Dueling with O-Sensei
by Ellis Amdur
Edgework Crisis Intervention Resources PLLC
Many years ago (more than I'd like to think about, really), I read Timothy Zahn's "The Peaceful Man", a short story set in the far future, where mankind was at war with the inhabitants of some far off planet. The story was narrated by a military psychologist, and told of his experiences with a member of the military who was a practitioner of Aikido. The writing and concepts in that story were intriguing enough to me that I became interested in the art, and after seeing a demo at my high school, I went and began studying.
Four and a half years later, frustrated and disenchanted with an art that hadn't delivered nearly what I believed it promised (and with wrists now painfully sensitive from years of abuse), I hung up my gi and hakama and walked away. I briefly explored some other Japanese arts, before choosing to focus exclusively on Muay Thai and the PDR. But despite having walked away from the art, I retain a strange fascination with it. The concepts still inform some of my practices, and I'll always have a soft spot for it, even if I never set foot in an Aikido dojo again.
Dueling with O-Sensei rekindled many of my thoughts and feelings, good and bad, about Aikido, but the book really offers an insight into the culture of martial arts as a whole. Like me, Amdur has his roots in Aikido, but has since moved on (his training is primarily in specific Koryu systems), but seems drawn to return and at least think about his experiences in that art and others.
The book is a collection of essays, previous published in Aikido Journal. I remember the magazine, not these essays.
Throughout the collection, Amdur spends time wrestling with questions that, while sometimes specific to the Aikido community, are really applicable to the practice of all martial arts. The deification of teachers; the abusive or predatory nature of some instructors; the psychological impact or ramifications of training; questions about the history of the art. I say that he wrestles with them quite deliberately--the remarkable thing about this book is that it does not simplify the issues by taking a single clear, unwavering stance. Just as there is no shortage of material glorifying Ueshiba Sensei and the art he created, it is equally easy to find those who have nothing but bad things to say about him and his practice. Amdur takes the more difficult, but more rewarding path, of really trying to struggle with the questions that he came across during his practice. To acknowledge both good and bad, instead of categorically choosing one over the other.
This book has a lot that's worth thinking about for any practitioner of the martial arts. Certainly, anyone who trains in Aikido, or thinks they might want to, should read this (especially if they have only been exposed to the glorified version of the art and its founder). But there are enough ideas in here that can be applied to all forms of practice to make it worthwhile for just about martial artist. The questions it asks are not always comfortable, but those are sometimes the best kind of questions.