Reprinted from George Ledyard’s All Things Aikido Jan10, 2011
Ok, so I am attending a seminar with a teacher who decides to do a sword class. I am excited because this teacher’s sword work is extraordinary and I love sword. The teacher started out with a basic flow exercise, which as it happens, is in the first chapter of his sword video which has been around since VHS days. He demonstrated then set folks to work. Folks were pretty much mangling the exercise so he stopped them and showed it again, this time a bit slower. The same thing happened. In fact it happened four times. By the end Sensei was furious. And, I have to say, I was furious.
Of course there were a few people in the room who were not folks from our organization. These folks did little or no sword at their home dojos so one could understand why they had issues. But the majority of these folks were regulars that I see every year at these events. Sensei pointed out that, in his uchi deshi days, O-Sensei would only show them something (no explanation at all) once or at most twice and they were expected to get it. He had just showed it four times, with explanation and folks were still pretty much exploring just about every way possible not to do what he had just shown.
My own partner was a person I had seen every year at this event. He never looked any different from year to year. Even with the added explanation I gave him as I walked him through it, he still never got it. All I could think was what a huge waste of everyone’s time it was. The exercise in question was a basic drill. Sensei clearly intended for it to be the warm-up so he could build on it. Instead he spent half the class on it. He couldn’t get to the good stuff because many (not all) folks couldn’t do the most basic exercise.
I found myself asking what has happened to Aikido? It seems to have become the dumping ground for all the folks who, if they weren’t doing Aikido, wouldn’t be doing martial arts at all. They treat their training as if it is an afterthought done when everything else in their lives allows. It makes me crazy… Does anyone actually think that O-Sensei created this art as a hobby for middle class Americans to do in their spare time?
If this had been an isolated event, a bad day for whatever reason, then that would be one thing. But this happens all the time. Especially when we are talking about weapons work, which happens to be central to this teacher’s Aikido. Sensei yells at everyone, they all look chagrined, then they go home and show up next time no better than they were the last time. What is the point? Year after year of not getting it, year after year of baby beginner exercises with no ability to move beyond in to something with some real content… What is the point?
I mentioned this to another friend and we agreed that, if we had been in a position of screwing up that badly with Sensei, one thing would absolutely happen. The next he time he saw us, we would be total and complete masters of that damned exercise. Sensei would never again have to say a word about our inability to do that particular set of movements.
Yet, what I see is not that kind of seriousness. If I had thought Sensei had meant me when he was criticizing the inability of the group to get what he was doing, I would have felt like going out in the parking lot and slitting my belly from embarrassment. Sensei was treating these folks like children because they were acting like children.
Why do people do this art who don’t care enough about the art, their teacher, their fellow students, or their own training to fix things when they are broken? There are several teachers in our group who are perfectly capable of teaching these things and do so when asked. Way have I never seen any of these folks at my dojo asking for help on things like this? Why haven’t any of us been asked to come to their dojos to do a workshop specifically on these elements which our teacher thinks are important enough to try to teach but the students are so weak in their fundamentals that Sensei can’t even get them to do a simple beginner level exercise?
A few years ago I tried to help folks address their weak weapons work. I set up an event in which I invited two other 6th Dan level teachers from our organization to co teach a weapons seminar along with me. This was the A-Team of weapons teachers in our group and I was hoping to make it a yearly event with Sensei coming every fourth or` fifth year himself. Well, the event tanked. These very same folks who get yelled at by Sensei each year for their incompetence couldn’t be bothered to come train with a bunch of American teachers, who could actually explain what Sensei is doing, and perhaps take folks up a level or two. No, folks continue to feel that it is more important to show up to train with Sensei with sub standard skills and waste his time and everyone else’s than to actually go out of their way to train with a bunch of Americans who might have actually helped them to be better.
I find this attitude incomprehensible. If someone isn’t trying to be good at this art, why do it. Quit and find something else one can be serious about. This is Budo. It is a serious pursuit. Many people take it very seriously. I think most of us are quite patient with beginners as they slowly figure stuff out… they are not the issue. I am talking about folks who have done Aikido for years and years, even decades, and still haven’t bothered to put froth the effort to master the basics so that they can move on. Perhaps they tell themselves that it’s their own practice and it’s their business how much effort they put into it. But it’s a group endeavor, not a solo practice. If it were iaido and you sucked, no one else would care. You could suck for decades and it wouldn’t really effect anyone else’s practice. But everything we do is paired. So when you get paired with someone who wants to train and you can’t even hold your sword properly, you are wasting your partner’s time. When the teacher has to address the group on issues that are simple beginner issues, it means that the teacher cannot take the class forward and do the things he or she might be capable of teaching.
Time after time I have seen Sensei start to do something really interesting and then have to change what he was intending and dumb it down for folks who never get any better, year after year. I pay the same amount to attend these events. I take the same time out of my life as these folks. Yet I can’t get what I need from the training because these folks won’t do the work.
Perhaps Sensei shouldn’t even be teaching folks like this. In music someone at his level would never be teaching anyone but advanced student via “master classes”. Less advanced student actually pay to watch these master classes. But Sensei has not chosen to do that. He still is trying to connect with the larger student population. I think that is admirable but I do not see that this same population understands that it is a privilege to train directly with someone like Sensei and that whenever you choose to get on the mat with him, you have a responsibility to work hard, take what he shows away with you, and come back better next time. That is the absolute minimum expectation. If you encounter something at a seminar that baffled you, you should make yourself crazy trying to get it. It should be gnawing at you constantly that you didn’t get it.
This whole “we have all the time in the world” attitude makes me crazy. It’s ok that I didn’t get it this time just leads to a whole series of I didn’t get it this times. Eventually, you have simply gotten into the habit of not getting it. You decide that you didn’t get it, not because you have been too lazy to tear it apart and chew on it until you have figured it out, but that Sensei is “special”, someone far beyond us mere mortals and it’s ok that we don’t get what he is doing.
This art of Aikido is amazing. It has the potential to take someone out into the unknown, to be trans-formative, to really change ones perspective on everything. perhaps change the world. But with folks treating it like a casual hobby placing it pretty much in a tertiary place of importance in their lives, or beyond, that not only won’t happen, these folks end up impeding the efforts of the folks who do want to do the work. If folks don’t want to train, they should get out of the way of those that do. I am not talking about the fact that people will make differing levels of commitment to their training. Some are striving for real mastery and other simply wish to attain a solid competency. I am talking about that group of folks who stay incompetent year after year because they will not work at it. Sure their are varying degrees of natural ability. Some folks pick some things up quicker than others. But, if you are one of the folks for whom things are difficult, you have to work harder. You don’t just accept that you aren’t any good and won’t be. You strive harder. That’s Budo.
This art requires serious people training seriously. The rest is a waste of time in my opinion.