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what aikido is, what it is not, and why it is of value, by ryugan savoca

August 26, 2020

This article was written on June 5th, 2020, on the fifth anniversary of Chiba Sensei’s passing away.

Today, June 5, is the fifth anniversary of Chiba Sensei passing away. Chiba Sensei, an uchideshi (live-in student) for the founder of Aikido, was my teacher. I was fortunate to be with this remarkable man as a live-in student myself and travel with him on many trips. Today, I feel his words about a dojo are more relevant than ever. In 1986, in a dojo journal, Sensei wrote about the traditional dojo having the following:

“. . . an impractical existence. It is not a social club, recreational center or business enterprise, nor even a training hall or school, as it has been treated largely in the West, but it is a sacred place. Not the kind of place that appears instantly when the mats are put down, but one that exists somewhere out there physically, whether or not it is used all the time. It is such a waste, in a business sense, when one considers the size of the space, and such impracticality can be fatal to a dojo in its struggle to survive. I consider that the life of the dojo is an impractical existence relative to our normal, gaining-losing consciousness, and, as such, is of vital importance to it. Normal, or abnormal as we are, and as we struggle to survive in this competitive and materialistic society, there needs to be a space somewhere that exists for something beyond our sense of practicality. Our great need for the dojo, which waits out there empty and unused, for us to return to each day, is what gives it its purpose as a sacred place. A place of vacuum where that so-called practicality, which is based on the gaining-losing consciousness, with its consequential conflict and isolation, can be neutralized through a counter existence.”

In reflecting on Sensei’s words, I find that the practice of Aikido could be considered impractical in light of not receiving awards, rank, or testing one’s self in competition. I consider Aikido to be a system of dynamic martial movements, that is, kata. It involves a large degree of cooperation. Once a person’s balance is taken, that person does not try to counter, does not try to resist. There is no active sparring, and although an uke should be firm and not collapse, they do not offer a fighting resistance. It is not a dance, but it is not a system of combat or a combative fighting system either. And it’s time for its practitioners to stop apologizing or defending their art in regards to this.

Could Aikido be used for fighting or self-defense? Yes and no. All martial arts are based on getting off the line of attack, minimizing an opening, and seeing where the openings of attack are located. In this sense, many of the movements are excellent. But for them to be used in real situations there must be an active testing of the techniques with resistance and duress.

It is not my interest to offer Aikido in this way, and when Aikido becomes a system of fighting and resisting and striking and grappling, it is no longer Aikido. It is fine, but it is no longer Aikido.

Many of you who know me well, know that I studied boxing seriously for seven years, and have been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for about fifteen years. I have nothing but the utmost respect for these arts, and much gratitude to my instructors in them. I also have the highest regard for fighters and competitors in these arts.

Contrary to what some people in Aikido may believe: the ego and misplaced personality leading so many of us astray can be worked on in competitive arts if one has a good instructor. Simply because a system promotes competition does not mean that certain undesirable aspects of competition cannot be transcended.

Truly, though, I am not interested in answering all the “what if” questions (such as “Can a practitioner of Aikido dominate a practitioner of another art?”) . For a long time I was interested . . . and that has now passed. Although I feel that Aikido has martial potential, its real value lies in the waking up of an individual. O’Sensei was a deeply spiritual man, and his search through training led to this aspect being manifested more and more, especially as he aged.

As many great people have said much better than me: the world will only change with individuals waking up. When we have woken up more and more, we will transcend the idea of subject and object, stop objectifying each other, stop exploiting each other, and stop warring with each other.

By its very design, Aikido’s purpose is to reconcile. Its “goal” is to resolve subject and object, to bring heaven and earth together. This is the ideal, and of course it is us that get in the way. However, we must still carry on and try.

The argument that young people don’t try Aikido because they only want mixed martial arts or fighting arts is simply not true. Many of my students did not come to the dojo seeking to learn to fight. It is time to let Aikido be what it is. Let the practitioners of Aikido deepen their search of themselves, while keeping the art vigorous and dynamic and sincere. This does not involve a dance-like Aikido or a system of grappling. There is a healthy tension in between the two extremes that may be found.

Finally, let the people of Aikido see the value in other combative fighting arts and give them the credit they deserve. Many fighters are spiritual people seeking themselves. They are effective at walking that path. Whatever path you choose, go deep into that and be grateful. It’s enough.

Thomas Merton wrote about the desert, which reminds me of the true significance of a traditional dojo, which Chiba Sensei wrote about above.

He said: “The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to [people]. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by [people] because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit . . . The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by [people] into something else. So too the mountain and the sea.”

I offer that perhaps Aikido is the same: the fact that there is no competition, no real rank, no awards, essentially nothing to be had is its real value.

I am deeply grateful to my teacher for all that he gave me and this world—I hope that I can pass a small amount of it on through my work here in Brooklyn.

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