Recommended reading: “Character Counts!” by Stanley Pranin

The article below has been selected from the extensive archives of the Online Aikido Journal. We believe that an informed readership with knowledge of the history, techniques and philosophy of aikido is essential to the growth of the art and its adherence to the principles espoused by Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba.

Aikido bills itself, so to speak, as a martial art with a spiritual core. That is, beyond self-defense skills, aikido promises its followers a path through which they may “polish” their spirits in order to become better people. Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba even goes so far as to state that the main relevance of aikido in modern society is as a vehicle for developing better members of society more so than as a martial art, If one accepts this view–as I have come to over the years–then the character, integrity, and conduct of individuals, rather than their level of technical mastery, become the true measure of their stature in the art.

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  1. We can understand that ambitious people who are unwilling to engage in serious shugyo may be tempted to take shortcuts. But what about those who practiced hard for many years and claim false lineages in order to gain recognition? What do they have in mind? Do they think that no one will ever find out? What will happen to their reputation when they are exposed as frauds? What kind of students will result from their teaching?

    I have been exposed to many such cases. One common example is that gentleman who after a few weeks in Japan claims to be the equal of an authentic lineage successor who spent many years studying with the last headmaster. How did he get his certificate? By contacting a renegade member of the lineage family who handed him over the said certificate for whatever compensation was agreed upon.

    Out of his direct circle, that gentleman is known as a fraud. He has some technical skills, he speaks well and can create impressions. He constantly gets new students but hasn’t formed any leader to succeed him. His senior students –while denying the facts– quit or repeat what they learned best from him. Some try to go authentic but end up quitting due to so many poor habitual patterns to be corrected, especially in their mental attitude.

    That is what happens when skills are emphasized at the expense of character development.

    Skill are important. But the real measure of a teacher’s authenticity is revealed in his behavior. How does he behave when he thinks no one is observing him? Is he nice to you only when he can use you and then ignores you when he no longer needs you? Or is he the same person in all circumstances? What kind of students surround him?

    A teacher is a human being and has flaws. One should not look at one single flaw only but look at the whole. However too many red flags will reveal his true agenda, whatever the authenticity of his lineage.

    In all cases one should remain vigilant.

  2. bruce baker says:

    I really .. really .. don’t like the “behind the scenes politics of martial arts” because too often .. the deceptions are just as bad as the criminals who should go to jail, but that is my opinion based upon some deceptions I have seen over the years.

    I would rather see .. honesty. A simple,” … well, I trained under this person and that person, didn’t get any rank, but they show me a few techniques, the rest I picked up on my own, you be the judge as to how good it is and if you want to be my student.” impresses the hell out of me because there is no deception. And, it is surprising what you can learn by researching, asking questions, and getting experts with a good heart, good moral character to help you along the way .. and .. more often than not .. the really good people are more than willing to help you along the way.

    On the other hand, these “SHIHAN” (master teachers or is that short for great teacher? depends on your interpretation I guess.) who use political ties, behind the scenes testing, and favors to gain rank and recognition, remind me of the posturing jocks and cliques of my high-school days where these people push the moral envelope until something gives, either legally and they get caught breaking the law, or something bad happens to them or the people around them.

    No teacher is perfect, but how your lessons carry you in your everyday life, how you treat people, as well as how other people treat you, might come from the spirit of your moral fiber, the energy that people perceive coming from you.

    Documents, traditions, and even customs can sometimes prevent a very good person from rising and reaching their potential, so at times it might be best to ignore tradition and custom until the powers that be come to their senses, but at other times, there is the scam artist who should be outed at a scam artist, a fraud, but more often than not .. they are the entrepreneurs of our age who make lots of money. So, where is line of morality and good character to be drawn?

    History shows it is drawn not only by the skill of the practitioner, but by the morality of the life they lead also.

    If Aikido students and teachers seek a more moral, more proper way to live their lives I say good for them.

    On the other hand, there are teachers, and students, who smoke, drink, womanize, burn the candle at both ends, in the middle, and up around the sides until life catches up with them, so are we just splitting hairs here for the sake of writing words? Maybe .. maybe.

    And yet … within aikido .. I find less phonies, less immoral behaviors, and less people putting on a front, just a bit more honesty than I find in some other arts, but of course that depends on who you know, and who your friends are too. I must also say .. I have met the salt of the earth at some cross-training seminars, although I must remark .. more people seemed a little bit full of themselves at these other cross-training seminars?

    Oh well … human flaws, eh? Sometimes I wish some Aikido people were a little less trusting, a little more questioning and alert to what goes on as they train, cause sometimes … they just don’t see what is right out there in the open for a training technique. It was as if … some of the students and teachers were hypnotized?

    I guess Patrick Auge’ has it right.

    Quote,” A teacher is a human being and has flaws. One should not look at one single flaw only, but look at the whole. However, too many red flags will reveal his true agenda, whatever the authenticity of his lineage.

    In all cases one should remain vigilant.”

    Yep … keep ya eyes open, your headlights on, and put all the clues together to get the big picture, the true picture of who and what a person really is.

  3. David Orange says:

    What is it that man really amounts to, finally?

    In the Bible, King Solomon, whom some call the wisest man in history, tells us “Everything is vanity and chasing the wind.”

    I began formal martial arts training in 1972 in a school that claimed to be teaching “kyokushinkai kan karate do”. On the wall of dojo was a photograph of the teacher in a group with Masutatsu Oyama, the realest of the real. But I found out that the teacher had trained with Oyama only at a seminar and his school was not really affiliated with Kyokushin.

    Since then, I have seen all kinds of martial arts and martial artists, legitimate, home-made, purely fake and those who are simply nuts. I have known three really great masters of martial arts and many very talented lesser lights and I have seen the range of personalities and characters that I suppose the martial arts can hold.

    I have to say that, where character counts, the greatest in character were not always those with the most “legitimate” ranks or lineages. In fact, if I had put more faith and trust in human beings over these decades, I would be sorely depressed by some of the truly unworthy behavior and character I have encountered in some budo men of indisputably legitimate high rank, even those we would call “master” and “shihan.”

    I’m not speaking so much of the Japanese world. Through a lot of pain over my few years actually training in Japan, I came to understand that I could not apply the same moral standards to them and their culture that I had learned in the Western world. I came to understand honne and tatemae and that the Japanese did not always feel that they owed me, an outsider, their true views or the real facts of a matter, but that they could tell me whatever was convenient at the moment. Later, they might tell me something else and I learned not to expect the truth to be “spoken” but observed, sometimes opposite of what was said, sometimes tucked between the lines.

    I, myself, sometimes gave people incomplete or diverting answers when they asked questions I thought were too personal or none of their business, but which they felt they had the right to ask. I just never did it so that it cost them anything or caused them any loss. But I learned not to hold shifty truth against the Japanese and I accepted that I shouldn’t ascribe too much weight to that kind of thing in assessing their character.

    Rather, it’s the Westerners, whom I trusted, based on our common Christian heritage and culture, to treat me honestly and fairly in proportion to the honesty and faithfulness with which I followed their teachings, who have most impressed me with deceit and manipulation. And over what? Over “legitimacy”: their efforts to make themselves the “most” legitimate while undercutting others’ ability to obtain or document their own legitimacy–even those who sincerely followed them and trained whole-heartedly for many years. It seems now that the most important thing to them was to keep others from sharing their lofty perches–not because those below them were bad characters or didn’t work hard enough, but because these teachers had the ego belief that only they, themselves, were worthy to attain the lofty levels.

    There was one such teacher whom I respected above all other Westerners because he had a strong rank from an extremely highly respected Japanese master and I followed him with the sincerity and fervor that young men have, knowing that my character was far from perfect and trusting this teacher, with his wise stories and samurai arcana, to steer me onto the path of true character and nobility.

    Then one day, relaxing between gasshuku training sessions, this wise and highly respectable man began to chuckle. I asked him “What’s funny?” He said, “Oh, I was just thinking about that guy out in New Mexico, who wanted me to teach him a sai kata.”

    I vaguely remembered the guy. I said, “What happened?”

    The teacher said, “He kept after me to teach him a sai kata, so I made one up and taught it to him. I wonder what he’s doing with that kata now?”

    I was shocked to my bones. Here was this legitimate and higly moral man of indisputable character and I could clearly see him teaching another man a made-up kata with the same honest face and earnest good character with which he was teaching us every day in our gasshuku. And with the same earnest face and upright posture, he took the man’s money, the same as he took ours. And now he was laughing at that man he had duped with his high moral character. So I began to wonder if this teacher was somehow teaching us something false there in that gasshuku every day and if he would be laughing at us later, to someone else.

    To this day, who knows? Technically, what he taught looked very much the same as what I studied in Japan, but I wonder if he were holding back some crucial element all that time? He’s now what you have to call a “master,” recognized throughout the Western world and honored in Japan. He still tells noble stories and gives forth with righteous sayings and talk of morality, but I know that he has serious blind spots like any other man and, for all his preaching on “character,” retains very serious character flaws.

    On the other hand, when I was struggling so hard to climb the ladder of rank and to master “legitimate” techniques, I met a man whom I respected but whom I didn’t count nearly as high as that previously mentioned teacher because he had learned a sort of mish-mash jujutsu here in the States. He had not “lineage” in Japan, but he had been training since 1917. I never saw anyone able to give him a real challenge. Everyone who touched him went flying and neither of my teachers would put a hand on him. But this old man was only ranked nidan, he told me, and I didn’t see a way to climb the ladder of budo legitimacy under him. So I continued jumping hoops for the legitimate guy and years later I realize how stupid that was. That old man was first of all, a martial arts powerhouse who could really do everything he said and much more that he didn’t say. If I had continued with him, putting in the same effort I put into the “legitimate” training, I would be far better off now, both technically and in rank. Second, the old man’s character was as pure as that of anyone I ever met. He gave freely and fully. I never heard of him lying to or misleading anyone and he never talked badly about anyone. And today, looking back, I think that only Minoru Mochizuki and Kyoichi Murai were beyond that old man in technique. And though I loved Mochizuki Sensei and Murai Sensei and think of them daily, I also think of that man with the nidan and sixty years of experience and I realize that I should have stuck with him instead of the man with the legitimate rank.

    It’s very easy for a man born to wealth, never having to work for or answer to anyone else, and free to travel the world on his whim to take a hobby and turn it into a vocation and polish it to a very high level. But maybe there is something in that, too, that saps the character out of a man because he can never understand the life of a person who has to work to support his family, so he judges and dismisses others as “unworthy” because they cannot commit as fully and freely as he can to polishing technique. Perhaps he cannot see that polished technique does not equal true character.

    Certainly, the old man, who gained all he had through sheer determination and need, who never claimed for higher ranks or deeper lineages, emerges in my memory as the better character and by far the better teacher. Certainly, the legitimate teachers who maintain “budo decorum” in public but spread salacious rumors and lies through private messages and e-mails are bad examples of true budo. And possibly, that is the greatest lesson I have learned in almost forty years of pursuing budo.

    Solomon saw that one fate is shared by all men, by rich and poor, by the wise and by fools, by truth-tellers and liars. Soon enough, we all will be gone from this earth. For all their efforts, Morihei Ueshiba and Minoru Mochizuki left splintered organizations and much back-stabbing among their followers, heels planted in faces as climbers climb over others on their way to the legitimate “top” while pushing others back down the hill and lieing about them even as they “fall”. In all cases, indeed, one must remain vigilant.

    Indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

  4. Jim Shoemaker says:

    The sign of a noble character is not in doing the right thing when everyone’s looking, but doing the right thing when no one’s looking and even when it doesn’t matter.

  5. …politics is political. as rank depends, at least in part, on pleasing teachers, the politically astute have an advantage. no help for that.

    the deeper question is a chicken-and-egg problem: which came first, technical proficiency or upright character? i like the image of ‘polishing the soul’ in the old sense that ‘the sword is the soul of the samurai’. in the course of things a person could polish the flat of the blade until it was a mirror. or they could waste time on the ridge of the blade thinking to make it sharp. but even for those who sharpen the edge, it’s a two stage process. some steel is removed, and some of the sharpening stone is ground off in the process.

    the new buzzword is neuroplasticity – as you train, you also change your nervous system. the simple example is a technique as a ballistic motion. when you know the technique well enough to “just do it”, your nervous system has changed through that learning process. is it conceivable that sincere training also works on the character? the technique is the omote, but then there’s also the ura…?

  6. In the end, one dark night when you are alone and surrounded by several armed thugs trying to kill you, something you like to believe “will never happen to you,” it will be just you. Just you and that Universe you strove in honesty to attune with.

    That will see the measure of you, one way or the other. The outcome will be the rank, the lineage, the proof and the validity of who you really are.

    Also, unlike the movies, there will be no orchestra playing glory music in the sky. Your “lineage,” whether real or fake, will not come to your aid. Those you believe were compatriots will either cut and run, or worse, jump ship. Unlike the cutely disgusting political “meetings,” you will not be able to bullshit your way out of this one. Pieces of paper will not stop weaponry. Coloured cloth cannot be seen in the dark.

    You will have to put your money where your mouth is. No less.

    Then you will discover the measure of your character and the value of your more immediate teachers, recognised or not.

    If you are not training for this moment and taking responsibility for who you are, your social face is merely a shallow act that will one day crumble.

    Character is judged alone and this in adversity.

    But if you enjoy cow-towing, following and basking in the imaginary protection of those who will one day let you down, then who am I to stop you from finding out the hard way. After all, all experience is gainful in some way.

  7. Aikido itself, mixed with training with and under some strongly positive people, certainly brought out much courage that had been hiding inside. My pseudo-confidence became true confidence, and I felt that I was at least on the edge of the path.

    Not training for almost two years now, much of my Aikido spirit remains, but I do feel it gradually fading somewhat. The only reason I have taken this much time off is a condition that makes it impossible to stay in excellent cardiovascular shape without great suffering.

    Therefore, I believe continued keiko – even after we first realize we are on the path – is essential to maintain that great state of mind. I hope to one day return to a dojo, but even if I cannot, I do feel much of the spirit of Aiki will stay with me; I do not think it will ever totally disappear. It has just had too much of an impact on me that I would ever lose it completely.

    Drew Gardner

  8. Good advice. I wish I could go back thirty years and apply it to all relationships.

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