Origins and History of Tendokan Dojo
by Chief Instructor Ryūgan R.D. Savoca
from Brooklyn Aikikai's 10th Anniversary journal
I first encountered aikido when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. This was in Oceanside, California. My father had taken me for judo lessons, and I was practicing for little under a year when my judo instructor, Mr. Charles Potter, told me to try aikido. He said it would help my judo. Eventually Mr. Potter left the Oceanside dojo (he was also an undercover policeman) — and left it in the hands of another more junior judoka. The man was unlike Mr. Potter in that he emphasized more the competitive training in judo, and wanted us all to compete. Although I did compete a little, I preferred Mr. Potter’s method of training— competitive, yes, but with a strong emphasis on tradition and hard training as well as some classical ju-jitsu. Eventually I turned more and more toward aikido, and after some time left judo altogether.
Aikido is a martial way that was created in Japan in the early 1930s by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) or O-Sensei. O-Sensei, whose title means "great teacher," was a man dedicated to the study of classical martial arts including the sword, spear, staff, and various types of empty-hand combat. O-Sensei developed aikido through an intense and committed lifelong study of these ancient warrior traditions. O-Sensei, however, was not merely satisfied to create an effective form of self-defense or combat. He sought true victory over himself as well. Through vigorous spiritual and physical training, the art of aikido emerged, which in Japanese can be translated as the "way of harmony with the fundamental force of the universe." Like other Japanese martial traditions, O-Sensei’s aikido was a type of Budo, or martial path meant for the polishing of the spirit as well as the body.
The idea that one could transform oneself through practice greatly appealed to me, and still does. I imagine it was this idea that led me to continue practice into high school, and into college. I ended up going to the University of California at Los Angeles, and practiced aikido at the university for a year or so. From there I continued to practice at the West Los Angeles Aikido Institute for about six years. At some point in college, I knew that I wanted only to practice aikido, and any idea about other jobs (I had thoughts of becoming a criminologist), or any other way of life did not appeal to me. From about nineteen onward, I began to practice seriously, at least two or three hours a day, and often more. Slowly, I began to put training in aikido over studying in college. I had found what I really wanted to do with my life.
I do not think that I could exactly place my finger on what I had found then, but the feeling became clear much later, in 2002, when I went through Shogaku at Ichikukai Dojo. During that training, one is pushed to what one’s limit is thought to be…and then you go past that. I think that in the early days of practicing aikido I saw something of the potential of aikido to push me past what I thought my limit was. And once you push past the limit of who you think you are you are left with the question "Well, then, who am I?" And this is the central question I have had since being a child. Although it wasn’t a conscious decision at this early stage in college, I believe that something in me saw in aikido a way to approach that question.
I graduated college in 1993, and at the end of 1997 moved to New York City. From this point I began to train with Juba Nour Shihan, one of the first students of Chiba Shihan. Training with Nour Sensei was always intense (and still is!) and opened up my training in a new way. I have always felt that Nour Sensei presents himself as he truly is, and demonstrates this not only on the mat doing aikido, but off the mat as well. This became a real inspiration to me—to meet an individual with no pretense. It was something I wanted for myself. After a year and a half of training in New York with him, he sent me to be an uchideshi (live-in student) with his teacher, T.K. Chiba Shihan, a prominent disciple of O-Sensei.
Chiba Sensei has promoted aikido throughout the world, not only by teaching many seminars abroad, but by creating teacher training programs which enabled individuals to become teachers as well. This was done primarily with two programs—the uchideshi and kenshushei programs. Both programs were made up of committed students required to commit a certain number of hours weekly—studying aikido, weapons, iaido (the art of drawing the sword) and zen meditation. The uchideshi program required students to live within the dojo, while the kenshushei program did not.
The uchideshi program is what I committed to for a full year. It is a relentless period of living in the dojo, taking all classes (approximately four to five a day), doing samu (work practice), and helping to take care of the chief instructor. Although Chiba Sensei was not living in the dojo at the time, it was nonetheless very intense. Chiba Sensei put an emphasis on doing what needed to be done, without much explanation. Indeed, this is the traditional way of teaching in Japanese culture.
I left San Diego Aikikai in 2000, and drove back to New York with my first wife Neilu Naini. After a short period of further study with Juba Nour Shihan, we traveled to Kazakstan to teach for a couple of weeks. We traveled a little more and then returned to San Diego for further study. We finally returned once again to New York to form Brooklyn Aikikai at the end of 2001. After traveling back and forth in the year 2000, Neilu and I were very ready to settle in one place. I had seen many dojos by then, and reflected on much that they did or did not present. Some dojos were more traditionally Japanese, some less, some involved a community that was really active, and many did not.Whether it is due to the fact that I was raised very traditionally or have a natural tendency toward strong bonds and traditions, the creation of Brooklyn Aikikai couldn't but otherwise reflect this karma of mine. And so, Brooklyn Aikikai became a dojo that has strong bonds, traditions, and a vibrant sense of community.
This first began at the Albee School of Dance in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, New York. From December 2001 until November of 2004, practice was held at this dance studio. The prime difficulty of practicing in this space was the necessity of setting up mats, taping them together, and breaking them down at the end of practice. Each day, the space had to be transformed from a dance studio into a traditional Japanese dojo. All students were required to help facilitate this transformation. Often times we had to set up class right after another dance class had finished, with many kids in tutus coming and going! We had to break down the dojo after most classes and the students were instrumental in helping Neilu and I with this.
I realized that what I wanted to do with the dojo was not possible without a strong sense of community. If I had been content to have a small dojo in a dance studio with a few practices a week, I don’t think our dojo would have been born the way it was. My ideal, however, was to practice and teach aikido professionally; and to do this, one needs a lot of energy and commitment, not only from the chief instructor, but also from the students. I realized this would take time, but I demanded a great deal from the few students who were present at the beginning, trying to plant the seed of this new community. Of course, in the beginning, classes were only held two to three times a week. Slowly, classes were added, along with weapons, iaido, and zen meditation. Before we moved to our current space, classes were held almost daily, with a total membership of fifteen adults and ten children.
In 2004, my student Ian Witter drove by and saw a "For Sale" sign on an old iron works factory. After much deliberation on how to raise funds and do the proposed construction, Neilu and I acquired a mortgage on the building in May 2004. I must admit upon seeing the current dojo space I was quite concerned with whether or not we could transform an old iron works building into a dojo. The electricity came straight out of the walls, there was an extreme amount of filth everywhere, the second floor was tilted, the plumbing was leaking, and there was no heat. Several students, visitors, guests instructors, Neilu, and I did the demolition on the building for three months, about eight to nine hours a day. We still had classes in the morning and evening at the Albee School of Dance. During this time, Neilu and I were sleeping illegally at Albee, and eventually we moved into the dojo when it was clean enough to sleep there. In September of 2004, contractors came into the building after the bulk of the demolition had been done and worked until early March 2005, when the construction was finally finished.
The first classes were held in the dojo in November of 2004, during very cold times! At this time, the heat wasn’t working yet and we tried using a gasoline powered jet heater to warm up the space before the class began. Chiba Sensei, along with Eido Roshi and members of Ichikukai Dojo, came and celebrated the opening seminar in September of 2005. There were over 100 people on the mat for Chiba Sensei’s classes! Since 2005, the dojo has grown from approximately fifteen to twenty students, to about sixty adults and thirty children. There are approximately four classes each day, including aikido, iaido, zazen, and misogi. There have been several live-in students, seeking to go deeper in their training by living in the dojo and taking all classes as well as being engaged in work, cooking, cleaning and self-study. We have had various instructors come from the United States, as well as Japan. The dojo has hosted visitors from all over the world.
It is amazing for me to observe how our dojo has grown from a small space in a dance studio to a full-time dojo that draws people from all over. When I dwell on my observations, trying to receive them all, I see the efforts of so many people are in each piece of wood, stone, paint and concrete. Our dojo has truly become a living space—still a young being—but one that I hope will continue to grow at a slow, steady pace. Each student who has come here, whether they are still here or not, has brought their struggle. This helped to create a fire in this place—a fire that continued to grow. Through all the undertakings of the students here we have been able to have numerous training sessions, hold seminars, send students to other states in the country and overseas, and organize plenty of potlucks, stoop sales and fundraisers. With all the difficult training that the students have undergone, they have grown together, as a community should, and helped each other quite often—in the dojo and in their personal lives.
My hope is for the dojo to exist long after I am gone, and for it to provide a true sanctuary for training in our city. In an era when so much materialism and self-promotion exists, it is my belief we need to sincerely and deeply practice the arts that are offered at our school. In doing so, perhaps little by little, we can remove the veil that separates us from our true nature. I am truly thankful for all your efforts thus far! Let us continue together and bring another ten years of hard practice!