In the same neighbourhood in Amsterdam where I lived there was a church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Dutch headquarters of the mormons. It is a christian cult with its own interpretations of the bible and its own doctrines. It has very little in common with other Christian groups. Usually they would hardly be noticed in the neighbourhood, but once in a while, if the weather was good mormon missionaries would walk through the neighbourhood, going door to door in an effort to bring their message to the people. I remember how the men were always dressed in a suit, clean cut guys that radiated success as they were convinced they were preaching the one and only truth. Nevertheless they did not always look that happy. They never became part of the Amsterdam community, did not have any contacts outside their own church. Language may have been a problem as well, as they were all Americans. But mostly I think the awkwardness of their message was the main problem that they did not manage to get much followers in the Dutch community. It may have been the first time that I fully realised that the use of language, reasoning and argumentation by members of a cult is significantly different from the way it is normally used,
Meaning of the word Aikido.
Most practitioners translate the word Aikido by looking at the three separate characters with which it is written: Ai – to meet, to join, to blend. Ki – air, breath, spirit. Do – path, way.
But more correctly it should be read like Aiki Do (Aiki no michi), the path of Aiki. Then what is Aiki ? It would take some pages to give a full explanation, but in short there are roughly two ways of understanding it. One is often considered as the old way; Aiki is any manner by which you can lead the opponent into a situation that is an advantage for you, but a disadvantage or even a trap for the other. It usually involves a way of predicting the next move of the opponent, and being able to read and guide his intent. To be able to apply this strategy in a fight or a warlike situation is of course important to every warrior. We can find examples of this kind of strategy throughout history and in almost every culture. The other way of looking at the meaning of Aiki is sometimes referred to as the new way or new Aiki. Without denying the first approach of Aiki it now gets a broader meaning; if one can use Aiki to defeat someone would it be possible to use Aiki as a way to reconcile with someone ? When the answer is yes, Aikido becomes a Budo of peace, of reconciliation, of empathy, of freedom, of creativity. To the founder of Aikido this was the ultimate goal and essence of his art.
I share in the criticism on Aikido in that it is nowadays practised by many in a way where both aspects of Aiki are neglected or even have gone lost. In most discussions about Aikido the emphasis is on Aikido as a martial art i.e. as a form of self defence or as a sport. Or as a movement art for fun. In part caused by the fast popularisation of Aikido, it has come to a point where it runs the risk of becoming an empty shell. It may still be fun to do, it may be sensational to look at, but the essence of the art is gone. Fortunately there are still several dojo and sensei that do teach Aikido with an emphasis on the traditions, the philosophy and one or both approaches of Aiki.
There are many different styles of Aikido. I not only think that this unavoidable with such a great art, but I think it serves a purpose; not everybody moves in the same way, not everyone has the same kind of body, not everybody shares the same interests. So some styles are more suitable for people who moves lightly and fast, while other styles are more suitable to people who are more heavy or move slower. Some styles are more into form; even the smallest details seem to be of the utmost importance. Some styles emphasize a freedom of movement, this may mean that you have to try to figure out the details for yourself. Some styles emphasise principle; it is not so much about form, but about experiencing and embodiment of principle. Some styles see Aikido more as a sport, and may even have added a form of competition to it. Some styles emphasise the philosophical aspect of Aikido. Or practice some aspects of Shinto. Some styles practice Aikido in combination with other disciplines like gardening (as the founder did). What they all have in common is that they practice a Budo and movement art that can be traced to the same founder; Ueshiba Morhei sensei ( or more commonly known as O Sensei).
In search of real Aikido
Ever since I started practicing Aikido, now many decades ago, I have come across groups that were claiming to practice Aikido but were in fact doing something totally different. The first Aikido instructors I came across were originally Judo instructors, that would teach Aikido from a book that they had bought. However, some of the techniques in the book did not really “work” according to them, so they would change the technique. Tenchi nage would become a leg throw, Ikkyo a hip throw and so on. Others with less Judo experience would mix their Aikido lessons with yoga, zen, sensitivity-training, dance, music, singing, ... I found groups that were practicing Aikido-like movements wearing white dresses, turbans or orange clothing. Anything could be Aikido, or so it seemed.
In those early days it was very hard to find a real Japanese dojo (the concept seemed unknown to most instructors) where they practised the original Aikido that I was looking for. I was specifically interested in the principle of Aiki – but to my surprise none of the instructors that I met were familiar with it. In fact, I met boxers, kickboxers and practitioners of Chinese martial arts that knew more about Aiki than the Aikido instructors I had met.
I was fortunate to meet several excellent Japanese Aikido instructors, many of whom were taught by the founder of Aikido and had known him personally for a long time. They were able to guide me in the direction of true Aiki. In Europe I visited many different Aikido dojo, went to many Aikido seminars with Japanese shihan and later organised a number of international Aikido seminars in my own dojo. During my stay in Japan I met with students of the founder that had been teaching Aikido for a very long time. I also met with several people who did not practise Aikido, but who remembered the founder from shared visits to local shrines or Shinto ceremonies. I visited the same shrines and temples as the founder had visited regularly. All these experiences in Aikido and related arts have deepened my understanding of Aiki. It has also made me see that what is practiced as Aikido in Japan is not in every aspect the same as what is being practiced as Aikido in the West.
Having said that, I do think Aikido has developed a lot since those early years. Most instructors are better skilled than the first generation of instructors, the concept of a dojo is better understood, there is more knowledge available about the tradition and philosophy of Aikido. And some of the principles of Aikido have influenced in many different way other disciplines or have lead to new methods of body-mind movement.
Aikido is an evolving art and the practitioners and instructors are evolving as well. As the founder pointed out, “techniques do not have a fixed form”. What could be right in one situation, might be wrong in another. That can make Aikido a bit complicated or even overwhelming at times. Fortunately there are many experienced senior teachers that have dedicated their lives to deepen their understanding of Aikido. They offer guidance for future growth.
In most countries Aikido is organised in the same way as sports are organised. Often there is one umbrella organisation for all the Aikido associations. And not much different from other sports organizations, the associations and the umbrella organisation do not really have a democratic structure. The leading instructor of an association is usually also a member of the board of the umbrella organisation. Conflict between the different instructors may lead to new national umbrella organisations.
When one chooses to connect with one organisation it also often means that one is forced to take sides. It has always been one of my main reasons to stay away from Aikido politics.
As we sometimes see in other disciplines as well, one is often not appreciated for one’s merits, but rather for one’s political positioning. The downside of this is that all too often the most skilled and knowledgeable are not recognised, while those that are politically active, even though they may lack the knowledge and skills, are put in the foreground. Not recognising the persons that should be recognised based on their experience and dedication can lead to tensions between associations and even a split off – which has happened in the past in many countries. In some cases where we talk about a different style, it is not because of a different method of training, but merely because that particular dojo or group decided to split off from the main organisation.
Aikido needs a national organisation. One would perhaps expect from an Art with such emphasis on traditional values and a philosophy of Harmony that a national organisation would set a great example of harmonious interaction between its board members. But sadly this is often not the case. Some seek through the practice of Aikido only a political career within such a national or international organisation
Only on rare occasions do we hear of a group that claims to practice Aikido but in fact has moved away from even the most basic principles of Aikido (I know of at least one such Dutch group, I have heard a of few groups in other countries as well). The behaviour of such a group shows much in common with for instance a cult or with conspiracy theorists.
Some of the typical characteristics of such groups;
They regard their belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as Law. Everybody else has got it wrong. In the case of Aikido it most commonly is about propagating a principle like Ki or Aiki or Center that they claim can only be understood by following their classes or their instructors.
They usually follow a particular leader that is in strict control of the teaching or practices, but this may also be a small group of leading individuals. These leading individuals are repeatedly complimented as being the best, the only, the greatest, even at awkward moments where for others this would seem out of place. It is a way of acknowledging the other as one of the leaders.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality. Criticism is not tolerated, not from outside and neither from inside the group.
They are not accountable to any authorities, nor do they accept expertise that comes from outside the group. If you are not IN, than by definition you are not able to understand the Truth. And as you do not understand the Truth, they need not to respect you. In the best case scenario they may pity you for your lack of understanding or for not (yet) being “de-programmed”.
The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself. Only they can understand real Aikido, everybody else is therefore practicing something else and should rename their art.
Even though they may not live in the same area or in the same buildings, they do share the same practice and the same ideology and they do come together for occasional or regular training sessions and that makes them a group. But as it is often the case with such groups, it resents being called a group. They much rather prefer to see themselves as individual critical thinkers. But by looking at any conversation any of them has with someone who is not part of their group, one will notice that each individual presents the same or the same kind of arguments.
In a discussion with any member of the group, one will often be confronted by an endless repetition of the same arguments, they will use non sequitur fallacies, base their arguments on authority that may not be disputed, refer to a specific way of translating a text leaving out all other possible ways of interpreting it, try to confuse the other by not addressing a valid argument, or by dismissing a proven fact without disproving it, or avoid the real argument by attacking an example or a way of saying. The straw man fallacy is very popular with these groups, as is the Ad Hominem.
Their belief system or ideology may refer to certain historical events, a philosophical principle or even to a scientific fact. But at the core it is about their ideological message – they are not historians or philosophers, they are just using elements from it to make their case. To them it makes no difference and if you would be able to point out that a historical fact or a philosophical principle is being misrepresented by them, they will dismiss it as the knowledge comes from outside the group.
Usually groups like this do not last. But they can have a negative influence, as the image of Aikido that they spread is misleading. If an inexperienced person with an interest in Aikido comes into contact with a group like that, they will see the group as representative of Aikido. Which means that if they do not like what they experience, they will not go and search for an other dojo, but stop practicing Aikido altogether.
Earlier this year I came across someone who was convinced that the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris was a conspiracy from the government and did not really happen. He would put photo’s on his website showing what he stated was the editor with his wife during the memorial of the event. I tried to explain to him that the man on the photo was not the editor – the editor was killed during the attack. Furthermore the editor was not married, but did have a lady friend. The man on the photo was a well-known cartoonist that worked for the magazine. He did not believe me. He showed me maps and more photo’s of Paris and talked about the capital of France as if he came there every week. When I asked him how often he had been to Paris, the answer was never. Did he know the magazine Charlie Hebdo ? Did he read French ? On both questions the answer was no. So there was no basis at all for his conspiracy theory ? He told me that I missed the point as I was misinformed, I had let myself be mislead by the French government, but he was a critical thinker and he was showing the world the Truth !
This week I got unwillingly caught up in a discussion with two members of a group that claim that they and they alone practice the real and original Aikido. It reminded me of discussions that I had had with their group some years ago on the internet and of course of the discussion about the events in Paris around Charlie Hebdo.
This group strangely enough describe their practice as a mixture of Japanese Aiki jujutsu and Chinese T’ai chi chuan. The founder of Aikido never practiced T’ai chi chuan. And neither did any of the Daito ryu sensei they refer to; they are all practitioners of Daito ryu Aiki jujutsu. So why insist on calling it Aikido, while it is not Aikido that is being practised ? It is one of those contradictions that are typical for these kind of groups.
Their point is, not surprisingly, that none of the students of the founder of Aikido practiced or understood Aikido. They dismiss all these Aikido shihan that have helped spread the teachings of the founder since the 1950’s across the world as being frauds. And because they were instructing Aikido in the wrong way, all their students, the next generation, also got it completely wrong. Their conclusion is that they are the only ones that got it right, they are the only ones that practice Aikido as the founder did. And they seem on a mission; they are adamant that everyone who says that they are practicing Aikido, should stop calling it that. If they could they would force them to rename it.
It is impossible to have a normal conversation about Aikido with members of this group. Before you realise what has happened they have accused you of all kinds of things; not being intellectually honest, being passive aggressive, bringing forth pointless arguments, and above all stating something that does not come from the writings of the founder, which therefore must be a lie.
In reality their argumentation is a garbage bin filled with all kinds of items that are totally beside the point. There is no logical structure in their reasoning and just as mentioned in the general description here above, they come with arguments that are not based on facts. What they see as facts are seldom more than personal interpretations or non sequitur conclusions. Their arguments are too often fallacies.
This is not really a dialogue, there is no exchange of ideas, there is in fact no dialectic progress possible – which is odd if the conversation was with a genuine practitioner of Aiki.
But the conversation is not with someone who practices Aiki. It is with someone who believes in a Truth, in being Absolutely Right. Therefore the other MUST be wrong, no matter what he brings to the table. The way they express their opinions is by its very nature mentally abusive and hostile.
The best way to deal with these kind of groups is avoiding any discussions with them at all. It will only give them a platform to express their views and give them the opportunity to belittle those that dare to go against these views.
The hidden agenda is always power and control.
Yet the strive for power and control is exactly what holds them down. They do not seem to realise that blowing out someone else’s candle does not make their’s shine any brighter. It is not a way of improving oneself or each other, it is a disruptive and even destructive approach to Aikido.
It is the opposite of the philosophy of Aikido. A sincere practitioner of the Way of Aiki does not seek to compete let alone to conquer. He/she understands fully that reality is in a constant state of flux, where it is pointless to hold on to one absolute Truth.
As each one of us travels a slightly different road, even when we practice the same Art, our experiences will differ. Over time our understanding will deepen but might be expressed in different ways than others do.
To cherish the conviction that you are the only one that understands the Truth is not just a matter of being misguided and ignorant. You are making a travesty of Aikido. Ridiculing others that practice Aikido with dedication and sincerity shows a lack of respect and sensitivity towards others that is at odds with the principles of Aiki.
In fact, it is the clearest proof that one does not even has grasped the mere basics of Aikido.
Auvergne, spring 2015