Sho-Dan as Rite of Passage

A nice piece by Dave Goldberg of http://www.goldbergsensei.com

I just returned from a long weekend in Maine. My cousin’s daughter, Jasmine, had her Bat-Mitzvah and just about everyone from the family was there. It was not as I remember mine or my sister’s, or any others from my generation.

This was an actual rite of passage—an opportunity for Jasmine to be presented to the community as a ready and complete participant. I was impressed by the preparation she obviously invested in it, the community service that she did (and continues to do) as part of the process, and the mature words she had to say about Love when she spoke to the congregation. Mine was sterile and empty in comparison, although I’m not sure I would have appreciated it either way when I was thirteen.

The weekend got me thinking about Rites of Passage, how it’s expressed in Aikido, and what I can do to improve that element. I know it’s very different from dojo to dojo, so I’ll share the way it’s done at Aikido of San Diego. Like Jasmine’s experience, there is a long preparation period when the candidate works with a senior mentor to sharpen their “vocabulary” of the art so that when it’s presented, it is clear and is delivered with confidence. Here is where we may be different from other dojos.

Last year I implemented a new policy where candidates must complete a project of their choice that they relate to aikido before an exam is administered. Jasmine’s community service project at a local senior home clearly added dimensionality to her rite of passage experience, and more importantly, to Her. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, too—an experience that connects the dots between the formlessness of principle and the form of the manifest world. Yes, this is also expressed (hopefully) in their technique, but the project is there for dimensionality.

The way of Aikido should transcend technique just as Jasmine’s passage into the Jewish community should transcend ritual and “vocabulary.” I don’t know what she has to do, if anything, as a follow-up to her Bat-Mitzvah. At Aikido of San Diego, the last part of the rite of passage is unwritten, comes some time after the exam, and is an integral part of the experience.

I will approach the new Sho-Dan at some point, present him/her with a key to the dojo, and ask him/her to instruct a class. It doesn’t mean I think they’re a teacher—simply that they have a foundation worthy of guiding others in my absence, that they are trusted with the dojo, and maybe most importantly, that they are expected to continue discovering new levels of themselves. Like any rite of passage, Sho-Dan is not an end, but a new beginning.

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