with Ellis Amdur
In your book, Dueling With O'sensei: Grappling with the Myth
of the Warrior Sage, you took a hard look at what can go wrong
in martial arts training. How might one recognize and avoid
bad training environments?
There should be absolutely no abrogation of any legal or human
right in a dojo environment, and a teacher who deliberately
injures a student is committing an assault, or worse, battery.
That's a crime, plain and simple.
fellow martial arts practitioner who deliberately
tries to "disable" you is also committing a crime,
plain and simple.
teacher who wants to sleep with your wife, your husband or
your kid, is, at
a sleazy human being. And any "reframe" that this is
some kind of teaching is bull.
does one know if an environment is abusive?
am aware that this can be tough, particularly in a rugged
training environment. Your teacher thumps you -- was it abuse
or a caution about an opening? But:
Read The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker -- if
something feels wrong, something is wrong
Ask yourself what it is you set out to learn -- and how does a
broken arm or a broken marriage move you forward on that path?
How does coerced sex lead to more integrity? (This one's
important, because one might see it as an "exchange"
to get more knowledge on the mat from the teacher.) The issue
should not, should never be, acquisition of power alone; it is
the attainment of personal integrity. A person who trades off
a sense of pride, self-worth or dignity for the possibility of
a better sword cut, has gained absolutely nothing.
Don't deify the teacher or the art -- what you think is so
exclusively special is in fact all over the place. There are
lots of venues where one can learn great martial arts. Maybe
not the particular system or ryu you started out with, but at
least one where you won't go to class nauseous with adrenaline
sickness, shaking with fear, or dealing with an aftermath of
Use common sense, ordinary activities as your touchstone.
Music class. Gym class. Ordinary learning of any kind. If you
don't need to perform sexual acts to learn to play Bach or
volleyball, why should you in karate or aikido? If it's
offensive when a neighbor comes on to your spouse in a party,
why not in a dojo? If you are being offered a relationship
with someone who maintains a hierarchical distance based on
power, status, control or the possession of knowledge that
will only be yours if you roll over, and
you are drawn to it,
you are always mistaken, because that's a form of mercantile
exchange, otherwise known as prostituting yourself -- hence, a
compromise of integrity. Ask yourself why you'd choose a loss
of dignity or integrity for anything.
Limited scope -- with the exception of those in a true
military environment (where one is trying to take civilized
human beings and impart the ability to kill on order as part
of a group), there is no need for any sort of personality
breakdown in training. Challenge to preconceptions and
limitations? Yes. Wiping the slate clean? No.
I'm coming to more and more is that martial arts are nothing
special. It is specialized learning that can enrich one's
life. A hobby, in other words. Just as one should not be
violated collecting stamps, the same applies to a dojo.
Injuries can happen, sure. But if I'm learning to ski, and my
instructor tries to deliberately send me on a slope beyond my
abilities, that's criminal. If he or she is more concerned
about getting laid than teaching me what I pay him or her for,
that person is a gutter human being.
The advice to trust one's fear, in the context of considering
how one might recognize and escape an abusive training
environment, seems bittersweet. Isn't it fair to say that
seeking confidence in, or even the capacity for, self-directed
action brings many to the dojo?
I wonder if martial arts are, as you find your opinion
settling near, just another hobby. Granted, most folks don't
seem to lose themselves in the magic and mystery of
third-period gym. But then again, the world of sports
certainly doesn't lack exploitive and abusive behavior. But
the thing that keeps bugging me, the difference that nags, is
participant expectation. Do people come to Aikido primed and
prepared, by their own motivations, for exploitation?
folks study Bach to self-actualize? Is stamp collecting a
spiritual pursuit? The way of the snow ski, path or
destination? Probably not. But in a few cases, probably, yes.
And I'd expect those few to face the same pitfalls tripping,
sometimes swallowing, those in love with loving Aikido.
Most spiritual traditions are, in some manner, escapist, in
that fear is regarded as a noxious illusion to be expunged by
equanimity. In my unenlightened opinion, we were born to be
human beings, and therefore, nothing human should be erased
from us. Anything human carries knowledge/information. It is
how we act on that knowledge. Therefore, fear, as horrid as it
can feel, is a teacher. (Old Spanish proverb: The only
difference between a brave man and a coward is what direction
they are running). So: hopefully, through training, one
masters debilitating fear; hopefully, through training, one
uses fear as a teacher
use of the word, "hobby," is not patronizing or
belittling. It is an attempt to reduce things to a proper
proportion. There are survival-based activities (farming) as
opposed to enriching activities (gardening). When we have
accomplished survival, we have the luxury to flourish and
enrich ourselves as humans. I bridle at the pretentiousness
that many (myself among them, in the past) have displayed,
blaring about a martial "way." Inflation,
deification, mystification -- all of these are the fertile
ground where abuse and illusion grow best.
benign expectations lead one into danger? Absolutely! Aikido
-- peace, love, unity, musubi, along with samurai mystique --
all of these draw people with particular hopes, fears and
dreams... and, yes, make them particularly vulnerable to
What else do you see in those attracted to Aikido?
Aikido seems to draw a lot of people who are looking to see
"through" violence to something else. Yes, there are
lots of people who are genuine fighters who no longer want to
be, there are others who want to pretend to be fighters and
use aikido as a place to play out fantasies, there are many
bliss-ninnies and aiki-bunnies, and thousands of ordinary
human beings who just love the art -- any conceivable
permutation of human character -- but at core, I believe there
is something about the movements of aikido, the way the
reciprocal practice is structured with its exchange between
uke and nage, which strikes many people deeply in a mysterious
way. It is such a paradox! Technically, aikido is quite
limited -- and this is deliberate -- which forces people into
a template of movement. This, by definition, makes it an art,
as the skill is created within a frame. There is also a
psychological challenge in that one is working for conflict
resolution while practicing throwing people down, or locking
them in painful configurations.
believe that aikido offers a lot of people the chance at
experiencing something clean and pure -- a practice
of relationship that holds all the opposites --
insecurity/confidence, aggression/peace, taking/giving, and
metaphorically, at least, cuts a line right through the
oppositions. I'm not saying that people always, or even most
of the time, can do this. But I think of Yasunori Kuwamori or
Shirata Rinjiro, and see that aikido can be a vehicle to this
end. Not enlightenment. Simply a clean line through life.
by Paul Schweer
Thanks to Mr. Schweer for allowing us to share this here.