Saotome Sensei has spoken many times with me on the subject of “loyalty”. I never particularly liked the term, because to me it called up images of fealty and blind allegiance. However, it is a topic that Sensei has many deep and complex feelings about, and over several years and many conversations I have begun to understand why he considers it so important. When he talked of this person or that person in terms of loyalty, he never was referring to whether they paid their affiliation dues on time, or whether or not they studied other arts or under other teachers; instead, I have come to understand that he usually was referring to that person’s capacity, commitment, and willingness to truly carry forward the mission of Aiki that he inherited from O Sensei; and incidentally, how that capacity was reflected in the relationships that person had with their students and Saotome Sensei.
“Chusei” – “Loyalty”, by Saotome Sensei
The Meaning of the Heart
“Guy, most people think that students keep coming to a dojo because they are impressed by how powerful the Sensei is, or how good or how flashy that teacher is at performing technique. It is true that at the beginning, a teacher’s reputation and technical skill can attract a student – but this alone cannot keep them. Students don’t follow the hands or techniques of the teacher, they follow the heart of the teacher.”
Students follow the heart of the teacher.
The first time Sensei said a version of this to me, it seemed quite profound even on the surface level. Since at the time he had just complimented me as a teacher, I took that as his observation of why he felt my students might be loyal to me; but over the years I have learned that it was a test, a warning, a wakeup call to see if my loyalty was up to the challenge he gives his own students.
By saying “students follow the heart of the teacher”, Sensei isn’t really saying much about the teacher being a nice, lovable person with a big heart (although sincere concern and compassion for the students is a component). Instead, I have come to the realization that he meant that “students are attracted to attributes that they admire in the teacher, and that they desire in themselves” – and that teachers are very responsible for being strong examples of those attributes. If you think about it, this is a much more profound statement about the teacher’s worthiness, integrity, and Budo mindset than simply any level of student allegiance. The regard of the followers is a measure of the worth of the leader, as to the qualities they admire.
I think Sensei also challenges us to look at the why we teach. Do we teach to bask in the regard of others, to revel in the title of Sensei? Because we crave respect and cannot find it in other aspects of our lives? Or are we truly invested in the growth and challenges and paths of our students? Sensei told me when he promoted me to Ueshiba Juku that it was not a gift, not a reward. He said it was a responsibility, and that I had become responsible for carrying O Sensei’s mission — his mission — into the future. He charged me with the responsibility for cultivating another generation of students who in turn can accept that responsibility from me.
The wellspring of loyalty is purpose.
“The heart of the teacher” is also the teacher’s reason for teaching. In a conversation I had with Sensei last December, Sensei said,
“When I say ‘seishin’ now, I mean ‘purpose’. Why do you open a dojo? What is your purpose, your vision? If a ship captain starts sailing with no map, no plan, then they won’t travel anywhere useful. Without purpose, a dojo Sensei will have no useful impact. The way a doctor heals bodies, the way psychiatrists heal minds… who heals society, communities? This is the purpose of Aikido, and if we manifest this seishin it is because we have made that the purpose of our own hearts.
False leadership seeks rewards of recognition, and seeks respect through rank. False leadership seeks attainment through stronger ‘bending wrist’ (waza). But the true purpose of Aikido, the process of Aikido, is to refine connections, to make impact on people’s souls.
Many people say I am successful. They see the many dojos in ASU, they see my ranch, the Aiki Shrine, my house in DC and Sarasota. But this is not a measure of what is important, those who are distracted by this cannot lead Aikido. Aikido success is measured in the impacts on students’ lives, ideas. In how well we prepare our students to live balanced, responsible, whole lives; to have dignity, to manifest leadership in themselves. The domain of Aikido impact is the spirit, and Aikido leadership is measured in the propriety, influence on students, communities, hearts, and ways of living.”
Another important point, of course, is that the values we uphold from Aikido are not just lip-service, and that we make them part of our lives in a way that students can see and appreciate. If Aikido is truly a michi (a meaningful spiritual path), then we cannot truly be teachers if we cannot integrate the lessons we teach on the tatami into our lives. If our students were just looking for self defense or exercise, they wouldn’t have come to Aikido in the first place. When Sensei critiqued the loyalty of this person or that person with me, he would often explain by saying they were acting “selfish” or “egotistic”, implying that he felt that in that moment, that capacity, they had forgotten their purpose and were not embodying Aikido as a person. Sensei expects us all to eventually become “shihan” – “exemplars” of Aikido, even if we never attain the title; and to Sensei, “exemplar” means that we embody and represent our principles in all of our words, deeds, and relationships. In other words, he expects us to not just teach by doing, but also by being Aikido.
Loyalty requires integrity, the teacher sincerely trying to embody the values they teach in everything they do.
“How one solves problems on the mat is how one solves problems off the mat.” This is a saying we have in Chuseikan dojo (maybe it’s a saying in many dojos), and I think it rings true. It gives insight on how we can watch how our emotions and patterns get triggered during training, and how we can leverage that to become better people. This is the process of Aikido as a michi, and as teachers we need to cultivate as much skill in how that process works as we show our technical skill with “wrist-bending”. This is loyalty, because it is commitment to an integrity which is the foundation of what makes Aikido special. By making and manifesting that commitment, Saotome Sensei says that we realize his mission and life purpose.
“Now you have responsibility… Aikido whole life.”
Humility, Fallibility, and Humor
Sensei will be the first to say he is a fallible human being, that he makes mistakes, and that he is still learning. We do not serve our students by presenting an image of infallible perfection when we act as teachers; we must learn not to be threatened when our weaknesses are revealed or we make a mistake. Those are opportunities to laugh at ourselves, and to exercise compassion and humor.
This is an aspect of loyalty because by expressing one’s humanity, the Sensei reveals a vulnerability which is the bridge for the student’s growth. As teachers we must represent the highest level of skill that we can; but revealing our mistakes and how we learn from them is the most realistic and useful lesson we can provide our students. Idealized performance of technique is a goal, not the lesson. If students can connect to their teacher as a human being who is striving as hard as they are — or harder — and who has challenges and difficulties — like they do — and reveal trust and vulnerability to the students, it invites a truly human relationship to develop. It creates a bridge for the student to follow, instead of simply admire. Without admission of fallibility, it creates a barrier between students and their teacher, and fosters an environment where experimentation, adaptation, and spontaneity is discouraged.
Sensei emphasized, “Ikkyo, the Aiki instant, manifests in the energy that connects two people. Aikido is relationships. It is taught through relationships. It is performed through relationships. Aiki succeeds by interacting with your attacker as a human being, not as a monster or object.” This aspect of loyalty is the teacher allowing themselves to be vulnerable and human in front of their students, and to be available as a person.
The bridge to loyalty is through vulnerability and humanity.
Giri, or ‘obligation’, is often described as the unpayable debt every student owes to the generosity of their teachers. It is manifested as respect for the teachers, care for the dojo, and dedication toward attainment in the art. When I asked Saotome Sensei to whom one owes greater loyalty, one’s teacher or one’s students, Sensei replied “Both, of course. But you cannot be distracted. Your teacher may appreciate the gestures of respect and gratitude that students show them, and the time that students give them. But students cannot give their teacher’s life’s work, their highest purpose meaning if they neglect their own students. A student repays their teacher most deeply when they dedicate themselves to their own students foremost.
Guy, you and Don are like my sons, it is very important to me when you visit. But what keeps me awake at night, is the worry – have I done enough? Will my work continue? What is my legacy? Will I be able to face the spirit of my teacher (O Sensei) and that he will be satisfied with how I have honored his vision?”
The most important direction of loyalty is from teacher to student.
“You know that you cannot really force uke (the attacker) to do anything they don’t want. Well, I cannot force other people to make O Sensei’s vision of unifying the world a reality. My life’s work, my mission, only succeeds if you succeed.”
Teaching Under the Sword
Saotome Sensei often uses the example of holding a live blade over the head of a student – “living under the blade” – to emphasize the meaning of “tension” and “attention”. In our conversations, He also uses that metaphor to explain the highest obligation and awareness of a teacher. Every word we say, every move we make as a Sensei is under an intense microscope; every action will be cross-examined by students, and our slightest compliment or criticism can fall like an atom bomb in ways we cannot predict. I have mentioned in another article on “leadership” Sensei’s recognition that instructors accept a life-and-death responsibility for their teachers every time they step in front of the class. I have had “close calls” on the mat where if I, as teacher, was even the least bit less focused a serious injury would have resulted with a student. But again, Aikido is a michi “living spiritual art”, and as a result our actions as teachers impact not just the health and safety of our students, but their lives and mental well-being too.
As almost none of us are certified therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, zen priest, or ministers, we probably don’t have much business giving spiritual advice to our students. Nonetheless, students are in the dojo to grow spiritually, and that makes the dojo a place where small deeds and words can have significant spiritual repercussions, beneficial or harmful. As teachers our personal actions, the beliefs we express, the examples we provide, all can have surprising ramifications, good or bad. As we speak about the philosophy and goals of Aikido, and as we share lessons from our own lives that demonstrate our integrity and pursuit in unifying “on the mat and off the mat training”, we are all under the Sword of Damocles – ready to fall at any instant.
I have been personally teaching consistently for more than 20 years. There have been a handful of times where somebody has approached me in an unexpected place – the airport, a restaurant, a movie theater – and said something like “Sensei! You probably don’t recognize me, I didn’t train very long. But I wanted to tell you your words changed my life. You said something that was very meaningful to me, and made me decide to live my life differently. Although I don’t train, I want you to know I think of you as my teacher and I feel I practice Aikido in my life every day.” I know many of you have had similar encounters with former students. The first time I had this experience, I was deeply moved. It gave me great purpose, and helped me understand my own personal “Why”. After this happened a few more times over the years, however, it both gratified and terrified me; I have come to wonder – if my small words and gestures that I make can sometimes have the potential for such immense positive impact in my students’ lives, can my careless words and gestures be equally destructive? While I recognize that I can’t take responsibility for my student’s lives, I recognize that at all times I must be vigilant against the price of my carelessness.
The final loyalty is mindfulness, or as Sensei says, “tension!” Our gift to our students is our complete attention to all aspects of the student-teacher relationship, and to never relax our vigilance in our actions and words as teachers; to remember to place that sword over our heads every time we bow in.
The responsibility of loyalty is mindfulness.