Future, Past, present

I have been away with the kids up the north east and have had far too much time on my hands walking on beaches thinking about Aikido, and more importantly, thinking about my role and the future of the art.

Now inevitably, thinking about the future of the art brings us to a point where we start to contemplate the history of the art.

You have the founder, a giant in the martial arts world, and a group of prewar students that also were considered martial arts giants. These men were famously told by the founder to “turn away no challenger”, these were the times of hell dojo, times when feats of martial prowess were matched by feats of physical strength and endurance.

Saito Shihan was famously told by the founder that he was too weak and needed to build up some muscle to improve his Aikido training…….build up some muscle to improve your Aikido.

I wondered to myself how often those words were whispered away from Iwama after the war, or if anyone ever heard them echo through the halls of the head dojo in Tokyo.

There are many stories of the legendary strength of the founders physical body, yet there are just as many stories of the founders students physical abilities as well. For reference you should read Stanley Pranins “prewar students of Aikido”, a famous quote from which is made by Shirata Shihan, 

“I think young people had better train hard while they are young, especially those who
intend to become instructors. Then they can become soft gradually. Being soft from the beginning is also worthwhile because, if you cause young people to train hard, some may give up aikido. In this respect, soft training has some merit. 

However, those who want to become instructors cannot reach that level unless they train hard. 

This type of training should include the mind. Unless the training is severe, you can’t reach that level. The reason Ueshiba Sensei reached that level was due not only to his natural talent, but also to the fact that he engaged in severe training.”……..

Severe training, body aching, mind numbing arduous physical training. How many instructors can say they have endured such? Not many I would say based on my experience. Maruyama sensei told me that when the art of Aikido began to be propagated to the west, that hard repetitive training was one aspect of the art rejected by those instructors as being ”Japanese” and not necessary for western people to grasp the essence of the art……

How many people still follow such instructors as being representative of an art that they never truly fully and wholeheartedly embraced. And how many more have been handed on the same prejudices from one generation to another. Is the art doomed for a descent into anonymity. To be relegated to an obscure form of active yoga, or moving Zen?

Thinking back on this, and giving some thought to the difference between the Iwama kihon – build an aiki body version of training to the physically aerobic but rather power flaccid version that has been propagated outside that arena. I think very early on I stuck my flag firmly in the former camp, as a former professional athlete it made total sense to me that I had to “build a foundation” of good strong basic structure upon which I could improvise and improve upon later.

I recall seminars where Saito stated that the reason for repetition of certain techniques was to build hip and leg strength and flexibility required to be able to do Aikido as the founder intended, not that this was Aikido – as in the technical version of the art, but rather that these “techniques” represented the building blocks of the very foundation that eventually the art would be built upon.

Then there was the repetition of AIKI weapons, the use and management of which had nothing to do with kenjutsu, and everything to do with being able to understand and do the art of Aikido to which these weapons techniques were linked. Even Shirata Shihan attended Saito senseis weapons classes even though he was by far the senior instructor, and part of his Tandokudosa (solo body training exercises) included the use of suburito (weighted bokken cuts) done repetitively to understand better the art that Aikido was suppose to be.

I recall a story regarding Saito sensei and a group of European instructors in Iwama where saito was asked why they didn’t have “warm ups” in Iwama Aikido. Saito paused for a while and then replied “we do, everything we do in the dojo is just a warm up so that one day you will be able to do Aikido”…. So all that Kihon, all those techniques that he so meticulously preserved in deference to his master, none of them were Aikido at all.

So that begs the question what is Aikido, or, more importantly, what is the path to Aikido.

I was then thinking about later days when my master was training at Hombu dojo. I was thinking about the stories about him saying that Tohei would drill the instructors so hard that after a session they couldn’t walk up the stairs to change out of their sweat soaked Gi.

They also were expected to attend classes taught by a variety of teachers, Saito, Yamaguchi, Tohei, Kisshamaru, Osawa, and visiting instructors like Shirata and Mochizuki.

It struck me that these teachers that we call our current masters, these instructors didn’t choose who they would learn from, didn’t carry bias, didn’t not train for petty reasons, they learnt their art through training in all styles under all instructors.

And then after all that training they would still have the founder come in and tell them quite frequently that they way they were training wasn’t Aikido at all……

I was personally trainined up in a similar vein. I studied multiple styles of Aikido, from the harder and more militant Yoshinkan and Iwama styles, to obscure prewar styles to flowing Akikai styles and to semi Ki society styles. My Aikido is an eclectic mixture of many teachers and many lessons. 

I never rejected any version of training, from the severe to the almost ethereal. 

I also learnt to be able to do ukemi from the rough and tumble of break falls and pins to the collusion required of more flowing styles, nothing was rejected in my mind as not Aikido, not what I was about and not what I did. Everything contributed to building understanding in the art, both through physical suffering, and constant introspection.

Unfortunately for myself as a teacher I am usually surrounded by those that were the exact opposite of this. 

These people have come to training with an expectation of how they want to train, of the style of Aikido that appeals to them, to there philosophy of what martial arts should be, of what Aikido should be.

In this day and age that is usually defined by something they have seen on youtube rather than something they have experienced first hand in the dojo.

This then becomes the expectation of what they want to do in the dojo. That’s fine, but how can you discount the journey that the master took to be able to represent Aikido in the way that you find so appealing?

All of the Ki society masters that trained with the founder started their journey in the way that I described earlier in the article, as did I.

So giving thought to the future, what do I do as an instructor?

Do I teach basic kihon , basic structure to those that desperately need to build leg strength and power to be able to even get close to being able to do Aikido?

Do I ignore these trail of facts entirely and let trainees do flowing connected but martially invalid “AIKIDO” techniques, because it is more important that trainees live an illusion of doing a martial art based form of callisthenic exercises, rather than following the path to understanding Aikido prescribed by the founder –

“Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.”

Maruyama Sensei presented to everyone that attended the 20th anniversary of Yuishinkai the calligraphy for the character “Tanren” This is to forge. 

It is descriptive of the process of heat treatment and hammering that a piece of metal goes through in a forge to transform something raw and ugly into something pure and beautiful. Its also a word that the founder used to describe Aikido training, a process of physical transformation that has spiritual effects. 

The important aspect to this transformation is in Ukemi. There is no such thing as incorrect ukemi, there is just an obstinate belief that ukemi is only done in one way, and in a select range of motion and attitude. To understand this is to understand the very secret of the art……

Train the body – elevate the spirit.

Right body, right mind, right spirit – leave nothing to chance, embrace all – transcend all, this is the spirit of Aikido, my hope for the future of the art….

Ainuke, yeah……maybe not

There are very deep philosophical principles hidden in the art of Aikido. These principles aren’t discovered by the Ancient Greek version of philosophical debate, but rather discovered in the forging of the physical body, through hard work and tenacity.

Anyone can endorse a Japanese philosophical idea, anyone can claim to have a Japanese sword master hero whose philosophical ideas they uphold.

But to understand, and I mean understand as in have these philosophies enter your very essence, you have to have walked through the fire that these masters walked.

Take Yamaoka Tesshu for example. For his students to reach the level of understanding he believed necessary, he devised an arduous training regime of one thousand matches a day, beginning at one day, then three then seven. These were designed to “test the metal and elevate the spirit” of anyone accepting the challenge. Very few did…..

You cannot know his truths without entering his gate.

In Aikido, this is done as Uke. 

When I say uke, I don’t mean falling around a little on the mat, I mean actually training to a point where the line between life and death are blurred together. 

What does a master see in one student that they don’t see in others when they “test” their ukes? What is the measure of a man? (or woman)

Concepts that are deeply rooted in the essence of Aikido can only be understood from the perspective of one who has sacrificed themselves entirely in the furnace of ukemi. This understanding is in their bones, it isn’t just in their soul, it becomes their soul. 

Concepts like Ai-nuke, like fudoshin, like Mushin, like zanshin, these are just pretty words that have absolutely zero meaning to the person saying them if they haven’t been grasped in the physicality of arduous training. 

This is tanren. 

This isn’t a debate of an intellectual nature, this is being thrown in the forge, and passing through to the other side.

I will give you an example.

2006, Brisbane Australia. It’s been 40 degrees Celsius for 4 days, we are in a room with a low ceiling and there are 70 people in a room where the capacity really should have been 50. 

We are four days into a 5 day seminar, training 5 hours a day. I have been the uke for sensei for virtually the entire seminar. There was no breeze coming through the windows at all, and if there were, the room has only got windows on one side. 

It’s so very hot. 

I am from Tasmania, the day before I go to Brisbane it is still snowing. I have no time to acclimatise to this new heat and humidity.

I am sitting in seiza next to sensei, it’s the afternoon session, and he has just finished throwing me and is discussing a point about technique. 

I feel a strange sensation, my body has pins and needles all over and I start to feel my consciousness slip away, my vision tunnels and begins to go dark…. Am I fainting? 

I wonder, am I dying? 

Having a stroke? What is this strange sensation? I am calm, I remember thinking, if I go now, if this is the end, then there cannot have been a better end. I have given all there was to give…..

Luckily, sensei talks for a while, and this sensation slowly passes. I have no recollection of what he has said as my consciousness drifts between here and there.

He calls me again out of seiza, from my daze. I respond. He throws me again and again. I feel like vomiting, I feel heavy, I feel nothing…..

It ends and I bow to sensei. I need water. 

I stumble to my feet and in a trancelike state make my way to the back left corner of the room. My mind is still not with me. I am suddenly awakened by the beautiful voice of Yasuko san, it’s sensei’s wife.

In Japanese, she asks me – am I ok, and tells me I look terrible. 

Apparently my face is white, my complection having left my body completely. “Daijoubu”, I respond, I am ok. 

I need water. 

She fills my drink bottle whilst I take her seat, I drink my fill, she has a concerned look on her face for me, but sensei’s hands clap and shatter the respite. 

I am up again, and heading to the front once more. 

As I walk to him I glance to my right and out the door. On the balcony is a set of abou 8-10 chairs, and sitting on these chairs, in the shade with gi tops pulled open is every other senior instructor that was at the seminar, no time to digest this, I am asked to dive into the fire once again. 

“Hai” – Yes, sensei, I am there…….

When we ask ourselves why we failed to grasp the essence of the teaching, (if we ever do) why one is held above others at the reckoning, it’s quite simple.

When the time of testing the metal for the blade that was to be forged was at hand, the metal hasn’t been tested, and therefore wasn’t worth the time in the masters hand.

This is the essence of Tesshu’s philosophy, understood through great sacrifice.

This is the essence of Aikido Shugyo, – of tanren.

And this is the very heart of Ai-nuke.

Words! – There essence as hollow as a cry for help shouted through an empty valley.

Let’s train to understand true Aikido, and share a coffee ….after the mat time is done…