This reply was actually submitted as a comment to George Ledyard’s earlier blog, Open Letter to My Students. I found it so well written and thought out that I considered it deserving of being posted as a separate blog. – Editor
Aikido is for everybody; but not everybody is for Aikido.
There may be moral and spiritual benefits from adhering to an essentially feudal form of practice like Budo, and I am sure that this is true for some. For a few individuals, Budo is a practice that is intrinsically rewarding; it transcends both time and circumstance, at least for those who are romantically inclined. It exudes universal values and principles of harmony and connection. This is its attraction. But who is it attracting?
If we look dispassionately at the structure of Budo, it is no different from the kind of structure we see in Herman Hesse’s novel ‘The Glass Bead Game’. At the top of the heap there are a small number of high priests (shihans), whose exalted position is both secure and precarious; they depend for their very existence on the strata below and for that reason they cannot afford to be complacent or relax their vigilance too much: the Tao Te Ching reminds us that what rises also falls. The entire system only works if everyone, or a significant majority, ‘plays the game’.
In reality, of course, it (Budo) cannot help but reflect the environment in which it is located. Human beings are not perfect or even sure of what it is they aspire to become in pursuing endless avenues of self-development. O Sensei once said that “the great path is really no path at all.” Most people are playing a game; whether it is a ‘serious’ one or a ‘frivolous’ one does not really matter.
We know that we are playing a game when we get angry with our playmates for not playing the game properly. But what is ‘proper’? It changes all the time. In reality the path is so wide that we cannot even call it a path any longer. This can be scary; there is nothing to hang on to. To compensate we become more rigid and insistent, the path narrows and convention and habit becomes confused with discipline.
We all know that eventually we will let go, but we put it off. People that are attracted to Budo are people who are fearful, for one reason or another. Paradoxically, to make progress we are required to let go of fear. An ordinary human being is someone who is fearful; however, some people are afraid of being an ordinary human being. What a dilemma.
Laughter and tears are two sides of the same coin. If we are really connected to the universe, the only person we can be angry with is ourselves. For that reason, and for no other, we have no choice but to give everybody a break. I think it is called compassion.
If Aikido is to be of any benefit to anyone it must be outside the dojo. The benefits must spill into the world where it will do most good, rather than setting up another ‘Glass Bead Game’. Change is on its way. There can be no doubt of that. Aikido itself is continually undergoing change and may even become something else entirely.
I sympathise with the author who, like the old Zen teacher complaining about his students, was really complaining about his own condition:
“My students are not good, I can no longer hit them as hard as I used to and the dharma is suffering.”