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
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.
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.
Didier Boyet Shihan started studying with Chiba Sensei in 1977, spending an extensive amount of time with him in Japan, Europe, England and San Diego. Boyet lived in Tokyo and trained at Hombu Dojo from 1977 to 2016 – he currently lives in Paris and travels the world teaching Aikido seminars. The following is an edited transcript of several conversations between Boyet Shihan and Liese Klein in Tokyo in March of 2016. Some of Boyet Sensei’s experiences are also related in the upcoming biography The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido. Boyet Sensei will be the featured guest instructor at 2018 Birankai Aikido Summer Camp, July 20-25 in Tacoma, Wash.
Tell me about your arrival in Tokyo in 1977.
I arrived on Oct. 4, a Tuesday, and on the 7th, I joined Chiba Sensei’s class. I came a little bit early: He signed me up at the dojo then he took me to Kisshomaru Sensei’s house. Then he took me to his class, I changed and sat down in the dojo. There were very few people, maybe 12. When everyone bowed in, the only one left to train with was this Japanese guy. We started training and I thought, ‘This guy’s trying to kill me!’ I’m thinking that I can’t take it, I’m going to die! That was Shibata Sensei. I had very long hair at that time – for iriminage he grabbed me by the hair. After class everyone was laughing. I was a very weak shodan. Then I started going to Shibata Sensei’s class and he sort of liked me. We were eight people in this class at 3 pm. The class was very wonderful, it was very dynamic but basic, basic.
How did you first meet Chiba Sensei?
I first met Chiba Sensei during the Tamura Sensei Summer Camp of 1973 or ’74 in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, France. I believe that this was Chiba Sensei’s first visit to France although he had been living in England since 1966.
When I saw Chiba Sensei practice for the first time, I said ‘Oh my god.’ It was raw. There was violence but I never saw it as violence, I saw it as something raw, mainly, He hadn’t polished anything yet. I was totally subdued by that. After this Summer Camp I tried to attend as many seminars and classes that he conducted as far as I could.
He returned to Japan from England in 1976; I met him September of 1977, in San Sebastian (Spain), where he was conducting a seminar with [Nobuyoshi] Tamura.
Chiba Sensei was 36. He had so much fire. He would go to class to practice, not to play around. I practiced with him as a partner at that seminar in San Sebastian. I remember doing nikkyo with him, suwariwaza for maybe 30 minutes. I couldn’t eat for a whole week; I couldn’t use my hands anymore. Just like two pieces of wood. He’d take you all around the mat, drag you.
I told Tamura I wanted to spend a couple of years in Japan. Tamura said I had better talk to Chiba and he would introduce me at Hombu. We had a special lunch in San Sebastian. Chiba said, ‘No, there are already so many French people who give me trouble every day, I don’t want another one.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I already brought my ticket!’
How did you start Aikido?
I was living south of Paris, in a city called Tours where I landed a job in 1971. I had just moved to the city and did not know anyone there. I went to see a movie but unfortunately that day was the movie theaters’ day off. So, here I am, in front of a closed movie theater and I noticed that there was another guy who, like me, did not know that movie theaters had holidays. We joked about it and sat in the next café for a drink. In that place, there was a small TV hanging on the wall and showing, you won’t believe it, an episode of a documentary about Japanese martial arts dedicated to Aikido. I had never heard of Aikido and I was not interested in Japan or the Far East for that matter. But it struck me and the next day I called the city hall to find out if the small city of Tours had an Aikido dojo. And it did and the clerk knew about it. I immediately started to train.
My first teacher soon took me to Tamura Sensei. I really liked Tamura Sensei’s Aikido, he was extremely dynamic. Tamura Sensei didn’t have a dojo in Paris, he never did. He was working for the French Aikido federation, going one place to another every weekend. I got my shodan in 1976. Around that time, Chiba urged Tamura to invite Mitsuzuka Sensei to
France to teach Iaido. Tamura Sensei would always do a couple hours of Iaido at seminars, and I knew shoden [basic forms]. I got to drive Mitsuzuka Sensei around in the summer of 1977, all over Europe. Mitsuzuka Sensei was very Japanese, he behaved abroad like he did in Japan –Tamura and Chiba behaved differently. Mitsuzuka Sensei would come to a seminar, people would practice for a couple of weeks, and he’d give them third dan or fourth dan! The other Japanese teachers would go bananas. ‘These guys are going to go open a dojo!’ In Japan, fourth dan is nothing.
Did many Europeans appreciate Chiba Sensei?
Some people, not a lot. It was completely new.
Tell me about the private classes with Chiba Sensei at Hombu Dojo.
Chiba Sensei was back in Japan after 10 years in England, and he had already a clear view of what he wanted to do. To do it, he needed people to work on. The private classes had started a few months before I arrived. They were on Tuesday and Thursday at 1 pm. We used the small tatami room on the fourth floor; the door was closed for total privacy. We started at 1 clock, but most of the time it went on for at least two or three hours. The foreigners were Paul Sylvain, Lorraine DiAnne, Meik Skoss, Dee Chen, Bruce Bookman, Jay Dunkelman and two Scottish guys. Shibata Sensei would usually join in. Sometimes the door would crack open and a head would come out and say ‘Dame, dame dame!’ [Wrong, wrong, wrong!] that was Yamaguchi Sensei. He’s in his suit, he was teaching in the morning, suit and necktie. He would take over and show us what to do. Chiba Sensei loved it.
Chiba Sensei was enthusiastic in the private classes. He was not the same as he was in Europe. He was very approachable, he liked jokes. He loved these private classes.
It was rough because everybody was scared, even though in four years there were no accidents, no serious injuries in the private lessons. It was really tense. There was tension on each side. We were so eager to learn and he was so eager to teach.
What kinds of things was Sensei focusing on in those classes?
He would bring in Budo, a thick book written by O-Sensei before the war. We went through the whole book, one page or a couple of pages a day. He would put the book on the kamiza; he’d turn to it and look at it again. It was really like a laboratory. For us it was a great way to learn things. Then bokken, weapons work. Lots of it.
When did you start training in Iaido with Takeshi Mitsuzuka Sensei?
As soon as I arrived in Japan. I went through Chiba Sensei, he said OK, come to the dojo. We went to the Iaido dojo in Yotsuya Sanchome, the old one. Chiba Sensei officially asked Mitsuzuka if I could join, he introduced me and asked him if he would agree to take me on as a student. Everything was under Chiba Sensei’s tutelage. Chiba Sensei always practiced Iaido. At one point Chiba Sensei told us he got hurt during a trip with O-Sensei and O-Sensei left him in an Iaido dojo somewhere in the south of Honshu. He had to practice Iaido to get his back better. He also collected swords; he had many in Japan.
I went three times a week to Yotsuya police station to train in Iaido with Mitsuzuka Sensei. You could do it at Hombu but it had to be secret, you had to hide yourself. Chiba Sensei was practicing Iaido on his own at Hombu – he couldn’t come to Mitsuzuka Sensei’s except on the weekends because he was so busy. He cut himself once so bad, all by himself upstairs. We were changing in the locker room, he came down he had his hakama around his arm, blood was dripping from the hakama. He said, ‘Go clean!’ He disappeared, went to the clinic for stitches. He had cut a vein, it was pissing blood. We go up there and there is blood all over the stairs going to the fourth floor. We open the door and go, ‘Oh shit.’ The white mat was covered with blood. We spent about two hours with cold water and rags until it disappeared.
We knew that if [Kisabura] Osawa Sensei, the dojo-cho, saw the mess he was going to be so pissed. He was very against doing any weapons in the dojo: When doing bokken, we had to close the windows so nobody could hear the noise of the weapons.
What was it like to practice with Kisaburo Osawa Sensei?
Osawa Sensei had a class on Friday at 5:30, and he gave that class to Chiba Sensei. I would go to his Wednesday morning class and he used me for ukemi every time, but he never addressed me. In his class, Osawa Sensei did everything slow, he would show things very, very slowly. He would slow down like slow motion. It was very beautiful. There were mostly Japanese in class; he never talked to foreigners and I don’t think he liked them. He was an old-style Japanese nationalist. Right after the war, he had a bar in Shinjuku. When the dojo started to grow again in the 1950s, Doshu went to pick him up.
Why were foreigners so drawn to Chiba Sensei at Hombu?
We understood what he was doing. We were just there to train. We were not supported by our own federations but we asked for it. We had no money – nobody wanted any money, we didn’t care about it. All that we wanted was to train, train, train, train.
We often went out with Chiba Sensei. He talked a lot; he liked to practice his English. He liked his group. He told us stories of his time with O-Sensei. When O-Sensei would come down from Iwama, he would arrive at Hombu and he never said anything. He would show up at Hombu and pick up somebody to go with him as kaban-mochi (bag-carrier). I remember Chiba Sensei saying that he knew O-Sensei was coming when he saw [Yoshimitsu] Yamada running and closing himself up in a closet so O-Sensei would not see him and take him on a trip!
Being a kaban-mochi was very hard. After O-Sensei arrived, he would say, ‘You!’ and he would leave. You have to pack your stuff and then grab his stuff and run after him and he’s gone to the station and he doesn’t have tickets! They would take the cable car from Nuke Benten [transit stop near Hombu Dojo] to Shinjuku Station. Chiba Sensei used to say you had to go into the train cars and find a place next to or in front of a beautiful girl. O-Sensei loved to talk to beautiful girls, and you had to go from one car to the other and find somebody alone. Otherwise you’d have to persuade who was sitting next to her to move aside.
As kaban-mochi, you never talked to O-Sensei because he’s up there. [Gestures above his head.] You don’t talk up.
Birankai North America Summer Camp 2018 guest instructor Didier Boyet Shihan gave a great seminar this past week in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Visit the Facebook page of Leonardo Marques Câmara Sodré to see hundreds of photos of the event – you may even catch a glimpse of Luis Gonçalves, who visited Birankai Summer Camp in San Diego a few years ago while he was living in Japan. (The photo up top is one of many high-quality images.)
Looking forward to seeing Boyet Sensei soon in Tacoma and greetings to our friends in Brazil!
As we approach the publication date of “The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido,” I’d like highlight one important facet of the book – it’s not just about Chiba Sensei. At close to 400 pages, this book attempts to profile an entire generation of Aikido pioneers. These are the young Japanese men who left Hombu Dojo in the 1960s under the direction of Kisshomaru Ueshiba to heed O-Sensei’s call to build “bridges across the ocean” and bring Aikido to the West.
Using Chiba Sensei’s writings, historic materials and in-person interviews where possible, I’ve attempted to profile many of these men and tell their stories of struggle and triumph in Europe, the U.K. and the Americas.
The book also explores the foundational role of several of Chiba Sensei’s most important sempai: Koichi Tohei, Morihiro Saito and Mutsuro Nakazono, along with influential teachers like Tadashi Abe, Kenshiro Abbe, Sadateru Arikawa, Kisaburo Osawa, Seigo Yamaguchi and Hiroshi Tada. These men, along with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, shaped the Aikido and careers of Chiba Sensei’s generation and continue to influence many across the Aikido world.
Life as a direct student of O-Sensei at both Hombu Dojo and Iwama is also explored in-depth in a section on the early careers of the post-war generation. Throughout the narrative, several of Chiba Sensei’s close colleagues, especially Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsunari Kanai and Nobuyoshi Tamura, are discussed in detail as they developed their own dojos, organizations and teaching styles. As far as I know, this is the first full-length treatment of this period of Aikido history.
Sign up now to reserve a first-edition copy of “The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido.” You will be notified as soon as copies are ready for sale and directed to an online purchasing page.
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The first time I met Boyet Sensei he was wearing a black, rabbit felt hat with a wide brim and no decoration other than a simple black band chasing around the crown. A bold yet natural choice for the cold weather of Vancouver BC in February 2017.
Attending his seminar at Mountain Coast Aikikai caused my practice to shift. Until then, I was practicing the techniques being taught. A beginner working at the surface.
My eyes absorbed, my mind decoded and my body moved.
What I found in Boyet Sensei’s teaching was essential, direct and fluid. A bold simplicity that resonated with my creative values.
“You do not have time” he said while we worked through a shomen bokken technique. He emphasized how important one, clear movement was in meeting the attack of an opponent’s weapon.
“You will be dead,” he finished, underscoring that speed was a matter of timing and reduction to essential movement. It was not a matter of more, but rather less.
His lesson was simple; nine words, one clear meaning. It catalyzed my Aikido practice with new perspective because he taught through the language of my creative values. I left the dojo in Vancouver excited to put the weekend’s learnings to daily practice.
It had triggered the shift, but the avalanche was still to come.
A year later, March 2018, Portland was emerging from winter’s slumbering rhythm. A bouquet of purple tulips rested with a wild, natural gesture on the kamiza at Multnomah Aikikai. Boyet Sensei was in town to teach a seminar at my home dojo.
I had just come off a rather taxing period in my career that ended abruptly. I was feeling listless and disinterested creatively. A problem for a designer and perfect timing for the kind of provocation a mentor can inspire.
I spent the whole weekend on the tatami, eager to absorb all the Aikido I could. To my surprise, what I learned illuminated a path beyond the dojo and helped to reignite my dimming passion for design.
Once again, Boyet Sensei was direct in his practice. No fluffy stuff, no extra movement; all practicality, applied simply.
A year before I was encountering all of it for the first time; I was just happy to get a signal. This time, I was tuning into the finer lessons that come with familiarity.
“Copy from someone better than you until you have made it your own, then find another person.” He lectured between techniques.
I thought about all the senior students and instructors I had learned from. Gweyn’s ukemi, Bill’s kokyu-ho, Thoms Sensei’s tenchinage. But had I committed myself to it? Had I owned my practice? Had I possessed my creative identity?
“You do not have time” he said about the little extra movements he was trying to prune out of his students. Once again, those five words echoed the clear message that changed my mindset a year prior.
The way that Boyet Sensei demonstrated techniques struck like a bolt of lightning. Just enter, turn, and there it is; Ikkyo. The clarity of movement leaves nothing mysterious, and the reduction reveals beauty.
He spoke in familiar language.
“You must be beautiful, and to be beautiful, it must be simple.” Boyet Sensei explained during the Sunday morning Iaido class. “it may take fifteen, twenty years, but if you train, you will find it.”
In the creative arts, it is no different. Form follows function. Less is more. But getting there is a messy exercise with a lot of wasted movement. Out of the process emerges the value.
Boyet Sensei reminded me that the practice is the purpose. Beauty will come.
This is a lesson every creative from Dietre Rams to Paul Motian and the Eames have tried to pass on. Owning one’s way of being, their “do” is born in practice. Beauty is a result, not a destination.
Boyet Sensei had connected my Aikido practice with my creative values. His teaching changed the way I do both. It guided me below the surface and gave me a deeper perspective of my Aikido journey. It made my practice personal and I felt recommitted.
I try to remind myself to find the simple path and follow it boldly. In ikkyo or in life.
Rob Darmour is a 5th kyu member of Multnomah Aikikai. This essay first appeared in the Multnomah Aikikai blog; click the link to see the original and view a brief montage of Boyet Sensei practicing Iaido by Sam Brimhall.
More newly posted clips of Boyet Sensei can be found at the Birankai Aikido Video Channel on Youtube:
How do I attract new members? What is the best platform to fundraise for new mats? How can I get more from my dues-payment system? What is a good strategy for teaching Sansho? We have a lot of experience in our organization – and we have a lot of know-how to share.
“Grow Your Dojo” is the focus of our new Birankai Aikido Teachers news blast, a monthly rundown of tips and real-world experience from instructors across the continent (and beyond, we hope). We’ve also started a closed Facebook group to encourage discussion and sharing of videos, news items and other media with the goal of supporting and encouraging each other in trying to transmit Chiba Sensei’s Aikido.
Instructor’s Statement: “Coming here I’ve been really interested in thinking about ukemi and kokyu ryoku (breath power from the center) as sort of the yin and yang of our practice, the inhalation-exhalation. For me ukemi is the art of receiving and neutralizing power with our whole body – as Chiba Sensei would say without resisting, without escaping, without flying away, or without collapsing. Ukemi is a vital aspect, it’s a preparation for the unexpected, and the way that we take ukemi in Birankai is really lively.
“Ukemi isn’t just the falling down, it really is a whole relation, the ability to absorb and neutralize power. Thinking about power, I think that how we generate power is misunderstood because we tend to think about it in terms of muscular force. The first thing we have to do is to align our skeleton because the skeleton is the primary organ for support of the body. When we align our skeleton with gravity, we’re able to capture the ground reaction forces that our relationship with gravity gives us. It allows us to generate force through the body, so skeletal alignment is critical. Really important to that is spinal extension, something that was so apparent in Sensei’s Aikido, his throwing as well as how he taught and how he demonstrated ukemi.
Why did I go to Women’s Aikido Camp? To be honest, I went mostly for the location. I looked at the pictures of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center, and thought a few days in Santa Fe, New Mexico would be a well-deserved “escapadita” (little escape), as we say in my family. Also, as a newbie, the idea of going to Summer Camp had just been too intimidating and I thought that Women’s Camp, with its smaller size, could serve as an introduction of sorts: a way to jump in, but maybe not too deeply.
We arrived at the retreat center with only a few minutes to spare before the first class. I scrambled to get my gi on and rushed back to the gym. As all the women began to line up, we were instructed by Varjan Sensei to do so in order of rank. This required us to talk to one another to find our place. There was no need for this shy girl to talk to anyone. As a 5th kyu, I just needed to go to the back at the end of the line, easy! When we all settled down, I looked down the rows at all the women in hakama, and the enormity of the situation settled on me and brought me to tears. The sound of all the female voices as we said our onegai shimasu in unison filled the gym and filled me with an unexpected joy.
In trying to describe why it was so different to train with only women, it is easy to jump to stereotypes, all of which are completely inadequate to describe what I saw and experienced. All these weeks later and I still haven’t been able to put my finger on what the difference was exactly, but I can say that I loved every minute. I can tell you that the encounters on the mat were intense and sincere, but also filled with love and so much joy.
Yes, the classes were amazing, but I haven’t been to a seminar yet where that wasn’t true. So, what was different? Maybe it was just the opportunity to see what I can become. It may have been just being in a room full of bad ass women and feeling that if I work hard, I can be like them. Maybe it was being told by a very open and powerful woman, that this little shy girl can become open and powerful. It probably had something to do with Graham Sensei telling the kyu ranks that it was time to inhabit the front row and know that we deserve to be there. It may also have been that while a mat full of men can sometimes feel intimidating, a mat full of women felt welcoming and empowering. I’m still not sure what it was exactly, but for me it was magical. I can tell you I found something in my Aikido practice that I didn’t know was missing, and I can tell you that I will be at the next Women’s Aikido Camp.
In the world of surfing, we seem to get a particular joy out of telling people that they missed it. We don’t share our secret spots lest they get too crowded. But this I will shout from the rooftops. Ladies, if you missed it, or if you hesitated for any reason; the next one is not to be missed! Go for the location, go for the local spas, go to get away for a few days, whatever your reason is, just go!
To my male training partners, I can’t say I missed you, but I will say that I thought of you often. I kept thinking that I would like you to experience this too. I know what you are thinking: “Summer Camp… not Women’s Camp.” But what I wish is that you could experience “Women’s Aikido Camp” so you could experience the intensity, the joy, and the sisterhood with me. Guys, while I can’t arrange an invitation for you, I can promise you that I will do my best to train with the intensity and the loving spirit that I felt in Santa Fe.
Most of us are back home – the bruises are fading and the gis have been washed. Time to reflect on Birankai Aikido 2016 Summer Camp, which ended with a lively session of tai no henko led by Dave Stier Shihan of Green River Aikido on Tuesday morning.
Stier Sensei was the topic of some truly moving testimonies at the farewell party the night before, when his students told of his dedication to helping those of all abilities and body types master Aikido.
“I just wanted to be a student,” Stier Sensei said, describing the trajectory of his training after the sudden death of his teacher, Paul Sylvain Shihan. Stier Sensei went on to lead an impressive closing class to 2016 Birankai Summer Camp.
Another longtime student, Frank Apodaca Sensei of Deep River Aikikai in North Carolina, was recognized earlier during camp: Birankai has recommended that he be promoted to shihan rank.
Apodaca Sensei was a long-suffering kenshusei when I arrived in San Diego, a veteran of the legendary “Pressure Cooker” and “Suffering Bastards” eras. His ukemi was death-defying to this newbie, especially when he would get up seemingly in one piece after Chiba Sensei demonstrated ushiro ryotedori sutemi waza, also known as “the roadkill technique.” (Chiba Sensei would rear back and flatten him like a bug.)
By the time I got there in the mid-1990s, Apodaca Sensei was a stern taskmaster in morning class and an even more stern leader of sesshin and other events at San Diego Aikikai, a link to a harsher past. Time spent as dojo-cho in Portland, Oregon, and Lansing, Michigan, seemed to mellow him out, and by the time Apodaca Sensei established Deep River Aikikai he was a supportive and open-hearted teacher.
For me, the best thing about 2016 Birankai Summer Camp was gaining new appreciation for these two men, working often without recognition in recent years to transmit Chiba Sensei’s (and Sylvain Sensei’s) Aikido.
With teachers like these in our ranks, Birankai is in safe hands.
Be sure to check out these new video clips from the Eastshore Aikikai Friendship Seminar, held on Dec. 2, 2012, in Richmond, Calif. This Birankai Aikido seminar featured Elizabeth Lynn Shihan of Eastshore Aikikai and J.D. Sandoval Sensei of Hayward Aikido.