Interview with Vermont Aikido Chief Instructor Aaron Ward: Vermont Aikido, Ken Nisson, and Terry Dobson, Part III

Aaron Ward had an interesting event occur during his aikido journey: he got to know Terry Dobson on a personal level during his time at Vermont Aikido. Taking the role of chief instructor since 2001, Ward took some time to talk about his aikido journey, his relationship with Terry Dobson and Ken Nisson, and how Vermont Aikido has made aikido more New England than Japanese. All images provided by Aaron Ward. This is the third part in a three-part interview. Read the first part here and the second part here.

MAYTT: It seems that anything that happens around Dobson becomes an exciting story! To many aikidoka, Dobson was an early pioneer and ambassador of aikido here in the United States. Do you feel his presence in the aikido community would be as dynamic and as impactful as it was if he did not have the opportunity to be uchi deshi to O-Sensei?

AW: I think now, today, if I had no experience or had no first-hand experience with Terry Dobson, I think that he would’ve been one of the major instructors. I can’t say that earlier, like ten years ago, if he didn’t have the O-Sensei connection, he would’ve struggled to kind of stand out. I think, at least for a lot of the stuff that I’ve seen in the community now, this was stuff he was basically talking about in the 1980s. A lot of the principles would really benefit him now. Keep in mind, he was doing this in our dojo, prepacking shows to ship off to California. He would go off to California and do a seminar out there and, of course, a lot of the stuff would hit specific things.

I think that the idea of Terry as an instructor was one of the things that he was really focusing on just before he passed away was moving from this young angry guy instructor to older statesman kind of stuff. One story about how he used to screw with me when he had major heart and lung surgery and just after he came back, he was teaching a class. He had a scar that went right from the base of his throat to the base of his bellybutton. He didn’t wear a t-shirt underneath, so his gi would be flopping open. One of the things that would happen is ask for an uke and I would come up. He would instruct me to hit him in the chest. I’m thinking to myself, this is a guy that just had open chest surgery, so I give a half-hearted attack and not really selling it. Terry looks at me and he says do it harder. I come in a bit harder but not much. He looks me straight in the eyes, and he knew what my buttons were, and he basically says, “If you can’t do it, I’ll find somebody who can.” He knew that was my button and I came in and he exclaims, “What are you trying to do? Kill me!?” Everybody on the line starts laughing and I’m embarrassed and at a loss for words. Then, later on, I found out that when he was younger and was training with O-Sensei, he would come up and grab O-Sensei and he would tell Terry to grab harder, setting up for the same thing that happened to me. So, when Terry came in to really grab, O-Sensei would go, “Oh my god! What are you doing? You’re trying to kill me!?” and everybody was laughing, and Terry was slowly dying inside. He did the same thing to me that O-Sensei did to him. This was the kind of thing that he realized those moments were significant. It wasn’t all that enriching for me at the moment, but, as I understand it, these things are what set Terry apart.

Taken in either 1967 or 1968, Terry Dobson participates in a birthday party that the foreign students had for O-Sensei.

If you take O-Sensei out of the equation, if he never trained with O-Sensei, a major problem, I think, would be his difficulty dealing with people might’ve really overshadowed his teaching talent. Because he was a good teacher, but he was not a consistent teacher. Some of the stuff that he did was way ahead of his time. So, when he taught it, people scratched their heads and asked, “What’s this?” and this idea when you’re connecting with someone, what’s the look on your face? If you say no to somebody, are you smiling? This comes from the whole self-help movement, projecting positive energy, and trying to find that of just how do you hold yourself. But a lot of people back in the 1980s, when he was doing this, they didn’t particularly like it. But many years after he passed, I was in the same with these people and they would come up to me and say that they understand the value now, but at the moment it really didn’t work for me. This is the problem, the thing with Terry is that he got a certain amount of pass because he trained with O-Sensei. He was a great instructor; he had a lot to offer, but he’s really, in many respects, like I said, he was difficult with me from time to time, but there was never anything that I could say, “I can deal with that.”

There were a lot of people that he had dealt with really ended up having difficulty with. Over time, he would try to bring it back around, but the problem was that he ran out of time to figure these things out. It was funny when we went to Montreal. Pretty much, you name it, every shihan on this side of the planet was there. You had Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Seiichi Sugano Sensei, and a long list of individuals. He walks into the room, and you see half the people get a smile on their face and the other half do this giant sigh.

I remember when Terry passed away, we did a memorial service up in Vermont and the rumor was that Kanai Sensei was going to come up, specifically to make sure that Terry was dead. But it’s that kind of thing that the two had this back and forth and a lot of that came from the way that Terry painted it – I’m not sure if this was a specific issue. Terry had told a story of O-Sensei, Kanai Sensei, and himself were traveling to a shrine for a ceremony and when they got to the shrine, the first thing you do before you enter the temple is to purify yourself. What you do is get into this giant pot and bathe. They built the fire, put the pot out, and they bathed O-Sensei. They cleaned the pot and set it up again. Because Kanai Sensei was senior to Terry, he was the next one to be bathed. O-Sensei said, “No. Terry, you get in.” Apparently, Kanai Sensei wasn’t particularly happy about that. Terry knew that this was something that he should necessarily do but O-Sensei requested it.

I think in some situations just the relationships that ended up happening in Japan ended up becoming long-term issues for the uchi deshi at that point. And these weren’t the first generation of students that studied with O-Sensei. The last generations that trained with O-Sensei at that particular point in time were probably in their twenties, so they were all jocks. They would take offense much easier than some of the older core guys.

But there’s billions of little stories of Terry succeeding and failing, but usually failing, in Japan. One of the major ones is the story in Reader’s Digest. Terry thought that was a story where he screwed up and not doing aikido. But everybody kind of wanted to point to it and say it’s a monumental work of aiki. But it’s not me doing aiki, Terry would say. That’s one of the reasons why he felt really uncomfortable with that story was because it didn’t show him in the best of light. But to be honest, it showed him in the most accurate light because a lot of his other stories he comes off looking a bit better. Also, in a lot of his stories, he’s just sitting around, watching what’s going on around him, which makes him easier to look better.

MAYTT: Speaking about community, how do you feel the larger aikido community viewed and interacted with both Dobson and Nisson respectively? 

AW: The only thing I can really speak for is Ken Nisson’s relationship with the ASU community. He was well-respected. He contributed a lot to Saotome Sensei’s early years in the United States because a lot of Saotome Sensei’s early aikido experience had a lot of influence in the Chicago area and also in Florida. When you start looking at a lot of Saotome Sensei’s early works, especially his first principles of aikido, the cover of that book, Ken Nisson is actually on that taking ukemi. He was also one of the people listed in there for acknowledgement – he was a participant. This was stuff that I personally had only seen him interact at different seminars, but he had a great deal of respect. I didn’t get to know him when he was the instructor at Bond Street, so I don’t know when that was happening.

That was the time when Saotome Sensei was really struggling trying to get ASU off the ground and to build up the number of dojos. From what I have been told, it may not have been the first seminar that Saotome Sensei had done on the East Coast, but it was a monumental one because it was in New York City. At that time, especially with O-Sensei when he sent students out, he sent Yamada Sensei to New York and Boston. Then Yamada Sensei asked for Kanai Sensei to come, and he took over the show in Boston.

But New York, in many respects, is viewed as the center of the aikido world in the United States. Having that opportunity to hold a seminar there and being seen there was a big thing and that’s something that the Bond Street Dojo put together. Ken was a major part of that. I know he had had relationships with dojos on the west coast. I can probably pick out a few dojos that I know he went to there but for the most part, that was not something I have experience with. I know that he had a pretty good relationship with and still connected with the Modesto dojo and I think he also had, from time to time, relationships with the Santa Cruz dojo – Linda Holiday. I’m not sure what their relationship was but I know that he was there for those seminars. He contributed to the early foundations of ASU along with a slew of other teachers, putting in a lot of time and energy. Kevin Choate Sensei comes to mind too. But Paul Kang Sensei was the president of ASU for many years and a lot of those people that put in the time. I’m sure there are some standouts as to how much energy people put into it, but it was a tight knit group that contributed to it and Ken Nisson was part of that.

I think with Ken is that he taught and participated at seminars and the like but, as far as making aikido his major way that he’s going to be seen in the world, he was much more subdued than Terry, which means he was much easier to overlook. I know that there’s not a lot of content out there about Ken and a lot of it comes to the fact that he was standing in the shadow of other people. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t there, and he wasn’t contributing a great deal to the whole process. He was one of those instructors that, for better or for worse, did get overlooked. Because the reality is that the major drawbacks of Terry is that he would suck all the air out of the room. He’d be in there and he had this tom sawyer quality about him – you knew that he was a bad boy and you wanted to be a little bit bad when you were around him, so he kind of sucked you into a lot of things that he did. But that would draw focus away from what Ken did, at least from early Bond Street, Ken was linchpin, Terry was the front man. Any band can have a strong front man but if you don’t have a linchpin behind it to keep it together, it turns into something that fades kind of quickly.

I think that the things that Ken Nisson contributed to aikido are things that are not easily quantified. It’s easy to say that this person studies with this person and he did this and did that, but it was keeping dojos open. I think that was one of the main things with Ken Nisson. At least for Bond Street, both Ken and Terry left around the same time, and you had Paul Kang Sensei and Chris Jordan Sensei stepping in there. Ken still had a good relationship with the dojo but during that time I was dealing with him and going down there, it’s like he’d go, do what he needed to do, and he’d leave. As far as running Bond Street, those days were long behind him when I got to know him.

MAYTT: Final question. What do you think Dobson would say about the current state of aikido today, pandemic and all? Would he be pleasantly surprised with the way aikido has evolved or would he offer some constructive criticism on how things should be looking to move forward? 

AW: My guess is that Terry would have basically looked at the beginning of the Covid crisis and think, “If this takes anymore then a year, aikido is going to disappear off the face of the earth.” Because a lot of what was happening at the time was you had seminars with lots of people coming and when you can’t do physical seminars anymore, that, in his mind, was holding everything together. I don’t think what he would’ve understood, and what we didn’t understand is that we were finding ways to communicate with each other. In the last two years, I’ve done more Zoom seminars than physical seminars in my whole life. Communicating with different instructors and trying to find ways to continue what’s going on. I think he would’ve been impressed with the desire of people to keep going.

I think one of the major things for him would be the increasing difference between beginners and more advanced people as far as the age groups. There are fewer younger people coming into aikido. But at the same time, I think Terry would’ve approached it as this is a necessity to rebrand ourselves and find a different way to offer something that is meaningful. This is part of my personal belief that, when I first started aikido, aikido was out there trying to market itself against all other martial arts. When I was training, it was not all that uncommon for people to injure themselves very seriously. That has changed over the years, but at the same time, the martial art landscape has changed significantly. What people think is a successful martial art and what isn’t a successful martial art has changed significantly. I think one of the things for us is that we have to figure out what we want aikido to be. If we want to be able to take it out on the street and take care of ourselves, there are some adjustments that are going to have to be made. But aikido does offer a very strong philosophical and I think personal avenue for growth.

I think this was one of the things that Terry was very adamant about; about the personality of an individual who continues trying to grow into something other than what they are at the moment. Very similar to what Robert Bly talks about in his book, Iron John, and supposedly the character was based off of Terry. And I think that was one of Terry’s major desires is to have aikido be something that could be something that could move out of the dojo, out into the community. First thing he would say is that it has to be a martial art. There still has to be that martial art component to it. There are a lot of aikido that could basically be used in a martial situation but trying to compare it to things like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Thai Kickboxing is really problematic because basically it’s apples and walnuts. There is no real transfer; they’re technically both food but at the same time, they offer different things and serve different purposes.

To be honest, they meet certain different needs. They can complement each other but Terry really wanted that feeling of being able to say, say, if you train at this and you don’t get attacked; you work at this really hard martial art, working for self-defense and you go your whole life never being attacked, did you waste your life? Aikido, theoretically, you’re trying to become a better person as you get older and as you train. Whether or not you use aikido, which theoretically, you do every day, there’s not a waste because that’s not what we’re asking for. The idea of being able to defend yourself is an important thing, but the ability to interact with other human beings in an equitable manner was always one of the major desires for Terry; is to have the ability to connect with another human being and do what you need to do without having them be afraid of you.

Dobson at seminar at Bond Street Dojo in New York City in 1990.

If Terry was around, he’d probably have been a lot more successful than he ever was when he was alive because that gives you the opportunity to put something out there and interact with a larger group of people. He was basically interacting with one seminar at a time. Just because of the timespan and everything that was going on, it was very difficult for him to constantly keep that message out there. He had a lot of stuff going on in his life, which didn’t allow him to be there twenty-four/seven going to seminars. I think, in many respects, he’d be very impressed with the aikido community that exists today, but he would be the first to say that we need to change, and we need to grow, which some people have been resisting, but we don’t have a choice.

If you compare us to other martial arts in terms of student numbers. But what I’ve been hearing from dojo-cho meetings is that there are a lot of dojos, at least in the ASU where enrollment is up across the board and lots of younger people are coming in. So I don’t know if this is a biproduct of what’s happening right now or if it’s something that’s going to fade away in two or three years. But a lot of it is this idea of changing how we have viewed ourselves the last forty years.

MAYTT: The future of aikido is something that I’ve talked to everyone about and a lot of them have said that the art is going to survive but in small pockets or it will change. It is always great to hear people’s opinions on that. It’s actually great that the ASU is seeing some growth in the third year of the pandemic.

AW: This is the thing. I had a video class with Mary Heiny Sensei yesterday. She’s doing a four-day class and she’s basically talking. She’s doing a tiny bit of body movement over zoom but a lot of it is philosophy. We had fifty people. This was something that was organized in about two weeks. She’s been having regular seminars and she’s been having a pretty good chunk of people. I do have to say that one of the most frustrating things on the face of the earth is an aikido Zoom seminar because you’re not practicing. You are but it’s one of those things where it’s a much more personal kind of thing. It’s very difficult, at least for me, to get lost in what I normally get lost in of what I’m doing at a seminar, just the movement. I’m connecting to my partner and I’m just moving. That feels really good sometimes. A lot of the stuff that’s happening over Zoom is that you have to think. A lot of my training in the last year has come from seminars of “when does aikido start? Does it start when you connect with your partner, or does it start when you wake up? Or does it start when you come out of your mother’s womb?” Terry used to say that O-Sensei would talk about aikido when you get up in the morning; you should start preparing yourself for connecting with the rest of the universe. It’s something that you have to do that before another person is standing in front of you. I think trying to find the niche with aikido the way it is right now, it is going to be very difficult to compete with on the context of a self-defense form with other martial arts, because everything is moving towards a mixed martial art, which basically means you boil down everything to the point to what’s the nastiest, quickest way to get this out of the way. Aikido does have an aspect to it. There is still a reason why a lot of law enforcement use a large chunk of aikido techniques. Once again, they’re not necessarily using it with aikido philosophy behind it. It’s this mixed bag. The blessing behind aikido, compared to other martial arts, is we do have the philosophy and the question is, how are we going to want to use that? We’re not totally reliant on, “Our techniques don’t work.” Which, if you do them correctly into the right situation, I think that they do. But the “right situation” is the tricky part. I’m a probability guy. How probable is a kote gaeshi going to work in any situation? Sometimes there’s a low probability and it probably won’t work. You can integrate it into another martial art, but once you integrate it into another martial art, you’re just abandoning the philosophy that came with it. O-Sensei spent a lot of time doing exactly what he wanted to do with aikido, because he wanted it to be a bridge for humanity.

That was one of the things, if I say nothing else about Terry, that he was completely down with O-Sensei’s philosophy of trying to make aikido something that brought people together. He really believed that deep down in his heart. Now, saying that, Terry had no frickin’ idea how to make that happen. He knew that this was the path, but he didn’t even know what direction to turn in certain situations. I think a lot of the stuff he did was great, but that was another benefit if he was still around, he might have a better idea of exactly how do we do it. I think there’s great potential but the question on the table is what do we do with it?

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and sharing your stories!

AW: My pleasure.

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