Dear Ueshiba Sensei

[At our dojo we have a tradition of submitting an essay when we test for sho-dan. My exam was today, and here’s what I wrote.]

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13 December, 2014

Dear Ueshiba Sensei,

We have never met, Sensei, but I am a student of yours. My direct teacher is Dave Goldberg Sensei in San Diego, in the United States. His teacher is Robert Nadeau Shihan, who I am sure you remember well. Goldberg Sensei also trained in Japan with your devoted student, Morihiro Saito Sensei. Sensei has had many teachers – he has told me about a few of them – and I have learned a bit here and there from other teachers and friends as well. There are many bubbling rivulets and quiet brooks that feed into the river that is my experience of Aikido, but they all originated with you.

I owe you a debt of gratitude for this art you created. I’ve been practicing Aikido for a while now, and so thought I should introduce myself and share with you how my training is going.

Today I am testing for the rank of sho-dan. Some of my friends who aren’t familiar with martial arts see earning one’s black belt as having arrived. It is an accomplishment, of course, but it feels to me like a starting point, like being accepted into a university. Commencement. “Beginning rank,” truly.

It has been a great adventure getting to this point. So many hills and valleys, forks and detours, breathtaking vantage points and mysterious deep canyons. I have traveled to seminars and camps and other dojos, and made good friends from around the world. So many kindred spirits in this community! My health is much improved, to say nothing of my attitude. I never used to smile or laugh much. I didn’t even care for people, for the most part. I am not the same person who set out on this expedition. Or maybe I am, I have just set down a lot of unnecessary, burdensome things along the way. Any way I look at it, training in Aikido has been a journey of discovery.

About 6 years ago a wise horseman and writer, Mark Rashid, suggested that I train in Aikido when I went to him for help with my riding. He said it could help me become the strong, clear leader my big, goofy young horse needed. That is what got me started on this path. Mark learned of Aikido from a student of his, and found the principles entirely compatible with his work with horses. I know you were a farmer at times. Did you work with horses? I often wonder if you found that to be true as well.

I had tried Aikido almost thirty years before, in college, briefly, but it went right over my head. All I remember was the kneeling kokyu-dosa exercise. Where was the sparring? When were we going to do something? It seemed boring and dull. I really didn’t see the point. Young and stupid, I suppose…

In high school I had trained in Tang Soo Do, a hard, competitive Korean martial art. Things were tough at home. My sister’s drug and alcohol problems kept our family in constant turmoil. I was angry, and wanted to learn to hit things. Fortunately, I had an excellent teacher. Yes, he taught me how to punch (and kick), but he also taught me how to be calm and centered so I didn’t feel the need to. I left to go to college after just my first test. I always thought I would return to train afterward, but my teacher died suddenly a few years later, and I never found my way back to it.

Even before, as a child – I must have been about 8 – I tried Judo for a summer. I don’t know how I heard about it, maybe at school, but I was the one who insisted in signing up. I was an eager student, and brought friends with me to train, too. But all the others in the class were boys – they refused to train with us, and the teacher allowed that. We didn’t learn much, and quit after the summer. Who knows, I might have stuck with it otherwise. I’ve seen photos of women and girls in your classes, and I know you said that Aikido is for everyone. Thank you for that. At least I learned to fall and roll that summer – I could practice that on my own. I think it saved my life once… But that’s a story for another time.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the tenuous fortune and fragile connections that comprise these chains of chance encounters leading to my being here today. I met Mark, the horseman, when he led a workshop nearby, right at the moment I was having trouble and needed his help. My teacher learned of Aikido when his cousin demonstrated a simple technique at a family gathering. A young Mary Heiny, who has taught at our dojo on occasion, saw you because a friend encouraged her to observe your class, and it changed the course her life completely. How fortunate that you encountered Deguchi Sensei! And perhaps more so, Takeda. So many paths crossing, like wavy rings from stones tossed into a pond.

In any case, somehow the gears of the universe meshed and turned in such a way to arrive at this state of things.

I know how lucky I am to have found my teacher. It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Apparently that is so – and the right teacher, too! I have trained with and learned from many skillful practitioners and gifted instructors. Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, each one sees Aikido from a different perspective – a tree, a wall, a rope. In my experience, their perspectives are each valid in their own way, and contribute to a more complete understanding of the whole. Every teacher has something valuable to offer. But I think it’s ideal when there is harmony of temperament and resonance of philosophy between the teacher and the student. A teacher that challenges and corrects, supports and encourages, as each student requires. The right teacher, here at the right location on the earth, at the right point in time. It’s a wonder we ever find our teachers. I suppose most never do. So unlikely…

Speaking of unlikely – I have been surprised again and again at the things I have learned in practicing this art of yours! It’s never been about fighting or defending myself, for me. I expected I would learn to relax under pressure, and respond from a more centered place. Indeed, I continually work on that, and like to think I am improving. I’ve seen that pushing back against … well, everything, is counterproductive and exhausting. I am more comfortable with letting things be – and letting people be – now. But I have also gotten better at being clear and standing my ground when that’s appropriate. I might expect to learn that from a martial art. But more important, I have begun to know what it is that I stand for.

Your art has expanded my understanding, opened my heart, and enlivened my spirit. These have been happy, free, rewarding years. Through Aikido I have begun to discover who I am.

Oh, look… I have rambled on too long! It’s time to get on the mat for my exam. Thank you for your kind attention. I’m so grateful for your vision of what Aikido could be, and how it could change people and the world. Thank you for being a teacher, and sharing with us what you discovered.

With much respect,

Linda Eskin

Master Pat, A True Force of Nature

This is a guest post, by Michael Hancock, one our instructors at Aikido of San Diego. Originally from England, he teaches, and leads meditations, with a lovely Brit-dialect, respect for tradition, thoughtful insight, and a gentle sense of humor. Michael is an avid golfer, pilot, and horseman, and when living in England was an accomplished polo player, having once been Chairman of the oldest club in the world, Silver Leys. He is an entrepreneur whose focus is on his family and community. Among other things, Michael is active in promoting and advising the Wampler Foundation, providing camp and outdoor education programs for kids with physical disabilities. Enjoy.

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Master Pat – A True Force of Nature

By Michael Hancock
Written Early 2011

Because my Google search gave me little since he received an honor from the Japanese Ambassador on behalf of the Emperor in London several years back, I wrongly assumed he had since passed on. I’m back in England, and last night, by chance or providence, I’m nearby the dojo of ‘Master Pat’ Stratford, my first mentor.

It was 7.25 pm for the 7.30 start and the door was still locked. He looked old to me 25 years ago, but I was still surprised to see a pensioner struggling to climb out of someone’s car and stagger across on crutches at 7.29 on the dot. Yes, same face and instantly recognizable except for a few more good vintages behind him. For a fleeting moment I wondered if this was a good idea, but I reintroduced myself anyway and he cheerfully engaged. We chatted about old times and old members for a short while.

We sat for a few minutes to one side. I declined his offer of tea that I’m sure had an aromatic whiff of medicated navy rum as he drew on his pipe. He informed me that there are now eight aikido clubs in the Coventry area alone, but added that they are losing their way. He believes they are generically too mindful of ego and money.

A couple of the old boys are still around, reminding me of the clichéd movies of boxers or ball players of a bygone age, still with the enthusiasm of teenagers and a wickedly dry wit that bantered between them. The warmth of camaraderie made me feel right at home again.

He shared with me his thoughts on Japan and said there is a lot of “crap Aikido” because the culture has changed so much as a result of the Americanization of the country after the war, and that most are now chasing the dollar and missing the fundamentals. I sensed an air of nostalgia or sadness when he added that no one turns up here anymore. Master Pat has an endearingly maverick character that is so likeable. He’s the real deal. You cannot question his dedication, yet I think he inevitably divides opinion.

Master Pat was sincerely and genuinely, “…worried for the future of pure Aikido, as there isn’t another martial art that comes close to the practice of Zen and Budo. This is now just a club for black belts only, and anyone who wants to study Aikido, I mean really study.”

In fact, he is worried for the state of the world in general and was satisfied to be his age. He added that a couple of the other dojo owners still come back once a month or so and are very welcome. Years ago he would teach all over Europe, however, he still leads monthly Aikido events, albeit these days hosting at his home dojo as traveling is difficult.

Master Pat founded the Aikido Union of England in 1958 with the support of his teacher and close friend, Shigeho Tanaka Sensei. He explained how he has dedicated his life to the study since his time in Japan through the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Aikido was around long before the Samurai.” He paused, looked me intently in the eye, “I am in my mid 80’s and if it wasn’t for Budo, I would have been dead thirty years ago. I am in pain 24/7, but never let it beat you, take charge of thought and you will never be depressed or stressed.”

I declined his invitation to train and told him I’m sporting an injury. He ordered me through his wry smile, “Don’t be a soft nancy boy and get on the bloody mat, you’ve been in bloody America too long!” Ah yes, I remember him clearly now, and started to stretch. Six turned up last night and I made the seventh.

After a brief warm-up, he stepped onto the mat a different person and I could not believe what I saw. He was incredible, so amazing. Master Pat transcended time and his presence was dominating. He focused on the essence of ‘feeling’, in understanding the body. He ‘touched’ my chest and I instinctively slapped out on the mat with a pounding in my lungs. Then he came around each of us and we dissected it. He was demonstrating the force of nature and allowing its power, “…without the laying on of hands, which will create resistance.”

I am somewhat ashamed for playing my part in not returning for 25 years, and to say that in my opinion, he is an under-valued magician, a somewhat forgotten Master that by all that is right, he deserves to have a huge entourage of followers surrounding him and absorbing this beautiful art while they can, not a mere half dozen. Inevitably, he won’t be here for long.

I learnt something about myself last night and will consciously embody some of his thoughts and his portrayal of ‘feel’ in my own personal training hereon. In fact, I wish I could get back here again soon, but living six thousand miles away in San Diego creates its own difficulties.

He declared while teaching something that still lifts and resonates with me. “There is nothing more perfect than nature. It has no muscles and no physicality. We must copy it. Everything else is bollocks!”

Thank you, Master Pat, you are one of a kind and still remain an inspiration to me.

Master Pat Stratford, 8th Dan & Michael Hancock

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A bit of follow-up information, from the News page at AikidoUnionEngland.co.uk:

On 26th May 2009 “Master Pat Stratford was awarded [by the Japanese Government] the honour of the ‘Order of the Rising Sun’ Gold & Silver Rays upon him in a special ceremony at the Japanese Ambassadors Residence, Kensington Palace Gardens, London. Master Stratford is the only ‘Budo Sensei’ outside of Japan to receive such a high level of the ‘Order of the Rising Sun’.”

On 6th November, 2011 “Master Pat Stratford [8th Dan], Honorary President and Chief Technical Advisor of the Aikido Union England, sadly announced that he would be retiring from active teaching on the tatami due to on-going knee problems and strict medical advice. He maintains his weekly presence at the dojo to give Technical Advice to the Instructors and will continue to attend each Aikido Course at Coventry as long as he is able to do so. …”