Aikido and Open-Mindedness

If the SHU-HA-RI progression is understood, each has their own place in the progression and conservation of an Art. Today, however, there is no administrative body that supports training on the basis of this principle. Currently, behind the cover of open-mindedness, the administrative entities do not realize the limits they foster and the relative loss in the technical, historical and philosophical fields of Aikido



Very often, when I write an article or a post about Aikido technique, I am told I lack mind openness… At first I understood this as the result of a gap between my discourse and the reader’s opinions. We must keep in mind when we write that many misunderstandings can occur between:

  • What I want to write and communicate;
  • What I actually write;
  • What the reader will understand…

That leaves plenty of space for misunderstandings. That is why I always answer anyone who takes time to react to my articles, to make sure we understand each other.

On many occasions, the discussions solve an number of issues one way or another but sometimes, that sentence comes off, sharp as a katana blade and ends up the conversation:

«Your words show your closed-mindedness».

So I started thinking and searching. I love understanding technique but I equally love understanding people and why they react the way they do and sometimes over react.

Let’s start by explaining what is implied when I am accused of “closed-mindedness” and so by extension let’s see what open-mindedness means:

  • To be closed-minded is to explain that a technique is carried out through technical points are only applicable in a certain context of application, that this context of application will be modulated according to the relationship between Uke and Tori and that it is important to preserve technical knowledge for the preservation of Aikido. 
  • To be closed-minded is also to defend a knowledge based on a learning, a transmission from a teacher to a student, it is to question the conception of progression and progressiveness of the tools.
  • Being closed-minded means asking a teacher where he or she gets his or her practice from and how he or she uses it to help his or her students progress.

I could give many more examples of what is considered closed-minded, but the few examples above help to draw the lines of what it means to be “open-minded:

Being open-minded, on the contrary, the royal road to the approval of all goes through the following points: 

  • Saying that everything is fine and that everyone can have their own way of doing things. 
  • Do not question the intentions of demonstration or execution of a movement, a kata.
  • To open one’s practice to other disciplines and the further they are from Aikido, the greater the opening will be. 

Let’s stop here the lists for or against and come back to what I care about, researching and trying to understand. 

In order to better understand all this I went back in the past, if my first article asked a question about the future of Aikido, I would like here to make an observation about the past and the present. 

Risuke Otake – Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

The Traditional Way – The Way of the School

The Traditional Way or the School Way. Before there were international groups for the development of each discipline, the transmission of martial arts was done in schools that functioned more or less all in the same way. 

A Soke or head of the school.
The Soke is the person who bears the responsibility for the name of the school and the transmission of the content. Often by filiation of name, sometimes by filiation of transmission. If the family Soke was not the most suitable for the technical transmission of the teachings, then a head teacher was recognized by the Soke who then carried the name of the school. This is the case for example with the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu school where the Soke carries the name of the Founder of the school but is not the one who ensures the transmission of the technique. 

The entry in the teaching was more or less selective according to the schools but one constant remains true: the low number of practitioners to join the ranks. 

Indeed, the delegation of teaching made to one person considerably reduces the number of students capable of receiving instruction. Some advanced students could receive Menkyo / Kyoju Dairi teaching certificates but this remained under the authority of the head teacher. Only when the student received the Menkyo Kaiden could he or she then teach freely and add his or her own “sensitivity” to the teachings while being officially recognized as a descendant of the parent school. 

Prior to receiving one of these teaching authorizations, the student was required to not show what he was learning and often to not seek to learn other things in other dojos.

There are two main reasons for this: 

  • Uneducated student risks showing things that are not what the school wishes to transmit because his current level does not allow them to understand.
  • Student should focus their learning on learning the techniques and arts of the school and not on learning things that could slow down or even contradict the instruction received. 

This is a fact that I will come back to later, but let’s keep in mind that transmission was greatly reduced or subject to certain conditions (supervision or diploma). 

Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Aikikai Nidai Doshu

The Way of the Federation

The Way of the School is opposed to the Way of the Federation. Let’s not put here a legal character under this term but simply the notion of grouping, of factual union – in this case of dojos or grouping of dojos. 

The Way of the Federation has a much broader transmission capacity and reaches a much larger number of students. The larger number of students meant that it is necessary to group together, regrouping and creating “logistics” that makes it possible to reach more students. 

This development gives visibility to the Art, the discipline, but has to sacrifice some aspects of the traditional Way. 

With the expansion and development, traditional grade certificates became the Kyu and Dan system, strongly propagated by Jigoro Kano and Judo. 

We will come back to this later but note for the moment that as far as Dan grades are concerned, the majority of Schools, groups, offer a technical examination up to the 4th Dan. 

The teaching certificates have been completely taken out of the Art and taken over by the federal institutions to allow each dojo teacher to have pedagogical support. 

Aikikai Shihan Katsuaki Asai, Hiroshi Tada, Masamichi Noro, Toshio Nemoto (1969)

One of the most important ruptures is the following: in the traditional way, the student received the authorization and then went to teach under the Soke’s supervision or not. In the Federal Way, the student teaches, finds a dojo or teaches and becomes a teacher and most of the time breaks with his teacher because : 

  • The student comes to teach in response to a lack of a teacher.
  • The student comes to teach in order to be able to break with certain aspects of the teaching received. 
  • The student comes to teach because his geographical location has changed and he is no longer in contact with his teacher.

The student who becomes a teacher then receives, if he or she wishes, support from the federation to “learn to teach”. I put this in quotation marks, because the training of teachers has this time more to do with the legislation of each country. In France, for example, it will be a question of being able to validate a diploma recognized by the professionalizing body in order to obtain a professional card. 

To have participated as a trainer in a number of subjects in diplomas such as Brevet Pro, DEUG or Master… the part of general theoretical knowledge is very important and very often the student becomes a teacher but does not necessarily learn to teach Aikido with and thanks to the tools of Aikido.

Aikikai Hombu Dojo Deshi (1960)

With this multiplication of teachers and this federal grouping, a technical authority is no longer constituted on the sole basis of one person but of a college. 

A college which at the beginning comes more or less from the same source of learning, then as time goes by, the college becomes the gathering of teachers who have received their teaching from different sources. Thus the teaching of the technical college has gradually evolved from a guarantee of homogeneity and transmission of knowledge to a guarantee that each individuality would be respected and all interpretations could be represented. 

From then on, it was strongly advised to be open to different inspirations linked to practice in order to have a wider vision and open-mindedness and this became a justification of the concept of “Technical College”. 

Respecting and adopting these “differences” is the proof and the seed that led to the open-mindedness. For let us not forget that the same notion of open-mindedness would have been considered a loss and a dilution of the school’s knowledge in the Traditional Way.

1) The Middle Way, the Path of the Middle.

We have therefore just seen that according to the Way taken, the same behaviour could symbolise an open-mindedness or a loss of knowledge. 

As Aristotle said: “Virtue is the right centre between two vices”.

Like Aristotle, I think that the Middle Way is often the right one. But what is it? 

What if we already had the answers to that, if looking back again we already had the elements? 

I would like to propose what seems to me to be the Middle Way by introducing here the concept known in martial arts as SHU- HA – RI.

This is a concept that defines the practitioner’s progression from a global point of view and not only a technical one. 

The first step every practitioner will go through is the SHU phase. 

SHU takes the meaning of PRESERVE, KEEP, PROTECT. 

We can interpret this in many ways. 

From a technical point of view, of course, this phase is the phase of methodical transmission and learning of the forms that make up the technical catalog of the school, of art. The protection here goes through a respect of all the technical elements but also through an exclusivity of learning, in this sense the teacher also protects the pupil. 

We spoke in the Traditional Way of the prohibition to go to teach or learn outside the school as long as the agreement was not expressed by the Soke. 

This is what characterizes this phase. The teacher protects the student because he or she knows the elements necessary for the student’s progress. 

There is no freedom in this phase for personal interpretation, for openness to other aspirations than that of the Head Teacher/Soke.

This phase requires sacrifice on the part of the student, trusting and believing that what is transmitted will allow him to progress. 

This “obedience” was once tested and the motivation to belong tested even before the person could become or be considered a student, but once this happened it could be materialized in various ways including the blood oath: the Keppan. 

The Keppan was an oath (of blood or then ink) that gave the rules that had to be followed or the wrath of the school-related deity (or simply the Soke) would fall upon the student. 

The Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu school still uses the Keppan in one of these currents as an oath of adherence and says this (from Ritsuke Otake Sensei’s book):

“… I will not tell or show to anyone what I have been taught, not even to my parents, children, brothers or fellow students without permission….

… if I were to break my word, I would openly oppose the Great Godhead of Katori and knowingly expose myself to his punishment…”. 

We see how the relationship between knowledge, technology and transmission/demonstration is “regulated”.

This SHU phase is estimated today in the traditional Kyu / Dan system at the 4th Dan level. 

I would like to make a parenthesis here because I can already hear the remarks about not deviating from a teaching up to the 4th dan. 

You remember that I explained in the Federation Way that all the groups propose a technical catalog and graduations on exam until 4th Dan, it is without necessarily admitting it or even knowing it a way to implicitly reveal this SHU phase. 

Yes but until the 4th Dan… Do not step out of the teaching received… 

This is the second point of my parenthesis, we think and reflect with the elements of our daily life, but let’s take a look at history. 

  • Noboyushi Tamura 8th Dan in 22 years of practice
  • Kazuo Chiba 4th dan in 4 years of practice 
  • Tadashi Abe 6th Dan in 10 years of practice
  • Koichi Tohei 8th Dan in 13 years of practice
  • Aritoshi Murashige 7th Dan in 8 years of practice
  • Kanshu Sunadomari 6th Dan in 12 years of practice

The examples could multiply again and again and for proof, if we study the minimum time required to reach 4th Dan it is considered possible (theoretically) to become 4th Dan in 5 years according to the modalities of presentation of a degree by the Aikikai. 

This makes it possible to understand that what was an “easy” grade to reach at the time of the Way of the school in Aikido, is today considered as an advanced grade because it has become normal today to pass a 4th Dan after 10-12 or even 15 years of practice or more. 

If lifestyle, habits, time and many factors allow us to understand this evolution, we must also realise that this simple time change has a phenomenal consequence on the understanding of the SHU phase, the respect of this learning time and the progression of the practitioners. 

What was a teaching to learn and protect the technical bases during 4-5 years becomes a constraining teaching of 10 to 15 years or even more.

This is the first point which caused things to change, that the practitioners already encouraged to open-mindedness in the Federal Way do not conceive for the greatest majority to remain faithful to a teaching and a teacher for a duration of 10 to 15 years. 

And this new behavior of the SHU phase, the initial phase of learning, has a domino effect and causes the essence of the next phase, the second phase of progression, the HA phase, to be lost. 

The HA ideogram has the meaning of breaking, shattering, tearing. 

Too often this idea of breaking is perceived or explained as an idea of rebellion, a stage where the practitioner breaks with the teaching he has received. 

If he actually breaks with the teaching he has received it is not in a negative way, it is not to be understood as it is sometimes possible to read here and there that the student goes against the teaching received to develop his own practice. 

It is necessary to understand this phase of progression in the following way: the pupil has all the technical bases of his school of his current he will be able to break, to tear that: 

  • To understand the principles underlying the teaching received, it is the discovery of the URA teaching of the technical catalog considered as OMOTE until then. 
  • To open one’s understanding to elements not contained in the teaching received until then. 

I will illustrate each of these points in relation to the teaching I have received from my teacher. 

My learning was carried out according to the teaching of Morihiro Saito Sensei, from Kotai, a precise and rigorous technical learning including a large number of bare hand techniques, jo and ken. 

In the 4th dan it is the whole of the technical catalog ” Iwama ” that I had to present during my exam. 

With the end of the formal apprenticeship and the fact that I received my 4th Dan I could then enter the second phase of my apprenticeship.

I could then break the forms I received to discover the underlying principles, go up one level to focus not just on the technical form but on the movement, the continuous movement of two, three or more linked technical forms. I could then begin to forget the technique strongly anchored in my body to let my body speak through the underlying motor principle .

This first break is made on the basis of the teaching received. 

The second rupture is carried out in parallel on the basis of the teaching NOT RECEIVED. 

That is to say, going to seek, to complete by what is missing. By this I mean that no teacher can hold total knowledge but each one is guardian of an important part. 

Only no one can simply be satisfied with what he has learned or what has been transmitted to him if he wishes to get closer to the totality of Art. This rupture is then to be understood not as a sign of rebellion but as a sign of complementarity. 

To fill what is missing, isn’t this also one of the principles of Aikido? 

Doesn’t every Aikidoka know that:

1 + 9 = 10
2 + 8 = 10
3 + 7 = 10
4 + 6 = 10
5 + 5 = 10

Morihiro Saito Shihan

But, and this is not a small but, in order to be able at this level of practice to fulfil what is missing there is an absolutely essential condition and this is often where things get complicated: 


And this is where it becomes important for each teacher to be able to clearly explain what he proposes to his students in these PHASE SHU. Each teacher must be conscious and able to verbalise, explain, demonstrate the proposed progression to allow a sincere visibility on the practitioner’s practice, on what he can learn and what he will not learn. 

But let us not forget here what was stated earlier. Many teachers have given themselves the right to teach on their own… And often without having completed their own training…

Coming back to my personal practice, the teaching transmitted by Morihiro Saito Sensei is certainly one of the most precise and sharp from a technical point of view, but it brings with this precision the disadvantages of its qualities. It can become not a framework for study but a straitjacket and lock the practitioner into an illusion of strength and power, physically and mentally, and prevent him from seeing a possible practice beyond this phase. 

It then becomes important to complete this practice with what might be missing. 

Morihiro Saito Sensei, for example, sent his own son to study Aikido with Koichi Tohei in order to have access to a practice more based on Ki, energy one might say, an interesting fact to keep in mind

Koichi Tohei, Ki-Aikido Founder

I could also evoke research on the spiritual aspect of Aikido… I could evoke all the aspects that could be missing from this teaching. All of these would be elements that will complete the SHU phase at this time in the practitioner’s life. 

To better illustrate these two phases I could take the example of an apprentice who is going to learn his work from his Master / his school, carving wood, working with iron… This apprenticeship with his Master is the SHU phase, then comes the time for the apprentice to go around France and meet other Masters to perfect his work and discover other methods that will complete his knowledge, the Tour de France des Compagnons, it is the HA phase. 

Looking more closely we can see that this stage, this Tour de France lasts on average 4 to 6 years, the elders said that the SHU Phase and the RI Phase had about the same duration, interesting isn’t it?

A second interesting thing when we look at what the completion of a Tour de France brings is to see what it brings to the student:

  • Deepening of his skill until he has mastered it in the smallest details.
  • Integrating gestures, advanced techniques, ancestral knowledge.
  • Broadening of theoretical knowledge.
  • Practicing the spirit of solidarity.
  • Learning to pass on one’s knowledge.

To complete his journey, his Tour France, his HA phase, the student will have to make his CHEF-D’ŒUVRE, a masterpiece resulting from the teachings received, reflecting his technical and moral qualities. He can then be received as a Companion, he can then enter the last phase, the RI phase. 

RI has the sense to leave, to leave. Leaving the world of learning for the world of application, moving from learning to do, to do and to transmit in turn. 

The last phase is the phase that also happens beyond the Menkyo Kaiden, the knowledge has been received, it has shaped the body and mind of the practitioner and now it is up to him to use all this to continue his own path and then in turn accompany students on the path of learning. It will become one of the pieces in the learning path : 

A first-rate teacher who will give the basics he thinks necessary before letting his student do his “Tour de France”.


A second-rate teacher who will allow the student to study aspects that were missing in his initial learning and that he will receive during his “Tour de France”. 

One thing is certain, by understanding the SHU – HA – RI progression, everyone has a role and a place in the progression and preservation of an Art.

Today, however, there is no administrative entity to support training on this principle. Today there are administrative entities that under the cover of open-mindedness do not see the very limits it proposes and the technical, historical and philosophical losses of Aikido. 

For, let us be well aware, (I was going to say let us be honest with ourselves) the open-mindedness advocated and put forward in the Federal Way usually stops where cronyism (and not companionship) stops. 

Each group today has put the emphasis on one of the phases of this progression. The “Iwama” policy ensures the smooth running of the SHU Phase but offers little opening to the next phase. 

The organization of the Aikikai, a HA phase from the beginning, many different possibilities but often relying on little technical structure for the basic practitioners and a SHU phase that is either non-existent or too superficial.

Each one carries within him/herself the advantages and limitations of his/her own practice. Open-mindedness is not to accept everything, but to accept things in a way that allows everyone to have their place in preserving and progressing on the Path of Aikido. 

For schools, federations are only systems that must serve the only Way that every Aikidoka must take, the Way of Aikido.

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