AIKIDO – make the most of your leaders

A very nice piece by George Ledyard.

I just heard the news that Sugano Sensei had passed away. Another direct student of the Aikido Founder whose lifetime of experience is no longer available to us. Here in the United States we have lost A. Tohei, Toyoda, Kanai, and now Sugano Sensei. That leaves Yamada, Chiba, Saotome, and Imaizumi Senseis from that generation of post war uchi deshi who trained directly under the Founder.

The depth of experience these teachers possess is truly irreplaceable, they are an “endangered species”. As these giants pass away, one bu one, I can’t help but raise the question once again of who takes over when these men are gone?

I don’t mean who runs the various organizations presides over testing, etc. That’s just administration. I mean who takes on the responsibility for the “transmission” to the next generation? Who is even capable of taking on this mantle? Did any one of these teachers manage to pass on what he knew? Can you look at the succession and say that any of these teachers created any students who were as good as they were / are? And if not, why not?

In my opinion, many of us senior students, direct students of these giants who trained with the Founder and then pioneered Aikido’s growth overseas, have failed our teachers and failed our art. We squandered the time we had with these people, always acting as if there would be another class, another seminar, another chance to master what they knew. And now, increasingly there will be no more chances. And who amongst us has measured up?

There has been a lot of discussion about the failure both the Founder and many of his most talented students to develop a systematic teaching methodology for transmitting the art. I agree that this was the case. But once realizing this, whose responsibility was it to fix the issue? Once I realized that my own teacher was doing Aikido on a level that he could not break down and explain, whose job was it to figure it out?

If we can honestly and dispassionately look at what our generation to teachers has achieved in 35 to 45 years of practice and find that we are forced to admit that none of us is as good as our teacher, then I think we have to really look at the hard fact that we failed to do our jobs. We can blame our teachers for not doing a better job, we can content ourselves with excuses based on some “special” capacity or experience on the part of our teachers, which we could never measure up to…

We got in the habit of ceding control over our own Aikido destinies to the senior teachers. We waited for them to create training events, do seminars, tell us what they wanted us to know… If they looked satisfied, then we ere satisfied. Just as long as Sensei was happy. But did any of us feel like we had really mastered what our teachers were doing? If we actually did feel that way, did we move on and find the next teacher who could take us to the next level? Did we simply content ourselves with knowing more of what our teachers were doing than the general membership within our organization and give up on trying to be as good or better than our teachers?

I think that the passing of our teachers, one by one, is a wake up call for the community of senior teachers. As tragic as it is to have our teachers passing on, retiring, etc. the one positive is that its our turn now. We can’t blame any failngs on anyone else. If Aikido fails to measure up, it’s our fault. We can’t blame our teachers, blame Hombu, blame Kisshomaru, or O-Sensei. It is our art now and our responsibility. If we don’t feel like we have measured up to our own teachers, well, what is stopping us? The sources for taking our Aikido to the next level are out there. There are very high level teachers who are in the process of entirely retooling their Aikido, even after 40 plus years of training.

It is time for us to start acting like the leaders we will need to be to assure the transmission. I do not think we should any longer be waiting for our Shihan to create events, teach seminars, determine the direction of our training. I think we should be doing so. I think we should basically dispense with all this “style” or organizational nonsense and begin to support each other as senior American teachers. Collectively we have a vast experience which, if we shared, would benefit each other. We have connections to teachers from outside the art who offer some of the “missing pieces” that could take us all up to or even past our teachers. If we network with each other and share these connections, rather than horde them as giving us some advantage over the others, we could get our own training on the right track and model a far superior modus operandi for the next generation.

I look at Ikeda Sensei traveling all over setting up cross style and organizational “Bridge” Seminars and I ask myself, “why do we need to wait for someone like him to do this?” We should be doing this! We simply do not need to wait for someone senior to initiate positive change. It is our job to do so, starting right away.

When one of the giants like Sugano Sensei passes away, if people have to cast about ion their minds for who could fill those shoes, then we have not done our jobs. I do not mean whether the general membership has accepted someone as a future leader… I mean do we as those future leaders feel we ourselves could train another student to fill those shoes? If we do not feel we could do so, then the transmission is broken.

Most of us are getting to be around sixty now. We have perhaps 20 years, if we are lucky, to pass on what we know. If, in our questioning of ourselves we decide that we are not what we could or should have been, then we have only that twenty years to both take ourselves up to that level AND pass it on to another generation. We need to step up to the plate and become the leaders we have been trained to be. If we start now, perhaps we will actually be ready when there are no more uchi deshi left to fall back on and it is entirely up to us.

Every time we lose another treasure like Sugano Sensei, a greater burden of responsibility falls on us. We need to make sure we measure up and we need to make sure we are in position to pass it on. If we are not, then we need to do something about it, right now, not later. Later is too late.

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One Response to AIKIDO – make the most of your leaders

  1. ted says:

    Another giant gone. During my 15 years in Japan, I was lucky to train with a lot of these giants, but saw the passing of many more before I had the chance (Saito, Hikitsuchi, Nishio sensei). It occurs to me that aikido is an internal art in the truest sense, taking the shape of the container that holds it. I think we need to look at these legends as men, rather than martial artists. They were raised in a completely different age, and lived according to different moral codes. I'm a fan of pre-war Japanese cinema, and watching these, I noticed how European Japan was before the war. I speculate that the traditional Bushido code (whatever that means) may have coupled with old European codes of chivalry, creating people of strong character and integrity. I too often think that these teachers 'failed' as teachers, since no one seems to have reached the levels that they attained. But we, their successors, are people of different times. In the spirit of 'shu ha ri' we need to cultivate our own aikido. Start with baby steps, and with an increase in ability and confidence, our stride will begin to lengthen, and we too will be able to follow in these giant footsteps, yet with a different rhythm to our gait.

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