Saturday, February 26, 2011

Takemusu Aiki

I have just finished reading "the Heart of Aikido" and it was an amazing and timely read for me. This book is written by Morihei Ueshiba on the philosophy of "Takemusu Aiki", and translated by John Stevens. Perhaps even you experienced and well-read aikidoka are hearing about this book for the first time here, because it only came out late last year in English.

When I first came to Japan, I had just started practicing aikido and was talking with one of my greatest friends and coworkers in Japan who is part of the "Peace Prayer Society" (Byakko Shinko Kai), which is group started by the late Goi Sensei after WWII, and is an international association for spreading peace around the world. In the later years of Ueshiba's life, he came in contact with Goi Sensei and considered him a great friend. While Goi Sensei was no martial artist, the two shared the same ideas in spirituality concerning peace, unity, and personal expression. After talking for a while about aikido and the Peace Prayer Society, my fellow teacher here at school gave me this book in its original Japanese form for me to translate and read, but I never got through more than a few pages of it.

Remarkably one day, I was looking for books about aikido on the internet, and that very day I came across the English version which apparently had just been released only a short time earlier. That very day by coincidence, my teacher later came up to me and told me that the book had been translated into English and that I should get it immediately. After the conversation I returned immediately to the computer to order the book from Amazon. Ever since returning from a trip back home to the States in August, I have been constantly reading about Buddhism and other religions in Japan and aikido, and have been training in aikido more than I ever have before, and I'm happy to have come to this point and read this book now on top of this experience instead of reading it at some earlier time. Especially, just before this, I finished the biography of Morihei Ueshiba written by his son, Kisshomaru, which was invaluable to better understanding the founder of this art I practice, and understanding more about his life before diving into more of his writings.

(If you are planning to read this book very soon and want to read it without any knowledge of its contents, maybe you should stop reading this blog entry here as the rest may be just a bit of a spoiler.)

Anyway, what is Takemusu Aiki mean anyway?

Well, in the introduction written by Morihei's grandson, Moriteru, he explains:

"Takemusu Aiki is a presentation of the essential teachings of the Founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba. Much of the material in this book is a summary of talks given by the Founder to members of the Byakko Shinko Kai, a group headed by Masahisa Goi, a good friend of the Founder. The trasncripts of those talks were edited by Hideo Takahashi and published in Japanese under the title 'Takemusu Aiki'."

Well, that's what the book is ... but what is Takemusu Aiki exactly? At the end of the book, Morihei Ueshiba writes:

"The mission of Aikido is to make the world a better place. The practice of Aikido will help purge the world of filth and corruption, but first of all you must set yourself aright. To be sincere and upright is the reason human beings exist in the world. Each one of us is a living shrine. In whatever endeavor, no matter where you find yourself, practice the pure techniques of the Way of Harmony and the Art of Peace. This is takemusu aiki."

What is budo? What are martial arts? Is there "martial arts" and "not-martial arts"? This is a question every "martial artist" must answer for themself, and many interesting debates concerning this issue can be found in martial arts media abound. In fact, by asking any martial artist this question, you will have most likely found the easiest way possible to send one into a lengthy rant. Many say nothing is important but the technique itself. Many say technique is the least important part of martial arts. There are young UFC competitors aggressively challenging each other in the cage calling themselves martial artists, and there are people with no interest in fighting at all practicing tai chi chuan in health clinics calling themselves martial artists. Is "martial" the key word in "martial arts", or is it "arts"?

When I began martial arts, I'd say it was primarily to find a new way to work out, maybe learn some self defense, and indulge the desire to somehow live the imaginative images I had of martial arts from Bruce Lee and Mortal Kombat. Unlike many others, I was not drawn to the martial arts because I wanted to defend myself against bullies or win competitions, so I've personally always leaned towards the philosophy of martial arts over other common rationale. I've been lucky enough to have practiced consistently since I began training, and have met many excellent practically-minded teachers, and so I've been able to support my philosophical desire while attempting legitimate technique. Before I came to Japan, I knew of aikido, and even wanted specifically to find an aikido dojo, but I was greatly skeptical of its more philosophical and "peaceful" inclinations it's famed for. I didn't want to come to the land of budo, just to talk about how we shouldn't hurt each other. Well, I found an aikido dojo, one that heavily focuses on technique and spends little time elaborating on philosophical ideals (though I probably wouldn't understand much of it in Japanese anyway). Since I've started, I've had a hard time reading about the peaceful ideologies of aikido, because they seemed empty and too generously exaggerated. I couldn't read more than a page about "ki" or "defeating an enemy without touching them" without closing the book with an up-turned nose of disdain. But time had passed, I have actually begun to internalize aiki movement, have had elaborated talks with my sensei, and thought extensively on my own on the nature of budo, that now as I read the biography of Ueshiba Sensei, and this book, "the Heart of Aikido", I am rediscovering with genuine belief the philosophies that generated my interest in the martial arts in the firstplace, and am finding something "real" in the martial arts. When reading this book, I can understand somehow that the peaceful philosophies are dependent on the techniques of martial arts. That martial arts is a symbiotic relationship between the seemingly contradicting dichotomies, and the result is something that can be beautiful and practical for the genuine practitioner.

That was a bit of a digression, but in order to process my report on the book, perhaps you would benefit from my personal bias.

Basically, for anyone interested in the question of transcendence over brute technique in the martial arts, or anyone interested in peace or aikido philosophy, I would highly recommend this short but incredibly dense and enlightening read. Maybe here I can share a few of my quotes.

"... , if something is putrid on earth, insects will eventually consume it and make the area pure again. All the creatures of the world - insects, fish, birds, animals - have means of dealing with impurities. In this manner, each and every human being is entrusted with the divine mission to purge the environment of filth and impurities. This is the aim of Aikido. That is what we all pray for. However, empty prayers are of no avail. Make that prayer a reality."

This gives me a great feeling of reality and responsibility in my life and with martial arts. Should I or should I commit this act that may hurt this person? Am I just waving my hands around in the air and calling it martial arts? Is there any "purpose" to these martial arts? I'm trying to make prayers, and not make them empty.

" 'Employ the divine to bring forth infinitely varied techniques.' This marvelous skill is derived from pure emptiness, an emptiness that nevertheless evolves into the essence and the form of a technique, a technique that can be seen and felt."

Real technique, philosophical emptiness, honest expression.

Below however, is the only part of the book where I felt uneasy, and would disagree with O'Sensei:

"Our country never developed Western-style competitive sports, but these days there are those among us who are glad that martial arts are becoming sports. That, however, is a gross misunderstanding of the true nature of budo. Sports are games and a form of play. They are games played in physical entities, not matters of the spirit. In other words, they involve mere comptetition. Budo, however, is a means to maintain and promote harmony; it is combat in the spiritual realm, ruled by Love. Budo helps make the world prosper."

I agree that there are differences between sports and true budo, but I don't see how sports and competition are inherently not practicing budo. In fact, I think competition can be a great tool to understanding budo. I believe budo is separate from other physical activities because of the intent put into it, but that doesn't mean sports can't have it. It's this kind of discussion that leaves me in the end confessing "there really isn't anything different martial arts and other physical activities, I just like it better." But that's just my deal.

"Aikido has functioned throughout history, right from the Age of the Gods to the present. Aiki is the principle behind all activity, spiritual and material. It is what we call nobility of creation. All of these truths reside in our very bodies; past, present, and future are within each and every person. This knowledge generates divine techniques."

Belief in the "supernatural" was a big part of O'Sensei's life and discussions, and I think we should seek to understand what he meant and felt if we are to benefit from his writings.

"Loyalty and devotion should be established quickly. Our mission encompasses every living being - animals, birds, fish, and insects. Our goal is to put all people at ease, and to reassure them of the goodness of life. We want to nourish all beings; we want to work together with everyone in accordance with universal principles."

Ah finally! A rationale for terms like "loyalty" and "devotion" and "service" that I have been looking for for so long in stacks of budo literature. This is may be my number one ultimate search in studying budo, trying to rationalize service and chivalry, and I think this hits on it a little bit. I also like the parts about animals, birds, fish, and insects. Imagining O'Sensei talking about this makes me laugh.

"Up to now, old-time martial arts required years and years of practice before one could begin to understand the true purpose of budo. In contrast, the Aikido I have developed is a means to make this realization come quickly. That is the difference between old-style martial arts and Aikido. Those who are sensitive to the flow of energy, and in tune with their surroundings, are the ones that must take the lead by acting nobly and with determination. That is Aikido - to set a goal and to improve day by day."

YES! Here is rationality in the martial arts. I don't believe in any inherent need to keep things "secret" or limited to those who "haven't devoted their entire lives blindly to this art." Give students infinity, and they'll grasp what they can. O'Sensei remarks several times his work at the end of explanations something to the effect of, "Anyone can ask me anytime about this, I'll tell anyone anywhere. This is no secret." Also, "to set a goal and to improve day by day." We could all benefit from this small piece of wisdom I think.

"The universe appeared as a living shrine. Human beings are living shrines. If gods are found in shrines human beings build of wood, surely they are found in human beings themselves. Thus we are all children of the divine."

And there's some rationality in spirituality! I especially liked this quote. And the next one:

"Religious leaders always talk about calming the soul and returning to God, but too much emphasis on the spiritual side of things is no good. Your body is the temple of the spirit, it is the medium in which your true nature is housed. Take good care of it."

And probably the coolest quote from the book:

"Enter into your opponent's mind and guide him along the path heaven and earth have indicated to you. Regardless of what arises, even if you are staring death in the face, strike like thunder, and fly more quickly than lightning."

That's some good powerful imagery I can mull around in my head for a few days.

If you're looking to find the direct words of a legendary figure like Morihei Ueshiba, I believe you'll be led to two works: this book, and "the Art of Peace." I'd say "the Art of Peace" is as close to the core as you'll get to O'Sensei's genius, but for more explanations and linear discussions, this book will greatly help any martial arts philosopher along the Path.

Here I will end with one of O'Sensei's poems which is presented at the very end of "Takemusu Aiki":

"True Harmony -

A path so difficult

To comprehend

Yet as simple as

The natural flow of heaven."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Your Ukemi Was Really Weird Tonight, Zac."

This is what sensei said to me from across the dojo while I was reviewing a jo form with Hosogoshi after class. Hosogoshi and I looked at each other and I asked him what sensei said, but he shrugged his shoulders and was just as confused as I was. I asked sensei what he said, so he repeated it, and Hosogoshi and I were still just as confused. So I said, "Uh ... OK." and continued the jo form for a few more minutes while sensei folded his hakama. I had absolutley no idea what he meant, and he's never said anything quite like this before, so I went to try and make some sense of this.

"My ukemi was weird tonight?"

"So weird."

"Uh ... What do you mean?"

And so he began a lengthy explanation before Hosogoshi and I which I barely understood.

"So was it the way I was rolling? Were they too far or too short?"

"No, that's not it."

"Well, was I too fast or too slow?"

"Um, not really."

The notion of ukemi is specific to aikido, absolutley necessary for good technique, and arguably the secret to becoming proficient in the art. In aikido, techniques are practiced generally between two people, the tori (thrower) and uke (person being thrown). Ukemi is what the uke does when a technique is practiced on them. Sensei was trying to explain the essence of ukemi and how I wasn't doing it, while he became increasingly frustrated and impatient. Hosogoshi was there trying to help by throwing out some English phrases and translating sensei's Japanese into my Japanese. Sensei would ramble off for a minute, look at Hosogoshi and ask him if he understood and he would answer, "Mmm, kind of." and then sensei would look at me and I would say, "I don't understand." Which was true at first. But after about three attempts at explaining one particular point, I would slowly get what he was saying.

What he was trying to explain was that you have to move naturally and maintain your structural integrity when doing ukemi.

"So I need to move more naturally?"

"No, that's not it."

He then told me when I was doing ukemi, I would anticipate the movement and move before my partner, making the technique nothing, and thus not aikido.

"So I need to slow down?"


He then told me when I moved through ukemi, I would leave my body behind making me weak and screwing up the technique.

"Oh! It's like when you do ukemi for nikkyo (a particular technique) and you have to go to the floor a little bit to maintain your balance!"


At this moment I did my best not to punch him in the face and tell him he's stupid.

He said something else I couldn't understand and asked me if I understood, but I just said "kind of." and he looked dissatisfied. Hosogoshi tried to help me out and said that I usually catch on to these kinds of things quickly somehow after sensei mentions them, but sensei still looked very much dissatisfied.

Sensei began to explain that he can tell whether someone is good or not at aikido by how they do ukemi.

"Do you understand?"

"Yeah. You can tell if someone is good or bad by how they do ukemi."


Are you serious?!

He told me to grab his hand and do ukemi. I moved, and he looked at Hosogoshi and said, "See, he sucks."

He grabbed my hand and told me to move, which I did unsuccessfully trying to move him and he said, "See? This is horrible."

I know very well when I practice with people lower than me that they suck because their ukemi sucks, and I can't do aikido properly when they mess it up. I know I do this too sometimes with my seniors, but how am I supposed to make my ukemi better?

"Sensei, how do I get better at ukemi?"

"You need more time. You cannot learn real aikido from a book, and you can't learn it from watching it. You definitely can't learn aikido through words. You have to do it through feeling somehow, and you have to do it with someone who knows how. Here, you need to learn proper technique by proper ukemi. You need to learn this through my body's reaction to yours. You have to maintain a connection with your partner. You learn how to react to me properly, and then you'll be good at aikido. After that, you should go somewhere else and learn from another teacher."

He paused for a second and looked at Hosogoshi and asked him if he understood. Then sensei looked at me and continued:

"You need more time. By August? I don't know." And then metaphorically threw his hands in the air saying it's impossible.

And that was it.

He walked away and Hosogoshi and I were the only ones left changing out of our gis.

"Ukemi is really hard isn't it?"

"Yeah, I'm still really bad at it." And Hosogoshi is as good as I can imagine.

He tried to explain that he knows how to move by cues given by sensei's movement. He, and no one really, can remember perfectly every movement in aikido, or how to ukemi by working it out logically. He moves how he feels sensei thinks he should, and he does good technique. By doing this, he is stealing sensei's technique.

Well, it was a night full of questions and answers. But I still have one burning question concerning the distance between my current level, and the model presented in these answers:


This has very much consumed me since it happened, and all I want is to "do it". But let's see if this can manifest naturally: appropriately and without any unnecessaries ... ne?

A Direction

(continued from my last two posts ...)

A beautiful mind is one that is appropriate.

An ugly mind is one that is unnecessary.

With quality breathing, we become calm uniting the seemingly disparate phenomenon of the universe. This allows us to see everything from our center and prevents us from being pulled off balance, rendering us unable to be aware of phenomenon's holistic nature and particular intentions, and locking us into tunnel-vision which may allow us to be tricked or consumed by outside phenomenon.

Specific isolated forms are momentary tricks preventing us from existing "naturally."

Natural is appropriate and thus beautiful.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Beautiful Mind

(Continuation from the previous blog entry, "In Medias Res")

Having a beautiful mind is a difficult thing to define or describe, because by itself it is just an organ stuck in our heads. I tried listing words that describe a "beautiful" or "ugly" mind, but they are all subject to circumstance and can fall on either side of judgement just as easily. After all the reading I've done of Buddhism, martial arts, and concepts of "no-mind", I'm finally realizing that it's not the mind itself that has inherent qualities, but that it is its use that we can define or judge. A hammer can be no more than a stick in isolation, but once you put it to use, it's the reason why we can make a beautiful palace. Decorating a hammer makes it no more useful than putting on make-up to take a written Japanese proficiency test. (Though it could certainly be argued that it could help by empowering the user with feelings of enthusiasm and belief to affect the action of building a house or taking a test for the better, depending on what is "better". Man, this is really tricky business defining a beautiful mind.)

So how can we make the act of using our brain beautiful? Now as I try to describe the beautiful action of a brain in my head (pun intended), I fall into the same subjective trap that I did before when trying to define a brain itself in isolation. How can something so influential and important be so indefinable? If we take a look at other similar indefinable terms such as ki or tao, we will find them cluttered with loads of limited and unsuccessful definitions. Perhpas it is like ki in aikido movements in that, if you only practice trying to produce ki, you will generate very little skill in aikido compared to the person who focuses on technique and has ki manifest naturally. So if we use this analogy, it does us little good to focus on the power of our brains as opposed to focusing on its actual specific use.

But this conclusion doesn't appease me.

I think it's because I've separated physical definable phenomenon from phenomenon that is indefinable by our five senses. And so I think another division is necessary. I don't think "mind" and terms analogous to "the Tao" are the same thing (any more than a pen cap is the Tao.) The Tao is the manifestation of life that exists due to interacting forces which constantly change in the arena of the infinite void of emptiness. The Tao reaches to the top and bottom of infinite time and space, and this is not the mind I seek to define. We use the mind to experience the Tao, but it is not the Tao (anymore than a piece of lint is the Tao.) The mind is a tool with a use and inherent limitations, but its range of use and limitations are far wider than anything else in the phenomenonal world, and in fact, it is responsible and controls most all phenomenon in our bodies and experience. So with this limited yet undefinable and all-powerful organ of the mind, we really do have a bridge to the Tao, and complete control of our lives don't we?

Complete control of our lives.

Is that possible?

Do you believe your answer?

Do you understand and take responsibility for the gravity of your answer?

I'm going to settle with this conclusion for now, but I don't like it:

A beautiful mind is one that acts naturally.

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Medias Res

I am in the middle of things, and it's not my favorite place to be. It's been a while since I've started, and the end is still far away. Without the excitement of beginning, or the accomplishment of finishing, I am subject to any given mood caused by any seemingly unnecessary and unpleasant happenings. Did I really choose this path? Is it really worth so much trouble? So much time and effort? The abstract maxims and analogies have become sterile and empty. I no longer believe these motivational tricks like I used to, and I need something real if I'm going to maintain this project. But what? From where? What would something real look like? Smell like? Taste like?

I think it's beauty. As I strive to make quality as much a part of my life as possible, I am drawn to and maintained by beauty. Beautiful pictures, beautiful cleanliness, beautiful music, beautiful body, beautiful friends, beautiful things. But these are merely the subjective outward manifestations of something deeper, more substantial, and ubiquitous; something real. From my place in the middle of this something, the end is very vague. But the next step is very clear, and it's toward the mind:

What is a beautiful mind?

How can I cultivate a beautiful mind? This thing that is always in my head. This thing that is always watching, judging. This thing that somehow decides how my fickle mood will color my existence. I am tired of this uncontrollable tendency that renders me powerless before the finite and limited. Perhaps my body would survive more revolutions in this arbitrary cycle, but my genius would die. I would rather sacrifice my body for the sake of my genius, genuine happiness, and honest expression if it was required of me. I seek to have company with the real, where I can sit straight and look upon it with kind eyes, unaffected by fatigue. I believe the bridge to this state is greatly concerned with the cultivation of a beautiful mind.

Monday, February 14, 2011

On Genius

I believe that we all have an inherent genius. But what is genius? My intepretation is that genius is actually the Great Potential within that manifests without. It is only with great difficulty, confusion, and limitation that we can judge or measure one's genius by its physical manifestations. We can measure with scientific means and apparatus, but that will reveal one small detail and neglect infinitely more factors of the particular accordance addressed. We can give our own opinions on a matter, but there is no constant in this method, and so it is equally worthless as it is useful. So, I think we must do the best we can in each situation in life, conduct ourselves with genuine humility, and eneavor to cultivate our own personal studies by following our interests. By putting these concepts to physical action, our genius may emerge in the physical world perceived by the five senses, and thusly all realms of life.

Perhaps the result of genius is Quality.


This particular thought is something I wrote down this morning after finishing "the Life Giving Sword" written by Yagyu Menenori in the early 17th century. Like Musashi's "Book of Five Rings", this was another classic I had read a few years ago but decided to reread. It's a perfect work to read along with "The Book of Five Rings" for their similarities and great differences, and because they were both written about the same time. While Musashi intentionally omits referencing Buddhism in his work, Munenori openly uses it along with his discussions on swordsmanship. Musashi was a masterless swordsman who spent his life wandering and dueling alone, while Munenori served the family of the Shogun within the government for his entire life. Studying the history of these two men greatly enhances one's ability to derive meaning from their works. To me, it seems Musashi writes of his experience and specific details of technique to lead up to his philosophy, while Munenori discusses the philosophy behind his technique first.

If I had to rank my favorite martial arts books, "the Life Giving Sword" would most definitely be in my top ten, if not my top five.

I think both Munenori and Musashi had profound understandings of genius, and sought its manifestation through the quality of their lives.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Interesting Day for Nabe

Yesterday I got to try eating three new strange Japanese animals in different kinds of nabe (Japanese stew). There was a festival in Kamiichi, one of the towns that's really at the base of the mountains, and they were serving bear (kuma) and wild boar (inoshishi)! I expected the bear to be really tough and not so good and the boar to be really delicious, but it was the complete opposite. I thought the bear was amazing, and was really soft (it's probably best in this kind of stew instead of a bear steak) and if anything, reminded me of venison. Then the wild boar was OK, but just tasted like tough pork.

Then for dinner, I went out with my of my sensei from school and we had fugu, blowfish. First we had a little sashimi (slices of raw fugu) which was OK, not so flavorful and a little chewy. But then we had it in some nabe and it was amazing.

As for trying exotic Japanese foods, this was a phenomenal day. I knew I built up good karma after trying to so much urchin, fish eggs, and crab guts. *gag*

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Aikido As A Puzzle

Aikido is a puzzle.

Where the pieces are your body, your mind, your intention, your partner's body, their mind, their intention, the environment, the goal, your level of ability, ad infinitum.

Aikido is a puzzle whose final product is the smooth flow of ki.

I rarely experience the smooth feel of pieces meeting together, and rather more often feel like I'm smashing two awkward pieces together that aren't right for each other.

Right now, this ill-fitted attempt at the puzzle of harmonious movement is felt in nikkyo. Specifically, during the irimi (movement to the outside) while I grab the partner's wrist with one hand, and their elbow with the other, swinging them around moving behind them in an ura (behind) technique.

Actually, it's not just nikkyo, but any technique that uses this ura motion like ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo, and yonkyo. I just notice it most when I do nikkyo.

The only way I can make the pieces fit in this puzzle when I do this movement is by smashing the pieces together with my physical strength, and any good puzzle person knows that's cheating.

When I was doing this last night, sensei verbally notified me of what I already felt to be horrible technique. He said I have to get my hand in the elbow crease, but for some reason ... I couldn't do it! I kept putting my hand so that it went on to the forearm instead. In the position I was in, putting my hand in the elbow crease was just impossible. But there's the key I think. I think everything else is wrong, not just that small focus of the elbow. So I think I need to pay more attention on the hand on their wrist in bringing it down and more toward myself making the arm bent closer to a 90 degree angle, forcing me to move behind them more, forcing them to follow a downward spiral, and thusly get my hand correctly in the elbow.

Maybe ...

I can't wait to test my hypothesis next practice.

As martial artists we are athletes, artists, philosophers, and today I feel like a mathematician. Whatever it takes to solve the puzzle is what the martial artist employs.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Conversations With Sensei

Every Monday and Thursday we have aikido practice in the town where I live, Kurobe, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays, it's in the neighboring town, Uozu, and I usually get a ride part way with Sensei. This leaves about fifteen minutes each way alone with him, and some pretty interesting conversations have come from these oppurtunities to talk one-on-one. Maybe by leaving a few anecdotes here, we can all get to know his character a little bit better.

He knows a few English words that he loves to use, and he actually knows quite a few words related to movements in aikido which has been really helpful at times. But for the most part, we are far from perfect communication. When speaking with someone in a foreign language that you're learning, you'll find some people that speak in a manner that is really easy to understand and communcate with, and others where it doesn't even sound like the language you've been trying to learn. My sensei leans to the latter. After the first week practicing aikido, I stared at him in complete and utter concentration and confusion trying to pick up what he was saying. I thought if I could ever understand anything he says, I would have overcome and incredible feat in Japanese. Moreover, there's also people that I can speak Japanese to very well, but there are also people that make it really hard. I'll say a phrase in correctJapanese, but they'll just look at me and say "huh?" (Actually it's more like "hah?" in Japanese). After this happens, I get more nervous speaking Japanese, which just makes me sound even more stupid. So a lot of our conversations run like: I ask him a strange question. He goes, "hah?" I repeat with even worse Japanese, and then he tries to grasp the idea, and then speaks for about 5 minutes in incomprehensible Japanese. Then I say "oh oh oh" like I might understand. Over the past year and a half though, I have made a lot of progress understanding him, and we can communicate much better now, but I still miss a lot of what he says, and a lot is left up to my own interpretation.

Anyway, I find him to be a very interesting person and an incredible aikido teacher. He is about the same height as me, 5'7" - 5'8", and probably weighs about 170 lbs, but when I train with him he feels more like 6', 190 lbs. Somehow he seems so much bigger in the middle of movement, and absolutley impossible to move. For the most part, he's a pretty quiet guy, but get him talking abour martial arts, or a ridiculous story, and he won't be able to stop talking. He executes techniques with an absolutley thorough strength with the utmost seriousness, but will burst into smile at any moment and loves making sound effects for movements during practice.

He is also a Buddhist priest. I was surprised when I learned this because he didn't fit the extreme image I had of a Japanese Buddhist priest. I thought: shaved head, always in kimono, strict lifestyle, and constant prayer. But this is far from my sensei. He belongs to the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which is the most widely practiced sect of Buddhism in Japan. Certainly it is a very serious and spiritual occupation, but also very much a job with it's own seemingly mundane practical matters. From my view, it seems a lot is concerned with maintaining a temple and dealing with funerals, but I really don't know much about it to be honest. I've asked him many things about Japanese religion, but a lot of them don't relate. I've asked him about yamabushi, mountain ascetics famous for possessing supernatural powers, and he says they're all crazy. I've asked him about shugyou, (strict religious practices) like suigyou, (water austerities/sitting under a waterfall during the middle of winter chanting sutras) and he says that's crazy. I've asked him about Zen, but his practice is very different. I've asked him if he practices zazen, seated silent meditation, but he said never. What he does do is practice the nembutsu. It is a mantra that goes: "Namu amida butsu" (I take refuge in the Buddha). This is the center and sole practice of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Though there are a wide varieties of ways to practice Buddhism, people in Jodo Shinshu believe that chanting the Nembutsu is all you need. According to this belief, we live in the "degenerate age", where it is very difficult to practice Buddhism and live rightly, and we are very stupid, so we should practice a very simple and sure-fire way to progress spiritually. By chanting the Nembutsu, you are tapping into tariki, or "other" power, namely that of the Buddha. By chanting the Nembutusu, you are putting yourself aside, and gaining strength from the more powerful nature of the Buddha. I've asked my sensei how he practices, and he says he just "does it." I was looking for a more elaborate explanation, but he wasn't indulging very much.

What he did do though was relate this concept to martial arts, which I can understand better anyway. We were talking about aikido compared to other martial arts in the context of strength and competition. He mentioned that martial arts like karate, judo, and kendo are more popular because they utilize physical strength that many people already have, and legitimize it through competition. So if someone who is already physically strong begins one of these martial arts, they will progress very quickly and dominate competitions easier than their peers. For someone who is already strong, becoming "stronger" through these means really isn't getting that much stronger. For those that are weak, earning rank and finding success in competition will notify them of change (which is great! Don't get me wrong). But in aikido, using muscle strength will most often impede growth. In aikido, techniques can only be used effectively when bodily alignment, timing, and sensitivity are used. No matter who you are, nobody walks into aikido and just naturally does the movements perfect, especially those with great physical strength. As for rank, it is far from the point of training, but unfortunately always seems to pop up as some monster that gets in the way of true progress even in aikido where rank and competition is not emphasized. In my Sensei's opinion, aikido is much slower and more difficult than other martial arts, but builds significant strength. This is a strength that anybody can use against anybody, and forces substantial growth within the individual. My sensei says that because he is weak, he practices aikido and recites the Nembutsu.

In fact, many of our conversations move towards the use, or rather non-use, of strength. The other night in the car, he was quieter than usual, and I couldn't think of anything to say, so I asked him the most basic and complicated question you could ask about aikido:

"Do you think about ki often in practicing aikido?"


"Do you think about ki often in practicing aikido?"

"Uhhhhh, of course. If you have kokyuu, you have ki."

These are two terms used very often in aikido, but are extremely difficult to define in English. Ki can be defined as breath, but also energy, or spirit, or all-encompassing physical manifestation of life present in everything. Sometimes it can be used to described the seemingly "supernatural" abilities acquired in aikido, or just what happens when aikido is used effectively. Kokyuu, can also be translated as breath, but is a little different. I asked sensei what the difference was between ki and kokyuu and he repeated, if you have kokyuu, you have ki. For example, you find kokyuu in your waza (technique) when you execute the right timing, balance, and posture. If you do these things right, then you will be able to utilize ki. He said you must not use your muscles in a way that gets in the way of letting ki arise. So I asked him about his practice in Kenpo when he uses strikes. Don't you have to use a lot of muscle tension to deliver strikes like punches and kicks that may get in the way of ki? He said he uses ki in his movements by making strong fluid relaxed motions with his whole body for each strike. He certainly has good retraction in his strikes, and they are snappy, but I would not describe them as snappy. They are fast, but the emphasis doesn't seem to be on speed. It's difficult to describe this because I haven't phsycially practiced these with him, but we've had conversations and I've been able to watch him practice. Certainly in watching him, I see a big difference between his movements and others, and it could be attributed to his manifestation of ki. This notion reminds me of a training method one of my older teachers and training partners taught me: punching candles. He said he would practice striking by punching out candles. The funny thing about it, it is really hard! When I started, I would relax like he told me to, but after a few minutes of failing to punch out the candles, I started punching harder and faster becoming more and more frustrated, but that only made things worse. He would tell me it had nothing to do with speed or strength, and go up very slowly and effortlessly extinguish the candle in one slow sure movement. In my understanding now, it seems to be the use of ki in punching that one can extinguish a candle with a punch. (Though that teacher never mentioned the term "ki".)

On another night, I asked him another very simple question which must have been a bit frustrating for him at first.


"I have a question about aikido."


"Isn't it hard to understand aikido in practical fighting?"


"Isn't it hard to understand aikido in practical fighting?"

"Uhhh ... no. Why?"

"Well, for example, in karate, if someone comes up to attack you, you just punch them, and it's over. But we don't do that in aikido. We do lots of other strange things instead."

My intent was to encourage him to talk about aikido, but I think this statement irritated him because he takes aikido very seriously and practices it precisely because he thinks it is most practical. He first mentioned that he'll use strikes along with aikido movements if he wants to end an altercation immediately. He specifically likes an irimi movement with a cross. He says he'll use these only if he has to in a "pinch" situation, but would rather not use them because they can be very damaging to him and the opponent. (Think broken hand and suing receiver) He practices aikido so he doesn't have to use such inherently violent strikes. But this is the nature of physical confrontation, and is the most practical. Furthermore, any aikido movement can be executed in a manner to severely physically damage an opponent with large throws, destructive wrist locks, and the oppurtunity to insert a physical strike at almost any time. I asked him why we don't train this aspect of aikido specifically, and he said that nobody would want to train with you. Also, it is impossible to practice this in a practical way without fully doing the techniques which would devastate your partner in one attempt. He said this is the nature of jujitsu, which is the more violent origin for most aikido techniques. Simply, jujitsu is the version of aikido where you focus on the aspects that would immediately and violently end a situation. But in jujitsu, you always have to stop just before you finish the technique (technically, this is the same in aikido when doing arm bars for finishes) and the uke (person receiving the technique) does little to practice. In aikido however, techniques are performed so that the end result isn't necessarily a destroyed opponent, and the uke can practice consciously avoiding injury through the movements and surviving the attack. This perhaps is the "sophistication" of aikido in that it is conscious of the immediate and violent answers to physical confrontation, but seeks to practice a way to effectively avoid such an end, further refining physical sensitivity, conflict resolution, and mental activity.

I wanted to specifically ask him why we practice wrist grabs with the uke holding on to the wrist far longer than anyone would ever do in a live situation with an uncooperative partner, which to me seems to be the most impractical side of aikido, but we had run out of time in this conversation as we pulled up to the dojo.

My sensei seems to be deeply concerned with aikido, spending a great amount of time practicing and thinking about nature of physical motion, and yet he does not desire to be a "professional." At first I thought that this was his aim: to build an aikido program that can one day replace his job and anything else in his life, but this if far from the truth. I've asked him about uchideshi, where students live with the sensei and practices aikido everyday in multiple training sessions, and he said he has, but not very much. He's always had to work and has had a family, so this kind of experience is difficult to maintain. However, he said when he was practicing with Kobayashi Sensei (the originator of this style of aikido, Kobayashi Aikido) he said they would have an uchideshi experience about four times a year for a week at a time. He said this experience helped him greatly in aikido, but he wouldn't want to do it all the time. In fact, he said he would never want to do aikido all the time. If he did, it would be boring. This is the same for Buddhism. If he was only a priest and practiced Buddhism all the time, it would be boring. So, he practices a little Buddhism, practices a little aikido, drinks a little sake, and enjoys his life.

Sensei is originally from Kyoto, and loves it there, but has somehow lived in Toyama for the past long chapter of his life. He hates cold, rainy, snowy weather, which Toyama is most famous for, and for some reason it makes me laugh when I see him complain about it. However, he hopes to move back to Tokyo in five or ten years to study Buddhism in graduate school and teach more aikido.

The other night I told him he should visit me in my home in Washington State someday, and he asked me the most Japanese of questions: "What food is good there?" I told him it's remarkably similar to Toyama, and especially Hokkaido (where he was a fisherman for a while) and the seafood is really good in Washington, like salmon, crab, and oysters. He then explained to me the difference between the taste of ocean and river salmon: ocean salmon are generally younger and so they taste better than river salmon which tend to be older. "Onna mitai desu ne?" "Just like women right?" I laughed and agreed, and the conversation went on. The talk went on to other seafood and we started talking about kaki, oysters. So I said, "toku ni kaki wa onna mitai desu neeeee???"

He looked at me with a disgusted look and called me a skebe, pervert.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Final Review

Here I will make my final reveiw of "Musashi Miyamoto: His Life and Writings" by Kenji Tokitsu.

This book starts with a lengthy introduction by Tokitsu, which I found to be incredibly informative on the difficult nature of writing about the martial arts; a subject matter only understood fully through one's personal feelings and experiences rather than purely objective analysis. It also describes the difficulties in translating texts from different languages and eras in modern English. This section alone I believe is worthy of a read.

Tokitsu then moves on to a biography of Musashi. I was impressed by the amount of information he was able to find from such a wide spectrum of sources concerning the life of a man that is too often mystified in legend rather than objective facts. Tokitsu gives an analysis of each bit of information he presents, and when there are conflicting stories, which there are a lot of, he presents his opinion on which may be most likely. Though it's not the most captivating of sections, I think the work deserves a lot of credit for the effort made to present Musashi as a real human being instead of a myth.

Next, is a new translation to Musashi's most famous writing, "the Book of Five Rings." It could be considered one of the most widely read pieces of martial arts literature, and I think Tokitsu provides a great translation to supplement those already in print. This is especially true because of the amount of notes Tokitsu makes on the work. He gives reasoning for the English translation he uses, as well as many historical facts that provide further understanding of the famous work.

Afterwards, he provides some other writings of Musashi that are not included in "the Book of Five Rings", which may have been the most exciting section for me. I know of no other source that contains these writings, so I believe this to be a very important resource for those who have benefited from Musashi and "the Book of Five Rings" and seek further understanding on related topics.

Then Tokitsu provides some fairly interesting sections on the history of swordsmanship in Japan, revealing the evolution of the Japanese sword, and comparing Musashi's styles with others in Japan. He also provides interviews with masters who claim to practice a style derived from Musashi where I found a lot of interesting perspectives.

However, I feel the last chapters of the book lose their effect as Tokitsu attempts to analyze the whole of Japanese budo and its meaning. Perhaps it was my mood, or my own personal connection with Japanese culture, but like many other writings on this subject, I found it to have a lot of faults.

Specifically in this work, I don't like how Tokitsu falls into generalizing about "the Orient" or "the East", while at the same time trying to communicate the specific differences between the countries therein, the styles of martial arts practiced, and the individuals participating. But as a matter of fact, I do that all the time in this blog! Perhaps this is one of the pitfalls of writing about martial arts. The subject is so broad, and so complex, and so dependent on personal experience, that to try to write about it in a general fashion of mass comparisons in subjects not personally experienced, is just a bit too much. Reading this made me sour about my own writings on the martial arts, and about a lot of the content on my own blog. I think it boils down to what you are trying to communicate. When you write about martial arts, what is the purpose? I think one must write assuming the most skilled and experienced practitioners will be reading, and they should be able to gain something from doing so. We all have precious valuable experience that can be a benefit to anyone. Tokitsu's generalizations of Eastern Martial Arts as a whole did little for me, and I would rather spend my time reading something with more substance. Perhaps this is a little harsh, but it's how I felt while reading.

Also, Tokitsu then arrives at the conclusion that modern Kendo is the sole remaining example of true budo. While comparing the whole of modern Japanese martial arts, he dismisses aikido in one sentence by saying that it focuses on "the mystical." There is nothing "mystical" about the aikido I practice, and I know it's the same for a lot of other people practicing aikido around the world. Amazing things can be accomplished in aikido, and one can get pretty abstract in the philosophy of the art, but "mystical"? I think not. Tokitsu then dismisses jujitsu as too harsh and violent, and so not true budo. Then he says karate and judo are only practiced as sports, and so aren't true budo either. What?! How does Kendo not fall into this category? Tokitsu says that the highest ideal is controlling someone without attacking or hurting, or even touching your opponent, which I agree with to an extent, but that can be experienced in karate, judo, jujitsu and aikido. Furthermore, Tokitsu explains this ability through the use of "ki", but not its expression through body mechanics, but as an unexplainable manifestation reserved for only the highest levels of practioners.

He presents a wonderfully objective account of the sections of his book while accounting for subjective experience, but then submits to judging all other arts in Japan without any reference to a counter argument. He dismisses aikido in one sentence because it's "mystical", and then gives the most "mystical" explanation of why Kendo is the true budo!


But what do I know anyway? Kenji Tokitsu has an amount of experience eons beyond me in graduate studies of history and culture, hours training in Japanese martial arts, and can translate beautifully and effectively ancient Japanese texts. He is a published and highly acclaimed authority in the martial arts who can sell a book like this for almost $40. I'm a 25 year old white belt in aikido who has only a couple years in other random arts and has a blog full of generalizations about martial arts and "the East" as a whole.

But are these details so important?

I respect all on the path, and sincerely devote myself to my practice, but ...

I will also not buy into narrow views that will limit my ability to experience life at it's greatest and utmost potential in this very moment I exist. I think I was given the power in "the Book of Five Rings" to neutralize the judgemental attacks of Tokitsu's conclusion which was all contained under the same book cover.

I will do my best to put something of substance on this blog. None of us have time to waste.