Seeing the Whole Elephant

(An excerpt from the book)

The first step into the dojo places the new practitioner of Budo (the warrior way) in a new environment. The Sensei and the dojo collectively take on each new student and begin a long process – teaching the student to see their own part of the “elephant”. If the student continues the journey, over time, they will see the elephant in its entirety, piece by piece.


“Once they see the whole elephant they will never forget it –  It will forever change their lives.” Ducote Sensei - 2010

There is an ancient fable about six blind men, who are taken to an elephant by a priest and allowed to touch a certain part of it, after being allowed to “experience” their own part of the elephant they are then asked to describe it to the group. One man says the elephant is like a big snake and it has hot air coming out of its head, bending to and fro as you hold it. Another blind man disagrees and says no, the elephant is like a spear that is curved and it is big and round, another says no, no, its like a fan, that has ridges in it, and it moves back and forth, the other says its like a tree trunk, so big you can barely get your arms around it, another describes it as a wall, that extends from arm to arm and immovable, the last man tells about a rope, with a loose end like a brush and it does not smell good. The men get into a rather large argument, each one defending vehemently, their own concept and view of what the “elephant” is to them, declaring all the others wrong.

The wise priest listens to this arguing then tells them about the “thing” they are experiencing, he describes what he “sees” through his own experience, because he is not blind and can see the whole thing as well as the parts. The priest tells them, each one of them is both right, and yet also wrong. Right in expressing their own part, the part they were able to experience and yet wrong, because they could only experience one part at a time due to the lack of vision and choose to totally discount the experience of others who had experienced the same elephant in a different way. This is a central theme within the traditional dojo – the art is the elephant and not all have the “eyes” to “see’ its parts, much less the entirety of the art, it will take decades to see the whole thing.

The study of Budo can end up much like the blind men in this story, with each person locked into their own notion of what the elephant is and is not, based on a rather narrow experience, shaped by the inability to “see” properly. This work will discuss this “elephant”, its parts, how they work, why they work and how to “see” them. It is my hope that those who read this will be better equipped to “see” this art, not in parts, not in only one view but in its kaleidoscope of complex and changing pictures.

Training in the traditional dojo is much like initially being blind and through time, acquiring vision, until little by little, you have full sight and can see the “whole elephant”.  It is the function of the Sensei, or teacher to be the guide in this process, helped by the senior students, the dojo collectively, assisting each and every student to “see” the whole.

The study of Budo is a very complex thing, to say the least; it’s an undertaking requiring an unusual amount of dedication, which is somewhat outmoded in our modern society. In a world of Kiosk Menu Ordered “Happy Meals” or the “order and go to the pickup window” immediate gratification, the very thought of training for years to learn something complex is almost beyond comprehension for many.  Only a very few in our western society will be willing and able to make this journey. It’s not for everyone, for those who dare, the process one that forever changes the very heart of a person.

But, for those of us who train in the furnace of the dojo, following the ancient ways as best we can, forging our bodies, minds and spirits; Budo begins to define us. It becomes a part of who we are as we struggle to efface our egos, free ourselves from competitiveness, to function on a different plane and to simply learn to “see” the entirety of things.

There are many simple AND complex components to this forging process, I will address them in this thesis and present my core themes, concepts and “how too’s” for both Sensei and Student. It is hoped that each new student and all Sensei will read this material and take it to heart.

If you not able to “get it” by reading this work, you will either be very frustrated trying to figure out the meaning of it all, or you will simply reject the ideas all together – for some, this work will speak to each of you in a deep way – this is my wish at the very least.

The main thing to remember is to teach with both compassion and with exactness for the true nature of our form of budo to be transmitted – it’s a process just like heating, beating, folding metal over and over, until all the impurities are out of it, then taking it to the next process, polishing and sharpening, then to final fitting. Our process is so much like this one for the creation of a beautiful sword. Also remember the final part will be a product of the entire dojo, not just the “Sensei” or Dojo-cho as each person will produce the final polished human sword – the budoka. Yes, the product is a “human sword”, forged in the dojo.

Beginning the Process

 Each person, whether they realize it or not, upon entering and beginning a regular study of budo, is embarking on one of the most ego effacing, spirit-forging processes known to man. The process of “knowing” is not easy, it’s something that requires deep thought and commitment, it requires going outside our comfort zones, venturing into the dark places, into our fears, trusting others in this process, because “true budo” can not be learned alone. True Budo is a learning experience that is facilitated by – the “dojo”, which is composed of the students, the seniors and lastly the Sensei, who sets the overall pace, tone and tenor for the forging process. The physical structure of the dojo is important because it is more than a gym but less than a church – it’s a special place like none other, with special qualities unique to it. Without these unique qualities, the place where Budo is transmitted, is nothing more than a “place”, not a “school for learning the way”. The dojo is an anvil, the art is the furnace, the people are the forgers and apprentices.

 “There is progression from bujutsu (martial techniques) to budo (martial way) to bushin (martial spirit). The techniques (jutsu) themselves are vehicles that allow the practitioner to approach the two higher levels of ethical behavior and spiritual insight.”
Budo Secrets by John Stevens [1]

 The process of teaching, or forging a person, is much more than simply showing a technique and then saying, “now do it”. Teaching is much like being a tour guide; you take the group (the students) through a journey, you have been to where they are going, you know the trails, the sources of food, water, the safe places to stop along the way; you also know the pitfalls, where the predators roam and where the darkest caves are – those places you can enter but some never return. The Sensei does not simply give you the map, to the destination and wave “goodbye”, the Sensei leads you along this path until you are ready and have the experience, stamina and proven desire to continue the rest of the journey with the proper tools to complete the process.

 Sensei means “someone who has come before”, literally someone who has blazed the path ahead and is able to teach others how to get form point “A” to “B”. There is much mysticism about what a Sensei is and is not in regards to martial arts lore. Fact is, a Sensei has limitations and for some students, this is hard to understand, but all humans have limitations. The Sensei does not have all the answers; they are limited by their own experience and can only transmit what they “know” to be true. In effect, the Sensei can only explain to the blind men, the students; the part of that elephant they have both seen and experienced personally. A young Sensei has only seen parts, of this elephant; the older Sensei has seen much more of it, perhaps even seen “the whole thing”.

 This is why the process of teaching and sharing is so complex. In Budo, the process is not as simple as gathering the list of ingredients, and following a recipe. Its more like fitting a tailored suit to a person. While they all look the “same” they are different, in sometimes big and sometimes subtle ways.

 At the 19 year point, something occurred, my Sensei, teacher of almost two decades, gave me permission to depart the art and express myself in a new way, my own. I had read about budoka who founded their own ryu, or even new forms of budo, but had never done this myself. It sounds a lot simpler than it is in reality. I took about two years to find a name for the art and to develop theories which made it unique, at least in terms of its expression. I will discuss these later but the core of the art centers on several core concepts – use of timing, distance and off-balance; creation of a “doorway or gate” and intuitive implementation of an effective technique. The key here is “intuitive” – this is easier said than done and represents the greatest challenge for the practitioner. Intuitive can not be taught, it must be experienced via a process.

 All human beings operate both in intuitive and cognitive levels, they either perform or accomplish a task with “hardwiring”, or they perform and accomplish a task via a thought process. Intuitive processes “just happen” they are “pre-wired”, while cognitive processes take time and involve steps and sequences. Intuitive processes are based on subtle changes almost too subtle to feel or register, while cognitive processes have “triggers” which start a sequence.

 It is my feeling that you can disrupt a cognitive process, or delay the processing of information, but if the person is functioning on the intuitive level, they have innate understanding of a “thing” much like you “know” the smell of a rose” simply by seeing one and experiencing it only a few times. In Shisei Ryu Aikibudo, we unlock these intuitive processes via a unique training method and understanding of how the person processes changes in the environment and other people. By learning kihon dosa (basic techniques) we form an alphabet, or a “periodic table of elements” from which we can form the letters, syllables and words which create the “language of Budo”. When we explore the mathematics of Budo, via distance, timing, angles of movement and off-balance we create a “Budo currency” which has a “rate of exchange”. These two components of Budo – language and currency, allow us to form the basic forms which alter the wiring of the person and in time, allow the person to become no cognitive, and instead, become intuitive.

 This process is perhaps a “20 year” process, maybe even more, but you can start to see its evolution in only a short time, relatively speaking in the dojo – say 2-4 years. If the dojo teaches good kihon dosa, or basics, if it teaches sound kata, and then is able to forge this knowledge via randori or free-application, a person will begin to transcend the concepts of winning or losing and simply accept events and outcome, freeing the spirit from the mind, acting intuitively.

 The single biggest obstacle to this entire process is the ego, or the need to “win”. This is rooted in competitiveness, which is not a bad trait, but in Budo, competitiveness can stifle or stagnate the learning process because competitive outcomes require the cognitive mind to compute outcomes, versus using the intuitive mind which does not care, and transcends the concepts totally. This struggle between ego, competitiveness, cognitive and intuitive are all attached to a students “vision” or the ability to “see” the elephant. A person blinded by their own notions, so attached to what they are experiencing, will not be able, nor ready to see the “rest of the elephant” – learning will stop or plateau. The Sensei must be truly adept and able to operate in both the cognitive and intuitive realms, or the teacher will not be able to teach all students.

 Each Sensei or teacher must have a full knowledge of the realm in which they teach, being able to quickly identify and understand many factors which directly affect a person’s ability to learn. Here are some examples of these factors – age, body-type, psychology, past experiences, sex, impairments, learning disabilities, desired outcomes, relationships with other students and the teacher; you get the point. This ability does not come in a few years, nor at Shodan, for the Sensei, it takes literally many years or decades. One must remember that the art of teaching, and it is an art-form, is literally taught via oral tradition, a person can attempt to write it down as I am doing but it must also be experienced and demonstrated in the dojo over time, “mouth to ear” and “eye to eye” but even these modes can fall short if the essence is not transmitted “heart to heart”.

 Shisei Ryu means “One’s True Heart”, it is bigger than just a list of techniques, or a syllabus, its an oral tradition, which must be transmitted from Sensei to Sensei, from Master to Sensei and from Sempai (senior) to Kohai (junior). This process is rooted in ancient forms of Budo, or the Koryu arts and these principles of direct transmission still apply now in the Gendai or modern arts, no matter what people will say – the time honored traditions work.

 During my own 35 years as a Sensei, as I have explored the far reaches of my own realm, I have come to “know” those things I have personally experienced. I am still learning each day, each class and it does not matter if the person I learn from it’s a beginner, white belt, or a peer who may also be a Kyoshi or Hanshi graded Sensei. The bottom-line is you can learn from anyone at anytime. This state of Shoshin, or beginner’s mind has allowed me to see things that I might not have experienced otherwise.

 During my own journey, I have “seen the elephant” and know it exists, I have felt its strength, its complexity and its overwhelming nature. My hope as a teacher is to show others the parts of the elephant they can not yet see, sometimes one by one, and sometimes the whole thing in its entirety depending on many factors.

 I know however, once they “see the whole elephant” they will never forget it – It will forever change their lives. 






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