Reply to George Ledyard’s Open Letter: “Some Reflections,” by Alister Gillies

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.”


  1. I totally get this perspective… Doing a Japanese art, one should be doubly aware of the issue of change. These arts we have inherited are direct outgrowths of monumental effort on the part of the Budo giants of the post-Meiji period in which interest in Budo and anything tradition in general endangered and in many cases destroyed the transmission of many arts.

    Today we hear the we are in the midst of one of histories mass extinctions in which a huge percentage of the world’s species died out. The rate at which this is happening my be faster than in previous times. There are many people out there who are devoting their lives to trying to slow this around or even turn it around completely.

    One of the unfortunate things about the current extinction process is that many species are simply passing out of existence even before we had a chance to discover them. They came and went and we never knew. In many ways I think that the changes we see today in our society and the demographics which effect all arts involved with the transmission of what I call “Old Knowledge” are potentially endangering much of that old knowledge and doing so before most folks even had a chance to know what that knowledge was.

    There was a reason that people felt that something in Budo was important to preserve despite the fact that the warrior class had ceased to exist and modern technology had made traditional fighting skills irrelevant. Those same reasons still exist. O-Sensei went an extra step and created an art in which the old knowledge was given a radically new perspective. It did not throw out the old Budo, it morphed it into something deeper, more vibrant, and potentially more trans-formative.

    But, it is clear to me, and others can certainly see it differently, that the foundation of this new Budo was still the old knowledge. So the idea that we simply change with the times and adapt what we do to these changes is fine in one sense and will have to be done. But at the same time, we can’t just adjust… we need to give direction to that adjustment. What I am talking about is saving what needs to be saved. Just as with animals that are almost extinct, someone needs to try to keep the few remaining animals alive. Perhaps then later we could clone them or re-introduce them in the wild. But once they are gone, they are gone.

    The Aikido I was shown by my teacher is endangered. Lots of Aikido is being done, very little has much to do with what I was taught. I think that if this knowledge passes away, it will not re-evolve. Yes, one can easily see that Aikido may change and become something else entirely. This is happening all over the world in every area. But in my own case, my primary concern for the art is that it not to lose the very elements that made it worth doing in the first place. Other people may feel free to take the art in new directions, to let the tides of change determine for them what the art should become.

    Personally, what I am devoted to is evolving how we transmit the art, how we teach it, how we can keep the art vibrant and alive while making sure it doesn’t lose the connection with its “old knowledge” core. There is so much to be learned doing our art. But the principles have to be taught and carried on. I am unwilling to let Aikido morph into something with less depth and breadth just because my society seems to be moving into a “sound bite” culture in which shallow exposure passes for knowledge and age and experience are devalued because what we are looking at is the latest and greatest techno shift.

    I do see a day when there will be a different Aikido… I can see it happening. What I am fighting for is making sure that the Aikido of O-Sensei, at least as I have understood it and as it was past to me through my teacher, is still alive and being transmitted. My experience has been that when one can give people a taste of Aikido which contains more depth, they respond positively. People aren’t purposely doing Aikido-lite. If there is an alternative, they generally choose the practice with more content. The folks who don’t, well. they weren’t serious about their Aikido-lite either.

    • Ray Jess says:

      I agree with Ledyard Sensei’s position on an Aikido with depth, breath and a healthy respect for the founding ways; that was how I was taught when I started Aikido in 1964. The challenge is older adults, and perhaps a very few of the younger generation understand what you are saying. I am an educator in the American public school system. The youth of today are taught in the system of “knowledge lite” as a general rule due to the number of “standards” that must be taught and therefore, that is all they know about learning. The media culture of today is made up of 30 second sound bites, if it goes longer you lose their attention and they won’t buy the product or idea.

      In many cases youngsters come into an Aikido dojo and study as part of a “summer program”; they enjoy the throwing and rolling but they know it will end soon. Those who do remain have to be taught a different paradigm about studying, acquiring knowledge and an understanding of the art. It is up to the sensei to make sure these young impressionable minds are given the knowledge and skills taught by o-sensei as they are developmentally ready to accept them. I believe in this manner, the art will not be degraded or become extinct but rather flourish as the art o-sensei intended.

      In response to “Some Reflections”, I would like to quote Richard Bach from Jonathan Livingston Seagull “…The gull who sees furthest flies highest.”

  2. Tom Collings says:

    George Ledyard rightly has high expectations for his students. He expressed valid concerns for the dumbing down of aikido and lack of passion shown by so many students. His words brought to mind a very different Zen comment than the one offered by Mr.Gillies. Every Sunday morning at the conclusion of formal Zen practice the head monk at my zendo reminds us:

    Let me respectfully remind you, Life and Death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed – this day your days are diminished by one. Do not squander your life.


  3. Alister Gillies says:

    In any clutch of eggs there are some that don’t hatch. Traditionally, Japanese teachers of Budo allow their students to bear the responsibility for learning; they do not insist that students are committed or be more responsible. Peer pressure is exerted to thin out those that are not very serious, but in modern times many Japanese teachers try to use modern pedagogical methods with varying degrees of success.

    Money and large fees do play a part in class and seminar size, and no doubt this is an inducement for some Japanese teachers to give western teaching methods a shot – I doubt they are convinced that our methods compare favourably with their own traditional approach. There are very good reasons why the Japanese teach as they do; whether those methods are suitable for western students is an interesting question, but not something I wish to talk about here.

    Teachers need to pay the rent, true. Compromises are necessary, and how far one should go in this direction is a matter of trial and error. How we see things is a reflection of our own situation.

    I sympathise with George’s situation, but cannot offer – and would not – any suggestions to improve the situation. O Sensei kept on moving, changing, did not explain and spread himself around a small number of teachers throughout Japan. He did what he could as one man, and that was remarkable. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

  4. Jose Arves Santos says:

    Thanks for your enlightening and intelligent essay and its ample amount of solution for practice.

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