This letter was drafted by Norberto Chiesa on the twelve of December of the year 2000, edited on June 2015.
In the wake of Birankai, I address my teacher and those of my generation that shared with me the pains and joys of our practice.
Many years ago, in the pre-history of Aikido in the UK, Chiba Sensei invited Nakazono Sensei to conduct a seminar in Liverpool. He must have red some puzzlement in our eyes. Aikido and Chiba Sensei were all we knew and suddenly we were confronted with this strange man with a radiant smile, taking deep breaths of ocean air, telling us about the sounds of the universe.
In answer to my naïve questioning he said: “Those of us that studied with O’Sensei have captured a fraction of his teachings, some posses the tip of his fingernails, others kept locks of his hair... if we learn to work together we might be able to preserve his precious heritage.”
Thirty or so years later we find ourselves alarmingly and abruptly confronted with the same situation.
Chiba Sensei will retire, whether to a fishing port or to heaven. And all of us carry in our bodies a part of the treasure.
Are we going to be able to work together?
Shall we be capable of transmitting his heritage?
Aikido is a discipline learned by imitation. It offers us the invaluable opportunity to become nothing more than what we are. We copy our teacher as much as we can and one day a peculiar transmutation takes place: we do not end up looking like our teacher; for better or for worse we end up looking like ourselves.
If our insight is narrow each of us will think to be the only one to have got the message. Therefore we will judge all others to be wrong.
We will fight over the number of degrees we should turn out our front foot and how far to spiral the tip of our jo. We will form Technical Committees to dissect our body language into intelligible parts. In our zeal to preserve what we know we will institutionalize knowledge. Our school will become an Academy, a Conservatory where no creativity is possible. A quiet morgue.
Unfortunately this is not an alarmist prediction. You need not to be a seer to see what is already happening. There are accomplished masters in the world claiming to be the only ones. The Aikido environment at large has strayed so far away from moral, philosophical and spiritual values that the heritage is thoroughly wasted in many parts of the world.
Aikido, like all living things, might one day decline. But it does not have to degrade. If such were its future I would rather give it a proper burial right now.
I say we have a challenge.
We must enlarge our vision and deepen our insight.
Or else our brothers of today shall be strangers tomorrow.
I probably tired Chiba Sensei with my relentless complains about grades. He wrote in a recent letter that a reflection was open on the merits of the ranking system. He added that in his opinion it had worked well for him.
A famous violinist was strolling in a Mexican street market. He approached a stand selling violins of modest craft and asked for the price. “Anyone for ten pesos.” The master took one and struck a few notes. The vendor jumped on him, took the violin from his hands and said: “sorry, this one is one hundred pesos.”
What kind of tune are we going to play with the grades?
How many pesos is the ranking system worth in our hands?
We posses now a document referring to the essence of grades in the note 1 of the Birankai text.
There is nothing to add to its content that would enhance its pristine clarity.
There is nevertheless much to do on our part to live up to its vision.
There is nothing complicated there. All we need to do is remember that the learning of techniques is inseparable from the transmission of intangible values.
We need to remember that these values only travel through the heart; the poor things do not fare well on other means of communication.
Without person-to-person, heart to heart connection, there is no teaching. At best we have accumulation of knowledge.
Without this kind of relationship a dojo is not a dojo. At best we have a club.
Uncomplicated does not mean easy.
We must nurture this contact and protect the environment of the dojo. And it needs protection because it is as vulnerable as life itself.
Nothing is fixed; a dojo is a living organism living from day to day. The teacher is not an unmovable reference to measure the student by. Both grow, harmoniously or not, together.
A grade is not a price given by one person to another. It is recognition of what is already there and in passing one more learning step.
It is a very intimate affair incompatible with judgment and comparison.
We cannot claim to practice a non-competitive martial art and let competition creep insidiously into our grades.
We do have a challenge.