089) Integrity in our Aikido Community: February 2012

Our Aikido community is clearly in the throes of a significant struggle.  A significant number of major figures in the Aikido and marital arts world have pointed out that our art is in danger of becoming predominantly a bad caricature of the level of martial arts that our founder and some of his major students represented.  These people have identified the nature of the practice as a major source of this serious dilution of genuine skills within our art.

This situation is in many ways akin to what was happened in other arts such as Tai Chi.  I applaud the manner in which the Tai Chi community has actively embraced and addressed a similar dilemma within their community so that the manner in which they addressed the issue actually helped the art.  The Tai Chi community has absolutely no problem with recognizing that some teachers and “styles” are simply interested in the health aspects of that art.  Those teachers (for the most part) make no false claims as to the martial abilities of the teacher and students.  Those teachers speak glowingly as to the obvious, positive aspects of the practice for improving and maintaining one’s health.  This helps to spread the larger awareness of Tai Chi, which helps to insure a stream of new students.  There are other “branches” of Tai Chi that promote the martial aspects of that art through the practice of the art.  Those teachers and students have worked out a system in which their ideas and skills can be empirically validated.  There are countless videos from parks in China in which we can observe them testing out their skills and ideas for all to see.  This process is done in a atmosphere of mutual respect and camaraderie.  It would be considered extremely odd for a Tai Chi instructor to make public claims and studiously avoid an opportunity to have those ideas and skills tested in a public venue.  It is seen as a clear sign of respect and admiration when you are the person that people want to test out in those parks.

I find it to be very sad that our Aikido community seems to try and place ourselves as apart and above from the necessity and importance of empirically validating what we say and do.  Historically, the access to and sharing of information about Aikido was strictly controlled by the leaders of the various Aikido organizations.  Unless you attended events led by top instructors within those organizations, there was scant access to this information.  The information that was provided was not expected to be questioned but accepted wholesale.  The open questioning of this information was clearly frowned upon and typically led to negative consequences for the person who raised some questions.  The ability to control the flow of information began to fall with the advent of the internet.  People began to discuss their research and questions in venues that could not be controlled by the major Aikido organizations.

One of the most courageous and outspoken researchers was Stanley Pranin.  The information that he collected led him to raise some serious questions and concerns about Aikido.  Stanley Pranin put his concerns into action when he put the Aiki Expo’s together.  This event was overtly boycotted by a number of organizations, including Aikikai and Ki Society.  Those organization’s myopic and petty positions could do nothing to silence what has proven to be a seismic impact upon our community.  These events provided the opportunity for people to meet in an atmosphere of genuine respect and camaraderie, in order to empirically test out beliefs and abilities.  These events had a positive influence in the Aikido world because Aikidoka of all levels of ability, from various organizations were exposed to a wealth of information from within the larger Aikido community and from within the larger martial arts community.  It was both joyful and painful to experience larger truths that shattered some of our cherished beliefs, while providing hope for a better future for the art that we love so dearly.  This event enabled people from within organizations that were not able to communicate (because of political issues!) to begin serious discussions and provide everyone with more complete knowledge that could only emerge from the open sharing of important information.  Ikeda Sensei’s emphasis on the building bridges within the Aikido and martial arts world, stands as a clear yard mark which we should measure our own efforts by.

The explosive growth of the internet provided the proverbial final nail in the coffin for those who sought to limit and control the amount of information available to everybody.  People from around the world could now be exposed to information (written, video, etc.) about the various instructors, and organizations with the Aikido world.  This growing wealth of information has proven to be a blessing and a curse.  The Aikido Journal Forum and E-Budo were once the premier sites for access to information about our art and related arts.  The attempts to control the information through moderators proved to be a very, very difficult task.  It became an immense challenge to wade through the opinions in order to weed out the information that could not be substantiated or verified, while allowing the open discourse that could promote the development of information.  The approach of controlling the information by those who were the gate keepers within certain communities did not work when they attempted to limit information and discount information that did raise genuine concerns.  People were discounted and attacked, even though the information that they provided could be verified and substantiated both through written material and through training opportunities.  This gatekeeper approach led to the downfall of the forums that utilized that approach.  Another approach was to allow all opinions to be expressed without any attempt to weed out information that could not be verified or substantiated.  This approach led to a cacophony of opinions that drowned out the sensible, experienced and knowledgeable people who posted.  When those people stopped participating on those types of forums, those forums fell into relative disuse as well.  The Aikiweb appears to be at a critical juncture point.  It is well-known that many of the well-known, knowledgeable people who use to post on this forum stopped because they became tired of having address opinions and comments that represented information that could not be verified or substantiated.  The people behind those far-afield opinions simply could not accept that they were off-base and steadfastly refused to have to back-up their opinions.  To make matters worse, we then had to contend with apologists who could not understand that not all opinions were equal, and not all opinions can be verified and substantiated as factual, useful and relevant.

We can debate for eternity as to what Aikido should mean and should represent.  At the end of the day, Aikido does not end up in the realm of philosophy, spirituality, nor is it confined to endless debates.  Aikido is a martial art.   There are many manifestations of our art that can exist within that umbrella categorization.  It is immaterial as to what manifestation a person chooses to pursue.  Any manifestation of our art should be entitled to respect.  Those expressed ideas and abilities should be empirically tested both within and outside of that community.  It serves as an invaluable feedback mechanism to remain anchored firmly within a consensual reality.  It is the hallmark and foundation of mutual respect and a sense of camaraderie that exists within the martial arts world.  This approach is the accepted standard in almost all areas of human endeavor.  This self-policing approach is possible if we are open enough and honest enough with ourselves to admit that no one has all of the information and no one is the zenith of skill sets.  This approach will work if we can all hold ourselves and those around us accountable to what we say and do.  I consider this to be the foundation of respect within our community.  None of us should be excused or held above being accountable to demonstrably verify and substantiate information and alleged abilities.  If a person wants to put information out in our community, we should hold them accountable for the information put forward.  If a person does not want to subject themselves to that legitimate scrutiny, then that person should recognize that this forum should not be place to make claims that are somehow immune to inquiry.

If you say that your expression of Aikido is focused on the spiritual aspects that O’Sensei held dear, then that is a fantastic way to pay tribute to the spiritual aspects of O’Sensei’s Aikido.  If asked, you should be well-versed in Shinto and Omoto practices and beliefs.  It should strike people as odd, if someone would avoid responding to legitimate queries into these areas.  It should strike people as odd, if a person responds in a manner that seems inconsistent and/or odds with clearly established practices and beliefs.  It should strike someone as odd, if someone discounts discrepancies as a function of your lack of deeper (yet undefined) understandings, without the clear and rational explanation of the discrepancies.  A reasonable person would think that it would be a mutual sign of respect for a person to query another person about this subject matter.  If a person who claims a degree of knowledge, cannot demonstrate it, then it should be embraced by both people as an opportunity to share in the learning process.  It is beyond obvious, that until someone points out gaps in our knowledge, we might not actually be aware of it and the opportunity to deepen our knowledge base.

If you say that your expression of Aikido is focused on the philosophical aspects Aikido that O’Sensei, then that is a fantastic way to pay tribute to the philosophical aspects of O’Sensei’s Aikido.  O’Sensei’s philosophical believes were fully embedded within classic Chinese literature (which was the foundation of a education in Japan until Japan engaged in a nationwide path toward modernization) and his religious beliefs.  His philosophies were expressed in manner of writing and speaking that was hard for many to understand, outside of the nature of education that he was exposed to.  People are actively engaged in re-interpreting O’Sensei’s writings because the earlier interpretations varied widely in accuracy.   A person should reasonably expect someone to be able to articulate O’Sensei’s philosophies with some degree of accuracy, while acknowledging certain limitations (e.g.  cannot read Japanese, basing one’s understandings upon “x’s” interpretations of a specific writing).

If you say that your expression of Aikido is the physical expression of the ideas of connection and harmony of movements amongst people, then that is a wonderful way of expression some core components of Aikido that O’Sensei expressed.  Providing people with the training paradigms in which these practices exist within is valuable information.  It enables people to formulate reasonable questions so that people can seek to empirically validate the information.  For example, I would be curious to know under which conditions we can replicate the abilities to harmonize and connect with the movements of others.  Can it only happen in a mutually cooperative environment?  Can it happen in a more combative environment?  This kind of information informs and helps everybody to seek to deepen the knowledge and ability base defined within the stated parameters.

If you say that your expression of Aikido is an effective form of self-defense, then that is a fantastic way to pay tribute to the Aikido that O’Sensei represented.  It is reasonable and informative to understand how a person defines the realm of self-defense and the training paradigms in which the Aikido is practiced.  The stated parameters can allow people to empirically validate the stated abilities and skills.  It provides everybody with a wonderful opportunity to realistically understand that which people claim to do.

Insuring a high level of integrity in our Aikido community requires all of us to work together.  It will take us to agree upon a mutually respectable atmosphere where we can freely ask and provide the opportunity to empirically validate our ideas and abilities.  We should expect nothing less from ourselves and others, nor should we allow others to excuse those who avoid and run away from opportunities to empirically validate claims.  We should all respect the legitimate expressions that people have regarding their Aikido.  We should all be honest in accurately describing and expressing what we do and how we do it.  We should all be open to being asked to empirically validate all that we do and say. This only helps all of us to grow and deepen our understanding and appreciation of what we all do.  We should all embrace the gaps in our knowledge and abilities that empirical explorations reveal.  This path only leads us to higher levels.  I demand that from myself, my teachers, my students and my fellow Aikidoka.  I can only hope that we as a community demand more of ourselves so that we rarely have to deal with how to address the legitimate requests for the empirical validation of claims.  This lies at the heart of maintaining a high level of integrity in our Aikido and in this forum so that it continues to attract the participation and contributions from many within the martial arts world.  More importantly, we can expand the appeal of our art in a time of contracting student bases, by providing accurate information and various manifestations of Aikido that can meet a variety of needs and wants.

Marc Abrams