AIKIDO – make the most of your leaders

October 2, 2010

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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My Aikido New Years resolutions for 2010…

January 4, 2010

  1. To get in at least 10 hours Aiki a week. Normal class schedules give me a regular 8 hours so intend to get out and about more this year and get to share as much Aikido as possible.
  2. Get physically fitter. Easier said than done when you teach all the time, hence point number one being, well, point number one. Those of you that know me well might also like to make sure I do blood tests BEFORE training to avoid quite so many “Jelly Baby” moments this year..
  3. Get mentally fitter. 2009 was a bit of a roller coater, with some fantastic highs including of course the completion of the new dojo in silverdale, but also had it’s downers, with the loss of some good friends and some financial setbacks that affected me far more than they should have. This year I will focus on all the great things we have and count the blessings.
  4. Avoid all politics. In any form. 2009 and seemed to be a year when our normally small but sociable NZ Aikido community was plagued with political machinations that would make Machiavelli cringe. Not interested.
  5. In line with point 4, I pledge to extend our dojos “open door” policy and actively invite instructors from other organizations to come share their aikido with us, thereby performing tenkan upon the issues mentioned in point 4 ;0) Our Summer Camp on Jan 22nd-25th will hopefully feature several of Auckland’s most senior Aikidoka, and will be a great opportunity for us to show what Aiki path we are all currently treading.
  6. Spread Aikido. It’s really easy to just focus on your own clubs and students, and not look to the horizon. Aikido is a truly wonderful thing to have as part of your life, and the more people who it touches, the better. NZ has a dreadful record for bullying in schools and physical abuse towards kids within families – If Aikido was more widely available, maybe even via schools, I believe it could have a profound effect. If anyone out there in the NZ Aikido commnity is like-minded, please get in touch as this will be a considerable project and we’ll need all ther resources we can muster I suspect.
  7. Bring back the 1000 cuts winter misogi.

Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2010.


New Full-time Aikido Dojo in Silverdale, Auckland, New Zealand..

August 8, 2009

At last. it is done. After nearly 9 months of hard graft the dojo is finally finished, and the remarkable thing is, it actually looks like our original drawings!

As I said during the opening ceremony, all building projects go over time and over budget, and this did both magnificently. We ran out of money by about month 6, when the council made their 4th ridiculous addition to “what we had to do to meet compliance”.
Truthfully, there were times when we felt like giving up on the whole project.
Interestingly enough, during some of the most stressful times when we were in heated face-to-face disputes with office-bound Bureaucrats, who clearly didn’t see what we were trying to achieve (and more importantly didn’t want to) and flatly refused to budge a millimetre from the letter of the law (even though common sense dictated that what they were asking was not only unnecessary, it was ridiculous) it was by staying as relaxed as possible and centred, that got us results.
At one point we had a whole day of correspondence with one department insisting we planted a row of trees to ‘block the view of the new building from the road”. The dojo is down a slope, behind a block of 30m high bamboo, and virtually invisible apart from the front metre or so of the roof. None of these guys had actually inspected the site, and were just reading from the planning rule-book. I could understand it if we were in a city area where our building would overlook or have an impact on neighbouring properties, but we are on a 5 acres plot and you’d have to climb on a fence post to even wave to the nearest neighbour.
Change the particular rule being referred to, and repeat on a monthly basis, and you get an idea of what we were up against.
So eventually – it was done. I have personally thanked all the people that helped many times already, but they deserve public credit. Firstly to my wonderful wife and daughter who suffered nearly a year of being skint as literally every penny we had poured into the build – I promise we’ll have a decent holiday next year :0)
Secondly, to the fantastic members of our little organisation – who gave up days and days of free time to pull down walls, dig holes, wheel barrows, paint, sweep, carry and everything else that needed doing – truly without you guys this simple wouldn’t have happened.
Now our dream has become reality – we have a beautiful full-time dojo, on our own land, with 110 sq metres of top class matting, changing rooms and even a washroom. As we speak we are moving a sofa and comfy chairs into the “watching” area and an apple mac so that we can start streaming live classes via the web (watch this space)
. There is even a beer fridge (hey, this IS New Zealand…)
The kamiza (kamidana) was beautifully crafted by a local chippy using driftwood from the nearby beach and finishes off the place wonderfully. We were very lucky to have sensei Frank Burlingham, 5th dan, visiting from the UK and he kindly officiated at the opening and honoured us by sharing some of his Aikido with us. Even with 26 on the mat there was plenty of space, and everyone enjoyed the night, including the celebratory saki afterwards…
We have space now for a couple if live-in students, and plan to start running a ukedeshi scheme in the next few months.