Where do you see Aikido fitting into the modern world where instant gratification is the norm?
Answer: As your question seems to infer, I believe we do live in a “fast-food” society. I often talk about this in my classes in regards to the Japanese term called “shugyo”, which literally means the dues that you must pay and I am not just talking about money. When you step on to the path of Aikido, if the right approach is taken, I believe the process of your practice of the mental, physical and spiritual teachings can produce a way of understanding that balance is the most important aspect of your life. Aikido can teach you to be mentally balanced by inspiring a great work ethic and supporting the four virtues of kindness, compassion, honesty and integrity. One must overcome his/her fear in order to be these virtues. Aikido can teach physical balance through the variety of training exercises using empty handed techniques, understanding the use of weapons such as the short staff (jo), wooden sword (bokken) and understanding how to disarm others that might use weapons such as bottles, knives, guns or anything else against you. Finally, Aikido can teach spiritual balance, through the process of meditation and an understanding of life and death as it relates to the reality that we must deal with on a daily basis. I often speak of another goal for a student of aikido and that is of building a bridge between the theory of the dojo and the reality we live in, because if you can’t do that, there is no point to what you are doing. Quality takes time and if you dedicate your life to the practice of Aikido, it will teach you to let go of this fast food mentality and inspire you to change those things in your life that are keeping you from understanding how to be part of the solution of the world, rather than being part of the problem.
Has Aikido changed in any way to accommodate modern society?
Answer: I don’t believe Aikido has the capacity to change, only people do. For example, I have trained in Japan many times with the son of the Founder Kisshomaru Ueshiba and his grandson and present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, who I now have a very good and close relationship with. What I have come to understand is that you can approach the teachings in many ways, however for the Ueshiba family, they have the job of preserving the Aikido “tradition”…their job, if you will, is to do just that, preserve the “tradition”. In others words, keep it as it was, as the Founder created it. Around the world, this is by far the easiest and most popular way of thinking and of practicing…as long as you look like the Founder, it must be good Aikido. On the other hand, you have people like me, who want something more…I don’t want to practice Aikido as it was…I want to practice Aikido for what it can be. Our society has changed radically since the days of the Founder and as such technology, as a whole, has also changed radically. From the era of the 64K Apple Computer to the new computers that are having trouble coming up with a name for the lightening fast processors in the giga-terrabyte region and if these technologies can change, then why not the technology of Aikido? Our society has gotten to the point where “out of integrity” is the norm; where when you ask a child, “What happens when you tell the truth?” they say, “You get in trouble!”; where 6 year olds are being given black belts, which basically means the black belt has simply become a marketing tool for making money. I understand that tradition is important and I do appreciate the tradition of Aikido, more than most. However, it’s because of that appreciation, I want to take Aikido to another level, which I happen to think is possible. Criminals are smarter and craftier than ever before. Young people are bigger and stronger than ever before in our history. Aikido may not change, but we must change Aikido to fit into our ever-changing society.
If Aikido has changed, has this affected the essence of aikido, and would this in your opinion be how O’Sensei would have wanted it to be?
Answer: As I mentioned, I don’t believe Aikido has the capacity to change, however we can change Aikido to fit into our society. I believe that if we change the way we practice and improve the basic technology of aikido, I don’t believe the essence of Aikido has to change at all. In fact, if the technology gets better, it allows the essence of Aikido to become more of a real possibility. However, we must work hard at creating a greater understanding of the essence of Aikido, which I don’t believe most people that practice Aikido fully understand or appreciate. Now, I am not saying that I do understand Aikido’s essence, but as I mentioned before, I do believe the four basic pillars that create the foundation of Aikido are kindness, compassion, honesty and above all integrity. I truly believe that there are two things that people fear most in life and the second one is death…fear of looking bad is first. Fear of failure is foremost in most of our society’s around the world, as I have come to see and understand through personal experience. Fear of being humiliated or looking stupid in front of their peers has led to epidemic proportions of “teen suicide” and how ironic is it that Japan, with all that we celebrate in it’s culture leads the world in suicide? Of course, I do believe this is a carry-over from ancient times when “seppuku” or ritual suicide was used as a method of saving face and was celebrated and admired. I don’t happen to agree with that belief, as I believe it takes more courage to stand accountable for your mistakes and live on to rectify and change your way of being, than to simply kill yourself and leave everyone else to suffer for your mistakes. Granted, some people simply give up that right to live when the wantonly take the life of another, however we are not talking about that here.
I believe O’Sensei was a genius in his own time, a visionary that had the guts to be different, to strive to be like no one else but he could be. This is what I want to be…a pioneer that can be creative in the moment that I need to be. Quite frankly, this is what I believe Aikido truly is…it’s essence is to have the “presence of mind” to see things as they truly are without attachment to past experience or future expectations and then be able to choose in that moment what needs to be done, then to have the ability to do whatever you choose…in that moment, then ultimately have that choice be the right choice. Aikido literally translates to the way of harmonizing with the forces of nature, however most people cannot understand how to do that, so they resist and fight in order to dominate, using force against force. Most people do not have the courage to be in the “present” or stand in “emptiness (mushin)”, they only stand in their story, which in most cases leads to bad choices. With greater technology and superior skills, our fear can be overcome and we can be more present to the greater possibilities rather than stuck in the impossibilities.
What advice or wisdom as a renowned Aikidoist would you impart to modern day practitioners of the Martial Arts, in order to keep them true to the intentions of the founding masters of old?
Answer: I am not so sure I would call myself a renowned anything, but I would have to say “Stop being so self-indulgent and pre-occupied with ourselves. We, as a society have become so afraid of not having enough, not being good enough…how much is enough? I worked with a teacher that I believed was the best of the best for almost twenty years, only to see him fall victim to that very weakness in Hollywood. We must create ourselves for others, for the community of mankind. We need to “be” the cause in the matter of less suffering in the world, rather than teaching people to bludgeoning each other in a cage. I really don’t believe there are any bad martial arts as most were created for the same reason, self-defense; however what we have today is a whole lot of bad martial arts teachers! I would say the vast majority of martial artists training today have never been in a real fight on the street and wouldn’t know what to do if they did…certainly nothing that they have learned in their respective dojos. And that is another reason I have such a deep respect and love for Aikido, because we do not live for the almighty dollar and the cheap 5th place trophy.
My advice is to go back to the basics of using the martial arts to build character rather than ego, to inspire honesty rather than win at any cost, to aspire to a level of being your word rather than “trying to be your word”. Give me a human, being his word and I will give you a valuable asset to the world.
Is there any one occasion that comes to mind, that is a pinnacle moment in your life as a dedicated Aikidoist?
Answer: I have had several that rank right up there, however last year was probably the most auspicious and that was when I was promoted to Rokudan (6th Degree Black Belt) by the Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba himself after receiving the recommendation of all my students around the world who took a stand for me to be promoted. As a thank you, I went to visit him and thank him personally along with 11 of my students and wife. It was an amazing visit that culminated with a night out with the Doshu at a very nice restaurant and social conversation. We got to know each other all the more and parted even more committed to supporting one another in Aikido. My students and I did not stop there however, but then went to visit another very famous instructor named Hiroshi Isoyama Shihan, that caretaker of the Aikijinja (World Aikido Shrine) in Iwama, Japan. We ended up staying with him for four more days, training and dining at the dojo and home of the late O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido. All in all it was a trip that I don’t believe will ever be duplicated and has solidified my commitment to Aikido for the rest of my life.
Would you be willing to help encourage a renewed interest in Aikido/Martial Arts here in South Africa, or anywhere else in the world, in order to develop and grow the moral ethics so lacking in our youth?
Answer: Absolutely. I believe anyone that travels 30 hours by coach air can be said to be committed, or perhaps should be committed! Sorry, that was a joke. In any case, I relish the opportunity to be already committed to at least two schools of Aikido in South Africa, one of course here in Durban with Kevin Gounden and the other in Cape Town with John Ulster. They are very capable teachers in their own right and I want nothing more than to support them in their future. Also, I have said many times that I am willing to travel anywhere in the world, at least once to share my ideas and lessons. My goal in continuing to be involved in Aikido is to “be” the possibility of kindness, compassion, honesty and integrity in all beings and what I have to give up in order to be that possibility is to stop thinking that everything will be alright, even if I don’t say anything. I need to continue to be creative and totally self-expressed in my thoughts and teachings, as we all should. Our youth need to gain the courage to be honest and to believe with all their heart that doing so is the right thing to do.
If so, to what extent and how would you do it?
Answer: As I said, I am totally committed to the development and continuation of at least two schools in South Africa that have joined our international organization called the Makoto Aikido Kyokai, Inc. which was given autonomy by the Hombu Dojo (World Aikido Headquarters, Tokyo, Japan) in 2004. As such, I would like to encourage all students of Aikido in South Africa and the rest of the world, especially students and leaders from South Africa’s own national organization the Aikido Federation of South Africa to allow me to be an ally. I know my style of Aikido contrasts with what many call the “classical training style of Hombu Dojo”, however I only see a contrast and not a difference. The only thing that might make us different is me and my way of approaching the teachings of Aikido and that of the Founder. However, if one stops for a moment to think about this, everyone of us is different and the same. We are all committed to the same results and we will all end up at the same destination eventually, it’s just that we are travelling in different kinds of cars. Every student of Aikido, every human, being what they choose to be, has their own style and the trick is to get everyone to accept the challenge of changing those things that they can and accept the challenge of those things they cannot. I am willing to embrace and support any student, any dojo in the world, if they are willing to do the work that will help them get to this understanding.
Aikido is a process, and quality sometimes comes slowly but surely if people will stop “trying” and just do their best to be a stand for all people. The world’s energy crisis, global warming, and economic downturn can be solved if more people would stop thinking of themselves or others as first, second, or third world countries or second class citizens. We are all part of the community of humankind and we are all responsible for each other. We cannot change others without changing ourselves first and Aikido is a great way to gain insight into what changes each of us needs to make as an individual and as a community.
I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my opinions by way of this article and the people of South Africa for allowing me to visit your country and be part of it’s present and future light that will show the way…the way of Aikido.