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
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.
The amazing weather continues in Tacoma as Birankai North America prepares for testing tonight. Candidates for dan ranks and fukushidoin (junior teacher) recertification will be testing and all camp attendees are on notice to jump up for ukemi. Should be a fun (and tiring) night. Gambatte!
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.
Check out this great newsletter put out by Birankai Europe in both English and French. Our Birankai North America newsletter, Biran, will be available at Summer Camp with great articles on the theme of “The Art and Science of Aikido.” Also find out in detail what the Exam Committee is looking for in tests — make sure someone from your dojo picks up your copies!
Report on Deena Drake at Huron Valley Aikikai, June 9-10: Though the “June Gloom” followed Drake Sensei from San Diego, participants from several Midwest dojos braved the humidity and benefited greatly (if damply) from two days of vigorous training. Drake Sensei presented clear and dynamic techniques, emphasizing the importance of honest, centered attacks and responses, and pushing us all to bring the liveliness! Our youth students who participated in the classes pushed their boundaries and came out the other side with a new appreciation of Aikido as not just ‘kids stuff’ as well. Many thanks to Drake Sensei for making the trip and for offering us the example of her training.
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:
The mat was packed for all three days of the Chiba Sensei Memorial Seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai June 1-3, 2018. The event featured instructors George Lyons Shihan of Bucks County Aikido, Toko (Jenny) Flower Sensei of Athens Aikido and Ryugan (Robert) Savoca Sensei of Brooklyn Aikikai.
From Lyons Sensei’s closing remarks on June 3, 2018:
“I’ve been running through my memories of meeting an extraordinary person, Chiba Sensei. What do I remember about those days? Much of it is just in my body now, as best as it can be. I’m working to cultivate that so hopefully it’s alive in me. Chiba Sensei said once: ‘Until you’re a master of it, you’re a slave to it.’ That one kind of stuck with me.
“Discussing the teacher-student relationship, in many ways we struggle to understand it. Right up until Chiba Sensei’s death I was trying to understand it. Even now, I work on it, even though he’s gone. Of course I don’t think he’s gone, in some way.
“It is the problem of authority, giving over to an authority. In my opinion I think it’s not surrender to it but more transcending it, if that makes sense to you. At first it might feel like you’re surrendering to your teacher. But hopefully we’re going past that. You’re not going to be a slave to your teacher, that’s the not the intention. The intention is to let go of something, and to transcend it. Then you’re free to do whatever you want. And you’re probably very grateful, as I am. So you are master of it.
“You are supposed to stand on the shoulders of your teacher. Your teacher is someone you have always put up, so it’s a difficult idea. Somehow maybe we can drop something and you can reach your teacher for the first time, as a full grown human being with full potential.
“Funny, but we somehow put something in the way. It’s human nature. I see it on the mat in just basic things. When I say, ‘Don’t move your feet like that, do this.’ They say ‘Hai, Sensei!’ and they do the same thing they did before. It didn’t change one bit. I’m a human being too so I make the same stupid mistakes. When we do that, I think we just can’t hear it yet. Eventually you can, you can hold more. When you finally hear it, you say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ [Laughs.] This comes to the point of training over time. In farming you can’t pull the shoots up early to make them grow faster. It takes time. If you pull the shoots up, there’s nothing there.
“In the same way, when you’re practicing it takes some time. It has to mature. It’s just the nature of things. You come to the dojo every day, every day. ‘What’s the point of this? I can’t do ikkyo one more time, I’m out of my mind.’ You keep doing it until something gets out of the way. You make every effort that you can until you realize that all that effort is getting in the way. It’s a paradox you have to solve yourself, everybody does.
“I’m really pleased to be here with you to celebrate the life our teacher. For you guys, be careful because the stories get bigger and bigger as time passes. It was incredible times, but we tell stories…
“This is the time. Now is the time. This is our time. It’s fun to hear stories about the past, but when you’re sitting around with a bunch of people talking about the old days, be careful. This is the day. Today is the day. We’re proud to be here with you, proud to know you, and may we carry on. ”
Congratulations to Aikido of Albuquerque, which celebrated its 10th anniversary with an intensive seminar April 20-22. Chief instructors Philip and Bernadette Vargas were joined by Birankai teachers from across the Southwest in 16 hours of training that focused on the four pillars of Aikido laid out by Chiba Sensei: Aikido, weapons, Zazen and Iaido. (The new header image above is of the Aikido of Albuquerque shomen.)
Capping off the seminar were kyu tests that included Summer Camp veteran Mateo Vargas earning promotion to 1st kyu. Congratulations to all! See more photos of the event at the Aikido of Albuquerque Facebook page.
Does your dojo have a children’s or youth class? What keeps your kids coming back? What kind of successes or challenges are you having within your classes?
These are some of the questions and concerns that the leadership of the BNA Youth Program Team is endeavoring to help all BNA dojos with. We all know that the youth are our future. Starting a youth program (we say YOUTH across the board from the youngest to 20 years) and keeping it going and growing is a unique challenge for all dojos. Over the last three years we have been creating opportunities for our Birankai community to become more involved and cohesive in the integration of successful youth programs for every dojo.
A warm welcome to Santa Fe Budokan, a dojo that recently joined Birankai North America, and welcome back to Damon Apodaca Sensei, a student of Chiba Sensei’s starting in 1981.
Santa Fe Budokan opened in November of 2008 but recently moved into a newly built structure on Apodaca Sensei’s property at 190A Nine Mile Road, in the southern part of Santa Fe. The dojo offers classes five days a week in Aikido, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido and Zazen and features the instruction of Birankai veterans Kristina Varjan Shihan and Rikko Varjan Sensei.
Apodaca Sensei’s Aikido journey started in 1974, when he interviewed to join M. Nakazono Sensei’s Santa Fe dojo. Upon joining the Navy, he joined Chiba Sensei’s Fourth Avenue “Pressure Cooker” dojo and trained in San Diego until 1987; he also spent three months in Iwama as an uchideshi of M. Saito Sensei. He opened his first solo dojo in Santa Fe then moved to Newport, R.I., where he maintained a dojo until 2009. He also co-authored the book Aikido Ground Fighting.
Santa Fe Budokan welcomes visitors and guests. People wishing to train there regularly must apply directly to D. Apodaca Sensei, and must either have a recommendation or be subject to an interview.
“I hope to be a good contributing member to BNA, especially in memory of Chiba Sensei who I credit as being the teacher which contributed most to my training,” D. Apodaca Sensei said. “I am grateful daily to be able to still train regularly in all these arts.”
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.
This is a rolling sequence video for aikido practice and teaching.
Beginning Aikido students are often introduced to rolling practice in their first week on the mat. The experience of getting down on the ground and coming up again is fundamental and yet also instinctive. New students have so much going on mentally, emotionally and physically as they begin a new movement practice.
Small rolls, sometimes called “Bucky Ball” rolls or “baby rolls” offer teachers a rich opportunity to orient the new student, practice learning skills, foster attention skills and give them something they can do successfully and improve upon quickly.
For more senior students, the practice serves as a mental and physical warm up, calming the nervous system and relaxing the body.
Bringing attention to what you do and how you do it, matching your breathing to your movement and varying your intention in movement are all excellent ways to prepare yourself for aikido practice.
In this quiet (no-talking) video, Suzane Van Amburgh Sensei demonstrates a rolling practice sequence useful for all levels, from beginner to senior student. It begins with orientation to the relative position of body parts, rocking left and right. It progresses through use of weight shifts, finding the natural levers and counterbalances of the body, smooth transitions from sitting to side lying and up to sitting again. By the end of the video, the roll has evolved to advanced sequences requiring clear intention, core conditioning, good body control and awareness of the space around you.
Let this post serve as a reference tool and “cliff notes” for aikidoists in your regular rolling practice.
If rolling is new to you, don’t try this alone. Come to the dojo or schedule a private lesson with a certified aikido teacher.
The seminar spanned two warm days in San Francisco but students remained focused and training was vigorous. Students and instructors were as diverse as the city itself – children and adults, beginners and Yudansha, local and from afar.
Training focused on movement, distance and space with instructors paying particular attention to the opening. Diagana Sensei, McSpadden Sensei and Schenk Sensei all share a common lineage and it was evident in their instruction. At times it felt as if you were being taught not by a single instructor, but by a team of instructors with each Sensei building off of the teachings of the other, and Nomura Shihan’s ever watchful eye ensuring that no details went unnoticed. Emphasis was placed on the opening movement. Once the opening was correct and the Uke unbalanced, we moved to the entry, taking the Uke’s center, controlling space and so on. Students were reminded to recognize and utilize space, to move with the entire body and not waste movement. Our small mat space was utilized to its fullest, yet did not seem crowded. All three Sensei circulated and weaved through the dojo and trained with all Aikidoka.
The Seminar’s theme of friendship was appropriate as participants gathered from San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Brooklyn and Singapore. It serves as a reminder of why seminars are important. Seminars bring people together to train and create or strengthen bonds. When the day is done, we share a common respect and part ways knowing we will see each other again.
When I left for this seminar, I had never been to San Francisco. I had never been to a seminar not hosted by my dojo, and I had never been to a body arts seminar. I was so excited; in fact, I was absolutely thrilled to be going. I was nervous about the new space and new people, but everyone was so kind and helpful that I immediately felt comfortable. I feel I learned many new things, and new ways to do techniques and new ways to view Aikido as a whole. I left with new openness to learning. I remember when we first spotted the Golden Gate Bridge rising through the mist, with the island prison of Alcatraz in front. It looked like something from a postcard or a fairytale. Afterwards we went for sushi and discussed what we had learned. The entire experience is one I will remember for a long time.
My name is Liam McCarthy, I am a 15 year-old student at Grass Valley Aikikai, and an attendee of the seminar hosted on September 17th, at Aikido Institute of San Francisco.
I thoroughly enjoyed this seminar. Everyone I trained with was friendly, patient, and knowledgeable. It was my third seminar, and only my second outside of my dojo. Although the space at first seemed small, the mat had plenty of space for all in attendance. The advice, tips, and help I got were extremely useful, especially when the technique was being demonstrated slightly differently than my dojo’s style. One thing I specifically liked a lot was the form in which one Nage was performing the technique and the other students in that group attacked as Ukes in a line. Although it put pressure on the Nage, as the line moved quickly, it allowed them to try many times over with all different heights, ages, and body types.
As for each of the three Sensei who taught classes, I thought all three were pleasant and patient, and I enjoyed each of their styles. Schenk Sensei demonstrated everything carefully and accurately, and explained all the techniques he taught very thoroughly. I enjoyed his class and my time spent trying to soak in every detail of what he demonstrated. I thought the same of Scott McSpadden Sensei; he seemed very focused, yet good-natured, and had no problem patiently showing things to you if you felt overwhelmed or misunderstood something. Lastly, Diagana Sensei taught his class, the third and final class of the day. I noticed a very strong presence and focus in his practice, and thought he was a great teacher. He was easy going, and spared time for any student who was confused (as did all the Sensei teaching a class).
Aside from the three Sensei who taught their own classes, the students of this dojo were extremely well-mannered and knowledgeable. Nobody seemed frustrated when I didn’t get something right; they had no problem with me taking all the time I needed to fix anything I was having trouble with; and they showed a great deal of patience with me whenever I had trouble. I tried my best to keep up with everyone with my ukemi, and each partner I had went as fast or as slow as they thought I could handle or needed. All in all, this was a fantastic experience for a seminar, and I really enjoyed myself.
Before we got there, I was nervous. But once we got there, my strength returned. It was fun learning all the different training styles of all the different dojos! I learned many new techniques too, like ryokatadori shihonage. My favorite part of the experience was learning the different teaching styles of the different Sensei.
Pleasure is defined as a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment. Aikido is pleasurable as it involves centering the mind and body in the most intense way possible, with love, in the company of friends and other Aikidoka, striving to better not just ourselves, but the communities where we live by practicing the teachings of Aikido in our daily lives. It is always a pleasure to train with the trio of Schenk Sensei, Diagana Sensei and McSpadden Sensei as they all bring a joyful awareness to their otherwise sharp Aikido. Together, these three epitomize the freedom to play with techniques through the connection between partners. Words fail to frame the experience.
Like rough ashlar*, continuously being improved by practice and work, we can attain the smoothness of perfect geometry in our aikido by having a child’s mind: to absorb as much as we can from our teachers and Sempai. When I watch and listen to McSpadden Sensei, Diagana Sensei and Schenk Sensei, I can feel their happiness in their art. They all want to practice with love for each person on the mat, happy but sharp. With a child’s mind, they enter each encounter willing to learn but astutely aware of each movement. I was very happy to be a part of this seminar for the experience of seeing and feeling the openness of each technique presented by these teachers.
The seminar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the beginning of October, 2016 was the second seminar that I have attended. I am still new to the practice of Aikido, and deciding to attend classes was a test of nerves. I do not have the physical characteristics of a professional fighter, and am not the kind of person anyone would assume has an interest in Martial Arts. A major reason I have been willing to regularly train at the Aikido of Albuquerque dojo, is the welcoming atmosphere for students who are new to Aikido specifically, or fighting styles in general. This same concept carried over to the fall seminar, which made the event enjoyable.
Discovering the Junior Kenshusei programs at the Aikido of Albuquerque dojo provided me with a boost of confidence. Observing a broad range of ages and sizes among the students and attendees of seminars enforced the feeling further. I’ve heard that techniques that can be used against any opponent, but I never really believed it until I witnessed teens in high school or younger children performing ikkyo on an adult twice their size or larger. It is a hard truth that age slows everyone down, but people at seminars old enough to be my grandparents seem to be entirely capable of taking ukemi just as well as the younger attendants.
While the variety of people at the seminars was inspiring, I also found that it brought a sense of urgency. I’m aware that I won’t be able to keep up with someone who has been training for years, but at the same time practicing techniques with advanced students brought the desire to try to prove that I was making progress. Also, the days passed quickly and assigned techniques changed rapidly. Knowing that people at the seminar had traveled from out of town, and likely from out of state, created the urge to make the trip worth their while. The feeling caused me to move too quickly during training, which also made me sloppy. As the days went on the people seemed to realize that I was moving too fast for my own good and made it clear that they were willing to go slow when working with me. In addition to the attendant’s willingness to take their time training, the Sensei took a few moments intermittently throughout the day to review the basic concepts that were being emphasized to keep everyone on track throughout the seminar weekend.
Overall it was the welcoming environment that made the seminar enjoyable. The feeling in the dojo was not exactly relaxed; there was definitely a sense of seriousness and commitment to the training and conditioning and everyone was pushed physically. However, there was also the sense of respect and understanding for individuals without an intense background or years of experience. That balance resulted in a supportive learning environment and an overall worthwhile experience. If that same concept continues to other locations then I am entirely willing to attend another seminar.