Reflecting on the Teaching of Aikido
Aikido is more of an art than a sport: it solicits the mind more than the body. Those who want to teach this art have two ways at their disposal to do so: through words and through demonstration. But Aikido originally comes from Japan, and thus, its teaching here in the West is hindered by the language barrier. However, this issue, although significant, is not insurmountable. Indeed, words are actually not the best tools to use in this situation. Why is that? Because the “Master” has to convey his way of thinking to his “disciple.” This transmission requires two intermediate between master and disciple: words and reason. If we examine closely the mechanism of transmission of thought through speech, we find that it requires a double operation. As a first step, it is for the teacher to choose the words that he considers most suitable to suggest the ideas that he wants to convey, and as a second step, he must organize these words into sentences so that their meaning can be deciphered by the disciple’s reasoning.
However, both the vocabulary (that is to say all the words associated with a concept) and the syntax (the structured organization of concepts in order to establish a sense) are perfectly arbitrary since the conventions that govern the meaning of a word and the organization of a sentence are constantly changing according to times, places, and events within the linguistic community that uses them. It becomes even more challenging when we try to apprehend the unusual syntax and vocabulary of a foreign country. Regardless of the situation, the danger of misunderstanding or misinterpretation is high when speech is used to communicate. This is because the link is not direct between the thinking of the master who teaches, and that of the disciple who receives the instruction. Between these two are always interposed the ambiguity of the words of course, but also a two-way course of thoughts that takes place during the teaching process: the thought that the master seeks to formulate on the one hand, and on the other hand, that of the disciple who looks for meaning based on what the master says. The obviously subjective character of the choices that the master must make in order to formulate his mind, as much as those that the disciple has to make in terms of his understanding, makes the degree of concordance between the two thoughts, that which is communicated and being received, rather variable at best. To put it more clearly: a perfect agreement is in fact unlikely and more often, and in the best of cases, we can only establish an approximate parallel between the two thoughts.
This is why words, and therefore the books that materialize them, are totally inadequate to teach an art such as Aikido. It is truly the case here that: “a living demonstration is of a much greater power.” The demonstration has the advantage upon the word that it makes the economy of the complicated thought process that is implemented in oral communication, and therefore, it eliminates the risk of misunderstanding that it usually entails. This second communication channel greatly unsettles our Western minds because they have been raised within the cult of reason, trained in the rigors of strict logic, accustomed to the discipline of a perfectly objective science, and educated almost exclusively with and through books. The Westerner is a student who takes what he knows from a teacher, while the Easterner is a disciple who has long been listening to a master. To better understand the difference between one and the other, we should know that Master Takeda, when initiating his disciple – the one who would become Master Morihei Ueshiba – to the art of the sword and teach him the basics, simply asked him to come to his home for a few years without having him touch a sword during the whole time. “Morihei, he said, fetch water, prepare lunch, prepare my bath, massage my shoulders! “
Such an attitude from the master towards the disciple unsettles our Western minds because of the fact that there is no direct relationship between, on the one hand, the actions requested and made, and on the other hand, the purpose, namely to learn the art of the sword. This form of education is particularly used in Zen, which brings at its peak the art of immediate transmission and instantaneous understanding. Many practitioners of Aikido have also read amazing stories about the teachings of famous masters, experts in swordsmanship or stick fighting, with their obscure language and sharp wits that defy all logic, instructions that are understood only by close disciples, sometimes triggering a lighting of understanding, while remaining sealed to all others. The particular meanings of these spoken words is not as important as their impact and evocative power. But to animate words with such a power, one must be more than a teacher: a Master. The whole difficulty of being a Master resides in the art of choosing a gesture, word, or symbol specific to each particular disciple, and that make him able grasp the meaning of the thought that it wants to convey. The word you say? Yes, but here, I am no longer referring to the vehicle of a concept, but a word stripped of all its semantic value and provided with a percussive power that shakes the imagination, both conscious and unconscious. It is a word that does not address reason, but acts against its. It is a word stripped of its value as a word, but loaded with the value of a gesture. A sentence may also be used in the same spirit, then it becomes a parabola. A parabola is always, at first reading, disconcerting, it defies common sense. Thus, to understand its sharpest and truest sense requires an inner disposition, very special receptivity. Thus, a disciple who once asked Master Ueshiba to teach him the deeper secrets of “Ikkyo” received this answer: “Think of a sharp sword.” Only a disciple who had reached a certain level of understanding would have been able to grasp the subtlety of a thought of the Master that no reasoning could not have translated.
From the beginning, the teaching of Aikido uses more intuition than deduction. This is one of the reasons for the delay suffered by the teaching of Master Ueshiba in the countries of Western language. To understand well the difference between these two methods: intuitive and deductive, we must put them in parallel. In the intuitive method, that of the Master Ueshiba, the disciple blindly follows the master without worrying about where he goes. The disciple does no question. The teacher shows and the disciple repeats. In deductive or rational method, the relationship between teacher and student is no longer that of of a master and his disciple, but it is that of a teacher and his pupil. the latter does only accepts from his teacher what is directly linked to the subject taught and provided that his personal reasoning admits what he is being taught. Hence the presence of speech, reasoning, sterile discussion, and preliminary questions that cloud the main subject, far from unraveling it. Aikido can only be taught through the intuitive way. This is why many technical terms were chosen not because of their semantic value, but according to their evocative power, their ability to awaken in the mind of the practitioner an understanding of principle. The Westerner who wants to practice Aikido is often dismayed by the double barrier of a foreign language and a language that speaks in parables. In the Wakamatsu-cho dojo, I had to travel a long lonely road before discovering the fascinating Aikido horizons, those that need a constant approach. I held my “diary” on which I recorded each day the landmarks that have guided me. For example the words of Master Ueshiba: “Practicing techniques allows us to reach an understanding of the principle, but the understanding of this principle itself helps us greatly in the practice of technique.”
We must understand that Aikido not just “projections”. By themselves, the projections are not Aikido. They have meaning only in the context of their employment according to the principles of Aikido. What is indeed important is not the projection itself, but the attitude it requires when facing the opponent and the control of the situation created by his attack. Projection is not the apotheosis, as many seem to think, but it is the end point. It should be understood that the opponent is not defeated by the projection, but before that; at the precise moment when he lost the initiative, that is to say, when he intention of attacking was born. This is because the enemy is already defeated that it is possible to apply a “projection” whose purpose is to implement and perfect his defeat. This statement will probably seem strange to many. However, it is not only natural, but very easy to understand, if we consider that it is absolutely impossible to apply a projection on an opponent who retains the ability to avoid or oppose it. Consequently, to be able to apply a projection, it is necessary, by either physical or mental means, to bring the enemy in a position such that it is no longer possible to avoid or to oppose the projection, in other words, that we have already defeated him. Yet, because we must defeat the enemy using projections, we can conclude that Aikido is not in the projections but it is in how to apply them.
The value of an Aikidoka is judged not by the number of projection techniques that he knows, but on how he uses them. It is in this context that one can denounce a certain form of Aikido teaching in France, which is governed by “programs”, such as those established for the various “Kyu” or “Dan” exams. As a result, many Aikidoka develop a tendency to believe that Aikido is about learning a finite number of “movements” and that it is enough to just know these movements and take the exam that assesses this knowledge in order to access a higher Kyu or Dan. The truth however is that we can easily imagine an Aikido learning which would be limited to a single movement. I knew a seasoned Aikidoka who used to throw his opponents with a single movement. This way of conceiving things is perfectly justified insofar as it is believed that Aikido is not in the projections, but in the mastery of the intention of the attack, that is to say the “Sen”. When you have mastered the intention of the attacker, it takes away any possibility of evasion or resistance, so you can then apply any projection of our choice. It does not matter that this projection is the same, provided that the control is sufficient to suit all circumstances… unless the only possible solution in a particular case is to get the opponent in a situation such as the application of the projection becomes possible. This is a pure Aikido, an Aikido of a very high level indeed.