Article: “Aikido and Independence: On Not Finding One’s True Master,” by Peter Goldsbury

The striking differences between teachers and teaching methods leads to another set of questions, especially for Western practitioners of the art: what role should the teacher play in one’s “aikido life?” Is it best for an aikido practitioner to have one teacher only, or several simultaneously, or a succession of teachers, and in the latter cases, who is that practitioner’s real Master? (At the risk of sounding sexist, I hesitate to use the other title.) Is there a natural progress towards independence in aikido? In what circumstances should one leave one’s (“own,” or original) teacher and go to another?

East vs. West

educational and cultural assumptions which are fundamentally Japanese …. The prospective aikidoist goes to a dojo, signs up and practices there for the rest of his/her life.

I think it’s more common these days for someone to “just try out” an activity such as aikido. The reasons for starting are probably varied than before; before, most people probably started “to be stronger” but these days I reckon there are more people who are interested in the exercise aspect of aikido. I also reckon that people are not thinking about any kind of duration (e.g., the rest of the lives), though some people might prepare themselves ahead of time to not quit in the initial weeks or months just because it’s hard work.

The shihan in charge of the dojo, who is supposedly well on the way to being the living embodiment of all the aikido virtues (for this is why he/she is a shihan), becomes wholly responsible for the person, who signs a blank check, so to speak.

Of course, in any culture the relationship presumably deepens. However, in Japan, it’s likely that the teacher (in the students’ eyes) starts on a higher “elevation” than in the West. So while the student may come to know the teacher’s faults and failings, they may steadfastly keep to the view that the teacher is a model, is wise, knows more, is very able, is to be respected, etc.

Even if the person practices only once a week, or even once a month, he/she is still regarded as a deshi (disciple) of that shihan and the relationship obviously deepens over the years.

There probably remains even now a Japanese cultural influence of feeling more “weight” than in the West of the commitment to the new group and teacher. However, this is probably more and more vague compared to before; before, perhaps people had a clearer, more concrete grasp of the arrangement they were getting into.

Re: The identity of a student as “deshi”. There is probably a wide and scattered range of interpretations of what it means to be such and such a teacher’s student. In Japan, while one’s teacher may be a solid part of one’s identity from others’ perspective (i.e., it would definitely be on one’s name/business card if we had one), there are varying degrees regarding the implications of being a student and, e.g., level of ability, level of commitment, level of loyalty, level of seriousness, level of influence from the teacher, etc. These days, more and more, likely identifying one as so-and-so’s student probably just provides some bland, geographical information in the aikido landscape. (Yet you never know when it can come up and bite you, the aspect that you are representing your teacher at all times simply due to the name being attached to you.)

One way in which the commitment manifests is, even if one is only a once, twice per week student, at a summer gasshuku for instance, you still show up and you do a bunch of work e.g., cleaning, cooking. This goes back to the implicit, culturally rooted commitment to the group and what behavior is fittingly proper. Based on this behavior, we would still presume nothing about the student’s length of experience, ability level, social standing in the hierarchy, or relationship with the shihan.

Only when we see other evidence (i.e., other situations, other contexts) could we start to form a view of the student’s relationship with the shihan. We may see some people who are deeply affected by the shihan’s ways regardless of their own technical ability or length of experience. We may see people who are primarily a part of the group, and the shihan just happens to be the leader attached to that group. We may see people whose relationship with the shihan is very personal/direct/one-to-one, and this may be simply general or technical; the main difference from the first example person who is affected by the shihan is that in this case, the shihan may regard this person as a deshi, and therefore someone who can be depended upon to understand, the shihan can open his heart to, is someone of like mind and also loyal and dedicated. Then, there are the few people who bridge the connection with the group and their primary connection with the shihan; in this case, they either understand and accept the responsibility and value of connection and care for the group and/or enjoy the connection with the group and so maintain care and attention for it.

The student might eventually open a satellite dojo, but this will still be regarded as part of the shihan’s organization. But if there is a conflict for some reason, then all contact with the shihan is severed. The student becomes a non-person in the group and either has to find a new organization or gives up aikido altogether. There are uncomfortably large numbers of disgruntled ex-aikido students around, even in Japan.

The student who opens his own dojo is so rare that it almost doesn’t warrant discussion. However I think this is brought up to bring attention to the type of student who has been around enough and long enough to have some “weight” in the group and in the shihan’s eyes. I think conflict, as it is mentioned in the article, is over-simplistically inclusive of all conflicts. It presumes that the student cannot apologize or make amends, and that the shihan also cannot do anything to resolve the situation and reconcile. Perhaps, further, the only reconciliation that is accounted for is one in which one party is submissive and apologetic; this would make the flexibility/stubbornness of the wronged party a key factor. Certainly reconciliation is a matter of trust, so if a conflict is such a betrayal that reconciliation is impossible, then all contact is severed.

The student and shihan may sever the relationship in agreement. If the student has reached a point where he feels he cannot be with or under the shihan, then it may simply be a parting of ways. The shihan may or may not accept the student’s inability to stay with the status quo, and have any number of responses accordingly.

Finally, a common case I would imagine is the student who has been around a while and has both actual and self-inflated status in the group. Such a student may both a) do a behavior that is only in accord with his self-inflated worth and b) respond to others reactions to that behavior as if they were being unreasonable and overreacting. Certainly if both sides don’t agree on the reality of the situation, then reconciling and re-establishing trust will be impossible. Given the typical and traditional male ways of behaving in Japan, this would seem to be the most probably scenario.

In the so-called “Western” countries education proceeds according to a different set of values and, while there is obviously the same level of commitment to aikido as in Japan, these values also operate. The role of the teacher is not so absolute and students are culturally brought up to expect some sort of transaction. Dojo fees are paid, but something is deemed to be given in return: a syllabus, for example; a fair measure of explanation of what to expect; and, for the higher ranked dan-holders, a recognition of status and a measure of independence. Students are considered to be responsible for their education and are used to making choices based on logical possibilities, with the teacher playing a more subsidiary role.

The degree of individual students’ responsibility and the actual occasions that it is exercised are impossible to predict or expect to remain consistent. Returning to the Japanese implicit commitment to the group when one starts aikido, already such a beginning student has the understanding that, while he may want to just learn aikido, he understands that he has to keep the group in mind. The Western student, in contrast, starts with a different level of awareness as well as stance regarding the group.

Personally, having given thought to the various implications of aikido’s lack of competition, I’ve come to acknowledge the significance of the group despite an individual’s intense desire to learn aikido solely for himself. You cannot be committed to aikido without being committed to the group and its members. If you want to improve, you unavoidably have to deal with others’ views and attitudes toward you and with the group culture and values. The Western student is probably somewhat more susceptible to neglecting this aspect, instead believing that he can progress alone. The Eastern student is, on the other hand, more susceptible to being over-concerned with his relationship (i.e., harmony) with the group at the expense of his own progress.

… he also emphasised the point that aikido nowadays needed to have textbooks. It was noted that aikido is now taught in Japanese high schools and that there had to be a common syllabus. The implication clearly seemed to be that in today’s aikido world, teaching should not be left solely to the whim of instructors.

Re: the whims of individual instructors. One is that there are inevitably idiosyncrasies. A teacher may be interested primarily in certain aspects, and accordingly spend a lot of time on some technical matters and some ideas while neglecting others. Such a teacher may or may not be competent or excellent at those things he doesn’t practice much, or practice much anymore. Regardless, the student who practices under such conditions will not become competent, let alone excellent, at those neglected areas of the curriculum.

The other piece about idiosyncrasies is that a teacher may do more of one thing and less of another at various stages of his life. These stages may be quite long, and a student practicing under the teacher may simply have little exposure and consequently little opportunity to become competent at certain things. One thing that is likely linked to a teacher’s chronological experience is the amount of time spent on the whole array of basics as well as the way the basics are presented. Even more specifically, only a very lucky student will have a teacher who presents what the student needs when the student needs it at each step of the student’s development. *The student inevitably has the responsibility to negotiate what is abundant or lacking at any point.

… my earlier teacher, … felt that the most important task of aikido students was to consider the degree of their own commitment to the art (only 100% commitment was really considered) and find the right Master. If this task was not achieved, there was no point even in starting aikido. By implication, having a succession of different teachers was of value only if it was a search which led to a conclusion. Of course, it also followed that if one found one’s true Master, that was it: all other teaching aids were valueless.

This teacher’s thinking is that you learn aikido as the activity that just happens to be what your teacher, the person who is your main object of study, does. You do the activity simply as the main medium to learn from your teacher. This teacher may even go so far as to say aikido itself is a means to study with an aikido teacher (i.e., not to learn aikido, so learning aikido with no consideration of one’s master is “valueless”). It follows that the student takes the teacher as a whole, including their strengths and weaknesses.

One vs. Many

In the rest of this article I will discuss the question whether this teacher is right, with a sidelong glance at the questions raised earlier relating to education, commitment, and maturity. I will consider two cases: (1) that of a committed disciple who has one teacher throughout his/her entire aikido life; and (2) a committed disciple who has several teachers, successively or simultaneously. I do not have in mind here the professional aikido teacher. Like that of a monk, this is a very special calling and appeals to few. Rather, I am thinking of the hundreds of students in Japan and abroad who organize their existence around aikido, who always live within commuting distance of a dojo, and for whom the regular practice sessions are the focal point of their social activities, of their entire lives, in fact.

One…

I suppose that the first case, that of the committed student who has trained under only one teacher, is regarded as the norm in aikido, though I have no supporting evidence (the sociology of aikido not yet being an accepted discipline) beyond current literature on aikido and my own experience of practicing aikido in ten different dojos in three different countries. Even at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, where there are many different instructors and the practitioner is encouraged to take each instructor’s practice as it comes—choosing one’s instructor being discouraged, longtime students will usually single out one teacher as “their” teacher in some special sense.

Having one teacher only throughout one’s aikido life might be thought to have many advantages. There is only one style to be learned, even if this changes over the years; the teaching methods become familiar; and students and teacher come to know one another intimately. If the teacher has learned his trade from the Founder or his son, then the technical level will also presumably be very high. I think that the matter of one constant method of executing basic techniques is very important in the earlier stages, up to about 4th dan. It gives a strong foundation on which to build and a reliable basis for future creativity.

The last point, that it is good to be exposed to consistency up until about 4th dan, is debatable. “Ossification”, as mentioned below, or habituation, is something that happens rapidly – I seem to believe this can happen more rapidly than the author. The repeated practice of basic techniques, which is common virtually everywhere, under skewed and idiosyncratic conditions, presents a high danger of ingraining poor habits. I believe the crucial mixture (if the author is indeed considering here the committed student and not the 1-2 times per week hobbyist) is: 1) exposure to variety (and the challenges it provides) and 2) a central, constant default way or form to always strive toward. Exposure to variety does a lot to prevent ossification of poor habits and openings. Variety also presents the need to do basics properly and thinking on them deeply when one encounters difficulty. Developing one’s basics so that they are applicable in a wide variety of situations is of course invaluable. But beginning to do skills that aren’t considered basic much later in one’s career can become quite a stilted endeavor; by the time one has spent a lot of time doing only a limited range of movements, doing other movements entails breaking out of a cage that has become more robust through one’s extensive practice.

At a deeper level, the need to forget one’s own questions, silent objections and personal preferences and to model one’s techniques 100% on the teacher’s, has always been an essential element of training in the martial arts.

To “silence” oneself is crucial. This is relevant to the difficulty one encounters when executing basic things, because it is crucial in determining how one responds. One may perceive a limitation of the basics, and seek other ways to deal with the situation. Or else, one may perceive a limitation of oneself and one’s grasp of the basics, and seek to deepen that grasp so that one can deal with the situation. One who is not “silent” is likelier to take the first route. Similar routes include perceiving limitations of one’s teacher, one’s group, and one’s art before considering one’s own limitations. Perhaps the author of the article associates using a variety of teachers with a lack of self-reflection. Indeed it can be over-stimulating and needlessly distracting to have multiple influences.

Nevertheless there is the constant danger of “ossification”: the hardening of attitudes which accompanies the hardening of the joints, and also of a certain lack of maturity, in the sense that the student is not encouraged to take seriously different, but equally valid, ways of doing the same techniques and thus is not encouraged to develop independent judgment about them. This judgment becomes increasingly important as the student progresses up through the ranks and is absolutely crucial if the student becomes a teacher, or becomes independent from the shihan.

Another problem with my teacher’s almost mystical insistence that one find one’s true master—or abandon training, is that it gives an awful lot of responsibility and freedom to the student, who does not necessarily know what to look for. Of course, he could reply that the student will know immediately when he has found the right teacher, but this is precisely the point. If the teacher is not 0-Sensei, then matters are rather less simple.

The dilemma – that a beginner student does not yet have the sense to evaluate good vs bad, fitting vs unfitting, etc. choices of teachers – is not necessarily resolved by having exposure to more choices. Of course, by trying different things, the student will have the opportunity to sample many different “flavors” and thus have a basis to compare. However, it’s very unclear how long a student should “savor” one “flavor” to know it enough and thus compare it with other “flavors”. Also, as many people like junk food despite how unhealthy it is, a student may not necessarily be drawn to or stay with that which is best for him. The intuition to choose to study under a teacher is related to the commitment to how long to stay with that choice. If the student’s intuition is mostly correct, then the teacher will be the best choice and even the discomforts that come with studying under that teacher will be beneficial to the student. If the student’s intuition is mostly incorrect, then they may stay too long with that teacher before realizing it isn’t working out, or not come to know why it’s not working out. Conversely, regarding the intuition to leave or study with another teacher, the student’s intuition may be right in that the first choice wasn’t the most beneficial; on the other hand the student’s intuition may be wrong in that the very thing that moved the student to choose another teacher (e.g., discomfort, boredom) was an indication that the teacher was providing exactly what the student needed.

Experiencing and assessing a variety of things gives the student the opportunity to compare pros and cons, positives and negatives of everything. But staying with one thing begets the crucial opportunity to work on and know deeply that which inevitably has negative aspects. To state even more esoterically, there is a crucial process in which a student goes beyond the dualism of positive and negative (and judgment) and simply works on the difficult task of knowing and being himself as he is, and experiencing reality as it is.

I think that such a conscious choice is made by very few aikido practitioners, for the simple reason that outside the big population centers there are very few teachers around, even in Japan. A person hears about aikido, goes to watch a practice at the nearest club, signs up and becomes a regular member, possibly of a very large organization headed by a Japanese shihan, with whom he comes into contact only at gradings or summer schools, if these are held. By no stretch of the imagination can this person be said to have chosen his teacher.

I would agree that most people do not make the choice consciously or diligently. You can either a) know quite well what you want and need in the very beginning, and therefore make a good choice of teacher (ie your intuition is already primed to point you in the right direction) or b) not know what you want and need, and if you’re lucky, find a teacher that gives you both; if the teacher gives you what you need but not want, then it will be “bitter” and you’ll be inclined to leave; if the teacher gives you what you want but not need, then it will “taste sweet” but you will not develop in ways that only come from encountering challenge and discomfort.

There is also a psychological dimension to the problem, but this is harder to explain precisely. I think it is related to the fact that in aikido, as in other Japanese martial arts, no distinction is made between proficiency in the practicing of the art and proficiency in teaching it, or in leading a dojo or organization. It is simply assumed that, given the former, the latter will automatically follow. The problem could be put another way, in Faustian terms: under what conditions should you sell your soul to your aikido teacher?

The wording by the author seems to reflect the fact that he has not found a master/mentor. As for myself, I’ve found that deciding on a mentor was like deciding on a spouse. To some degree you want “qualifications” such as intelligence, clean criminal record, good principles or philosophy, etc. And of course you can’t predict the future, such as how your mutual relationship will evolve, what events you and the other person will experience and be changed by, what you will learn about each other, etc. You use some apparent criteria to make the best intellectual choice that you can, you acknowledge and accept to one degree or another that you can’t predict how things will work out, and you ultimately listen to your intuition that may be telling you “This is the one!” and take the plunge.

This is not an idle question. Many years ago I was told by a friend of mine, with whom I practiced regularly, that he would never train under Sensei X, because he wanted to “possess your soul.” The strange thing is that I felt just the same way about my friend’s own teacher. The problem is that some students do try to sell their souls to their aikido teachers and the latter, unlike the Devil, are not usually equipped by their training to handle the transaction successfully.

The spouse analogy somewhat stands, here. You may be seeking certain things from your spouse when you commit to them. Some of what you seek may be conscious e.g., income, where you live, how much time you spend with each other, when you support each other. Some of what you seek may be unconscious, along the lines of Freudian object relations, introjects, and projection. Conversely, you may think that you can or should provide certain things to your spouse, while other things that they seek are unreasonable or simply not gonna happen. If you imagine your spouse idolizing you and putting you on a pedestal, it may feel somewhat unappealing and “heavy”. But if you were a teacher and your student viewed you that way, then it might feel less “heavy” or even appealing – therein lies the danger. The teacher should feel the “heaviness” of the student’s commitment, and consider what the student is seeking from them (as well as what one seeks by accepting, and in a way, reciprocating, the commitment).

… Nor do I want to deny that people should be able to choose their teacher, if they wish. But why should they have to choose, and why should they have to choose only one teacher?

Why choose one spouse or one mentor? I believe this is because it involves you opening up yourself and your own heart, and you don’t do this easily or lightly. It gets too confusing if you attempt this with multiple people. Although at first glance you could say you benefit from opening part of yourself to person A, and you can open the other parts to person B, and in total, in the end, you open up. But the irrationality of human experience is that this can become confusing psychologically, not to mention the constraints of finding the time and place to communicate with persons A and B. Also, if you’ve opened up a part of yourself to both person A and B, and you get difference messages, different feedback, a different experience from each, then you’ve created work for yourself of having to reconcile the difference. You have to remember what you are getting out of opening  yourself up, and having something reflected or communicated back to you.  In one sense, having a mentor is easier than having a spouse, because you have your self-improvement as a goal. You achieve this through knowing your mentor’s heart-mind, which you presume embodies some wisdom, fortitude, or illumination that you yourself seek. This is a formidable task, and as such, attempting to do it with multiple mentors to the same end/degree complicates matters considerably.

So, why does one need a unique, singular mentor/teacher/master at all? There could be a void, or a vacuum, that could only be filled by another person. One may need that person’s guidance or simply that person’s presence as a sort of signpost. There could be a more positive, proactive motive, such as the presumption that a teacher is a fundamental need to properly do an endeavor such as aikido. The needs or lack that one experiences and the presumptions that one has may be the aggregate of one’s psychological and cultural history, and certainly contribute to the irrationality of human experience, including how to view the questions of “Do I need a teacher?” and “How do I choose a teacher?”.

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