“Aikido and Independence: On Not Finding One’s True Master,” by Peter Goldsbury

“Aikido was presented by one of my teachers as an art of mutual benevolence. Through the rhythm of attack and defence, aikido partners were in fact contributing to one another’s well-being.”

Aikido is a martial art full of paradoxes and some of these are due to the way in which instructors introduce and teach that art, especially to non-Japanese. I myself started practicing aikido because it was not a competitive sport. I was fed up with the traditional English diet of cricket and rugby, and marathon running was a painful and solitary activity. Aikido seemed much more congenial. You had to have a partner, there was no competition and so you could proceed at your own pace, without the need to break your neck training for the next tournament. Instead, there was simply training: the same complex aikido movements repeated hundreds and hundreds of times. We were also taught that aikido could be practiced by people of any age group and required a “total absence” of physical strength. On the other hand, our instructor decided that we were not in good shape (he saw no contradiction with what he had said about physical strength) and so we regularly did ten-mile runs just before the two-hour aikido practices. As a long distance runner I was not fazed by this, but I defy anyone to tell me that this regime did not require rather more than a “total absence” of physical strength. Now, of course, 30 years later, I know it all had a place in the aikido scheme of things, rather like the divine plan for mankind.

Aikido was presented by one of my teachers as an art of mutual benevolence. Through the rhythm of attack and defence, aikido partners were in fact contributing to one another’s well-being. Aikido apparently had strong ties with Shinto, an ancient Japanese belief system populated with innumerable deities and ancestors, whose sole exertions were to ensure the well-being of the entire human race. We were taught that the Japanese emperor also played an important role in these exertions, but his connection with the Shinto deities—and with aikido—was never precisely explained.

Another teacher strongly denied the links of aikido with Shinto and instead stressed its links with Zen Buddhism. Aikido, we were told, was based on the ancient sword arts of the samurai, who all embraced zazen. We should do the same. We were encouraged to sit in impossibly painful postures and think deeply about nothing. Those who did not do this deeply enough received encouragement in the form of a sharp blow (hard enough to draw blood or cause bruising) across the shoulders with an instrument called the kyosaku. This training was supposed to deepen our spiritual awareness of aikido and its techniques, which nevertheless always had to work and sometimes resulted in severe injury. We were also encouraged to practice with wooden swords, sticks and knives, but without knowing why, beyond the fact that they were weapons and made the practice rather more realistic and exhilarating. The teacher was regarded by outsiders as a complete monster, but was much loved by his students. I myself think that, of all the teachers I have had, he was the one who forced his students to face several questions and attempt to answer them honestly: Why am I practicing aikido? What is my real commitment to the art? Do I really think it will change my life and if so, how?

Yet another teacher, a wonderful man in his early seventies, who loved to neutralize fierce attacks from the young bloods in the dojo, had no truck with zen. He denied that 0-Sensei ever practiced zazen and always stressed the motto, “Ken before Zen.” He thought that the time we spent doing zazen could be spent much more profitably practicing with the sword, preferably in a traditional sword art such as Katori shinto-ryu. He did not have much time, either, for the sword practice known as aiki ken.

All of these teachers apparently claimed to enjoy a close relationship with 0-Sensei and always called on him as the main witness to the truth of their positions. This caused me to wonder how it is possible that instructors of the same martial art, dedicated to bringing the truth to millions, could offer three seemingly contradictory versions of aikido and also be so different in teaching methods?

The striking differences between teachers and teaching methods leads to another set of questions, especially for Western practitioners of the art: what role should the teacher play in one’s “aikido life?” Is it best for an aikido practitioner to have one teacher only, or several simultaneously, or a succession of teachers, and in the latter cases, who is that practitioner’s real Master? (At the risk of sounding sexist, I hesitate to use the other title.) Is there a natural progress towards independence in aikido? In what circumstances should one leave one’s (“own,” or original) teacher and go to another?

East vs. West

I think such questions are relevant for a large number of aikido practitioners and not just those outside Japan. I think the usual paradigm of an “aikido life” is based on educational and cultural assumptions which are fundamentally Japanese and this situation is to be expected. The prospective aikidoist goes to a dojo, signs up and practices there for the rest of his/her life. The shihan in charge of the dojo, who is supposedly well on the way to being the living embodiment of all the aikido virtues (for this is why he/she is a shihan), becomes wholly responsible for the person, who signs a blank check, so to speak. Even if the person practices only once a week, or even once a month, he/she is still regarded as a deshi (disciple) of that shihan and the relationship obviously deepens over the years. The student might eventually open a satellite dojo, but this will still be regarded as part of the shihan’s organization. But if there is a conflict for some reason, then all contact with the shihan is severed. The student becomes a non-person in the group and either has to find a new organization or gives up aikido altogether. There are uncomfortably large numbers of disgruntled ex-aikido students around, even in Japan.

In the so-called “Western” countries education proceeds according to a different set of values and, while there is obviously the same level of commitment to aikido as in Japan, these values also operate. The role of the teacher is not so absolute and students are culturally brought up to expect some sort of transaction. Dojo fees are paid, but something is deemed to be given in return: a syllabus, for example; a fair measure of explanation of what to expect; and, for the higher ranked dan-holders, a recognition of status and a measure of independence. Students are considered to be responsible for their education and are used to making choices based on logical possibilities, with the teacher playing a more subsidiary role. Of course, these are the Western standards, but their implementation depends on the breadth of vision, or lack of it, among the shihans (at present predominantly Japanese).

The questions raised above perhaps reveal differing attitudes to teaching and learning and their importance was brought home recently as a result of a training course I attended. The visiting instructor, a highly respected Hombu shihan, also stressed that the “Homeric” age in aikido, wherein disciples ascended to Wakamatsu-cho and personally pledged their total dedication to the Founder, was over and that modern aikido was much more of a commercial operation. But he also emphasised the point that aikido nowadays needed to have textbooks. It was noted that aikido is now taught in Japanese high schools and that there had to be a common syllabus. The implication clearly seemed to be that in today’s aikido world, teaching should not be left solely to the whim of instructors. Teaching aids such as textbooks, and perhaps videos, were necessary. The instructor added that he now gives actual lectures about aikido during his instruction courses. Note that this instructor was thinking about teaching aikido in Japan to the Japanese, not abroad. He had learned his aikido, moreover, at the hands of the Founder himself, who did not formally teach (in the sense of covering a specific area of ground in a specific time), who did not, of course, use textbooks or any other visual aids beyond a fan, and who did not even use names for the techniques.

This instructor’s attitude is at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of my earlier teacher, who had also been taught by the Founder in the same way. Still definitely in the “Homeric” mode, he felt that the most important task of aikido students was to consider the degree of their own commitment to the art (only 100% commitment was really considered) and find the right Master. If this task was not achieved, there was no point even in starting aikido. By implication, having a succession of different teachers was of value only if it was a search which led to a conclusion. Of course, it also followed that if one found one’s true Master, that was it: all other teaching aids were valueless. However, like the visiting instructor who swore by textbooks, this teacher has taught generations of highly committed and technically able aikido students.

One vs. Many

In the rest of this article I will discuss the question whether this teacher is right, with a sidelong glance at the questions raised earlier relating to education, commitment, and maturity. I will consider two cases: (1) that of a committed disciple who has one teacher throughout his/her entire aikido life; and (2) a committed disciple who has several teachers, successively or simultaneously. I do not have in mind here the professional aikido teacher. Like that of a monk, this is a very special calling and appeals to few. Rather, I am thinking of the hundreds of students in Japan and abroad who organize their existence around aikido, who always live within commuting distance of a dojo, and for whom the regular practice sessions are the focal point of their social activities, of their entire lives, in fact.


I suppose that the first case, that of the committed student who has trained under only one teacher, is regarded as the norm in aikido, though I have no supporting evidence (the sociology of aikido not yet being an accepted discipline) beyond current literature on aikido and my own experience of practicing aikido in ten different dojos in three different countries. Even at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, where there are many different instructors and the practitioner is encouraged to take each instructor’s practice as it comes—choosing one’s instructor being discouraged, longtime students will usually single out one teacher as “their” teacher in some special sense.

Having one teacher only throughout one’s aikido life might be thought to have many advantages. There is only one style to be learned, even if this changes over the years; the teaching methods become familiar; and students and teacher come to know one another intimately. If the teacher has learned his trade from the Founder or his son, then the technical level will also presumably be very high. I think that the matter of one constant method of executing basic techniques is very important in the earlier stages, up to about 4th dan. It gives a strong foundation on which to build and a reliable basis for future creativity. At a deeper level, the need to forget one’s own questions, silent objections and personal preferences and to model one’s techniques 100% on the teacher’s, has always been an essential element of training in the martial arts. Nevertheless there is the constant danger of “ossification”: the hardening of attitudes which accompanies the hardening of the joints, and also of a certain lack of maturity, in the sense that the student is not encouraged to take seriously different, but equally valid, ways of doing the same techniques and thus is not encouraged to develop independent judgment about them. This judgment becomes increasingly important as the student progresses up through the ranks and is absolutely crucial if the student becomes a teacher, or becomes independent from the shihan.

Another problem with my teacher’s almost mystical insistence that one find one’s true master—or abandon training, is that it gives an awful lot of responsibility and freedom to the student, who does not necessarily know what to look for. Of course, he could reply that the student will know immediately when he has found the right teacher, but this is precisely the point. If the teacher is not 0-Sensei, then matters are rather less simple. The situation recalls the days of the samurai in Japan, when young men with nothing better to do went off in search of adventure and ended up as disciples of a master, or dead. It is sometimes forgotten that these people sat at the top of a social pyramid and were supported by hundreds of people who did not have the leisure to consider the question of finding their true master. An important aspect of aikido as a postwar martial art is that it is meant for these kinds of people, also.

I think that such a conscious choice is made by very few aikido practitioners, for the simple reason that outside the big population centers there are very few teachers around, even in Japan. A person hears about aikido, goes to watch a practice at the nearest club, signs up and becomes a regular member, possibly of a very large organization headed by a Japanese shihan, with whom he comes into contact only at gradings or summer schools, if these are held. By no stretch of the imagination can this person be said to have chosen his teacher. He might be said to have chosen the organization in some sense, but this is quite another matter.

The situation is different if the student signs up at the main dojo, where the shihan teaches, but even here I doubt if there is often a conscious process of choosing. What are the alternatives? Another aikido organization? Karate?

There is also a psychological dimension to the problem, but this is harder to explain precisely. I think it is related to the fact that in aikido, as in other Japanese martial arts, no distinction is made between proficiency in the practicing of the art and proficiency in teaching it, or in leading a dojo or organization. It is simply assumed that, given the former, the latter will automatically follow. The problem could be put another way, in Faustian terms: under what conditions should you sell your soul to your aikido teacher?

This is not an idle question. Many years ago I was told by a friend of mine, with whom I practiced regularly, that he would never train under Sensei X, because he wanted to “possess your soul.” The strange thing is that I felt just the same way about my friend’s own teacher. The problem is that some students do try to sell their souls to their aikido teachers and the latter, unlike the Devil, are not usually equipped by their training to handle the transaction successfully.

At one dojo where I regularly practiced, there were two brothers. They both practiced very hard every day and became veritable pillars of the dojo. Both were young and flexible and regularly took ukemi for the Japanese shihan. Their attitudes, however, were quite different. One had a rather cussed attitude and occasionally simply would not go where he was expected to, but this never caused a problem. He failed several gradings, of course, but is still a student of this shihan. The question of choosing his master was not one that he would have taken seriously.

The other brother was different. He had consciously decided that this shihan was his Master and felt that he should also be accepted publicly as the Master’s student. The shihan did not accept this situation and, in the breakdown which resulted, it was left to the student’s friends in the dojo to pick up the pieces as best they could. At the time, several members stopped practicing because of the “electric” atmosphere in the dojo. Eventually, the student took up kendo, found another job, and became too busy to practice at all.

I can almost hear the protests. “I have had one Sensei all my life and he is a wonderful person”… “I only felt I really understood aikido after practicing under Sensei Y”, etc. I do not want to deny that some students (remember, I am considering only those non-professionals who have chosen aikido as their life, in some sense) do consciously choose Sensei X as their teacher and acknowledge that this person is the ultimate source of their proficiency in the art—and everything works out fine (though, if it doesn’t, someone has to pick up the pieces). However, I think these cases are so rare that they cannot be regarded as a norm. Nor do I want to deny that people should be able to choose their teacher, if they wish. But why should they have to choose, and why should they have to choose only one teacher? The point could also be made that by abandoning competition, aikido has actually set itself up to be a way of self-realization, though 0 Sensei might have put it rather differently. But aikido students do not have any objective measure with which to judge either the quality of their practice or their progress in “self-realization” (whatever this may mean).

…Or Many…

I think that the second case, where people have a succession of different teachers, is more usual and in this case the question of which teacher is one’s true master becomes rather academic.

One problem with having successive teachers is that learning the basic techniques can become more difficult. I remember in my own case being very disconcerted when I was told on successive occasions, even ever so gently— though the gentle manner is usually rare—that the basic techniques I thought I had mastered so far were quite wrong. Of course, it had to be my own way of doing the techniques, for it is built into the argument that one’s mistakes are never the shihan’s responsibility. I do not want to sound cynical here, for it is true—it must be true—that shihonage, for example, performed by a 6th kyu and by a 6th dan ought to be different in very many important respects. A beginner has a limited grasp of the “texture” of aikido, so to speak, and so this is why learning to perform basic techniques exactly as the teacher does is so important. In my case, even with Japanese shihans on hand, I had to resort to books like the late Kisshomaru Doshu’s Aikido and Westbrook’s & Ratti’s Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere to get a clear idea of the structure. So, in this respect, I regret not having had one teacher for the first ten years of my life in aikido.

However, the mastering of basic aikido techniques is the only respect in which it is disadvantageous for a committed aikido student to have more than one teacher. By having many teachers, the time taken in learning the basic techniques is more than made up for by the chances offered to gain “creative wisdom,” to adapt Aristotle’s phrase. And as for the importance of practicing exactly as one’s teacher does, I think the periodic reconstruction of one’s entire aikido repertoire to suit the demands of successive teachers is just as important a training method as attempting to produce 100% replicas of one teacher’s techniques: you try to do this, of course, but several times over.

…Or None…

The case I have considered above is of someone who has had a succession of teachers, but who still has only one at a time. Such mundane concerns as changing jobs or college, getting married, moving house, often require the committed aikidoist to leave his/her first teacher and start a relationship with someone new and the fact that this usually takes place successfully is one of the advantages of aikido as an organization. To ask that student to search for the true master, or give up practice, is both unreasonable and unnecessary.

However, what about the committed aikido student who trains under several different teachers at the same time? In fact, a growing number of my aikido friends are genuine ronin (leaderless samurai) and regularly travel from place to place, from teacher to teacher. They do this either because they are forced to do so because of their jobs, or because they do not want to lose touch with the different ways of practice they have learned. If asked whether they had found their true Master, I think it would be very difficult for them to answer. And why should they be forced to do so? These students lead a sort of refugee existence as it is and sometimes have great difficulties when it comes to grading. Grading deserves an article all to itself, but, briefly, a grade is an expression of the (vertical) relationship between student and teacher, but it is also an objective (i.e., horizontal) indication of a student’s ability. Both are equally important, in my opinion, and a student should not be penalized by the grading system for changing teachers or for having more than one. The grading system exists for the student and not the other way round.

…Or All

By way of drawing some conclusions, I think that, despite the fact that to practice actual aikido techniques, one needs one or more partners, aikido is basically a solitary activity. Because there are no competitions in aikido, the art is much more flexible, more creative—and also more dangerous and far less definable— than a mere sport. A consequence is that progress is much more difficult to measure, so much so that some have said that progress in aikido does not need to be measured, at least by a public system of dan grades. On the other hand, human beings are goal directed and need to know whether they are achieving their goals.

At one level, aikido is a cluster of certain kinds of skill. It is very much like learning a foreign language, in the sense that: (1) it admits of varying degrees of proficiency, though all have the overall aim of native-speaker proficiency ; (2) progress is very rapid in the early stages, after which it levels out to a (probably frustrating) plateau, which varies in length for each practitioner; (3) when you have become really good at it, you can do it without thinking; (4) the psychological problems involving native speakers and “foreigners” is parallelled to some degree, at least at the present time, by the differences between Japanese, especially those who have some relationship with the Founder, and non-Japanese; (5) the teacher is thought to be important but actually plays a secondary role. Of course, teachers are the only persons who can objectively judge one’s progress, but I think that no one learning a foreign language would ever engage in a search for his/her “real” Master.

The problem with the language metaphor is that learning a language is supposedly merely acquiring a tool and not a culture (this is especially true with a so-called international language like English, though I think that people who teach Japanese might be reluctant to accept this without further qualification). Furthermore, unlike the practice of aikido, the intellectual, cultural and spiritual effort involved in acquiring proficiency in a foreign language is never intended to make you a better person.

So, I am at the other end of the spectrum from the aikido teacher I mentioned earlier and am very happy to be in the state of not yet having found my true Master. I also have to confess that I have not been searching very hard.

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author and should not be understood in any way as the views or policy of the International Aikido Federation, or IAF, of which the author happens to be an offical.


  1. The answer where to find one’s true master is simple. Inside yourself. The not so easy part is the work involved in waking him up from a very deep sleep. Everyone else can only be a facilitator.

    How you go about your path is entirely your business and to achieve progress, the first skill is discernment, listening to the still, small voice of the master within.

    Followers seldom find this true master within, until they become sufficiently disappointed to realise that no external master could ever do the job.

    Only oneself can achieve, masakatsu, agatsu. Nobody can do it for you. You have to get on the horse (the dragon of kannagara no michi) and take the risk of coming off again and again until you learn to stay on.
    This is the case with all the “paths.”

    For example, most Buddhists are so entangled in being “a buddhist” with all the political imbroglio that entails, they lose sight of the true goal of becoming a Buddha, or realising that they in essence already are, but need to do some serious housecleaning in order to realise the goal. And they dread the fact that that’s when the work begins with no nirvanic escape/vacation in sight.

    Attached to the idea of detachment, clinging to sutric quotes does not get the job done. High risk does. Noticing and dancing with the very moment with all it has to offer. Living life, navigating the universe.

    As it happens spiritual housecleaning is a difficult choice as it is a choice to meet a painful, arduous, almost insurmountable and apparently endless set of tasks towards this goal.

    Habituated patterns are an easier form of suffering, but not as ultimately gainful.
    The best Aikidoka and masters of life I’ve met were mavericks!

    Peter, Thanks for a brilliant article with strongly nuanced implications. I enjoyed reading it thoroughly several times.

  2. Thank you for this well thought through analysis. I have recently been confronted with this problem. I am now at my 3rd dojo, and I’m in the process of relearning all of my techniques for a second time, so I definitely fall into the second category. I have been told by some people that unless I stick to the one teacher for my whole life, my training is all worthless. I was also quite shocked by a person who had to move away from our dojo recently. He had trained at least 5 times per week for many years, and was very committed to his aikido training. However, when he moved, he decided that he would rather give up aikido than train with a different teacher. I was starting to wonder if I was bit strange for my willingness to change, and I’m glad there are like-minded people out there.

  3. Great article. I myself fall into the category of ronin. I like to explore different aikido practitioners and martial arts styles. The more you see, the more you know!

    As for teachers, I have been teaching for a while, and for me, I think the best thing I can do is try to “get out of the way.” By this I mean show the techniques, give the explanations as to “why,” and then let each person find how it works for them because no one does anything the same as someone else, and martial arts/aikido is no different.

    I agree with Nev that your True master is yourself, and as a martial artist you should never forget that. That means always questioning what your being taught, and if the teacher can’t give the “why,” it makes sense then to move on.

    Grading. I agree with you 100% that it is for the student and not the teacher. I think a lot of this problem stems from the way tests are given. Show me the techniques the way I want to see them and you advance. Instead, show the techniques first, and then perform them out of sparring (1) to see if you can perform them under stress and (2) To see how the individual themselves understand the techniques when not just repeating the patterns the shihan wants to see. This will give the student instant feedback as to their understanding and build their confidence in the techniques. No, I do not need to hear about how there is no competition in aikido. Just because you spar does not mean you’re gonna enter the UFC, it gives the person a more stressful environment in which to perform.

    Great Article. Thanks!

  4. Jan Robberts says:

    Hi Peter,

    A great article indeed and there are many points raised for either method. Having practiced most of my Aikido in the UK as well, I’ve been witness to a few splits within our organisation and, as a club we had to make the decision whether to remain with our initial teacher, or go elsewhere. (A choice made democratically with which all of us where happy).

    After having taught a while in another North European country due to my travel commitments, I was asked not to instruct anymore as it was confusing to the trainees. I had no problem with this as I was mainly there to be able to keep practicing.

    When I talked to my Japanese Sensei about this, he thought it a blinkered look and that we can learn from all others. His standpoint is that we should not blindly learn techniques from our Senseis and try to become exactly the same. We should get to deeply understand the principles involved in any technique and interpret those through our teaching. (Not until having practiced for quite some time may I add.)

    As mentioned above as well, a lot of this must come from within, to develop one’s mind in a positive direction for well-being of self and also to promote health and calmness in others using the principles of Aikido shown in techniques in the Dojo and by example outside! (Personal Development is a lifelong path which does not stop at the Dojo door!)

    As for understanding someone leaving Aikido because the same instructor was not available… I will never understand. Does this mean that, when your instructor passes away, you give up?

    I have seen someone practicing aikido for some years several times a week until attaining the rank of Dan grade NEVER to return afterwards. (The goal had been achieved???)

    I don’t see any harm in either way, but I had to go with the ‘several’ choice asotherwise I would not have been able to continue to practice this healthy Art.

  5. My impression is that, very generally, if you train with different teachers you CAN have a more broad command of style, maybe even find the style that fits you. You can also get a superficial approach to the art. If you train with only one teacher, the opposite may apply. the drawback is that your approach may become “blinkered,” even a bit chauvinistic. But if you study with just one teacher, your path to higher rank is much clearer. As for me, I ran out of teachers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t train.

    • Charles, you make a good point when you suggest an aikidoka can “find the style that fits you.” I have to ask, how else will you do your best aikido?

      If you are a totally committed to your sensei, to the exclusion of all others, and your sensei is a tall thin person, and you are short and round, your own aikido will be a a thin shadow of what it could be. The sensei should be keen to introduce you to other teachers with like body types, or like personality types, or like spiritual goals, or even something as detailed as an excellent iriminage. No one man or woman has it all mastered and others can and will help you realise what you can be. That doesn’t necessarily mean the teacher should send the student away, but certainly make sure that they have a chance to train with someone who can fill the holes each teacher has.

      Taking that thought to an extreme, the wise student will reach a point where they will look to one teacher for one family of techniques and another teacher for etiquette, and another for how to teach. The net result may be something like a ‘ronin’ described above, but the reasons are more premeditated. Each brings a needed facet to make the student a better person – who happens to do aikido. What other goal of substance is there?

      Thank you Mr. Goldsbury for such a fertile subject for discussion.

  6. Tony Wagstaffe says:

    Ronin absolutely!! My teachers encouraged it…. Any teacher who expects unwavering loyalty has some insecurity issues….

  7. A teacher is a student who teaches in order to continue his/her study. He/she aims at developing a teacher-student relationship. A teacher’s purpose is to train students to go beyond him/her, not to please nor entertain them. Consequently it’s only after he/she passed away that he/she will be recognized as a real teacher.

    An instructor provides technical instruction for his own pleasure or personal gain. He/she has a limited vision and is more likely to make decisions based on convenience, cost and popularity in order to reach his/her short term goals. Preparing the ground for the next generation is not a priority. Hence he/she will please and entertain their students (clients) in order to keep them while getting rid of those who disturb his/her agenda. He/she may quit or close his studio without warning.

    However, an instructor may become a teacher if the seed was planted in him/her at an early time in life and the ground was favorable for its development. Most instructors will never become teachers.

    The majority of aikido students are recreational practitioners who just do it for themselves. Their commitment is first conditional upon convenience: distance, schedule, cost; and then atmosphere based on first impression when entering the dojo and/or meeting the teacher and other students; next comes personal safety (no injury during the first few weeks of practice!), and familiarization with the teaching method.

    If nothing happens in his/her personal or professional life for a couple of years, the student may continue. Until then it makes no difference whether he has been studying under a teacher or an instructor.

    During that period, regular attendance is crucial while the student is familiarizing him/herself with basics. If the teacher changes, confusion is unavoidable. It will get worse if the student changes styles. For that reason, the student should stick to his teacher. After the student has mastered the basics of the style, then the teacher should expose him/her to other teachers. Confusion will arise, but at that stage the student will be better equipped to manage that kind of situation. The teacher knows that he/she won’t be around for ever and that the student needs to prepare him/herself to continue his study after the teacher’s departure from this land or from this world.

    Most students won’t know the difference and will quit or switch at their convenience: something happens in their lives and they are gone; promotion is too slow and they jump ship to join so and so’s ronin group. However, some will understand that the time has come for them to take responsibility and lead their lives.

    This is particularly obvious when a split occurs in the group and the teacher is no longer there to manage unstable students and keep all students together. The majority (like in politics) is ready to accept as truth only what they want to hear. Consequently, convenience supersedes right: “A has a place to practice!.. With B, I’ll get promoted faster!.. So and so is following C, so if I go with D, nobody will be in my way and I can become #1! Etc.” Only a minority will first manage their emotions, then consider the facts and make a decision based on what they think is right at that moment. Such people never regret their decisions, even if they were wrong because they will acknowledge their error and correct accordingly. Others will remain in denial and quit, split or become ronin and history will keep repeating itself.

    This is where a teacher-student relationship based on understanding and trust is so important. The student who has developed such a relationship has a deep understanding of the meaning of loyalty. His/her loyalty goes to what his teacher represents, not to his name, persona, titles and reputation. Commitment is the result. This student is also ready to study with other teachers, maintain the lineage and transmission of teachings.

    Every human being needs a mentor, somebody more advanced than him/her who can show the way through his/her daily life, through his accomplishments and errors. When we unconditionally cultivate such a relationship, we reach a point of non-return after which we will stay on the path whatever happens in our lives and whether or not that mentor is still alive.

    What will happen to Aikido if the teacher-student relationship disappears for the sake of convenience, expansion and profit? Aikitaiso (aiki gymnastics)? How many generations will it take before someone reinvents Do?

    There is no perfect way.

    Thank you Mr. Goldsbury for such a stimulating article.

    Patrick Augé

  8. As a teacher of Tae Kwon Do I sent one of my young students to train with Dr. Moses Powell. The Dr. was blown away by that and always addressed the young man as our student. The Dr. and I became great friends til his death. By the way, I did not know Dr. Powell personally until several years after my student started training with him. I’ve since been practicing Kokikai Aikido for the last 27 years.

  9. Alister Gillies says:

    Some teachers make a point of asking their students why they are practicing Aikido. Perhaps they are looking for the answer to their own questions. At the end of his life, O Sensei was at the beginning of his training. Aren’t we all at the beginning, really? If so, then mastery is unobtainable and seeking a master is training in how to become a follower.

  10. Kelly Purdue says:

    Having lost my Shihan recently to cancer and being at that point in my training when Yondan is the next official recognition of time spent in the dojo I found this article interesting. To be honest, I vacillate between feeling lost and liberated. Having this next test take place in front of a Hombu Shihan who’s “style” is considerably different than mine adds spice I must admit.

    My long term concern is where do I go from here? Is it acceptable to search outside the realm of my organisation, even to Koryu styles? How does this affect my dojo (and I teach/instruct there). I live in a bit of isolation, where does my inspiration come from? How can I grow and still remain true to my teacher?

    All serious questions regarding my path

    Thanks for the article, Mr. Goldbury

  11. John Hillson says:

    I started Aikido in university, and then eventually needed to move for work. I am in my fourth dojo, and I have trained in three different associations (and in the one dojo, while in the same association, that instructor had heavy influence from another association.).

    O Sensei said there were many paths to the top of the mountain, but only one summit. Without solid measures and definitions of “how to do something right,” we don’t have much of a sense of what the summit is, nor who is closer. Our language between the different associations is not about communicating ideas; it is about Us versus Them. “My teacher was there at the beginning.” “My teacher was there at the end.” “My teacher is more martial.” “We’re more spiritual than you are.” The whole time I move between dojo I find myself facing a heaping pile of Holier-Than-Thou.

    Different groups and different Shihan – they didn’t look at whether or not a technique worked, or if I could do it well. They didn’t care if it was effective. Oftentimes, it was am I a clone.

    I was always happy to learn from others, but one group told me I wasn’t allowed to wear my black belt because I hadn’t trained to their standards. After a year, I knew what I was doing. I moved as well. I was in better shape. The only thing I needed to do to be graded was say that my first Shihan was a waste, that I had never learned Aikido until I had switched to this group. While I am essentially a Ronin, that was a level of disrespect that I could not bring myself to do. I left.

    Organizations are run by humans, and masters are humans. To venerate anyone too highly is to put oneself subject to their humanity. I found by practicing sincerely and listening to all sources, I am now figuring out things no teacher showed me. All and None.

  12. Alvin Nagasawa says:

    Thank you Mr. Goldsbury for such a stimulating article.
    I too have lost my teacher his rank of 8th Dan. after 20 + year of training Aikido. I found myself as a Ronin. I now had the freedom of training at different Dojo’s and attending various Seminars under numerous Shihan from Japan. IAF Instructor, USAF Instructors. Local ranking Instructors. Its important as a beginner to have one affiliation or Organization as a member like IAF Aikido Hombo Dojo the founder of Aikido. After one obtains the Dan (Black Belt Rank) of 4th Dan their is not testing or Grading procedures. It’s all by recommendation. One can have the rank of 6th Dan and still not be considered a Master or Shihan. He or She is just an Instructor. A master cannot be obtained it’s just a Western Label. A Master is a bond between the student and teacher. As a student one has to get permission from the Head Instructor to join the Dojo. Proper protocol must be followed to be excepted. In America as long as you pay ones due’s and Membership fees your considered a member of that Dojo or Organization. And in order to obtain ones Kyu Grading and 1st Dan Black Belt. One has to spend at least 4-5 Years under that one instructor. But once you become a 1st Dan Black Belt your registered as a IAF Federation Member recognized as a certified Black Belt under the IAF regulation all over the world. You can train at any affiliated Dojo or Seminars. and you rank will be recognized. Even the Kyu grading system now. One takes a Kyu Test and pass. He or she gets a Certificate Like a Black Belt. but it written as Kyu example: John Doe promoted the rank of 1st Kyu. and you can take that certificate to any affiliated dojo. And show it to the Head instructor what the last Kyu Test and rank you held. of course each dojo is has different rules to abide by as a new member. But it is just a formality. After a while like many of us old timers. “Rank is not important” It’s what the other Seniors can see for themselves as you enter the mat. If they are well trained Aikido Uchideshi or Kohai student they are sharp to see who you are. I could wear a white Belt on the mat. But the Head Instructor can tell I’m not a White Belt (Kyu Rank). Only Senior or well disciplined deshi know what I’m talking about. Try it out yourself. Can you recognize a persons Aikido experience if he’s a Kyu or Dan (Black Belt ) visitor to your dojo. or a 70 year old Japanese man like myself. One day a “Ronin” entering your dojo wearing a White Belt. Will I be excepted or considered as a threat to the Head Instructor. I’ve experience this in my visits to the California Dojo’s. Interesting reaction to my presence. Been from Hawaii this is what I came across living in California. for the last 10 years.


  1. […] importance of training widely would be less of a consideration. The reflections on this dilemma by Peter Goldsbury are a valuable read. We have seen over the years the negative influences in restricting students […]

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