8 minutes reading time (1676 words)

Reflections on Building a Dojo


By Daniel Linden Sensei

The circumstances of a martial artists life are often fluid. I know I certainly floated around long enough; going from job to job; town to town, and always looking for that right place to drop anchor. I found it one day fourteen years ago after an unhappy divorce. I found the place to build a dojo.

I wanted to buy a house with enough land to have a complete dojo complex without interfering with the process of living. I didn’t want to sacrifice gardens, kennels, archery range, orchard and sufficient parking for the dojo itself. I was willing to live in a house that was smaller and older to accommodate this. Pure luck led me to the place that became Shoshin Aikido Dojo.

An old wooden house on a couple of undeveloped acres became the starting point. It had been built in 1928 and I got it cheap. (Another divorce) I settled in, started remodelling, and waited for a sign. Sure enough a few months later ‘The Storm of the Century’ hit central Florida and blew away trees, out buildings, and sheds. It left a terrible mess. My old friend Dennis Hooker stopped by one afternoon while I was staring at the destruction. He quietly walked up behind me and said, “You know, if you build it, they will come.”

I said, “That’s a line from a movie.”

He said, “That doesn’t make it untrue.”

He was right.

How to build a dojo, though: I’d never thought that far. How to finance it? How to build a square building? Dennis started clearing debris and I got a long tape and some stakes and we went to work right then. If we hadn’t started digging and driving stakes and tying string that afternoon I sometimes wonder if it would have been built.

A month later, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, my long time Aikido teacher, was holding a seminar in Orlando. After the Saturday morning class, while everyone sat in a huge circle making announcements I was struck by an idea. Somewhat shy, (maybe a little ashamed to be asking, begging) I told the group that I was building a dojo. I admitted that I was broke and in need of funds to get it out of the ground and offered to let anyone train there, always and for free, for a contribution. I referred to the U.S. Navy tradition of ‘Plank Ownership’.

Aikido folks aren’t always the richest, smartest, most handsome and talented people around, but they have hearts limited only by the force of ki. They gave thousands of dollars, enough to take the new dojo out of the ground and get it to the point where classes could commence. The following year we held a grand opening and Saotome Sensei performed a Shinto ceremony that was beautiful. Demonstrations were done by nine different shihans.

The students came. From Syria, Israel, Turkey, South Africa, Canada, Chile, Japan, Viet Nam, Mexico, Germany and many other countries and of course, home. Some stayed to work in the gardens and bamboo groves while earning degrees at the university. Some came to become teachers and then left to found their own dojos. Some came and never left, they are the teachers and core of the dojo. Through it all, Saotome Sensei has come each year to see and comment and support our effort.

Satome Sensei lives here in Florida. I visit his home several times a year for a weekend and we talk bamboo, orchids, pottery, music, and even (once in a while) Aikido. His lovely wife Patty, who is also a fine Aikido Shihan, is a terrific cook. I look forward to the meals she prepares for my visits.

It was during one such visit after the celebration of his 50thanniversary in Aikido that I told him of a moment of satori I had experienced. It had taken place during the morning class, when the dojo was so crowded with celebrants that there was hardly any place to sit seiza, let alone train. I could only see him from the waist up. He seemed to be floating. Normally I watch his feet – that is where the mysteries are revealed. But that day because of the crowd I could only watch, as he seemed to float with his uke around the demonstration area.

Something changed then. I realised his connection with his attacker was different and I saw his movement in a totally different light. What had changed? I then realised that the triangulation I was used to was really two sided and if you place two triangles together you get a square – the base of a pyramid, the strongest of all structures. I saw him moving within that base and everything he did suddenly made sense. It made so much sense I was stunned into near paralysis. It took two weeks before my world normalised and I started to analyse what I had seen.

While relaxing on his back porch I told him about this and we discussed this new singularity. He stood and motioned for me to reach out and grab him. I did so and he moved me the way a grown man moves a child despite the fact that I am able to lift him and tuck him under my arm and carry him around. I am twice his size. He then stopped and I moved ever so slightly, but he felt it and his eyes lit up and he smiled. “Dan-san,” he said, “write a book!”

It became ‘On Mastering Aikido’ and has helped some, I believe, see Aikido in a new light. Saotome Sensei wrote the foreword for it. He is a great teacher and after nearly thirty years I feel a great kindness and kinship with him. It is something I remember to apply when dealing with my own students.

A teacher must be careful with his students. I often relate to the process of teaching the same as I do when throwing a pot on the wheel. You know, pottery is the only endeavour I can think of that uses all the elements – air, fire, earth, water and spirit (creativity). I am not a good potter, but my love for it makes my acoustic bells and chimes sound like happiness, I believe. And a student should produce the same result. He should be happy when class is concluded. Perhaps content might be a better word, or peaceful. A student should feel good about what he is doing and the teacher should inspire that. All else is up for grabs as I have a belief that no one can teach another person anything. All you can do is provide inspiration and direction. Public educators probably disagree.

The thing about Aikido, this kinship, this desire to understand it, this need to know, to master and to achieve; I believe that this is part of the evolution of man. We are dual by nature. We have buried deep in our brains the fundamental reptilian consciousness that presided over existence for millions of years. We also have the cortex overlying this reptilian brain and the neo-cortex. We have more memory capacity than we can ever use and one wonders why? That all this brain has developed and yet we only use such a small percentage of it makes me think that the next evolutionary stage of our development has only just begun.

And what will that stage be? A greater understanding of human potential? A profound understanding of our real place in the universe and the ability to peacefully resolve our differences? A better and more complete understanding that human potential is bound inextricably to the future of our planet and existence itself? I believe that mastering Aikido is one of the most direct paths to this potential development.

It is still beginning. It is still developing its potential. It is still in its infancy, yet if we look to the growth and diversification that we already are aware of and anticipate where it could lead we see a decided trend toward expansion of the idea of  Aikido. Saotome Sensei has helped so many individuals become shihans in their own right that it is a truly remarkable observation that not two of them look remotely alike in their Aikido. Satome Sensei’s genius lies in his ability to bring out the very best in these individuals without sacrificing their identities.

And as each of these people develop their own style, Aikido is expanded exponentially. This is one of the basic tenets, that each person must develop his own Aikido, his own way of harmony.

I believe it is the future. Of course, I may be wrong. But Shoshin Aikido Dojo and my association with Saotome Sensei is a testament to the firmness of my convictions. The path that we must walk to build a dojo is often perilous, but great teachers want student/teachers who are capable of carrying the load. They want student/teachers who don’t shrink from responsibility and are willing to sign on the doted line. It’s not for everyone, but the blessings outweigh the pain.

About the Author:
sensei_lindenDaniel Linden Sensei is master instructor of Shoshin Aikido Dojos and one of the closest longtime students of Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, a student of Aikido’s founder O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba for 15 years and head of "Aikido Schools of Ueshiba“ (ASU). Training in Martial Arts for over 40 years, Linden Sensei has been teaching Aikido for over 25 years. He is one of the most experienced teachers of ASU and currently holds the rank of rokudan (6th Dan).

Over the years Daniel Linden has taken advantage of the freedom of style allowed by Saotome Shihan to develop a unique approach to Aikido that also draws on his strong martial background. While embodying the principles of Aikido taught to him by Saotome Sensei, he has found a fresh approach in explaining these principles to Westeners using non-Japanese terms. He has made this approach availabe to all Aikidoka through his book "On Mastering Aikido".



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Wednesday, 07 December 2022

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