“The Concept of Excellence in Aikido,” by Daniel Lance

Aikido is a way to understand how to successfully
deal with the questions of “violence.”

Many thanks to Greg O’Connor for his careful proofreading of my English version of this paper.

The notion of excellence: this is a beautiful subject! And applied to our art, that of Aikido—the “Way of Harmony”! Yet when we think about the concept, it poses real problems. We will try, the philosopher path of Aikido, but perhaps not for excellence, but spinning issues with rigor.

This notion of excellence has been nagging me for a long time. Indeed, looking on my computer at a demonstration of Christian Tissier at a Martial Art Gala, at Bercy, France, I say to myself: “Well here, this is excellence, it must be something like that. “Then another demonstration that the Doshu did—and the same conclusion! Still others’ demonstrations feel the same. I also remember the extraordinary Phong Sensei, imprisoned in communist camps in Vietnam from 1975 to 1986, eighteen times trying to escape and finally setting foot on American soil in 1986. Phong Sensei went to Aikido Institute, Oakland, California, where his former student and a former “boat people”, Hoa Newens (Nguyen) was now teaching. Phong Sensei asked practitioners to excuse the poverty of his Aikido due to his confinement and his lack of practice, and despite his recent internment goes on to demonstrate a remarkably dazzling class full of sensations.

Finally, I kept surfing on the web and came across a video of Molly Hale from her third dan test in California, and my eyes filled with tears of respect and admiration: “Here, too, is excellence in Aikido!” But the reader maybe does not know Molly Hale and certainly does not understand my tears.

Molly Hale with husband Jeramy as uke

Molly suffered from a terrible car accident. As she returned from an Aikido class, she fell asleep and ended up in the hospital paralyzed from her neck to the end of her feet. The doctor on duty told her husband Jeramy “prepare yourself, your life will never be the same!” But that doctor was not a good psychologist, and he did not know Molly. Molly is very well known in the Aikido group in California, and well known for her humanitarian commitments, too. Molly is also a student of Frank Doran Shihan, she is a instructor of Aikido herself, of yoga, she is full of life and joy, she’s an artist and a singer. On her hospital bed Molly said: “I feel the energy, the life in my body moving, and I will walk again.” It seemed impossible, her spine had been fractured. Then she started looking at her index finger and relentlessly trying to make it move, it moved… after much effort, and after a long time. Molly would go on to do horseback riding, swimming… and now dancing. Molly even passed her 3rd dan test, which she was supposed to take before her accident. Doran Shihan told me that everyone had tears in their eyes! The room was standing and applauding for Molly and her husband, Jeramy, who was her uke. The movie Moment by Moment traces their journey beautifully… and I love, as much as I admire this couple. For me the essence of Aikido is there too.

In France, Magali Levy, better known on Facebook under the nickname Aikido Handi Valide, is on a similar path of excellence. Magali has a degenerative disease and trains and teaches Aikido. She suffers a lot but chooses to focus on joy and sharing. Her advocacy is to still practice Aikido with her body maintained erect by leg braces or sitting in her wheelchair.

There are, of course, other forms of excellence besides the perfect cut of the sword, or of the uke who is perfectly “sharpened” to his teacher, with the right timing and attitude.

The point is that these concepts of excellence are not easy to characterize or define.

In the heat of a summer workshop in the South of France with Christian Tissier, I asked him my question, to express my perplexity. Immediately, he nods. “Yes, Molly Hale, is, for me too, an example of excellence, no doubt about it, but perhaps you should separate excellence in an art and excellence in self-transcendence.”

So, that’s a new concept—to separate excellence in an art and excellence in personal transcendence. I was left happy to have this suggestion, however, the philosopher that I am cannot help but wonder again about the true meaning of excellence. It still raises an aporia, a pitfall. Would there be a single excellence in an art or many forms of excellence? If so, how to differentiate one from another? And, with the excellence in self-transcendence, does it have different forms and/or different degrees?

Francis Takahashi with author Daniel Lance in 2010

One could almost negate this notion of excellence, at least the notion of being the most excellent, the one at the “top of a pyramid”, as in Francis Takahashi Shihan’s article: “The Habit of Excellence” posted on Aikido Journal. Francis Takahashi examines the reasons that human beings always try to fit into this idea of excellence. Mother Nature (he also refers to Japanese and Hawaiian concepts) “is what it is” and it does not seek to follow this illusion of excellence.

In addition, excellence is also arbitrary. His article concludes as follows:

“No, we do not have super powers, or the right to interfere with Nature’s Grand Design. Yet, we can make a habit of excellence in all that we do, and truly be in oneness with the life we share with all things. This is my Aikido.”

Doing our best, seeking excellence through the body that was given to us, despite age and the accidents of life. Seeking only excellence for ourselves as individual human beings, in our daily life, without the idea to be above everybody or anyone else. We just need to seek to do the best of what we are capable of.

We are appreciative of this article of Francis Takahashi, one of the most senior aikidoka in the world, and therefore a “Memory of the Art,” a “Guard of the Art” in a way, and a wonderful practitioner. However, we are left to our starting point of how the notion of “excellence” applies both to Christian Tissier and Molly Hale. Should we use different terms and criteria?

Suddenly a nasty and continuous voice speaks to our ears—Should we refuse to recognize excellence in just the “expert” in order to find excellence everywhere? Is recognizing it only in the “expert” a form of demagoguery, or also denial? There was only one Nureyev, one Nicolas Leriche, one Picasso, one Casius Clay? In Aikido, technical experts throughout the world are supposed to demonstrate excellence, showing definitively what we should do, and what we shouldn’t do. The problem is that each Aikido approach professes claim to have the “true” form. What a mess for a genuine philosopher!

However, if we push the argument a little further, would it not be a kind of negation of years of intense work and training to give everybody the same level of “excellence”? Some aikidoka have dedicated their lives to Aikido—leaving behind, for example, their engineering degree to be a martial arts teacher. There are many sacrifices that must be taken into account, because this way to pursue excellence often has a heavy price to pay. You cannot compare the “Sunday painter” to one who has devoted his life to his art (although talent does not necessarily mean hard work). We need only to read the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother to convince us of what an artist can go through.

It would be nice to have a clear criteria to evaluate “excellence.” But, what would be the correct method? The etymology of the word is clear. “Excellence” comes from the Latin “Excellentia,” “Ex-Cellere” that could be intransitive: “to stand above,” “be above,” or transitive “raise someone or something.” Should Sensei be above others? They exceed the vulgus, i.e., the common man, i.e., the common aikidoka. Then what would be the criteria for distinguishing one from each other? Let’s go through various criteria.

Grades or high ranks? This would be a valid criteria if the world of Aikido were not a political world, a world where egos can run amok in contrast to the ideal Aikido represents, it seems. You can also give a high grade for “services rendered” and also honorary degrees, as their name suggests, being “honorably” deserved. Additionally, when you’re a professional Aikido instructor it is also difficult to honestly grade your own students, or people that you have seen for years. There may also be examination board members trying to make bargains, such as “if you let my person pass, then I’ll let your person pass.”

Aikido ranking system is much more complex than Taekwondo, for example. In Taekwondo there is a winner and a loser; that’s it. In Aikido we all know O Sensei’s words that “the only victory is victory over oneself”. In Aikido there is no competition. Therefore, the ranking system follows a different set of rules—sometimes obscure rules.

Christian Tissier instructing

Christian Tissier, in an open letter published on his personal website and on the French Federation of Aikido website, refused an offer of 8th dan from the UFA (the overseeing French organization that brings together the different French Aikido federations). Christian Tissier, however, would challenge any inappropriate dealings, any form of blackmail—as was the situation in this case.

Finally, let’s be honest, to walk in the world, it is clear that not all grades were obtained following the same criteria. It is not said, not written, but it is plain to see. So, the point is now written.

Professionalization? This is an insufficient criteria. In France, in order to be a professional, you must achieve at least a 2nd dan in Aikido and then a national degree that requires a specific academic level of thinking, a level of time in Aikido requirement and specific level of performance of Aikido technique, but probably not so much a spirit of excellence. This method, however, disqualifies those who may have not studied as much but may nevertheless still be extraordinarily good at their craft. One wonders if, soon, in Aikido, you will find more “teachers” than students? It is also felt at times that some are not for the art of Aikido, but for a “market share” (As the saying goes: “I have to make a living.”) or even to rule over a country or many countries.

Quantity of students? Again, this is an insufficient criteria! There are teachers of high values with very few students and others who are more “commercial,” maybe more enjoyable, more widely known (and they worked hard for it…), maybe more in tune with the times, that have many students. It is difficult to name names without being offensive. But I want bring to your attention one case that is truly unique: Shihan Robert Nadeau, who knew and worked with O Sensei. Sometimes in his classes there are far less people than those on the crazy run of first day of bargains at Macy’s or Galeries Lafayette (in Paris). However, for me and for many others, Robert Nadeau is one of the most interesting, powerful and extraordinary Aikido instructors ever. But he is marginal, mystical, but pure—and his own man. He speaks his mind and he endeavors to follow a spiritual quest close to the one he believes was the one of O Sensei.

In addition, there are many Japanese teachers who are quite happy to be invited to teach abroad because at home their own classes are not so crowded. Some instructors still teach in their garage, just for the sake of their art—a magnificent sacrifice. We also know of other teachers who, in order to provide a higher level of “one-to-one” transmission, even limit the number of students.

Recognition by the general public? The worse criteria. The subtlety of a great Sensei is such that few are able to see the refinement. This reminds me of a Shodo master, a Japanese woman exiled in France, who lamented that in Japan the time of scholars who are capable of detecting calligraphy’s finest details of excellence is almost over. It is the same with the subtlety of a precise sword cut, with the right distance and precision of movement. It might be seen by some in a way, but by how many? A good example is the wonderful Aikido of Yamaguchi Sensei, a wonderful person, whose Aikido seems so relaxed. But, maybe, only those who trained with him could understand and feel the extreme quality of his research.

Technical criteria? Insufficient, since these criteria are all part of a specific research of different sensei who may be practicing different “styles” of Aikido. These types of excellences can only be seen, for instance, in the fulfillment of a specific form in a specific style. Yes, those who have spent years practicing, maybe all their life, still deserve to be appropriately recognized.

But if Aikido were only a sport, with only a technical excellence it would be really poor. I do not know about you, but if it were so, I’d rather go do some quiet trout fishing (with Frank Doran if he invites me). I expect, perhaps somewhat naively (and naivety is a necessity sometimes) that a martial art like Aikido responds to an ideal, or at least fits into this perspective. And if Aikido was limited to the knowledge of ikkyo (which O Sensei said was the “most difficult technique—worthy of a black belt”), we would be bored, wouldn’t we?

Finally, we do have to admit that criteria for excellence are not so easy to find. There are many forms of excellence. Noted even by the number of outstanding Sensei that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Who can say, with some fans (the real meaning of which is “fanatic”) of one Sensei or another, that one is above another? All are distinguished, are highly ranked—an aspect that could suggest excellence or that one can guess that it does so.

Nelson Requena of Venezuela

There are so many different forms of excellence in Aikido. Each Sensei, in his or her own thinking, progression, and research must accept the type of research necessary to understand the substance. For example, Shihan Nelson Requena, representing the Aikikaï in Venezuela, has devoted his life to Aikido. But Caracas is one of the most violent cities in the world where on one Saturday, for example, seventy-six died by gunshot. And, in recent years, many people have been killed without the murderer ever being identified. He said to himself: “I teach Aikido, and I have the responsibility to show my students that Aikido would be effective if they are attacked. That is my responsibility.” He has, therefore, kept only the most effective techniques if they had to be implemented in the street in real life. Yet his Aikido is the most flexible, the most smiling.

Other Sensei work on finding the appropriate limit for maintaining contact or on the transposition of technique from weapons. Each of them has his own and respectable research. As Greg O’Connor puts it, that’s because of the beautiful different “colors” of Aikido, blue, purple, and so on…

Times goes on, and people and practices change. But if we look at some students who had to leave their “master” to build their own dojo far away, sometimes when they come back to train, they still reproduce the same techniques and habits they learned at the time they stayed with their Sensei. They have not grown or even examined the possibilities! The Sensei has changed his technique, but the ex-uchideshi not. The words of Heraclitus: “Panta Rei” apply. Everything moves, everything changes. The kotegaeshi or shihonage of Christian Tissier of five years ago have little to do with those of today (but do not tell him because he would deny it totally). For instance, the role of uke has completely changed over the years. Even the foot, which used to be open, is now subtly closed.

We are at an impasse: The impossibility of one method of defining excellence? Of course, Molly Hale is a magnificent example of a form of excellence and humanity! Why? Because Molly exemplifies the fundamental idea of Aikido. Thus, a possible understanding of the excellence sought in Aikido is made clear by her application of the founding principles of Aikido, of this Art.

Aikido: We will attempt a definition: the peaceful resolution of conflicts, thus it includes infinitely ethical criteria. We must understand our own violence and how we deal with it in our practice. Aikido is a way to understand how to successfully deal with the questions of “violence.”

Aikido is created with another person—uke and nage—and the word “with” is very central, indeed fundamental. Do we force on the other person a particular level of Aikido style (maybe containing a certain level of violence) or do we build up “with” them a new level of Aikido?

“Ethics” comes from the Greek: “ethikos,” the morals, therefore the “science of morals.” Aikido is linked with Ethics. Without Ethics there is no Aikido. We cannot separate Ethics from Excellence in Aikido.

A close friend of mine left an American federation precisely because of the lack of ethical standards in that federation and at its “top.” He lost a lot— workshops throughout the United States, ranks easily recognized, etc. But he gains much more—the ability and the honor to practice Aikido in the principles of O Sensei, the honor to follow a profoundly humanistic criteria. So, Aikido is also an ethic of everyday life. But what about the people who stayed in that federation? We noticed some promotions but, again, did we mention the “value” of some high grades?

In many ways excellence does not stop on the tatami or in the dojo, as a matter of fact. A great technician may learn an impressive and superb technique, but his technique could be empty, even worse than that—a brilliant technique of ego, vain superiority. Aikido is also having a right attitude—a humanistic attitude. A Sensei, even if the word in Japanese, simply means “one who is born before you”, but is translated in French as “master.” Without going as far as some French anarchist singing for “neither God, nor masters,” we have to be aware of the burden of the word. The master, the Sensei, is a model. Those who will practice Aikido are going to reproduce mimetically the techniques of the “sensei,” but more than that, they will also reproduce his habits, his behavior, his morals… his ethics. Therefore the responsibility of a teacher of Aikido is huge! This level of excellence requires one to be full of humanity, with a kind and welcoming spirit and attitude.

Excellence, wrote Francis Takahashi Sensei, is also the one of our daily life, transcended by a certain morality. We have to think: Are we doing our best, are we reaching our own excellence!

Thus, it is rather an open question that we may conclude this article with. It would be a bit pretentious of us to try to define what is excellence. However, we would like the reader, practicing Aikido or not, to wonder about the real meaning of this concept of “excellence.” Questioning the concept of excellence allows us to wonder about what we are seeing. We could consider even more “excellent” the Sensei that we follow and admire. Excellence is neither given nor gained; it is always rebuilt on the mat and off the mat. By the way, it is significant enough to hear: ” Let’s go for some aiki!”. We forget the “do”—the path. If we do then the art becomes a “simple” sport. But is not Aikido anymore—even though, seen from far away, it moves, it jumps all over the place and it may impress some people. It would be nice if everyone could finish reading this with just a small question about the meaning of excellence, a questioning of her or his practice, a question about what he or she is looking for.

Yes Excellence in Aikido is to find that it is still necessary to examine the nature of excellence. What is that excellence, the ethics of Aikido?

If we dare some romanticism, and we are doing so, we could finish with a quote of a French Writer, Jacques Chardonne (a non politically correct writer, and almost forgotten writer too) that “Love is much more than love.” Then, Aikido would be, too—more than Aikido… a research in interactive techniques, in the field of humanity, in the daily life transcendence of oneself, and a denunciation of our own violence, a meeting “WITH” the other, whoever he or she is? Maybe then excellence would arise…

Is Aikido much more than Aikido? We do hope so.


  1. Thank you very much Lance Sensei for your excellent article. I will reply just about the people you mention I know in person or email. I think that Tissier Shihan shows his excellence in in the beauty of his Aikido. Molly shows her excellence in determination and personal growing and Takahashi Shihan shows his excellence through his great wisdom. But all three have also an excellence in common, their excellence from heart.

  2. Harry Sihan says:

    It’s striking that you call the sensei a model. The title ‘shihan’ is formed with two characters ‘師’ – [shi] master, but also model and ‘範’ – [han] pattern or model. So generally speaking, an example to follow.

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