications have never been better and are more frequent. What sort of thing do you think this type of organization allows us to do that we were prevented from doing in the past because of rigid rules and a hierarchy being set up where one want appropriate?

Well, obviously the things we tried in the past were simply not working. It’s not the aiki way to try to put blame or find blame. Doing that is regressing. It’s clear enough that it was just not working. So what do you do about it? You either break all communications and say to hell with it, “Organizations do not work.” Or you simply try to–as I could see it at the time–open up communications at a more personal level. The thing that always amazed me was that we were communicating anyway, at least here in Northern California. Many of us, you included, would visit one another, go out to lunch together and say, “Hey, Stan, what are you doing that’s new?” You’d show me some new idea that you were working on and vice versa. And out of that we would continue to grow and share.

Yet you take the same people who on a personal level could enjoy having a beer together and a lunch together and sharing what they are doing and put them in the formal atmosphere of a meeting and have a hierarchy and appoint someone to take minutes, and everything grinds to a halt. I couldn’t understand that. Aikido is based on the concept of harmony. So when a group of aikido teachers cannot get together in a meeting and be harmonious something is wrong. So if our technique is not harmonious we stop and examine it and find that somewhere along the line there’s some stiffness, there’s some aggression, a lot of things going wrong. If we can tell the students to relax and be more natural, generally it works itself out. So the idea of the Yudanshakai as we have it now is just naturalness. Communicate, nothing more.

This year for the first time in June, you and Bob Nadeau will be conducting a week-long workshop on aikido, the Aiki Summer Retreat. Could you tell us a little about how that idea came into being? How will you approach it? What will you offer students?
Well, first, the idea is certainly not unique. Gasshuku in Japan are commonplace. On the East Coast they do a similar thing. I believe they call it the Aikido Summer Camp. In this particular area I guess it is, though we have been doing workshops as we call them here for a long period of time, we’ve really never done an extensive retreat in the past. Unfortunately, many of our students will never be able to go to Japan. That’s why it’s nice for us to be able to bring the Japanese teachers here. In the same respect, many of our students are unable to attend the fine workshops and week-long summer camps that are done on the East Coast. Why not do one here? It makes sense. The idea of getting a group of serious aikido students together for at least a full week, day and night, totally immersing themselves in the whole spirit of aikido, just turns me on. I like the idea of good hard keiko being balanced out with ample time for meditation and some of the spiritual aspects of aikido, chanting, and what have you. I like the idea of the group living aikido totally for an extended period of time.
As for how it’s been going, it’s February now, it doesn’t start until June, and we have 50 signups already. Our biggest concern now is how to tell others who may be sending in applications that it’s filled already. We’re checking to see how many over 50 we can take, but we really don’t know now. It looks like we might be turning people away which means that possibly next summer we can do two, or go together with some other teachers and do a larger one. Right now we’re interested in seeing how successful this one might be.

You are part of a unique business venture. Aikido of San Francisco has three major instructors who have entered into the dojo as partners and have a very fine, large facility with classes meeting daily. How did this particular combination come about?
It’s interesting. I guess the answer is two-fold. One, we wanted to try it strictly as a business venture. But I think the main thing is to really show that three teachers, and it’s questionable when you talk about “major”–may be “major” for this area–three teachers with very different views, somewhat similar, but very different philosophies, each with a drawing, if you will, of their own could operate harmoniously under the same roof. Why not? That’s not unique. The Aikikai Hombu Dojo does the same.

A big turn-on to me when I went to Japan–that was a burden off my shoulder seeing I had stuided under one teacher’s style for several years–was to see all these great teachers at Hombu Dojo all expressing aikido from their own viewpoint. And these are O-Sensei’s deshi. And O-Sensei could certainly see that they weren’t all doing aikido the way he did it, you know. Their way of moving was slightly different, yet the concepts were all the same. They’re teaching the same thing, you see. So why can’t this happen here? I think the students need to see this. I think that it’s important so that they understand the importance of not getting locked into an idea like, “I’m studying at such and such a dojo, this is the only way to train. That’s very sad and very limited. We need to be open-minded to accept all teachings. That which they don’t like they can later reject, but they need to sample it.

Are there any areas you would like to comment on, Frank? Anything we haven’t touched upon?
I’d like to speak about something I’ve straightened out in my own head since we were talking about the various styles and all, that’s kind of clarifed itself or me lately. I very clearly see aikido in my head now as being taught in three ways or three different periods. One is the static training, good firm, holding, really producing. I see this as being necessary to teach the mechanics of how to move, to teach one how to develop aiki strength. So kihon waza (basic techniques) taught in that style, from the static, is like phase one. It’s a kind of training. I liken that to music. If you’re really interested in music you have to learn to read the notes, you need to spend some time getting familiar with how to hold your instrument. You have to do the basics.
But then you do move on to a second phase that I see in aikido as ki flow. That’s a different timing with glowing, graceful movements. It’s a different stage. I don’t think you can really do that stage without understanding the other. Both of them are equally important. I see that related to music as being the second stage where one can pick up any sheet of music and play that which is written. But there is a third stage. And in music it’s called improvisation. And that’s where the music is not something someone else has written but something that comes out of the depths of your own soul. How good that improvisation is depends on how well you’ve done the first two phases. All of them are very important. I doubt whether very many people, if any, can step into improvisation in music or in aikido. Not too many probably can step into ki flow or reading sheet music. You have to do all phases. It’s sad though that some people lock into phase one as the only way to train. Pow! Gambatte! Or some think that the only way to train is to do butterfly aikido, soft, flowing. No, you have to balance it out, you have to do a bit of all of them. And hopefully, some day we’ll all reach the point of improvisation.

I like the analogy. It says a great deal to me.
So, in my dojo, although I’m teaching in other places too, what comes to mind is Stanford University, I think of that as my family, I really try to the best of my abiliity to give them a composite of all of that. I try to do static practices and strong practice. I try to develop strong extension. I encourage them to study with teachers like Bill Witt who are marvelous in that area, who really like that kind of training. My head is at the second phase, with dreams of moving on to improvisation. I love the ki flow. And because of that I need in my own personal art to work more on the “yangness.” I tend to shy away from it because I did so many “yang” things early in my life. I’ve been a “yang” personality… a marine drill instructor, a cop, a “narc,” you know, judo, karate, and a hand-to-hand combat instructor. It’s like I know I can produce to be strong. It’s been my nature to be frightened by the violence I know that’s in me. I don’t need to learn more violence. I’m trying to temper some of that out of my soul. That’s why I tend to be butterflyish. I need to get in touch with the “yin” in my nature. I’m happier, I’ve discovered, when I’m there.

Thank you very much, Frank!
You’re very welcome.


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