To throw oneself into the extraordinary having isolated oneself from the lifestyle so long ago adopted. – Chiba Sensei in an article on Sesshin.
Dear Sensei, every year since you passed, I think about what it meant to train with you and how that relationship changed my life.
As a teacher, you gave yourself fully to every encounter with your students. You would walk onto a mat full of students, and the power of your intention spoke to each one of us. From the beginning, my personal encounters with you were often fearful because inevitably I found myself in a place I had never been before; but the more I opened up the more I let you in, and the more I gave you the more you gave back to me. When you worked with me, we were the only two entities in the world at that moment.
There were truly painful times along the way that took time to heal or to understand – after all you were as human as I and as prone to errors of judgement. Yet through it all, in your own way, you always respected us as part of the one human race.
You were a profound thinker and your grasp of the English language enriched your vision for us. You saw Aikido through many lenses and articulated them in depth and often poetically. You could describe the movement of Aikido as a brushstroke on rice paper, or as the physics of body movement extending from the spine. And when we were ready, you made real the martial edge between life and death. Aikido was always an art form within a martial context for me.
You expressed an Aikido for each one of us, if we could see it. For me, as a woman and an artist, you made it beautiful as well as powerful. Because of you, I threw myself into the extraordinary and stepped away from the lifestyle I was born into. I am eternally grateful for your teaching.
John Brinsley, Birankai Teachers’ Council Chair and Chief Instructor, Aikido Daiwa
June 5 marks the sixth anniversary of Chiba Sensei’s passing. While I was not his student, I was fortunate enough to train irregularly at the San Diego Aikikai for about three years. In his memory, here is a recounting of one weekend with this remarkable man.
In November 1961, O-Sensei and Kisshomaru Doshu gave a demonstration in Nagoya, Japan’s industrial heartland, to inaugurate the opening of the city’s first Aikido dojo. Hombu then dispatched 21-year-old Chiba Kazuo to be its first teacher.
The Tashiro Dojo was and is unusual because it jointly teaches Judo and Aikido. It was founded by Tashiro Keizan Sensei, a Judo 8th dan who became acquainted with O-Sensei and wanted his own students to learn Aikido. Chiba Sensei spent several months teaching there before returning to Tokyo, and in his wake other Hombu teachers were sent to Nagoya, including Kanai Sensei.
When Chiba Sensei moved back to Japan from the U.K. in 1976, he renewed ties with Tashiro Dojo. He taught a seminar there in 1979 and again several times in the mid-1980s after moving to San Diego. There is footage of him teaching in Nagoya during a trip he made with several of his San Diego students in 1986, with Juba Nour Sensei taking ukemi. The connection was such that several Tashiro Dojo students traveled to San Diego to practice on at least two occasions.
In November 2002, Chiba Sensei traveled to Nagoya to (belatedly) mark the 40th anniversary since he’d first taught there by giving a two-day seminar. I went down from Tokyo with Didier Boyet and a few others, including Miyamoto Sensei, who was only able to attend the Friday class. Also there were Murashige Teru and Robert Savoca, who had arrived from New York only a few hours earlier. We were warmly welcomed by Dojo-cho Wada Akira Sensei, now an 8th dan, who had begun Aikido under a very young Chiba Sensei.
Tashiro Dojo is old, musty and not large. There were probably 50 people on the tatami that night and another 10 either sitting or standing watching in street clothes, despite a complete lack of audience space. Not everyone had enough room to stretch out during Sensei’s warm-up. But once training started, it didn’t matter.
Most of the hour-and-a half keiko was suwariwaza. I had never seen Chiba Sensei teach in Japan before, and he was in his element. He practiced with his old students, taking ukemi as they exhausted themselves trying to move him, and was expansive in a way that was different from classes at the San Diego Aikikai or at seminars. He wore Robert and Teru out, however. Both of them had skin scraped off their shoulders from all the ikkyo ukemi, in part due to the hard tatami. Practice was in very close quarters, and the windows fogged up thanks to the steam. I got to train with Miyamoto Sensei and Wada Sensei, which was terrific. I remember looking over at Didier and seeing him grin as his partner struggled to throw him.
Saturday’s keiko was in the prefectural budo center (virtually every town of any size in Japan has at least one), a much bigger space. There were at least 100 people on the mat from various dojo. Chiba Sensei taught a body arts class, focusing on aihanmi, and then did some basic bokken waza, which was new for many of the participants. Once again, Robert and Teru shined in taking ukemi. Not everyone stuck around for the second part of the class.
Then Chiba Sensei gathered everyone and talked a bit about his youth and finding Aikido. Much of what he said – as far as I can remember – echoed remarks he’d made elsewhere, but one comment stuck. “All I really wanted was a place where I could sleep, eat and train eight hours a day,” he said. “Where I was very fortunate was that O-Sensei was there. I probably could have been happy doing Judo or Kendo, but he was the big difference.”
Saturday night, several of us accompanied Sensei to an onsen – a hot springs inn. Unless it’s for a romantic getaway, there are really only three things to do at an onsen: eat, bathe and drink. After arriving, we spent a long time in the bath, followed by a beer or two. Then we had a wonderful meal, which was probably served around 7 p.m. and lasted at most an hour or so. Which of course left the rest of the evening for two things: drinking and bathing. Did I mention drinking?
My roommates for the night were Didier, Robert, Teru and William Gillespie. My memory for some of this is hazy, but I’m pretty sure at one point either Sensei came to our room for a bit or we visited his. Either way it was nice. Things went downhill from there, particularly when the five roommates returned to the bath at some ungodly hour, and did drunken Sumo. A word of advice: never do drunken Sumo with Teru in a bath (or any other place). The long and short of it is I ended up with a nice purple eye, thanks to a blow to my face.
The next (same?) morning, looking and feeling very much the worse for wear, we straggled to the bath before breakfast. And despite our states at the time, Didier, Robert, and I all have strong memories of what we saw as we entered: Ishii-san, who had begun Aikido under Chiba Sensei four decades before as a teenager, washing Sensei’s back. Public bathing remains a strong part of Japanese culture, and it’s not uncommon for a younger person to wash an elder’s back. But seeing it then touched me deeply as a gesture of devotion.
It also recalled another episode in Sensei’s life. When Kisshomaru Doshu passed away, Chiba Sensei wrote a memorial in which he recounted how much Doshu had meant to him and the Aikido world. In it, he writes about how he quit Hombu in 1979 over some disagreements and went to live in the Japanese countryside. One day, without warning, Doshu arrived at the Chiba family’s home. The two men spent the night at an inn, where they shared a meal and a bath and Sensei washed Doshu’s back. “I believe he came to make sure I was all right,” Sensei wrote.
That struck me as I made my way behind Ishii-san and Chiba Sensei as silently as possible, and left me ruminating while nursing my head. And it stays with me as I think about the legacy Chiba Sensei left to his students and the dedication he inspired. I hope he rests in peace, secure in the knowledge that he touched a great many people, and in so doing changed their lives.
As we continue to explore the process of developing and maintaining an Aikido Body, I want to review and expand on earlier topics. An Aikido Body is of course, a human body. Even more fundamentally, it is a living body. Our language – the English language, specifically – biases our self-perception, so we see ourselves as objects or things, when, in fact, we are, as all of life is, ongoing processes. We are not objects, we are subjects, actively engaged in the process of living. At some point we will all die, and as corpses we can be considered objects – although the process of decomposing is also quite dynamic. But, as living, embodied beings, embedded in a living world right now, we are gifted with life, bodies, consciousness, and the ability to make distinctions and choices. We can recognize what is toxic or nourishing in our world and choose appropriately. Movement is one form of nourishment. Unfortunately, many of us develop habits of movement that are to movement what junk food is to food.
can strengthen our capacity to sense ourselves with greater refinement, so we
may learn to distinguish functional, effective action from junk. For our
training to fully serve us, however, we also need to extend our conscious
awareness to our everyday actions: how we lie, sit, walk, breath, bathe, cook,
play, and receive the nourishment that being alive in this world offers us.
When we, through conscious practice, learn to move as whole beings, connected
to our partners and the world at large by means of our center and all our
senses, a liveliness emerges in our movement and responses.
Aikidoists tend to discover this quality of liveliness, on the mat by practicing ukemi. Chiba Sensei, having discovered this liveliness, said of it, “The practitioner frequently experiences a sense of pleasure and joy in the discovery of the body’s previously hidden potential – an experience often accompanied by a sense of safety and security while training.” He continues that, in his experience, “Sustaining injuries during training is largely the result of [the person] handling his or her body in a fragmented manner…” 1
Sensei described the art of ukemi as “preparation for the unexpected” and counseled us to avoid mechanical or rote habits of practicing ukemi. He defined ukemi as “the means for receiving and neutralizing force, without resisting, trying to escape, collapsing or flying away.”
The process of neutralizing a force coming towards or into us requires an acceptance of and joining with that force and is best accomplished with a passive will, as opposed to a will seeking control. In our practice, whether as uke or nage, using weapons or in solo practice, we build a repertoire of actions that take residence in the deepest resources of ourselves. Usually when we practice, we consciously observe ourselves as we do it. Yet there are times on the mat when we respond to a given situation with our “adaptive” unconscious or non-conscious mind. When this happens, we move from the domain of kata, or form, to that of true martial technique or waza, which is formless. Many of us have experienced this in the role of uke, where we find ourselves getting up from the mat with no conscious sense of how we arrived there.
through training, this quality of liveliness can manifest in all aspects of
one’s practice and by extension, off the mat, in one’s everyday life. There is
a natural and pure quality to our acts when, to use Chiba Sensei’s words, “perception, judgment and action arise spontaneously
In our daily life, our conditioned responses, developed on the mat, can at critical times serve to save our self or others. I have experienced this in mundane ways, such as braking to avoid hitting a deer with my car before my conscious mind realized that the deer was there, or catching a falling object without conscious intent. This kind of non-conscious action is known in the Japanese martial tradition as mu so ken – dream-thought-sword.
Chiba Sensei wrote about several intense, life-or-death situations where he experienced this spontaneous, unconscious action. A couple of those situations involved saving himself when attacked. Other situations led to him saving someone else. On one occasion, while waiting to catch a train in Japan, a non-stop train approached the station at a high speed, as two brothers on bicycles approached the crossing. The older brother decided to play “chicken,” by riding his bike across the tracks in front of the approaching train. His younger brother, following, fell on the track. Without thought, Sensei rushed forward, threw the bike off the track, grabbed the fallen boy, and launched them both forward across the tracks with a forward roll, just in front of the oncoming train. Another time, while fishing at the pier in Ocean Beach, San Diego, Sensei spied a young girl drowning in the ocean below. He instantly jumped in and rescued the girl. When I asked him about it, years later, he said he simply acted, without hesitation or forethought.
These, and other more combative experiences, confirmed Sensei’s belief that the body responds more quickly and effectively in the present moment than does our discursive mind. While his teaching is often misunderstood and misrepresented as harsh, one aspect of it was a deliberate attempt to create conditions on the mat by which we could discover and nourish this developed spontaneity (mu so ken) to protect ourselves and others.
Frequently when teaching, Chiba Sensei tested his uke’s liveliness by executing a technique, such as ikkyo or irimi nage, where he would cut them down, allow them to recover and cut them down again and again, before finally completing the technique. This situation required uke to remain connected, centered, extended, lively, and fully present, perceiving everything. Often, Sensei would change to a different technique, and his uke was expected to follow. This practice, which requires we perceive deeply with all our senses, leads us toward the cultivation of openness.
In his recent Biran article, “Still Here”, Champion Sensei describes the Aikido Body as having “an expansive frame around a compressed core”.2 In the first part of this series I addressed the development of a compressed core in the discussion of centeredness and connectedness. To clarify further how a “compressed core” supports and interacts with a “expanded frame” I would like to expand on these earlier remarks.
The discovery and nourishment of our tanden, which is essentially our movement or “action center”, is the starting point for exploring the cultivation of an Aikido Body. The tanden works with two other centers: a “feeling” or “heart center” in the chest and a “navigational center” in the head. As upright creatures, these centers are balanced along our central axis and relate to the spine and our alimentary canal (gut). When I think of a “compressed core”, I think of these three centers functioning as an integrated and dynamic whole:
action center, which resides in our lower abdomen and pelvic bowl, connects us through our legs and
feet to the ground, enabling us to move through the world. This lower center relates
to our survival, individual conservation and reproduction.
Our heart center connects us through our arms and hands to one another, our tools, and allows us to bring the world to us. It sits on the central tendon of our diaphragm, is suspended between our lungs and its function is closely associated with our breath. This middle center relates to feeling, sensation emotion, and our relationship to others.
Finally, our head center orients us and allows us to navigate the world. Our head houses all of our teleceptors, organs of perception that connect us to the outside world, eyes, ears, vestibular system, taste and smell. This upper center, resides in the center of the head– where the skull sits on the first cervical vertebra — at the level of the eyes and ears.
three centers all have perceptual aspects. Our lower center is associated with exteroception,
which is the sense of contact with our base of support, our ability to
recognize the firmness, amount of friction, or stability of the surface we are
moving over. Our heart center is associated with interoception, our
sense of what’s happening within us, which includes emotions, as well as the
many sensations generated by movement, muscular and visceral. The center in our
head, enables us to access the world outside ourselves. Action and perception
mutually inform each other. The balanced, combined functioning of these three
centers empowers us to act with confidence and competence in an expansive and
language by which the body, heart and mind communicate is that of feeling and
sensation. Essential to refining our action in the world is learning to listen
to that language. In learning to listen in that way, we open our senses to see,
hear, smell, and taste, supporting a deeper engagement with the world we are a
Aikido, our capacity to generate and neutralize power correlates with the
development of our tanden. Concurrently, our ability to make and sustain
sensitive, lively contact with our partners is influenced by our hearts. I
believe that emotion colors our perception, perception guides action, and the
clearest perception comes with love. To be able to move to the right place, at
the right time, with the right choice of technique (where, when and what)
arises only when all centers are open and our frame is well conditioned and
foundation of openness is the ability to listen with all of our senses with the
attitude of a beginner (shoshin), or the wonder of a child. To accomplish this,
we must consciously close at least one important opening: our mouth.
When we sit in seiza or zazen, our posture is upright and relaxed and our focus is centered on the present moment. Included in right posture is our “oral posture.” The lips should be lightly closed. The tip of the tongue should lightly touch the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. The jaw should be forward, but relaxed. This position of lips, tongue, and jaw ensures we breathe through our nose, which conditions our unconscious breathing away from the unhealthy practice of mouth breathing.3 Correct sitting posture assists us in quieting our internal chatter or mental noise, which deepens mental and physical stillness.
When we practice on the mat, it is Birankai’s tradition to keep our mouths shut. Of course, there are times when the vigor of training requires us to open our mouths to take in more oxygen to meet cardiovascular demand, but there are almost no times in our training when it is necessary to open our mouths to speak. Talking during training distracts from our engagement with our own senses and our presence in the given moment, creating noise on the mat that can endanger those practicing around us. This is a critically important element in Chiba Sensei’s teaching. On his mat, conversation was not tolerated.
When training vigorously, especially on a crowded mat, we must rely on hearing, as well as vision and kinesthetic awareness, to avoid collisions with our neighbor. Verbal noise creates a safety risk. With our mouths shut, our senses open, our breathing is healthier, and our mind more focused. When we sit to observe a teacher’s instruction, we endeavor to keep our internal dialogue quiet – and our internal mouths shut, just as when practicing Zazen. By so doing we enhance our learning, enabling us to cultivate “eyes to see” – to see what is, as opposed to what we think we know – and eventually to engender our “eyes to see through” – to see beyond outer form to the inner, normally invisible elements of what is shown.
Champion Sensei, in the article referenced above, discussed the martial principle of ichi soku ta, meaning “one equals many”. This principle speaks directly to the importance of openness, notably, the recognition that when practicing with a single partner, the potential for multiple attackers is always present. How we enact any form (shihonage, ikkyo, irimi nage, etc.) should reflect this understanding. Regardless of the form we do, our gaze should be soft, our peripheral vision wide, hearing active, our ability to turn and change direction readily available.
While it is true that in certain circumstances action can arise simultaneously and spontaneously without conscious thought, when training or in other learning situations we yoke our attention to our actions. This allows us to make choices and create opportunities to step out of our habitual patterns and refine and expand our understanding of and ability to execute any form. In this way we can discover how each element of our practice reflects the whole.
In presenting the five principles of Centeredness, Connectedness, Wholeness, Liveliness and Openness in his essay, “The Study and Refinement of Martial Awareness”, Chiba Sensei wrote, “Openness is both generated and characterized by a strong interrelationship between body and mind…In this stage, the physical and mental aspects respond to one another in mutual and nearly simultaneous development.”
While the thrust of this three-part essay focused on cultivating an Aikido Body, the development of an Aikido Mind cannot be ignored. Of the five pillars, openness probably contains more psychophysical aspects than the other four. For myself, the qualities of mind and attitude that accompany the cultivation of physical aptitude in Aikido are humility, curiosity, flexibility and creativity. When our Aikido Body/Mind matures through the forging and awakening influence of our training, we can bring the foundational principle of O Sensei’s post-World War II Aikido, that of take musu aiki – the martial generative power of aiki (union with nature) – into being. Essential to discovering the creative potential within our art is the necessity of dissolving our attachment to our egos. Our art, as George Lyons Sensei so beautifully expresses, offers the opportunity to step out of any fixed world view, to detach ourselves from our social and cultural biases, so we can see the world with fresh eyes.
conclusion, I want to add a few comments regarding physical conditioning, and
to offer a few references I have found useful.
Chiba Sensei did not limit his physical/mental/spiritual training to Aikido. Sensei came to Aikido with extensive experience in Judo, and other martial arts. He incorporated into the Birankai “curriculum”, Iaido and Zazen. He also practiced Yoga, beginning with the Yoga of Tempu Nakamura and later, that of B.K.S. Iyengar. He spent intense periods of misogi, or purification, training at Ichi Ku Kai.4 In addition, he ran, bicycled, loved to fish and practiced and appreciated various artistic traditions; painting, calligraphy (Shodo), poetry (in both Japanese and English), and on occasion, singing.
I have found several other disciplines very helpful to my development as an Aikidoist. Particularly valuable, when I was young, was extended periods of time backpacking, often at high altitudes, which not only provided elements of physical fitness, but placed me intimately in the more-than-human world. I have practiced Tai Chi Chuan for as long I have practiced Aikido, and fenced for over 30 years. My Tai Chi teacher, Choy Kam Man, and fencing coaches, Charles Selberg and Michael D’Asaro Sr., influenced me tremendously as a teacher and as a person. I have been practicing Iyengar Yoga the last few years, and find it deeply enriching. I have practiced the Feldenkrais Method professionally for the past 25 years, and have extensive experience with the Alexander Technique, Structural Integration (Rolfing), Tui Na (Chinese massage), and other approaches to movement and the life of the body. All of these various activities inform my Aikido training.
For resources related to movement and physical well-being, I suggest the following books and websites. For teachers, I hope these resources prove useful in expanding what you incorporate into your warm ups and conditioning elements in your classes. For all of us as students of Aikido, I hope these resources provide more movement choices to support our ongoing development of our unique Aikido Bodies.
Books (please choose “Birankai International” on Amazon Smile) :
The discovery and development of a dynamic center naturally leads to greater core ability, which includes core stability, mobility and reversibility. It also leads to a stronger connection of the various parts of ourselves to each other: upper body to lower body, front to back, left to right.
The exercise involves sitting on the mat,
maintaining a strong extension through both legs with ankles and toes pulled
toward one’s center, spine extended, with the head balanced on top. In this
position the legs are lifted, center engaged, so that the upper body and lower
body are held in a V-shape, and one rocks backward and forward without allowing
the feet to return to the mat. This exercise is easily integrated into the
basic practice of backward ukemi.
Ukemi as a whole plays a central role in the
forging of an Aikido body. The practice of ukemi, receiving and neutralizing
the energy generated by nage (and by gravity) while falling and recovering is
done repeatedly in our practice. Chiba Sensei often likened this aspect of
training to the act of beating and folding iron in the traditional construction
of a Japanese sword. No matter how well the blade is shaped, sharpened and
polished, the smith will not produce a quality blade without first going
through this initial stage of the process. The “beating and
folding” that is promoted through the repeated enactment of basic forms,
ikkyo, nikkyo, irimi nage, shihonage, etc., is the primary means by which we
unify our bodies. This unification process, in my understanding, should be well
underway by the level of third kyu, and completed by first kyu.
We do not abandon this process as we advance in
our art and as we age. As martial artists, we necessarily make a sustained
commitment to physical training. In my experience, if the forging process is
not well established in the early stage of training, the physical expression of
one’s art becomes arrested and tends to break down with age. The development of
one’s intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding can, of course,
continue to grow, but to maintain and refine the physical aspect of our art
requires a commitment to the life of the body. This requires adjusting and
adapting how we train to the changes living brings. It is much easier to do if
we lay down a solid foundation early.
Finding and working with our center both
connects ourself to ourself, but also deepens our connection to the lived-world
in which we exist. In Part 1 of this article, under the section
titled “Centeredness”, I introduced the concept of the “field of
promoted action,” which refers to the learned ways that we habitually eat,
walk, sit, stand, dance, defecate, and otherwise use our bodies in the culture
into which we were born. The experienced world, which we each inhabit, is even more
complex and varied than “the field of promoted action,” as it extends
beyond physical movement to all aspects of our subjective experience.
However, within that great expanse of
variability there is a common foundation, the earth itself, what Chiba Sensei
called our Big Mother. There are primordial ways that being creatures of the
earth support and nourish us, whether we are conscious of them or not.
Deepening our awareness of our connection to Big Mother can enrich our Aikido
practice in countless ways. We are connected to the earth and to the atmosphere
surrounding her through our feet, our breath, our hands and our organs of
perception, eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin and proprioception.
Our feet provide the understanding for our
action in the world. Adapted to the demands of this task, our feet are complex
and wondrous instruments that dynamically connect us to the earth.
Each foot is comprised of twenty-six bones,
thirty-three joints, numerous ligaments binding the bones, accessory bands and
sheets of connective tissue and all the tendons attaching the twenty intrinsic
muscles (originating from the bones of the foot itself) and dozen extrinsic
muscles (originating from the bones of the leg above). The organization of
these bones, joints, connective tissue and muscles in association with blood
vessels, nerves and sensory organs (for pressure, pain, movement and position)
allows the foot to mediate between the terrain of the ground below and the
distribution of body weight and mass above. In accomplishing this role as
mediator of above and below the foot acts as a sensory organ as well as an
organ of support and mobility.
Living in a culture that imprisons feet in
shoes from an early age, and within an environment that provides mostly even,
two dimensional surfaces to move over, denies our feet the opportunity to
develop the sensitivity, flexibility and strength that running, walking,
climbing over varied natural surfaces provides. Martial practice offers
antidotes to the dullness our feet acquire through our modern lifestyle. If you
watch Chiba Sensei’s warmups you will see a variety of actions that work the
toes, feet and ankles. Moving on our knees in shikko also works to enliven our
feet. When enlivened feet act in accord with a conscious dynamic center, our
ability to meet the fundamental demands of our practice — to manage distance,
to transmit force from the ground through the whole of ourselves, etc. — is
Chiba Sensei often began his classes, especially morning classes, with a series of breathing exercises derived from Tempu Nakamura, known as the Father of Japanese Yoga. One exercise that Sensei frequently taught, independent from the series, connects breath to the feet, center, spine and vision via our imagination. The exercise is done standing, feet close together, spine extended, eyes focused on the ground six to ten feet in front of oneself. Beginning with the inhale, one begins to float upward onto the balls and toes of the feet, ideally maintaining the weight over the balls of the first and second toes, while one breathes in through the nose and imagines drawing the breath into one’s center through the soles of the feet. At the top, maintaining balance, one engages the tanden and begins to exhale and lower the heels to the ground with the image of strongly breathing out through the heels. At the end of the movement down, one tries to empty the lungs of air through the mouth, audibly, with a strong contraction of the expiatory muscles. The exercise was usually done three times. Sensei encouraged us to use our imagination to develop a more conscious connection to our feet, breath and center and to explore our ability to experience our weight creatively, learning to intentionally become light or heavy.
Another breath exercise (kokyu soren), one that often followed that described above, also involves the use of the imagination, this time linking the breath, center, spine, feet and hands. After jumping both feet out into a wide stance, one inhales extending the fingers and arms upward overhead, rising up on the toes and balls of the feet at the end of the inhalation and extending the fingertips and arms up and forward, then exhaling, lowering the arms and whole body to the starting point. The instruction, given by Sensei, was to imagine breathing in through fingertips, arms, down the spine to the tanden, then breathing out through spine, arms and hands, extending our consciousness as far as we could imagine (“to the furthest ends of the universe.”) Both inhale and exhale are to be done quietly, through the nose, with an emphasis on relaxation.
This exercise is reflected in the basic kokyu
exercise done in hanmi. Hands are raised overhead, thumb leading the motion up
with the inhale, weight shifting forward, and then cut out and down with the
exhale, little finger leading, fingers strongly extended and consciousness
extending out from the center, while shifting weight onto the back leg. The
same image is applied to all basic cuts with the sword, or strikes with the jo.
I can still hear Sensei say, “Don’t contract your muscles, extend your
Our feet connect us to the ground, and within
the martial context, they function optimally when in the service of our center.
Our hands connect us to others. The human hand is the most sensitive and
sophisticated manipulative instrument in the known universe. While our lower
body moves us through the world, our upper body brings the world to us. When we
contact each other in Aikido, as uke and as nage, our hands, be it through
grabbing, striking or controlling, should connect us, center to center. An oral
instruction I received from Sensei was, “When your students’ handwork
is weak, help them strengthen their center. If they need to strengthen their
center, work with clarifying their hand work.”
Having established vital connections to the
ground through our feet, to the air through our breath, to our partners and our
tools via our hands, we also must connect to the world at large by means of our
organs of perception, most of which reside in our head. To function as a whole
being engaged in the world, every action we make involves orientation, using
our vision, hearing, smell and possibly taste to direct our attention and or
action appropriately. In developing ourselves as martial artists, we seek to
cultivate “Ten direction eyes” — that is, an awareness in all
directions and the ability to move in any direction without hesitation or
preparation. This requires a well-organized posture, in which the head sits
balanced on the spine, free to move easily, supported below by our feet and
center, using our senses to guide the complex actions of daily living and the
wonderfully varied forms of Aikido. The unification of the body that arises
through an awakened center, connecting all parts into a cohesive whole, exists
in collaboration with a fully embodied and awakened mind.
Wholeness of being allows for wholeness of
action. As Chiba Sensei wrote, “… (It) activates (an) essential life
force manifesting as strong physical liveliness and culminates in the
reification of the psychospiritual virtues such as humility, receptivity,
modesty, etc. that are necessary to the process of raising (ones) art to its
“Study your own body through basic forms. Study the centralization of the body.” – T.K. Chiba
Chiba Sensei often spoke of wanting those of us he trained as teachers to understand the ways he helped his students condition their bodies through and for training in Aikido. He expected us to be able to assist each of our students to develop what he called, “their Aikido Body”. When he spoke of the Aikido Body, he spoke not in the abstract but from his extraordinary experience in working with his own body, and from the practical means for shaping and conditioning his students’ bodies that he developed over decades of teaching Aikido to many different students in many different cultures. He would sometimes refer to the ‘Aikido Body” as the “Natural Body” or the “Instinctual Body.” However, he was very aware of how unnatural the social and physical environment of the modern world is. We humans have created a world for ourselves that resembles a zoo more than it does the wild world our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in, and in which our bodies evolved. In a very real way, we resemble captive or domesticated creatures more than adaptive embodied beings. The question Chiba Sensei sought to answer for himself and for us is: How do we, as modern humans, reclaim the natural abilities that exist within each of us?
In trying to answer that question for myself, in this three-part series I look to the five principles of embodied Aikido which Chiba Sensei identified: centeredness, connectedness, wholeness, liveliness and openness. Underlying these principles is a foundational assumption that the body is inseparable from the mind, and (as stated in his essay “On Food and Diet”) the body and the Earth are one. While I will explore this topic from the perspective of the primacy of the body, I too believe the body exists in union with mind and no body/mind union exists independent of a social and physical environment.
are literally shaped by our everyday movement. Much of our movement is
determined by what is known as the “field of promoted action”: the ways we
eat, speak, defecate, dance, and so on, in the culture we are born into. This
is different from culture to culture and even family to family. In the Japanese
culture of the early to mid-20th century when, through the genius of Ueshiba O
Sensei, Aikido emerged, there was little need to teach people how to move from
their center. This teaching was embedded in patterns of action woven into daily
routines: sitting on the floor in various postures, moving from sitting or
squatting to standing and back to the ground. Now, in the 21st century, sitting
cross-legged or on one’s heels on the floor (seiza) is uncommon. The chair
intervenes between bodies and ground for many contemporary people as soon as
they learn to walk. We sit, often while looking at a screen, more than we
engage in any other posture. This creates challenges, even when confronted with
simple actions such as kneeling, bowing, or getting up and down with ease.
To understand what it means to be centered, and to know how to move from our center, we need to have a clear image of where our center is and how it is related to the whole of ourselves. Chiba Sensei taught a very simple action for us to use to sense where our tanden resides and how to engage it actively:
He had us lie on our backs, place our hands by our sides (or sometimes place our fingertips on our lower belly) and with a sharp inhalation lift our head, arms and legs from the mat, hold for a moment and then with our exhale release our head and legs back to the mat. Try this for yourself. You will feel the engagement of your tanden and hopefully experience a sense of physical unity. This should be done carefully and without excessive muscular effort. Locating the center is the first step in cultivating our ability to use our centers dynamically.
To move in any way, we have to coordinate the mobilization of some parts of ourselves while stabilizing others. Given that our physical center resides in the basin of our pelvis, to mobilize that center requires fluency in the movement of the hip joints. If you watch video of Chiba Sensei conducting warm ups, you will see many actions both in standing and seiza that require movement in all planes of action, where the pelvis rotates over the hip joints, or the hip joints move relative to a stable pelvis, as well as very dynamic use of the tanden and breath:
For kinetic energy to be transmitted from the ground through the body to the hands, the hip joints must be fluid and the spine must be well organized, extended, flexible and stable. As teachers working at this time, we need to recognize that a life of accommodation to the chair has compromised the ability of most individuals entering our dojos to move freely at the hip joints or to have the requisite flexibility in their feet, ankles, and knees or the stability in their spines to execute the most basic actions of our art, sitting, bowing, suwariwaza, etc. Chiba Sensei modeled many ways to address this reality both through his warm ups and conditioning exercises, and in the precision with which he executed basic Aikido forms. I believe that going forward we need to study what he developed, and to expand it to meet the needs of our present students.
“Everything is hidden within your spine. The state of the spine is an indicator of the unification of the body and spirit. To study the body is to study your spine.” – T.K. Chiba
primary function of our skeleton is to provide support to the body within the
field of gravity. As upright, bi-pedal creatures with large brains — and
consequently heavy heads — that task is complex. Literally central to
that task is our spine. As mentioned earlier, in order for us to move freely,
the spine provides the stability to transmit the forces generated by gravity
downward and the forces generated by ground reaction forces and muscular action
upward. Skeletal alignment, the organization of parts to each other and the
whole relative to the ground, develops for us during infancy and early
childhood. The movements of rolling side to side, front to back, lead to
sitting and crawling, and create the strength and organization of muscles,
connective tissues and proper neurological stimulation necessary to then stand,
walk, run, jump, roll, etc. Returning to a closer relationship to the ground
through seiza, shikko, rolling, etc. gives us an opportunity to refine and
expand the quality of our movement by strengthening the stability of the pelvis
and spine and their ability to support the actions of the body as a whole.
quality of support we sense, relative to the ground, influences the amount of
effort and the distribution of effort utilized in any action. Just as learning
to walk as children required moving from the ground up, learning to move from
our center in Aikido is promoted by the practice of sitting in seiza and
executing suwariwaza (kneeling) technique. Paradoxically, our instability as
upright creatures enhances our overall mobility. All martial arts involve an
exploration of stillness and motion. Finding stillness in standing is required
in balance poses in yoga, the most basic being Mountain Pose or “Tadassana.”
Tadassana is very challenging, yet, moving from standing requires almost no
effort. I have become very aware, in my personal Iai-batto ho practice, of the
difference between moving from the large triangular base provided by sitting in
seiza compared to moving from standing, At this point in my life, due to 70
years of wear and tear on my knees, seiza and shikko are no longer accessible
to me. The foundational form in our system of Iai is Shohatto, executed
from seiza. The standing version of Shohatto is called Koranto. This form has
become the root of my present practice. Without the years of practicing
Shohatto and its sibling forms, from sitting, where stillness is more
readily available and moving from an engaged and vital center is essential, I
would not be able find the rhythms of stillness and motion, mobility and
stability, necessary to execute Koranto in a satisfying way.
If we as teachers of Aikido within Birankai wish, as our newly drafted vision statement states, to “meet our students where they are”, we need to develop ways to help them find comfort in their relationship to the ground and learn to mine the treasures accessible to them in the fundamental actions of sitting, bowing, knee walking etc. For those who can’t get all the way to the ground, we may need to explore ways we can help them discover their centers and how to move dynamically from their centers in and out from a chair (or zafu). What we must never do is remove seiza, bowing, shikko, etc. to accommodate the many who will be challenged by them. To do that would be to abandon the foundations of our practice.
Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai and Cultivating Connectedness Webinar Moderator
Much of the credit for the conception, organization and
presentation of the two webinars must go to Rob Schenk, Chief Instructor of
Aikido Institute of San Francisco, and technology wizard. Rob initially
proposed the idea of Birankai North America holding webinars and offered his
expertise to the organization to make them happen, serving as host to both
Personally I’m grateful to Rob for prompting and supporting
us in creating a means to remember and honor Chiba Sensei with the first
“memorial” webinar on June 6th. I felt strongly it was important that we, as a
community, could come together during this challenging time in remembrance of
While I was involved in planning that event, I participated
as an audience member and greatly enjoyed hearing the stories and comments of
my colleagues and friends. For me it was a healing balm to the feelings of
sadness and emptiness that still arise within me as I continue to miss Sensei’s
physical presence in my life. I was also encouraged by the level of
participation and general enthusiasm expressed during and after the event.
The success of the memorial webinar led to a desire to host
a follow up event, in part, to create an opportunity to address some of the
questions that remained unanswered from the first webinar. We chose to focus
the discussion on Chiba Sensei’s development of bokken and jo practices and
their integration into the whole of his Aikido “curriculum”. This choice was
stimulated by the reality that for many of us, our weapons practice is what sustains
us during this time of social distancing where the physical contact we’re
accustomed to is not readily available.
The selection of panel members was made with the intention
to select teachers with extensive weapons training and experience working
directly with Chiba Sensei. The panel clearly met that criteria and were able
to provide a lively and entertaining conversation. This time I did have the opportunity to
participate actively in the event as the “moderator”, a role that proved much more enjoyable than I imagined!
It’s my hope that we will continue to hold these kinds of webinars going forward, with a wider level of participation and structured to address the needs and interests of our teachers and general members.
Coryl Crane Shihan, Chief Instructor and Founder, North County Aikikai and Chiba Sensei Memorial Webinar Host
The June 6, 2020 commemoration of our inspirational and much loved teacher, Chiba Sensei, was a moving, visual, and experiential journey into his life. He came alive again for us all. The Zoom webinar connected over 100 people from 10 different countries around the world. Many had trained with Chiba Sensei and knew him personally, while many were second generation and knew him through their teachers and his reputation. Five years since he passed on June 5, 2015, and here we still think about Sensei and the effect he had on our lives.
The webinar started with a moment of silence during which time, and each in our own way, we could remember Chiba Sensei. We then saw his 2008 video interview with Lori Stewart, and it felt for me like I was sitting at that table with him while he talked about shoshin, beginner’s mind, and his relationship with the metaphorical, unobtainable Princess, that was his Aikido – the treasure he lived his life to protect. Next, we were immersed yet again, watching Sensei in action on the mat, in a selection of video clips highlighting his always dynamic, powerful, and physical presence.
But what better way to know Chiba Sensei, the teacher, than through the personal memories and direct experiences of those students who spent many years in close and intense training with him. Webinar participants were invited to ask questions of four panelists: Archie Champion Shihan, George Lyons Shihan, Roo Heins Shidoin and Leslie Cohen Shidoin. The panel answered wide ranging questions from, “What was it like to take ukemi from Chiba Sensei?” to, “What was he like as a person?” The responses were unique in each case. What became apparent, however, was the panelists’ shared common bond of love and respect grown from a life-changing relationship with their teacher.
From this first webinar, which had more questions than there was time to answer, ideas for a follow-up webinar soon grew. Held on July 18, Darrell Bluhm Shihan moderated our second webinar on Chiba Sensei’s concept of connectedness, with panelists Didier Boyet Shihan, Diane Deskin Shidoin, Dave Alonzo Thierry Diagona Shidoin, and myself. There were 52 attendants from 6 different countries.
We very much hope to build on the interest generated by Chiba Sensei’s memorial and open up discussion on subjects of interest to you all. Please let us know what and who you would like to hear more from.
Gassho, Coryl Crane, North County Aikikai, 8/14/20
We did ikkyo, shihonage, kotegaishi to confirm the importance of basics. You know training can be kind of boring – year after year the same thing, over and over. That’s what it is – nothing exciting… it’s just like a meal you eat every night, night after night. If it’s something very exciting you get sick. A healthy meal is sort of a boring meal – no excitement…
All of Aikido is to work with your body. The body is the foundation for everything. Work with your body…
Of course, Aikido is not limited to a mat space like this. There is a huge world out there, what I call big Aikido or big dojo. Practice Aikido principles within the big Aikido, right out there! That is what true Aikido is.
T.K. Chiba, from Oct 2, 1998 lecture at Siskiyou Aikikai, Ashland, Oregon
The atmosphere of our contemporary lifestyle surrounds us with a multitude of tools and equipment, an unprecedented variety of conveniences. Yet the complaint is often that it is difficult to find a place where one can study or acquire competence in some discipline. All that a person needs is “a sincere willingness to study.” If one truly wishes to study, one can do so under any circumstance.
Chiba Sensei’s essay from the 1998 Summer Edition of Sansho, entitled “Food and Diet” is both philosophical, noting the body and earth are inseparable, and practical, as Sensei offers clear guidelines to eat a healthy diet which sustains us in our practice.
In this unprecedented time, facing the challenges of a global pandemic, with our normal rhythms disrupted, attending to what, when and how we eat is especially important. We are all faced with how to maintain our practice, outside our dojos and without (physical) contact with our training partners. If, as Sensei says, working with our body is the foundation of our training, and as Shozo Sato reminds us, “A willing heart is the dojo”, we can use this time – wherever we are – to grow our practice. Refining our diet can therefore be an important element in our personal study during this predicament.
Many of us who practiced with Chiba Sensei directly received his instruction on diet – recommendations which closely resemble those of writers Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Alice Waters and many others. In his book Food Rules, Pollan sums up his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Pollan elaborates his first rule with, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. As you will read, Sensei would offer, “Eat food, as whole as possible, from what is seasonally available where you live”.
Sensei’s quote above observes how our approach to training and to eating can be similar: with an attitude of reverence and adherence to basics, without too much attachment to what’s exciting. As part of our series on becoming more antifragile, I hope Chiba Sensei’s reflections encourage you to practice big Aikido, to seize opportunities for growth where you can, even at places like your dining table.
– Darrell Bluhm Shihan, Ashland, Oregon 1 May 2020
My basic philosophy of Diet is “Shin Do Fu Ji: Body and earth are inseparable.” Shin (body), means the physical body and presence, the “being.” Do (earth) is the multitude of conditions that comprise the “being,” including the environment, locality, and seasons. Fu Ji (inseparable), means that body and earth are one. This philosophy corresponds to the concept of the circulation of energy: Human beings absorb energy from other entities through eating, and create new entities with the energy we take in. This view also parallels the Buddhist concept of reincarnation — the foundation of the Buddhist view of the cosmos.
All life forms depend on the presence of other life forms. We exist in a continuously flowing cycle of life in which we eat other life forms, absorb their energy as a source of our life force and create other life forms with the energy we have absorbed. The reincarnation theory of Buddhism is not only an abstract concept of rebirth to another life, but also a reality happening before our very eyes. We must recognize the fact that all the life forms we consume are a necessary sacrifice to maintain our lives. This recognition is fundamental and is the wellspring of reverence toward life. Through it, we gain awareness of the importance of self-sacrifice in our own lives as well.
To restate this philosophy as a simple universal law applicable to all life forms: “Respect others!” Reverence toward life can be manifested through three principles of recognition: (1) Know what is enough. (2) Do not waste. (3) Do not devour. These are the principles of eating. These three principles point to one central theme: We should sacrifice more than what we need in the universal flow of life.
These principles of recognition lead us to the importance of mindful chewing when we eat. Chewing well is important because of the physiological necessity of absorbing nutrition, but it is also significant because it creates a quiet dialogue with the life forms being sacrificed. Through this dialogue we unite with other life forms. Only then are we able truly to taste the essence of the sacrificed life forms.
The Eastern and Western views on this subject are quite different. Christianity teaches us that God and human beings are in separate domains, and that humans and other life forms are also in separate domains. It teaches us that other life forms are created for humankind. This is a very “human centered” view of the universe.
Buddha taught that “Weeds, trees, the earth and all creation can have Buddha’s nature.” In this view, not only human beings, but also weeds, trees, earth and rubble may have Buddha’s nature!
Similarly, Shinto religion teaches us that there are eight million gods in the universe. This means that from a Shinto perspective, we see gods within all life forms as well as in natural phenomena. In Buddhism and Shinto, humans are not above all other creatures, and therefore cannot do whatever they wish to other life forms.
Now let’s return to my basic theme, the “Shin Do Fu Ji” philosophy. First of all, the actual practice of the philosophy — in other words, the fundamentals of diet– should be based on the earth. This means that the food you consume should be based on the life forms indigenous to your locale, i.e., life forms which grow in the same environment in which you live. Moreover, you should eat food in season (spring, summer, fall, winter). The advancement of refrigeration technology and worldwide transportation allows us to eat anything at any time. Without being conscious of it, we eat foods from all over the world, even if they are not in season locally. In this day of modern convenience, we need to pay particular attention to the food we consume.
Second, you must eat food which is as close to its original form as possible. Thus, when you eat rice, eat genmai (brown rice). When you eat wheat, eat unprocessed flour. When you eat fish, eat it whole, as much as possible. Small fish should be eaten as they are (head and all). Large ones can be cooked with skin and bones intact. If you eat vegetables, eat roots, leaves, stems and flowers. In short, you should basically eat foods which are processed to the least extent possible.
Third, eat foods that still have life (ki) in them. The question you should ask is whether what you are about to eat will grow if you plant it in the earth. Is it alive? (Does it have ki?) Eat food that is as close to this state as possible. Examples of these foods are root vegetables, beans, unrefined grains, seaweed and seeds. They are closest to the ideal foods. In the case of fish, the basic method of cooking should be cooking whole (head, skin, flesh and bones). Dried or smoked fish, deep fried fish, small fish tempura, etc., are ideal methods of fish preparation.
You should be careful about meat, however. Meat can be appropriate for people in cold climates. On the other hand, we Japanese have been vegetarians for a long time and have a rather short history with the practice of eating meat. Consumption of a large quantity of meant has physiologically harmful effects on us. We have a longer small intestine than Europeans (because we were traditionally vegetarians). Therefore meat remains in our bodies longer, and the decaying meat acidifies our blood.
When you eat meat, also eat colorful vegetables, potatoes, and drink red wine to balance the meat’s extreme acidity. Most meat in today’s marketplace is artificially raised. Thus, most chickens are diabetic because they are crammed in a small area without freedom of movement and fed high calorie feeds and antibiotics. When it comes to fish, yellowtail tuna, which most Japanese love to eat, tastes completely different when naturally caught in the ocean than it does when farmed. If you must eat meat, to the greatest extent possible select kinds that are raised in a natural environment. Lamb is close to the ideal meat in this sense.
The reason why I fish so frequently is that I don’t trust the fish that are available in markets today. Prepared filets can be washed too much, to the point where nutrients have been washed off the meat. Also, they are no longer a totally balanced food since they are missing heads, bones and skin. They have no power to harmonize.
The importance of diet is that it is the foundation of the creative development of life and living. We must not neglect what kind of food we consume. The conscious choice of diet is also a concrete way to recognize and feel one’s participation in the law of universal nature.
It is important to understand that each individual must choose his or her best diet with comprehensive study and actual experience, based on the customs, seasons and climate of the area where he or she lives, his or her profession, individual body constitution and characteristics, family environment, etc.
Take, for example, a man who has physical flexibility but who lacks muscle and body strength. If I describe flexibility versus strength as negative (-) versus positive (+), he is too much on the negative (-) side. In order to regain the ideal balance in his body, he must include the following items in his diet: high quality protein (grains, beans, naturally raised meat or fish), a variety of vegetables (burdock, carrots, radish, turnips, yams, onions, potatoes, etc.), and all kinds of seaweed. They are positive (+) yang foods. Consumption of these sorts of foods will offset his strong (-) tendency. In addition, he should include high quality vegetable oils and salt, such as sesame oil and natural vegetable oil and neutralized salts such as sesame salt, miso (soy bean paste) and umeboshi (pickled plum). These are (+) foods. Even if he doesn’t like fish bones, smelt and smoked whitefish — when broiled well — are good companions to beer. Ancient Japanese wisdom created miso soup with dried small fish in the soup stock.
It is a well known fact that during the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars, Japanese soldiers’ body strength (stamina) was number one in the world — even though, based on European standards of nutrition, it should have been among the worst because of their “poor” diet, from a European point of view. Nowadays the simple traditional Japanese diet is being reevaluated in light of contemporary nutritional excesses.
As I mentioned above, diet is the foundation of life activities. At the same time, as we are social animals (beings), it is the foundation of harmony among people. The consumption of food should have a social aspect to it. Excessive insistence on a certain kind of diet may disrupt harmony in groups and within your family. In your association with food you must keep flexibility in mind during those times when you are the host who provides food for others, as well as during those times when you are the guest who is treated to a meal. It takes great internal strength to practice this middle-of-the-road lifestyle. It is a difficult road to travel — that of clearly knowing the foundation of your own diet while having a sense of balance and understanding of how to harmonize with other people in society. My own motto is: “Harmonize yet do not get swept away.”
Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, is to feel stuck next to him on a long flight. During the journey, you’re confused, intrigued, frustrated, inspired, and uncomfortable. Most significantly, you’re motivated to get back out into the world and apply your hard-earned knowledge…much like our current predicament with COVID-19.
If you have the time and fortitude, Taleb’s book is exceptionally insightful and worth the effort. For the rest, being antifragile means to gain from disorder, volatility, and other stressors. By contrast, the fragile wants stability and predictability, and the robust doesn’t care. The wind extinguishes a fragile candle and enlarges an antifragile wildfire. A forest which endures periodic fires is more robust than one which hasn’t withstood a fire in centuries. Fragile is bad, robust or resilient is better, antifragile is best.
The philosophy of antifragility complements Aikido, if one appreciates the peace, love, and harmony we aikidoka strive for comes from working through and even seeking conflict, pain, and disorder. Making the commitment to train. Shaping the body through ukemi, off-mat training, and diet. Practicing techniques until they are instinctive. Working through injuries. Maintaining commitment to train when life events and other competing priorities emerge. Assuming leadership roles in the dojo and Aikido community. Perhaps, becoming a teacher, responsible for transmission to new generations and maintaining a dojo. Wherever you might be on your path, consider the following principles Taleb promotes in Antifragile:
If one has nothing to lose, then everything is a gain,
making one antifragile.
One’s ability to switch from one course of action to another is an option. Options allow you to benefit from the positive side of uncertainty without a corresponding serious harm from the negative side. Continuously set conditions which maximize your options, preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended payoffs. Avoid being “squeezed” – having no choice but to do something, regardless of costs.
When you’re fragile,
you depend on minimal deviation and demand predictability – a rarity in our
increasingly volatile world. The antifragile need only the wisdom to not
do things which might harm themselves and to recognize and seize emerging
Base decisions principally on fragility, not probability.
Failure to predict a tsunami or economic meltdown is excusable; building
something fragile to them is not. Natural
systems are antifragile thanks to layers of redundancy – high birthrates, extra
organs (kidneys, lungs), the ability to store fat or lose tails to a predator…
By tinkering, one incurs lots of small losses at minimal
cost to occasionally find something rather significant. A “loser” or “victim” is one who, after
making a mistake or suffering harm, doesn’t reflect and exploit the lesson for
So, which are you? Your dojo? The Birankai community? More importantly, how are you working to
increase antifragility among the people and things you care about? Biran Online posts in the coming months will
meditate on these questions and make suggestions for greater
antifragility. Please email your
submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article “Structure of Shu, Ha, Ri, and Penetration of Shoshin” was first published in the 1989 Winter edition of Sansho, the Aikido Journal of the USAF Western Region. Two more articles on Shu-Ha-Ri followed, which were transcribed from interviews between Chiba Sensei and Shibata Sensei.
The article below was written when Sensei was a fully mature teacher with a clearly developed methodology to his teaching. Having taught Aikido for nearly 30 years, Sensei presented his understanding of “shoshin”, beginners mind, in a clear and powerful way. In his last advice to us, his students, in 2015 he returned to this frequently referenced principle, admonishing us to never lose our beginners mind.
Sensei’s later essays on Shu-Ha-Ri expanded upon the concepts below, striving to help students assess their current and future levels of development. He wrote, “I am writing about Shu-Ha-Ri to help students understand where they are in terms of the stages of advancement in training. By developing ‘eyes to see’ what stage they are in, I want them to grasp what direction to take in their future training.”
This article and the principles presented in it introduced elements of Sensei’s teaching that he continued to develop through his life. They are central to what he gave us. Please read with an open heart and an open mind.
–Darrell Bluhm Shihan, Ashland, Oregon, 2 January 2020
Among those words we commonly use and supposedly understand are those that, when paid close attention to in order to define their meaning, reveal how unclear and obscure our understanding really is.
Perhaps the word shoshin, which is commonly used by martial artists, is one of these. It is understood that Budo (martial art) begins with shoshin and ends with shoshin. Budo, therefore, cannot be understood without first having a clear definition of the meaning of shoshin.
What follows is a description of the meaning of the two Chinese characters that make up the Japanese word shoshin: The character sho means first or beginning. The character shin means mind, spirit or attitude. The two together have been translated as “beginner’s mind” and indicate the mind (spirit or attitude) of a complete beginner when starting Budo training. This is marked by modesty, meekness, sincerity, purity and a thirst to seek the path.
In Japan, Budo discipline is commonly recognized as, or expected to be, severe and hard, requiring many years to master. Within shoshin one finds a spirit of endurance, sacrifice, devotion and self-control. Why do the Japanese see Budo training in this way? (In contrast to the American attitude where, in general, it seems that pleasure and enjoyment come first.) The Japanese understand that it is impossible to master the art without the determination to go through many years of training, passing through various stages and being required to go to one’s physical limit and sometimes even beyond. The Japanese also recognize that in the final completion of the physical mastery of the art, there is spiritual realization that can take one further.
The state attained through spiritual realization, the highest state of Budo, is often expressed as mushin, the state of No-Mind. It is represented by the image of a clear mirror reflecting everything that comes before it exactly as it is. The state of No-Mind reflects everything that passes in front of it, whether coming or going, without interference of will or self-imposed view. However, there is an important distinction between a static mirror and this active state of mind. The active mind responds spontaneously and simultaneously to the reflected image without attachment or interference, right or wrong, gain or loss, life or death. What makes this state more difficult to attain is that it requires physical motion (technique) to simultaneously accompany the mind responding to the images reflected upon it.
The state of mind like a clear mirror — the state of No-Mind — may be attained through other spiritual disciplines such as meditation. What makes Budo unique, however, is found in the simultaneous and inseparable embodiment of mind and the physical motion (the technique.) This stage of training is known as the Sword of No-Mind or the Sword of No-Form, or even as the Sword in a Dream. Only when this stage is attained is one’s art considered complete.
Shoshin is the mind or attitude required to follow the teaching. This implies sincerity, modesty, meekness, openness, endurance, sacrifice, and self-control unaffected by self-will, judgment or discrimination. It’s like a piece of pure white silk before it is dyed. It’s also an important condition for the first stage, in which a beginner learns to embody the basics precisely, point by point, line by line, with an immovable faith in the teaching.
Shoshin, however, is not only the state of mind required for a beginner, but must be present throughout every stage of training. The manifestation of shoshin therefore varies depending on one’s status: whether a beginner, intermediate, or advanced student. What’s most important is that one becomes, ultimately, one body inside and out, finally developing into Mind of No-Mind. This is the completion of Budo training.
One’s determination to hold firmly onto beginner’s mind is a key factor in the completion of one’s study. But how difficult this is to do! That determination is very vulnerable to being destroyed by fame, position, rank, or being lost through haughtiness or conceit.
Like everything else, shoshin encounters and experiences various challenges and can retreat, weaken, decay, or break down. It also can become clearer and stronger.
It’s vital to maintain a strict, self-reflective attitude throughout study to prevent shoshin from decaying or breaking down. It is necessary to be decisive, crawling out from a crisis not just once, but twice, three times, to keep on going. Loss of shoshin means the stopping of growth, and this almost always happens where and when one does not recognize it. This is a characteristic of losing shoshin. It is both a sign and a result of human arrogance.
If arrogance is the main cause of losing shoshin, modesty, its counterpart, is necessary to maintain it. A modest mind is one that recognizes the profoundness of the Path, knows fear, knows the existence of something beyond one’s own reality, while continuing to grasp one’s internal development.
Shoshin is also an idea strongly associated with self-denial, while arrogance is founded upon uneducated self-affirmation and superficial self-assertion. In many senses, self-denial works like a mid-wife to stimulate the birth of a true richness of heart. Paradoxically, while self-denial broadens, the reflection and understanding of human nature deepens.
In general, the difference between Americans and the Japanese lies in whether hardship or pleasure/enjoyment are anticipated in the study of Budo. This seems to be largely due to differences between the two cultures.
There still remains a strong influence from medieval ideas within all Japanese traditional artistic disciplines, including Budo, as well as within the present day Japanese consciousness.
It is largely because of Yoshikawa’s work on Miyamoto Musashi that Musashi’s life is deeply appreciated by the Japanese people. He has now become a long-standing national hero. This is not only due to an appreciation of his accomplished swordsmanship, but also an appreciation of his austere way of life, which deeply moves Japanese consciousness. A similar respect can be found in the attitude of the Japanese people towards O’Sensei, the founder of Aikido. Despite the differences between Musashi and O’Sensei (the Zen influence strongly characterized Musashi’s life, while Shintoism influenced O’Sensei), what is common to these two gigantic individuals is the depth of their self-denial.
It is necessary to pay strong attention to the profoundness of this self-denial because it contributes to the birth of an even stronger self-affirmation.
Self-denial is a vital force that contributes paradoxically to the development of humankind. Through self-denial, one can attain cosmic consciousness and achieve greater self-recognition by transcending the restraints of the ego.
This process is basic to the progressive development/structure that is commonly understood within the traditional artistic disciplines, including Aikido. However, before I enter more deeply into this subject, I would like to touch briefly on the meaning of kata.
Role of Ki in the Practice of Kata
The study and disciplines of kata are the fundamental and common methods found throughout the traditional Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, painting, calligraphy, dancing, theater and Budo.
Kata has been translated into English as “form.” However, “form” seems to cover only one part of a larger whole, superficially limited to the physical appearance of kata.
While form covers only the physical part of the whole (the visible part of kata), there is another element that works within, which is invisible in nature. It is the internal energy associated with the flow of consciousness (ki). There are schools to be found in the old records of budo which describe kata as the Law of Energy, or the Order of Energy. Kata, therefore, does not limit its meaning merely to its physical appearance. Its appearance can be taught and transmitted physically with reasonable effort, as it is visible. However, the internal part requires a totally different perspective and an ability to master it. Since it cannot be seen physically, it cannot be taught but must be sensed and felt.
Ki, for instance, as a manifestation of control and flow of consciousness, works jointly with physical energy inside and outside of the body within kata. It is sensitively associated with the quality and combination of opposite elements that integrate and exchange: purity and impurity; brightness and darkness; wholeness and emptiness; contraction and expansion; positiveness and passivity; hardness and softness; lightness and heaviness; explosiveness and quietude; speed and slowness, and the like.
Kata comes into being as an organic life form when the two opposing elements, inside and outside, harmoniously integrate within a martial necessity. The kata then breathes, manifests, comes into being, and dies at the moment of execution. One must then let it go.
Furthermore, what makes kata significant is that it is deeply characterized by a school, especially a school’s founder, as well as the school’s successive personalities and experiences. Ultimately it crystallizes as a particular philosophy, which is then passed down to its successors. This is the heart of the school.
In its original form, kata is described as combative motion (against an enemy) and is the accomplishment and collective essence of each school. It results from the pursuit of efficiency, economy, and rational thought in any given circumstance.
By being exposed to — and trained in — kata, under a methodology unique to a school (or teacher) for a number of years, one can learn the physical forms and internal order of energy as well as being penetrated by the heart of a particular school.
Although the foundation of Aikido training is based on the repetition of kata, its approach is much freer and more flexible than in the old schools. It can be said that it is kata beyond kata. The reason for this can be found first of all in the positive fact that Aikido draws a wide diversity of people to it, compared to other budo disciplines. However, on the negative side, this contributes to a superficial overflow of individualism.
The second reason can be found in the fact that the Founder himself repeatedly transformed and changed his art and in particular its physical presentation. These changes were synonymous with his personal development and age. Without doubt, this is one of the reasons we see the different styles of kata, or different ways of expressing the essence of the art, among his followers. These students completed their training under the Founder at different periods of his life.
This continual development of Aikido is clearly due to the Founder’s endless exploration of the Path, a search with which, I assume, he was never satisfied. The best way that I can describe his attitude in this regard is that he used to tell his followers that if they advanced fifty steps, he would advance one hundred. I’m convinced that it was truly his intention to encourage his younger followers.
Although there appear to be differences in the approach to kata between Aikido and other arts, the mastery of kata still carries substantial weight in our study. It might, therefore, be helpful to describe the three progressive stages that appear in the study of the traditional arts that exist in Japan. Some of these I will illustrate with the hope that visualization will help the reader grasp them more fully!
in the Study of Traditional Art
The first stage is known as shu, and can be translated as follows: to protect, defend, guard, obey, keep, observe, abide by, stick to, be true to. From these definitions, the characteristics of this particular stage can be said to be: protection (by teaching), observation (of teaching), keeping one’s eyes open (on the teaching.)
As one can see, there are two factors: one a subjective issue, the other objective. For example, to be protected (by the teaching), to be defended (by the teaching), and to be guarded (by the teaching) all refer to defense against external negative influences, and from falling into danger and making mistakes. These are all objective issues. On the other hand, to obey the order (of the teaching), to observe (the teaching), to stick (to the teaching), to be true (to the teaching), are all subjective, internal issues.
Technically, what is characteristic of this stage is the learning and embodiment of the fundamentals through the repetition of kata, exactly as they are presented, without the imposition of will, opinion, or judgment, but with total openness and modesty.
This is an important basic conditioning period both physically and mentally, wherein all the necessary conditions are carefully prepared for the next stage. Physically, this is the time when various parts of the body are trained — joints, muscles, bones, overall posture, how to set the lower part of the body centered around the midsection, the use of gravity and its control, the balanced use of hands and footwork, etc.
Mentally, one learns how to focus and concentrate attention on any particular part of the body at any given time, how to generate internal energy and its natural flow through the use of the power of the imagination. Furthermore, one learns faith, trust, respect, endurance, modesty, sacrifice, and courage, all of which are considered to be virtues of udo.
There is no set time or period to this stage. It all depends on the strength, quality, ability, and capability on the parts of both teacher and student. Generally speaking, however, it does not have to be too long, say from three to five years. Needless to say, this is said on the assumption that one trains earnestly, trains every day, and makes training the first priority of that time of one’s life.
The stage that follows shu is known as ha. The definition of ha translates as: to tear up, rip, rend, break, crush, destroy, violate, transgress, open, burst
As these definitions indicate, this is a rather dynamic stage in character and strongly leans toward negativity and denial. However, paradoxically this negativity leads progressively to self-affirmation.
The stage of shu, described before, is centered on the denial of individualism. That which then develops afterwards is a stage of self-affirmation, which is based on denial of the first stage, shu. A new horizon then opens up. It requires a totally different perception in order to grasp the whole meaning of what is happening at this time.
This stage demands careful preparation by both teacher and student. The strength of the teaching and deep insight and recognition of the potential of the student by the teacher, and the ceaseless and earnest study carried out by the student in response to the teaching, are essential. This is not a superficial self-assertion or pose of individualism, because its strength comes from having been through the flame of self-denial.
Technically, this is also the stage when it is required to rearrange or reconstruct what the teacher has taught. This includes the elimination of what is undesirable, unnecessary or unsuitable and allows new elements to be brought into the study as food for growth. These changes are based on the true recognition of self, together with accompanying conditions such as temperament, personality, style, age, sex, weight, height and body strength.
This is the stage, spiritually or mentally, when it is necessary to have a high mind of inquiry and self-reflection. More than anything else, it is required to attain a true and unshakable understanding of oneself as an individual. In other words, it’s necessary to have a clear vision of one’s own potential and the best possible way to stimulate it. This might require that one abandons or denies that which is already an asset or strength in one’s art. In this stage, in particular, gaining does not necessarily mean being creative, but often means losing or abandoning, and this plays an important part in the process. It is indeed a difficult task to carry out and one often does not see its necessity due to lack of true insight and courage.
Due to human nature, it is indeed difficult to deny what one already has, especially when it’s considered to be a good part of one’s possession. This is where most people get stuck and cease to grow. It is a matter of insight and perception in relation to the true recognition of self. In relation to human growth, this stage is still the period of the infant and youth and therefore still comes under the wing of the teaching and the teacher. Another, very significant part of this stage, is moving from the complete passivity of the previous stage to active responsibility for one’s own training.
What happens in this stage is that the one who gives (on the part of teaching — an external effect) and the one who receives (on the part of the student — an internal effort) simultaneously contribute towards the birth of individualism. It is exactly like the moment when the baby bird within the egg begins to break the shell from the inside as the parent bird helps to break through from the outside. If the time is not mature, the death of the bird results.
Again, there is no set time or period for how long this stage takes. However, this is an important transitional period. Grow from infant-youth to a complete, fully grown individual appears only after this stage.
The final stage is known as ri. The definition of the character is: separation, leave, depart (from), release, set free, detach.
As the definition indicates, this is the time of graduation. The completion of one’s study is here, though it isn’t the end of study. In this stage, one is given recognition as a Master of the art, as well as recognition as a complete individual, independent in the art. Obviously, in this stage, one has to acquire every required technical skill, knowledge and experience, and a dauntless personality. Spiritually or mentally one no longer depends or relies upon external help or guidance. One depends upon one’s own continual inquiry. This is the stage where one may begin to see the Mind of No-Mind, or the Sword of No-Mind, through an as-yet misty horizon.
Needless to say, to attain this stage takes work and study that is beyond expression in words. This is where one liberates the self from external reliances, including one’s teacher, until cosmic consciousness, the Mind of No-Mind and the Sword of No-Sword, are revealed. And it is the state of shoshin with its continuous growth that is the key to its attainment.
I’ve given a brief description of shu, ha, and ri with their progressive development and structure. However, these three stages do not necessarily set up in mechanical form with clear boundaries between them, although their progression and transformation are basically acknowledged through a certificate given by the teacher.
Referring the above system to the present ranking system practiced in today’s Aikido, the stage of shu is applicable up to the rank of third Dan, the stage of ha up to fifth Dan, and the stage of ri to sixth Dan and above. Obviously it doesn’t apply to everyone’s rank, for both negative and positive reasons. The quality of rank is often questionable; and then there is the genius, someone who is not necessarily restrained by any system.
One who has attained the stage of ri is considered to be a master of the art. He/she has become one of the successors of the Path who stands as the embodiment of the art to all others. Obviously, one is still regarded as junior to one’s teacher within the line of transmission. Nevertheless, one is equal to any other master, including one’s own teacher, in responsibility to continue to transmit the art to others. And by this continual transmission of responsibility the art develops through further generations.
Whether the above-mentioned system is still practiced in today’s Aikido in Japan, or whether it is workable here in the United States where culture, life-style, and way of thinking are so different, is not my present interest. I am convinced, however, that this system still carries profound value for today’s society, as it presents deep insight into the growth of humankind. Furthermore, it clarifies the responsibilities of the teacher and the student, thus contributing to the establishment of an ideal relationship between the two.
Whatever changes American Aikido makes in the future, it will still require a close association with Japan. This is not limited to the technical level, but is meant more broadly from a cultural perspective. Culture exists as an undercurrent within the art wherein knowledge, wisdom, experience, and insight with regard to human growth through physical and spiritual training can be found.
Seeing all change as creative development is a dangerous concept, especially when this is given affirmative recognition based on the superficial assertion of one’s own creativity. Equally dangerous is the harsh demand for independence of the art based on political or racial reasons, or giving too strong an emphasis on the differences between two countries (East is East, West is West . . . is an extreme attitude). This is important, especially as American Aikido as a whole is still considered to be in its youth.
Change is unavoidable and only natural. However, it is illogical to think only of change while not recognizing those things which do not change. Changes derive from differences. Their counterpart — no-change — comes from something common and unified between the differences, through which the value of the art becomes a universal asset or property of mankind.
Whether one places importance on a part that changes or on a part that does not change, it’s necessary to have a delicate balance. Ultimately, it is shoshin which will bring about both a deeper insight and a sense of balance.
In the final analysis, it is perhaps shoshin that American Aikido as a whole needs, to be truly creative and independent in the future.
Many of you are aware Doshu was recently hosted for a weekend seminar in the San Francisco Bay Area (September 2019). During the weekend activities, I was fortunate to attend a special discussion on ‘The State of Aikido in the United States‘, held by Josh Gold, of Aikido Journal (Josh took over after Stanley Pranin’s passing).
The statistics that Josh shared during the discussion are sobering. Since 2004, interest in Aikido has dropped 90%. This interest continues to decline 9% PER YEAR at a consistent rate. 82% of Aikido practitioners are over 40 years of age. Less than 16% of United States Aikido practitioners are women (clearly Chiba Sensei was ahead of his time: Birankai has more women Shihan than men!)
It is clear that if we keep doing things as we have been doing them, our art will die a slow death and fade away.
Bold steps, open minded leadership, getting outside of our comfort zones, and new ways of engagement are needed NOW. We in the Northern California Region propose a way to slow down this trend and ultimately reverse it, is to refocus on and expand our Youth Programs.
To do our part to create some new energy, the NorCAL Region held its 1st Annual Kid’s Seminar on August 31, 2019.
It was wonderful to see a large turnout with students open to receiving positive and engaged instruction from Marci Martinez from Grass Valley, Bernard Dalay from Alameda Aikikai, and Gerard Enriquez from Aikido Institute of SF.
“For Aikido to thrive into the future, it really comes back to the kids. If we can engage and inspire kids with the positive messages of Aikido, including discipline, focus, character development, respect and martial awareness, we will carry on O’Sensei and Chiba Sensei’s legacies. We look forward to developing and extending our shared lineage through continued, dedicated practice, one child at a time.“
-Rob Schenk, Aikido Institute of San Francisco
“I completely agree with Rob and think that these children are the future of Aikido. This regional seminar was needed to bring us all together and see the future and potential of our region. The way the kids seemed to get along and the support and camaraderie that we just witnessed this weekend was inspiring.“
–Mitsu Nobusada Flynn, Alameda Aikikai
“The First Annual Northern California Regional Youth Seminar had a great turn out of students and teachers. It was fantastic to see how the youth from different dojos were comfortable playing and training with each other using Aikido as their common bond. Our students had not seen youth in hakama before. Those with hakama helped the younger students with how to engage at a seminar and that it was safe to try new things. Not only did they train together, but it feels like they inspired one another. One of the youth from Grass Valley had a fire lit within him, and for most of the way home, he was talking about how he couldn’t wait to show the other kids how he practiced Ikkyo. This seminar has created a more intense hunger in our students that they will share with their other dojo mates. This will help drive them to train at a different level than before and to feel comfortable training with students from other dojos.“
For years I stated a passionate opinion. Eight years ago, I was encouraged to capture this opinion in writing since my “journey has been different than many”. I struggled with the notion that somehow, there was anything unique about my Aikido experience. Isn’t everyone’s path in Aikido unique? In recent years as I travel, hearing others’ journeys, learning as much as I can and passing on as much as I can from those lessons, I finally found the inspiration to put my views into text.
provide a bit of background: I first saw
Aikido in 1983 at Michigan State University. To me, it was the best example of applied
physics among human interactions I could imagine. All I wanted was to be
able to do “it”, even if it took a lifetime. I was an extremely
uncoordinated computer geek; much later in life, I discovered I fell just
outside the Autism Spectrum. My best
friend’s father introduced me to “it”. I
hung around the dojo, learning the philosophy from the Sensei and participants
long before I ever stepped on the mat. Right
out of high school in 1985, I joined the club dojo – a Yoshinkai dojo, which had
beautiful Aikido and still exists today. I trained for about 18 months,
passed a number of early tests, and then was banished because of some dojo
politics with senior students. Though not in the dojo, I still practiced
bokken (with very poor form) and read and dreamed about aikido.
In 1995, I stumbled onto a new Aikido club in town: a non-affiliated dojo, with instruction once a week. I began studying again in earnest. The group soon grew and joined the U.S. Aikido Federation (USAF) Eastern Region. Our fledgling group attended summer camps, seminars and traveled to a USAF Western Region dojo in Ann Arbor as often as possible. I passed my 5th, 4th, and 3rd kyu tests, dropping into dojos and seminars as I traveled. Five years later, Lansing, Michigan received a great gift from the Universe (at least in terms of Aikido) when Frank Apodaca Sensei moved into town. He took in our motley crew of dedicated students, beginning a new chapter in our journey.
It was obvious the standardization of the Birankai curriculum, the basics, and the body movement led by such an incredible instructor would be a wonderfully challenging journey. For years we studied. For YEARS we tested and retested and retested before anyone was awarded a new rank.
I continued to train on the road, often in San Diego and in other Birankai-affiliated dojos. When my only option was another style, I was almost always warmly welcomed and made numerous friends. This experience taught me there are many systems and ways to learn Aikido: affiliated and non-affiliated; beginning with the body then developing the mind; beginning with the mind and then developing the body; building strength, then working toward flow and softness; working from softness to then build power; and so on. In each approach to training lies various ways to measure performance and rank. Clearly, they all produce great Aikidoists, and it’s been my honor to train with many.
For me, progress in Aikido began when I found an extrinsic system I could trust to measure myself against, coupled with a gifted and patient instructor who unwaveringly transmitted the system. During years of intense training and struggle, blind to all the changes in my body and mind and lacking reference (since my classmates were improving as well), this system removed my concern about level, rank, and progress. I could simply submit to the process. Rarely, if ever, did I find someone in the community of a “higher rank” who wasn’t more skilled than I. This was a constant testimony to the measuring stick for which I had signed up and allowed me to relax further into the system. The system has an integrity which instills a sense of trust.
At the heart of that integrity are three simple, beautiful and powerful words: “Please Try Again”. These words are amazingly inspirational to me. They scream, “Phil, you can do better. You have more room to grow at this level. Go find it!” These words are an external validation of where I am in the system and where I am not. Absent of politics and external motivations, these words are the only reason the word “PASS” has any value.
I was honored last fall to participate as an uke in a test for kyu ranks ranging from 5th to 2nd kyu and practice tests for shodan and nidan. I was reminded how testing is really about looking into a mirror and seeing its clear reflection. I was thrilled that day to hear these three words. I saw the integrity of the system upheld by a next-generation instructor. I was also thrilled for all the students who heard these words. I spoke with the recipients of these three most important words, explaining how lucky it is to hear them on a 3rd kyu test, and that I too heard them a half dozen times on my 3rd kyu practice tests from Apodaca Sensei more than a decade and a half earlier.
the word “Pass” had a bit more confidence in their ability.
appreciated me relating my experience and are continuing to work hard.
These words, “Please, try again”, administered by a community of instructors, generally of the same mind set, generally on the same curriculum, with generally of the same philosophy, continue to produce students who reaffirm the “trust” so crucial to a standard. The system is a classic feedback loop: the measuring stick gets stronger as these words are administered in a true and honest way. The system becomes stronger and avoids erosion. I may never reach another rank within the system. This is OK. What I know, and will never question, is the rank I achieved.
I continue to travel, 250+ days a year now. I train wherever and whenever I can, regardless of affiliation. I have visited more than 75 dojos across the world, many for only a single class, others for weeks or months of training. Thanks to the integrity of the Birankai system (because of those three words), I am confident in where I am and where I am not, and now have evolved to simply allow everyone I train with to be my mirror, my test.
Thirty-six years after seeing Aikido for the first time and wanting to be able to do “it” and twenty-three years after beginning Aikikai training, I still cannot. On rare occasions I can see in my uke’s eyes I am doing something close to “it”. I hope I have a number of years left to keep learning and getting closer to my goal. I never waiver in my confidence that following the Birankai system is the way for me to get further and allow me to always know where I stand.
Darrell Bluhm, Founder and Chief Instructor, Siskiyou Aikikai and member of BNA Senior Council
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a future book presenting Chiba Sensei’s extensive writings on aikido, some of which will be republished in Biran Online over the coming year.
In traditional Japanese artistic disciplines such as Budo, it is understood that the teacher/student relationship is the means through which the transmission of the art (or Way) occurs: the art is transmitted directly from the body/mind of the teacher to that of the student. The articles in this collection of writings by Aikido master Kazuo Chiba must be understood in this context. The wisdom expressed here emerges from the effort to transmit the art of Aikido — not in the abstract, but as a living breathing force from one person to another. The commitment and passion that characterizes Chiba Sensei’s teaching can be found in part in these writings, but the reader unfamiliar with the master himself should try to appreciate the intensely physical and personal nature of his life’s work. Those of us fortunate enough to have studied directly with Chiba Sensei knew that he taught by example and through his ability to recognize each of us as a unique being.
The word sensei, Japanese for teacher, literally means “one who walks on the path before me”. Chiba Sensei embodies this. When I first began training with Chiba Sensei upon his arrival in San Diego in 1981, we practiced in a yoga studio that required us to put down and pick up the tatami mats before and after each class and clean the hardwood floors with damp rags. The latter was accomplished by holding the rag to the floor with both hands and then running across the floor, pushing the rag from behind, back and forth until the surface was clean. This was a strenuous enterprise, following an always exhausting training. Chiba Sensei would join us and when one of us would ask to relieve him of his rag he would refuse, stating, “It is my privilege to clean the dojo”. Once the routine for cleaning the dojo was established, Sensei eventually left the task to us, as there were many other demands on his time.
In his everyday teaching, Chiba Sensei never asked his
students to submit to any rigor that he himself had not undergone. This offered
little solace to us as students because Sensei’s arduous physical training was
legendary (one mile of bunny hops, 3,000 continuous sword cuts, extended and
intense periods of meditation and self-purification training). While his commitment to his own practice was
uncompromising, he tailored his expectations of his students, taking into
account age, temperament, health and each student’s level of commitment,
challenging and inspiring us toward our development but never in a by-rote or
The responsibility of a teacher is to recognize his or her
students for who they are and help them awaken to their own potential within a
given discipline. This is inherently different from a parental role in which
one is responsible for the nourishment and daily care of a child, while the
deeper manifestation of who that child is, is by proximity hidden from the
parent. The parent is too close to the child and their own emotional
attachments and expectations cloud their perception. A teacher has a more objective and detached
perspective to see into a student. In the Japanese martial tradition that Chiba
Sensei followed, the teacher does have a responsibility to the spiritual
nourishment of the student.
The requirement for achieving that obligation within this
tradition is that the teacher must possess the eyes to see deeply into the
student along with “the heart of the Buddha and hands of the devil”
with which to awaken him or her. An outsider observing an interaction between
teacher and student may only witness
“the hands of the devil” and not appreciate the compassion that
underlies the action. This aspect of
Chiba Sensei’s teaching was linked to his commitment to sustaining the roots of
Aikido training that lie in its historical and living relationship to
Budo. Aikido, as created by its founder
Morihei Ueshiba, is directed towards cultivating the harmonization of self with others (enabling individuals to act
responsibly in a civil society), rather than the capacity to survive by any
means in combat, which was the objective of past martial training.
The founder’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, furthered his father’s work promoting Aikido as a highly ethical discipline, cleansed of many of the more vulgar aspects of martial arts, yet true to Aikido’s source, Budo. On the surface, the martial essence of Aikido can be difficult to recognize, especially when it is presented in its most flowing form, with large circular movements, graceful and elegant. Seen this way, it appears unrelated to the martial imperative to recognize where, when, and with what technique to kill an opponent.
Chiba Sensei brought the martial essence of Aikido closer to
the fore, clarifying the highly rational and structured elements of his art,
yet faithful to the deeper, more instinctual processes at work in each vital
martial encounter. Within the crucible
of his own dojo, he created the conditions for transmitting this art to his
students, forging their bodies and characters in the fires of daily training.
The use of story, song, poem and philosophical discourse as
a means to further the understanding and accomplishment of students has a long
tradition in Japanese martial arts.
Chiba Sensei’s writing draws from a deep well of literature from his own
cultural tradition as well as sources outside.
Having lived in Europe and the United States for over 35 years, he was
also familiar with much of western philosophy and literature, such as the
writings of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and others. He always encouraged those of us who were his
students to express ourselves in writing, exposing us to Japanese literary
resources and prompting us to look within our own cultural traditions for
inspiration. Within the first months of my training with him he requested that
I read “The Swordsman and the Cat” from the appendices of D.T.
Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture and
submit to him an essay based on my reactions to the story.
Every time one was tested for advancement in rank under
Chiba Sensei’s direction, an essay on some aspect of training was required.
While he encouraged students to draw from cultural literature as an influence
for thinking and writing about Aikido practice, he was most pleased when the writing
reflected an understanding of self and circumstance that had emerged directly
from training. The writing presented in
this volume represents knowledge distilled from a lifetime of training, a
knowledge not limited to the intellect but one deeply connected to the body and
the deeper and richer recesses of being.
For those readers who are not practitioners of Aikido or who
have never had the opportunity to experience Chiba Sensei’s teaching directly,
the essays offered in this volume can serve as an opening into a master’s
world. The photographs and reproductions
of Chiba Sensei’s brushwork that accompany the writing can widen that aperture
and deepen your appreciation. If a
picture is worth a thousand words, then to feel the touch of a master is worth
a million pictures. For those of us who
practice Aikido, these writings are a source for deep reflection and an
encouragement to continue moving on our own path towards a deeper appreciation
of Aikido and the unique miracle of our own lives.
Editor’s note: this article was previously published in Sansho, April, 1987
Anyone who thinks that putting more
hours into training will necessarily result in greater achievement in the art
is thinking like a child. Fundamentally, it is a materialistic attitude and
doesn’t lead anywhere but to an unsolvable problem. We can’t avoid moving, day
by day, closer to the grave.
Many people think that through training they can make their bodies responsive and controllable; that they’ll be able to move them as they wish. I don’t deny that this is an important part of learning. However, it is only part of it. A part that is only relative to a greater factor which one should be more aware of. This, I think, is more important: to develop an introspective attitude in training, with a more serious eye to self-examination. This is a matter of the quality within one’s training.
To recognize the imbalance, disharmony, or disorder within one’s system, sensed within the body, as well as between the body and consciousness, is a starting point for one’s growth. This is where a conversation or dialog begins to happen between the body and consciousness. As the dialog develops, awareness becomes more clear, and one begins to recognize a natural power or potential ability which has, until then, been hidden.
Instead of adding an external element to the body, one needs to see what is already within. More importantly, consciousness itself (the way one perceives things), begins to change along with the discovery of the true body (as opposed to the body that one changes according to will.)
The important and unique thing that makes Aikido what it is, is that progress moves in proportion to the discovery of a natural power which is already within each individual, together with an organic, dynamic core, which helps the body function in harmony and as a whole.
It is the kind of path where one progressively encounters the true self with wonder and joy. The “estranged self,” hidden with its inexhaustible potential, lies undiscovered by many people who die without knowing that it even exists.
In many ways, rightly or wrongly, our bodies are the product of our consciousness. In order to discover what that is requires close self-examination within our training. It isn’t a path where one adds more and more information, details, power, etc., externally and endlessly, to the “too much” that is already there.
Touching upon this subject in a profound way, according to Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen: “Buddhist practice through the body is more difficult than practice through the mind. Intellectual comprehension in learning through the mind must be united to practice through our body. This unity is called SHINJITSUNINTAI, the real body of man. It is the perception of everyday mind, through the phenomenal world. If we harmonize the practice of enlightenment with our body, the entire world will be seen in its true form.”
Finally, the discovery of the true body of man, with its value and beauty, is beyond comparison with competitive values, but rather stands on its own within each individual. Thus, the only conclusion is for Aikido to be non-competitive. I’d like to add another Zen master’s words in this regard — a master from Vietnam whose lecture (given at Smith College in New Hampshire, Massachusetts) I was fortunate enough to attend. During a question and answer period, a woman stood up and asked him what he thought of the meditation system practiced by the Quakers. He answered, “How can you compare the beauty of a cherry flower with that of a rose?”
An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership
I have not
been on the mat for 16 months and I have been retired from Birankai leadership
for the same amount of time, yet here I am writing an article for Biran…still
volunteering for an organization that I am no longer involved with. I began volunteering for Chiba Sensei in 1992
and I never stopped until December 2018.
Over those 20 years I easily spent 15,000 volunteer hours for Birankai
and Chiba Sensei, probably more, I never counted. It is worthwhile to analyze what motivated me
to volunteer in order to understand what it would take to attract a new
generation of leadership.
Wanting to give back to Sensei – Despite being a confirmed lifetime klutz, at 33, I began training in earnest. As my commitment to my training increased, my teacher took my training more seriously. He started using me for ukemi and paying attention to my progress on the mat. Because he, as my Teacher, took me seriously, I took him very seriously and felt compelled to give back to him and to the organization that he had established.
It was fun – I enjoyed volunteering. I had a chance to be creative and use what I
was good at. For years I was the junior
ranked aikidoka amongst very talented senior ranking practitioners in the
room. They were much better at aikido
than I was but I had something to offer that they perhaps did not. Very talented athletes are not always the
best at things outside of their art/sport.
It was really fun to offer my skills to people that needed help. I felt good about my talents and myself, as
they were needed. People volunteer
because they get something out of it. I
got a seat at the table and companionship from people that I am still close
with. We had lots of fun along the way
working on issues and took time to laugh at each other and the process along
I was addicted to aikido, it became
my life – Sensei had
us training so hard and intensely that we couldn’t think about anything else;
we became completely present in our training.
The outside world disappeared while we were on the mat. I became addicted to this level of training. I trained 10 hours a week and it became the
center of my world. It followed
naturally from this that I gave something back to my addiction, my world; I
would not have been capable of only taking.
Family – While training and volunteering,
the people that I was spending time with became like family. To this day I count among my closest friends
in the world the people with whom I trained intensively and with whom I helped
to shape Birankai. Even in my departure,
I tried to leave people in place to replace me so as not to let my family down.
I was asked and then I asked others – Before Ismail Hasan Sensei (Aikido
of London) left the Kenshusei program at San Diego Aikikai, he asked me to
volunteer. He was taking care of the family he was leaving behind. I agreed. Next, Elizabeth Beringer asked me to be on the
USAF-Western Region Advisory Council.
In later years I asked others to volunteer, they also became longtime
volunteers. Lyons Shihan had married and
was busy running his farm when I asked him to take on a fundraising project and
later to join the Board of Directors; Peterson Sensei was busy with his family
and military career when I asked him to join the Board of Directors; and Cohen
Sensei was busy with her family when I
asked her to volunteer to help with the fundraising job and later to became
Summer Camp Coordinator. They all made
positive contributions and changed the face of our organization because someone
asked for their time.
So, what does this history lesson
Training must be intense and martial to attract people to become long term practitioners of aikido. – In order to get people to show up several times a week to the dojo and to subsequently volunteer I think they need to become addicted to the art. The only way to do this is with very intense training. However, a caveat to this is that for various reasons that have been outlined by other people in other articles, the population of aikidoka is aging and we are not attracting as many young people to the art as we used to. With that in mind a serious commitment should be made by Birankai Teachers to develop an aikido that is both highly martial and low impact. Notice that there are very few post-menopausal women that remain in Aikido, and yet in earlier years women make up a large percentage of our membership. We need to develop a type of training that remains intense and yet that people are still able to do as bones and joints age. Get and keep people addicted even in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.
Build community that people want to
belong to and therefore are motivated to volunteer for at the dojo level and at
the organizational level. – Without the charismatic leader that attracted me to Aikido it is
difficult to attract students to become involved beyond the dojo level. Chief Instructors should consider using
summer camp as a way to attract their students to become involved with and bond
with the larger organization. Attending
summer camp can help people feel that they belong to the larger “family” and
thus hopefully motivate them to volunteer for the organization.
Ask people to volunteer. – It works. Most people like to be noticed and to think
that their contribution might matter.
Cultivate leadership and volunteers.
– Chief Instructors should cultivate volunteering as an expression of
and a deepening commitment to one’s Aikido practice. Birankai leaders should consider how to
cultivate an environment in which volunteerism is expected and acknowledged at
every level and rank in the organization.
This will help broaden the pool of volunteers.
Take time to have fun along the way. – Don’t try to do too much
organizationally that you don’t leave time for your volunteers to play. Meetings should have time for a joke or prank
or two and not be only about business.
Recognize the necessity of volunteering. – Note that many years ago we had over 1,000 members in Birankai. Our current organizational structure was built on that level of membership. A larger membership enabled the organization to support paying an Executive Director and providing a stipend to support some other organizational jobs. We have dwindled to 645 members now. The lower level of people paying dues will mean that finding volunteers is more crucial than ever…somebody else is not going to take care of it…the organization needs you. Volunteer to help with something. Email Deb Pastors at email@example.com if you can give as little as 1 or 2 hours a month to help with the many tasks it takes to keep our village running and continue to spread the art of our beloved TK Chiba Shihan.
An article in the series Transition: the Next Generation of Leadership
When Steve Thoms first asked me to write about the change in
leadership in Birankai North America, I demurred. I have been so close to the
process that I thought I would not be able to step back enough from the people
and personalities engaged in the transition.
But after some reflection, I decided to try. Now that I am no longer Chair of the Senior Council, with my function devolved to (mostly) an advisory role, I have had the opportunity and privilege to look at the work we do in a different way.
I first want to thank the Birankai members who have guided us through a hard time, and have now passed their responsibilities to others. I particularly wish to recognize the outgoing President/Board Chair Alex Peterson, retired Executive Director Cindy Eggers, and retired Financial Advisor Lynne Ballew for their unswerving and careful management during the years of our teacher’s illness and passing. Thanks also to the members of the Senior Council, the Directors, and the many volunteers who have worked steadily to keep the organization healthy. I also want to thank the folks who have stepped up, and have selflessly accepted responsibility for the organization’s work, especially President/Board Chair Deb Pastors, Executive Director Neilu Naini, Senior Council Chair Frank Apodaca, Teachers Council Chair Roo Heins, and Summer Camp Coordinator Leslie Cohen.
It is natural for leadership to change over time. Governments, corporations, families – all have built-in processes to pass on knowledge and responsibility to the next generation. It is not only natural: it’s necessary. New people bring fresh ideas, new enthusiasms, and fresh responses to changing conditions.
BNA – and all Aikido organizations — reminds me very much of an ecosystem. (I beg the indulgence of the scientists among us who will cringe at my simplifications.) Imagine a forest. It is shaped by climate, soil character, and water. What kind of plants and animals inhabit it depends on how hot or cold the environment is, what nutrients the soil provides, and the abundance or absence of rain. But the forest is not a mechanical object. It is a living system: complex, inter-relational, and dynamic.
BNA too is a dynamic system. Prior to the creation of Birankai, Chiba Sensei described the organization he wished to develop as one which find a way to reconcile the values of American democracy and Japanese budo. He described it as he hoped it would be, as an harmonious and creative community. The work of that community is to support the transmission of the Way of Aiki from teachers to students. The transmission is manifested – given life — through Gyo, practice. Sensei was direct and explicit: “The foundation of the transmission is the teacher-student relationship. A transmission without the healthy development and dignity of the teacher-student relationship misses the essence of Aikido. It will dry up the essential Aikido life force.” [T.K. Chiba, January 1995.]
Birankai dojos are the place where that work is done. If BNA is an ecosystem, the individual dojos might be seen as habitats within that system. A flourishing forest contains a diversity of plants and animals. Birankai dojos, similarly, are distinct and diverse. Each has its own character, forged by the relationship of its students to their teacher. BNA as an organization exists to serve the Way. I believe that the best way to do that is to support our teachers, and to strengthen and assist the growth of our dojos, since they are where the transmission occurs.
This is a demanding time, not only for Aikido, but for many traditional martial arts. Birankai is nearly twenty years old. External conditions – cultural conditions — have changed since Chiba Sensei first envisioned it. But nothing, we know, is permanent. What happens to a forest when the weather patterns shift, if there is too much rain, or if there is none? A healthy ecosystem responds robustly to a change in conditions. What does an Aikido organization do when it encounters disruption or instability, either internally or externally? It holds fast to its mission, to serve the Way, and applies its knowledge and its skills to the encounter.
I am confident that BNA can respond flexibly to the challenges we face. The people who have volunteered to lead us are knowledgeable and mature. We have an abundance of dedicated teachers, who embody the art fully. We have a solid connection to the lineage and to the mother house. We have students who wish to study. And we have a compelling message: As Aikido practitioners, our lives have been transformed and enriched by training in this art. We must find ways to make this happiness visible to others.
I am deeply grateful to those members who have served BNA for so long, and now withdraw to rest, and equally grateful to those who have stepped up to share the work. I hope that, as we move into the future, we can remain united in friendship and in kindness.
“If it looks pretty, it’s not Aikido. You have to have tension.”
That is just one of the many thought-provoking asides offered by Piotr Masztalerz Sensei of Wroclaw Aikikai last month at a dynamic seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai. Masztalerz, rokudan Shidoin and a leader of Polish Birankai, brought his innovative approach to ukemi, technique and weapons to the U.S. for the first time at a major seminar.
Masztalerz studied intensively with Chiba Sensei both as an uchideshi in San Diego in the early 2000s and as a leader of European Birankai who attended many seminars and hosted him for several large camps in Poland.
With a large full-time dojo and hundreds of students, Masztalerz devotes himself to all of the elements of Birankai Aikido practice, with a special emphasis on the study of ukemi. His home base of Wroclaw (pronounced “vrots-wahf”) in western Poland hosts a lively scene that brings together actors, dancers, motorbike drivers and a range of martial artists in the study of movement at Wroclaw Aikikai.
Ukemi should be challenging and gymnastic at all levels in Aikido, Masztalerz says, with the intent of freeing up the body’s potential and exploring the art on a deeper level. Beginners need to learn practical falling skills from the very beginning or they won’t come back, he adds. Also important is that senior students push themselves at all ages to maintain their conditioning and try new ways of taking ukemi and executing techniques.
“It’s very important for people with experience to challenge themselves with ukemi,” Masztalerz says. “Ukemi is very physical, so you have to be fit. As soon as you feel like you already know it, you’re dead.”
This was the best summer camp in years for me. All summer camps are good but this one had some breakthroughs for me personally. I feel excited about it because it’s like an old dog learning new tricks.
I have been in Aikido since 1971 in Toronto and while I won’t say that a great deal of that time has been wasted, it has not been utilized to its maximum potential. Back in the day our senior teachers were Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei, both 5th dan then. It didn’t matter because to us they were (and still are) amazing in their dynamic execution of Aikido.
Back then the teaching was old school. They would show something a few times and then we would go for it. There was a lot of early talk about “extending your ki” and “holding your tanden,” and although we all would devoutly repeat these phrases I myself (and I suspect many others as well) didn’t have a clue as to what we were talking about…but it sounded cool!
Over the last 20 years in Aikido under our late founder Chiba Shihan, Aikido became codified and the method of teaching, of transmitting the knowledge, became much more conceptual to me. I say this because without having someone who really “knows and can teach,” a student (like me) can be doing something entirely wrong for decades. Or if not wrong, then empty perhaps is a better word.
For me at least, this change began when I started Iaido ten years ago in Birankai. From the get-go we were all (those of us who were newbies) told to not only study the forms, but to strive to use visualization when performing these forms. All of my Iaido teachers are wonderful. Each one stresses different aspects when they teach, but visualization is central with all of them.
Getting back to this year’s (2018) summer camp, I began to be able to (for short intervals of time), hold on to the visualization during the form. Wowee, what a thrill. An entirely new feeling that made the forms come wonderfully alive.
Now here’s the best part — it began spilling over into my body arts and weapons. I have to say that (for me at least) I try very hard (and have for many years) to concentrate all the way through a technique. I can think about the form and monitor it as I do it, but at the end I always realize that I blanked out during the middle. I remember the attack and the end but the middle? ”It’s all a blur,” as they say in the movies.
This camp has been the first time this old guy had several moments (yeah..not a lot) of being alive throughout an entire technique…watching my movement…my partner’s movement..his or her eyes…everything right to the end. It was an astonishing revelation for me and a true watershed moment.
Remember the first Spiderman movie? Peter Parker wakes up as spiderman and goes to his high school. At his locker some steroid juice monkey throws a punch at him. He watches the punch slip by him in slow motion due to his new spider sense. As crazy as it may sound…that’s what my visualizations felt like to me.
As I wind up this commentary I again won’t say that I’ve wasted most of my years…there have been many good points. But it wasn’t until this last camp the for me that I began to integrate what my teachers have been hammering into me for years.
Thoughts/direction from my recent seminar at Connecticut Aikikai:
A lot of these folks I only get to see once a year so I really wanted to give them something they could not only memorize as a technique but perhaps work on as a broad principle within their Aikido practice and when teaching and training.
My biggest concern in the seminar is that we are engaging correctly in the training process whatever the technique may be. Aikido technique has a certain correct rhythm that naturally emerges if one is holding their body in a correct manner – basically the unbalance should be immediate and continuous and the theme of that was my focus in this seminar with body art and weapons.
My wish is that my students find their own unique body and movement through the training which is an organic expression through sincere practice. I’m grateful to have this chance to teach and am looking forward to next year.