Remarking on the remarkable by Mark Peckett

MarkRobert Frager is one of the founding fathers of aikido in America.  He was a direct student of O’Sensei, living and studying in Tokyo in the 1960s and one of the few non-Japanese students at the original Aikido dojo.  He is an interesting man, a professor of psychology, a former Jew, a new Muslim and a sheikh in the Halveti-Jerrahi Sufi Order.

I have been reading a piece he wrote in “Aikido in America”, a compilation of writings about aikido by some of the people who had the greatest influence on the development of aikido in the States, people like Terry Dobson, Mary Heiny, Robert Nadeau and Wendy Palmer.

I was particularly taken by one thing he wrote:

I learned what aikido was all about from who O’Sensei was, not from what he did.  I also had the feeling that you could take O’Sensei’s aikido away from him, you could take his skill at the techniques of aikido, and he would still be O’Sensei, because what O’Sensei was for me was what he had become inside, the inner self.

It seems to me that the question he is asking is “Why do we practise aikido?”  Are we primarily studying a martial art to learn to defend ourselves or is something else going on?

Frager goes on to say that O’Sensei said that it was wrong to view the person we were practising with as an opponent instead of a partner because you don’t learn the qualities of blending, sensitivity and empathy if you’re training as if you are always in a fight.

I think people come to the martial arts for a variety of reasons, but the one that gets quoted most often is “to learn to defend myself,” and I believe that is a valid reason to practise aikido.  But it’s not the only reason, and certainly not the most important reason.

It is a good thing that people should feel more confident, fitter, more secure in themselves, physically and mentally, but if that security is won at the expense of someone else, then it exists only so long as you are stronger and someone else is weaker.  And this oppositional view of aikido means that you are always unsatisfied, because you’re always worried about your enemy.

Look how the Cold War developed, with America and Russia developing more and more nuclear weapons to defend themselves, until between them they had enough to destroy the world many times over.  And yet even then they did not feel secure.

Richard Moon 6th dan is an instructor at City Aikido of San Francisco, which was founded by Robert Nadeau, another of those Americans who travelled to Japan in the 1960s to study with O’Sensei.  He argues that the martial arts in general that they are competitive, and therefore are contests about who is best and set us up in opposition to each other.  In an article for Aikido Journal he writes:

I see studying a “way of being” very different from learning the skills of the art whether it be war or dance, painting, pottery or fighting. Developing one’s self for ‘the completion of the universe’ has a different flavour, different intent and ultimately a different outcome, from a competitive approach in which people are trying to conquer or defeat others.

He talks of aikido as a study for the mutual benefit of the community and adds:

It seems people often have a hard time understanding that distinction and so don’t see a value in the practice of harmony.   As such, they miss the value in the practice because they are studying fighting and winning over others.  O’Sensei said, “Winning means winning over the discord in your own mind.”

Frager defines the martial attitude as “the warrior archetype”:

Someone who reveres life but not out of fear.

But he goes on to say that this is not enough, and refers to two further archetypes: the healer and the magician.  The healer is one who works to heal inner fears, to heal oneself, and the magician works on change, on transformation.

The point being that being a warrior is only a small part of the picture.  It is about being comfortable with violence and aggression in other people and in ourselves, but if we can’t transform that energy then we are in danger of being stuck in the technique.

Now I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with technique.  My favourite sensei, Morihiro Saito, was very precise in his teachings of technique.  You had to get used to the word “dame” at his seminars as he produced a book of photographs of Morihei Ueshiba as examples of how you should be doing the technique.

But even he says in his book “Aikido – Its Heart and Appearance”:

If one examines Aikido patiently for a long time, something is bound to touch your heartstrings.

That isn’t something you would generally expect to read in a martial arts!

Terry Dobson, another of American aikido’s founding fathers is quoted in “Aikido in America” as saying:

… so for me learning takes place in just looking at the students, just learning to look at people … to just notice what people show you instead of looking over their heads and being lost in the technique.  I’m starting to look at real small details, to see that person as a person.

These are important statements by people who learned from O’Sensei himself, and they all point to the fact that aikido should develop us, we should not develop aikido.

Or to quote O’Sensei:

Your attitude should be that of a parent to a child.

This is not a soft thing – it can be firm and authoritative, but it is always nurturing and caring.  There can’t be a parent reading this who doesn’t understand that statement.  Our children change us as much as we develop them.

It means that if for whatever reason we can’t be a warrior in the dojo, we can still be remarkable.