A Budo Parable?…
At the beginning of the Kyoho period, a young man named Jimbei of a merchant family, managed to get accepted as a student of swordsmanship by a local teacher of considerable age by the name of Usa.
Jimbei was eager to achieve mastery and prominence, and trained hard every single day in his teacher’s yard, but he also grew impatient, for he thought his progress was too slow and resented the endless time he had to spend on each technique. He longed for a change that would allow him to gain skills and prestige much faster, so he could also earn a reputation as master swordsman.
“I am younger and stronger than Usa.”, he commented to a friend while they drank tea at a local inn. “I can be a better swordsman than he ever was. If I was instructed by another teacher, I would he great by now. He is old and cannot do the techniques any more. I am sure of it.”
His friend mentioned another teacher named Sasuke Sensei who once had an appointment as the teacher of the local daimyo. He was well renowned, and lived in a village not too far from theirs. He recommended Jimbei go to study with Sasuke. This teacher, Jimbei’s friend said, had wonderful techniques.
Full of enthusiasm, Jimbei requested a letter of introduction from his uncle, a prominent man in the area, and off he went to find his prospective new teacher. It was not too hard to find him since he was well known in the village. Upon meeting him, Jimbei bowed and presented his letter of introduction.
The swordsmanship teacher accepted the letter and after receiving the initial large fees wrapped in a noshimaki1, addressed Jimbei.
“Very well”, he said, “You will pay for every technique before I teach it to you. I’ll teach you each technique only once and no more. So, be ready to learn or leave.”
Jimbei bowed once again, with gratitude.
Soon he began his training, and his progress was well noticed by Sasuke.
“You are very good.” said Sasuke, “Your skills are outstanding. My teacher will be visiting me in a few days. I want for you to be with me when he comes by.”
Jimbei rejoiced and exclaimed, “I will be honored, Sensei! He must be a great teacher if he has students as great as you are.”
“He certainly is.”, answered Sasuke, “He is the best swordsman I have ever met, and the best teacher anyone could ever have.”
Jimbei went to work washing the dojo’s floor and preparing rice balls and sweet bean paste to welcome Sasuke’s teacher. He was still doing chores when the dojo door slid open.
“Here is my teacher.” announced Sasuke.
Jimbei raised his eyes and found himself face to face with Usa, his old teacher. Usa smiled and Jimbei bowed deeply, pressing his forehead against the floor.
“I’m sorry Sensei!” he cried, “I have been a fool!”
“Indeed you have been.” replied Usa, “Not for coming here, but by wasting time in greed and haste.”
“I wish I could return to you.” he pleaded.
“If Sasuke releases you, you may do so. But you must begin all over again.” Usa answered.
“But Sensei…” Jimbei protested, “my techniques have not suffered.”
“But your spirit has!” said Usa firmly. “Decide now.”
Jimbei hesitated. To begin all over again would mean a setback of four or five years. Before he could answer, Sasuke addressed him discretely while Usa ate the rice balls and sipped tea.
“I wish I could do what you will do.”, said Sasuke.
“What?” Jimbei asked.
“To begin again,” Sasuke said, “Do you know why I resigned my post as the daimyo’s teacher? To train again with Sensei. My spirit was becoming weak. I needed to be humble again, and regain my beginner’s spirit. I thoroughly regained the proper spirit once I began washing the dojo’s floor and repeating many times the first technique. I’m thankful to Sensei for teaching me that way. Without humility you learn nothing! I was also in a rush once. Haste is a fool’s word for life. And it is a sad thing, because once he gets to his destination, he has lost the whole journey. You are a fortunate young man, Jimbei.”
So Jimbei decided well and returned to Usa’s dojo and trained harder than before. When his friend saw him again, he was surprised.
“Didn’t you go to study with the teacher I recommended?” he asked.
“Yes.”, answered Jimbei, “But I decided to return.”
“What were the best techniques you learned from him?” asked his friend.
“Washing floors and making rice balls and sweet bean paste,” answered Jimbei with a smile.
“Is that important?” asked his friend, puzzled.
“More important than I thought,” replied Jimbei, drinking his tea and smiling to himself, much more important than I thought.”
Aikido…..Whats in a name?
The term Aikido is held in great reverence by the practitioners of this Budo (myself included ). It is an extremely high minded concept……”Harmony with the Universal Spirit“, so it’s no wonder really. We all imagine, or would like to, that this name manifested out of the cosmic consciousness to Morihei Ueshiba whilst in a state of deep meditation, so the name truly represents his highly developed spiritual/martial way.
The fact is, however , that nothing could be further from the truth. It seems that Morihei was not particularly interested in naming his art. Prior to 1922 he referred to it as either Ueshiba Ryu jujutsu or (perhaps when political correctness was called for) Daito-ryu jujutsu since this was the art he learned from Sokaku Takeda. After 1922 the term “aiki” materialised on certificates and the like. This it seemed was at the suggestion of Onisaburo Deguchi, Morihei’s spiritual guru, apparently to denote the strong spiritual content of Morihei’s evolving teachings.
As an interesting aside at this point, Westbrook and Ratti in their book “Secrets of the Samurai” record that the concept of aiki is an ancient one and that schools teaching aiki-jutsu had existed for several hundred years. They also cite the Daito-ryu as being one of them. Perhaps Takeda sensei simply forgot to use the term and Onisaburo reminded him of his oversight. (of course! thats why they didn’t get on)
In the 1930’s Morihei coined the term Asahi-Ryu for the art he taught at the Asahi News dojo in Osaka before he was chased off by Takeda. Latterly the term “aikibudo” was adopted and this persisted until the early 1940’s.
In 1942 Minoru Harai whilst acting as Director General of the Kobukan dojo attended a meeting of the Dai Nihon Butokukai (an umbrella organisation which promotes Japanese Budo) which was at that time re-structuring its sub-divisions. Morihei’s “aikibudo” was to form part of a new division featuring other jujutsu and yawara schools all based loosely around the same principles. Takeshi Hisatomi,of the Kodokan and perhaps chairman of that particular forum felt that aikibudo may not be acceptable to certain Kendo schools and made a strong assertion for the name of “Aikido” to be adopted as a coverall term representing all of the schools in this division. This was accepted by Minoru Harai and the other members present and from that day on Morihei Ueshiba’s art adopted the name of Aikido.
So this unique name which we all feel represents the true heart of our budo was simply a spontaneous, convenience proposed by a total outsider (well sort of) to cover a multitude of sins and avoid political incorrectness. Who knows what we may have been practicing had things been different.
Surprisingly it was a bloody good choice considering it was made by a committee , who cares anyway……whats in a name?
Budo…..Its Brain Training!
Some light may be shed on the traditional training methods adopted in Aikido and other Budo through the modern theory of ‘Neuroplasticity’, the brain’s uncanny ability to adapt to new situations and to recover from severe damage caused by strokes and accidents. While the brain was once thought to be like a machine – its neural pathways “hardwired” after a certain age , extensive research has shown how the brain is much more malleable than we might have believed.
Two themes emerge. The first is that such therapies are often most effective when the desired result is disassembled into its most rudimentary components, and exercises are developed around these. The stroke victim, for example, learns to walk by first practising to crawl. A boy who uncontrollably loses his place while reading practises the simple act of tracing lines on paper
The other recurring theme is how these patients and students undergo these exercises endlessly. Establishing new neural pathways to replace damaged ones, though possible, is no small feat. The brain is malleable, but it is not flimsy.
Musicians, of course, have long known the benefits of disassembling their art into its basic components – scales, for example – and practising the shit out of each. While drilling on fundamentals is repetitive and tedious, it enables the student to master a new piece of music much faster than simply playing it from start to finish.
Martial artists also stress the basics. Basic movements (kihon dosa) and basic techniques are practised over and over in isolation before they are combined in any sort of free practice (jiyu waza). Often overlooked, however, are the small moments that pass between the time a technique is launched and when it is complete. This is the main reason why techniques should be initially practised very slowly: to give the practitioners minds time to register balance, gravity, momentum and other aspects of their movements. But disassemble these forms even further, and one is left with the most basic unit of time of all: the moment. And the practice of becoming fully aware of the moment is commonly known as meditation.
The effect of meditation – whether static or moving on a student’s development in martial arts is no less remarkable than the case studies associated with Neuroplastic therapy. With heightened senses due to meditation, including the vestibular sense for balance, and through repeated forms practice, the student gains an acute understanding of how to execute techniques with effortless power. Indeed, there are masters whose immense and effortless power renders their techniques more or less meaningless. These masters advocate and practise endless hours of meditation and training in the basics.
It therefore is not difficult to understand how a martial artist intent on furthering skills in combat – such as Miyamoto Musashi – might be drawn to intense meditation. Indeed, Musashi is said to have spent months practising zazen in a cave on a mountain in Japan’s Higo prefecture.
The irony is that meditation inevitably also produces side effects, including ever increasing calmness and profound compassion for others. As their training progresses, the martial artist who has constantly honed their skill in killing develops a genuine appreciation for life. This is by no means the only possible explanation for the paradox of the spiritual martial artist. But it often seems overlooked, especially when considering the extreme devotion to spirituality exhibited by such warriors as Morihei Ueshiba.
The training method that endows you with the greatest skills to kill also removes any desire to kill you might have. Perhaps we should not be surprised by the irony. It is supposedly reasonable that if the Spirit encompasses everything, it should also possess a wry sense of humour.
The Meaning of “Osu”
Previous attempts to define this ubiquitous term have centred around it being a contraction of the Japanese term “onegai shimasu”. Here’s a better definition, I think…..
In a Yoshinkan dojo almost every question is answerable with the word “Osu”. Every greeting is Osu. Every instruction or question in class, is answered by “Osu” instead of “yes” or “I understand”. When performing Rei to our partners we utter the word Osu and when your partner performs a good technique, you say “Osu” to acknowledge their skill. In all its many uses Osu implies a measure of respect.
Budo training can be very demanding. You push yourself until you think you’ve reached your limit. First your body wants to stop, but your mind keeps pushing you. Then your mind wants to stop, but your spirit keeps you going. You endure the pain. You persevere. That is Osu.
Aikido is not learned overnight. It takes years to properly learn the fundamentals. The basic techniques are performed thousands of times (ren ma – “always polishing”) until they are done by reflex or instinct, without conscious thought (mushin – “no mind”). It’s easy to get frustrated by doing the same thing over and over again, especially when progress seems to be slow. To overcome that frustration and continue training takes patience and determination. That is Osu!
“There is a saying in Japan, “Ishi no ue ni sannen”. Translated, it means “Three years on a rock.” This saying symbolizes the need to persevere at all times. It is one of the most important philosophies in Budo.
Aikido is an art offering many things according to the immediate and long term aims of the trainee. Ultimately, one realizes that transcending the waza (techniques), there is a special spirit in the heart of the participants. It teaches them to face the demands of daily life with a mature and enduring attitude. A budo-ka is not easily shaken by the blows of adversity, realizing that for a person to draw near to their true potential, perseverance is required.
This strength of character develops through hard training and is known as “osu no seishin” (the spirit of Osu). The word Osu derives from the Japanese term “oshi shinobu”, which comprises of 2 kanji or characters (see illustration above). The first character “Oshi” means to push, whilst the second kanji “Shinobu” means to remain or endure. Literally, perhaps, to endure or persevere despite extreme pressure. This characterizes the “Yoshinkan Spirit” .
One who is truly able to manifest the spirit of Osu in every word, thought, and action may be regarded as wise and brave. Training should first and foremost be approached in the spirit of Osu. One’s daily life, and the responsibilities it holds, would be more completely lived if addressed in the spirit of Osu.
The Dojo and the Way…….by Jeff Broderick
Ibaraki Aikido dojo
The moment I step into the dojo, I change. In fact, the change begins even before I set foot inside. As I walk to the dojo, perhaps limping a little bit due to some new, random pain in my foot, or ankle, or knee, hunched over slightly, looking at the ground a few paces in front and lost in thought, my mind gradually starts to clear; my sightline raises up until I’m looking forward. My spine straightens; I begin walking with purpose, ignoring the nagging pains in my stride. I start breathing from deep in my belly.
I open the door to the dojo, careful to do it without making much noise. I remove my shoes, place them carefully on the rack, and step in. Feet together, I bow to the kamiza. I walk silently to the change room. I remove my street clothes, fold them, and place them in a neat pile – something I wouldn’t even bother to do in my own home. I put on my training clothes, careful to tie all the knots properly, smoothing the pleats in front, adjusting the ties so that everything is worn properly. All this time, my mind is getting clearer, my breathing is getting deeper, my field of vision becoming broader.
I re-enter the dojo, and bow to Sensei. I greet all the others in the dojo with courtesy and a smile. I am always paying close attention to what others are doing – not only for obvious reasons of safety, but alert for the possibility that I might be missing something due to the language barrier, or just from being lost in my own thoughts. I try to be considerate of everyone.
We begin to practice, all the time mindful of what we’re doing. I review what Sensei has told me in the past few weeks, and focus on not mindlessly making those mistakes again in spite of having been corrected. I analyze my own form in the mirror, and try to pick up my own weak areas. I push myself to practice as hard as I can without hurting myself, and when I’m tired, I watch the others intently to see what I can learn from them. If they are more skilled than me, I don’t envy them, but try to see what they are doing right. If I am more skilled than they are, I don’t look down on them, but check to see if I might be making some of the same mistakes. If they ask for my help, I am quick to give it.
After practice, I listen carefully to what Sensei tells the class. I have to listen attentively to pick up what he’s saying, and concentrate on what his message really is. The class is dismissed, and we bow to each other, expressing our gratitude for the shared experience. If I am lucky, Sensei invites me to have a drink, and nothing is as delicious as after-practice beer – I hold it in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing, just to absorb all the flavour.
Practice makes us focus all of our powers of concentration on doing things right, with the right mindset, mindful of the present. This is the real value of practicing martial arts, I think, and it’s why it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arranging, or archery. You enter the practice space, put yourself into the mindset, listen to your teacher, focus on what you’re doing, and then just do it – to the best of your ability. You show respect to the people you are doing it with, to your tools, and even to the actions themselves. After practice, you are mindful of what you did, what you are doing, and what you have to do.
The most important thing, though, is the gradual realization that ‘the dojo is the world’, and that there should be no difference between our “martial art self” and our “everyday self”. It seems to me that the point of practice is to extend it – to always widen the circumference of the dojo until it encompasses everyone; to improve your behaviour until there is no difference between the way you are in the dojo and the way you are everywhere else.
Realizing this is probably impossible, and I guess that’s the point. A connected idea, I think, is the fact that there is no end to our practice.
The Importance of being (an) earnest (uke)
Who’s the talent here?
One of the most disconcerting aspects of aikido (for some) is the fact that UKE (the initiator of the attack and receiver of the technique) must behave in a prescribed manner, or according to a set of rules. After all, anyone can make a realistic attack, cant they?
It would seem not!. I still find it hard to believe that a good proportion of people seem unable to make a committed and coordinated strike of any kind. Perhaps it is because aikido attracts pacifists who don’t have it in their nature to make a serious attack. Who knows?
It is a common misconception that all uke needs to do is perform good ukemi,(breakfalls). This, however is just the tip of the iceberg, uke’s role is multi faceted and complex and requires a high level of sensitivity to your partners movements and intentions. Uke is at least as important as sh’te, probably moreso. O’sensei is reputed to have stated that the secret of aikido is in ukemi
Japanese Koryu (traditional schools of martial arts) actually regard uke as the senior partner over sh’te. Uke’ s movements guide sh’te through the technique and uke takes all the risks since this is the more dangerous role.
The role of Uke is far from being a passive one. When a layperson watches an aikido demonstration all of their focus is on the person performing the techniques. Uke is virtually invisible or just a prop to be used. As aikidoka we know only too well that this is far from the truth and that uke is the one working hard, displaying a high degree of skill.
Anyway, all of this has prompted me to write down a few pointers on performing the role of uke in aikido training…………………..
Being uke is about giving. You unconditionally give yourself to your partner to assist in their learning. You are not there to win or show faults in your partners technique. You must also be sensitive to your partners level of ability so that you can uke appropriately.
Some aikidoka still think of uke as the subordinate role and may resent performing it (“when is it my turn to practice the technique”?). This attitude is not correct, above all else uke must lose his/her ego and accept the role willingly, or even better with relish!.
Aikido is about connection – no connection, no aikido!. It is uke’s responsibility to provide and maintain this connection. Even when there is no physical contact there should still be connection, of ki, some would say.
There is nothing more frustrating than an uke who disconnects just prior to a projection. It is important that both partners “feel” the technique from their respective sides.
Conversely uke must also know when to release the connection during a technique. Clinging on “for dear life” and dragging sh’te to ground with you is dangerous and makes for an unsatisfying conclusion to the technique. It is not easy to maintain zanshin whilst lying in a crumpled heap. It is also dangerous for both parties. Leave that to the WWF guys, they get well paid to smash their bodies up!!
Aikido can only work from a committed attack. If uke holds back then there is no energy to work with and a weak or misdirected attack needs no defence.
Many uke’s hold back a little because they have no intention of hurting their partner. Certainly an attack should not be delivered with the intention of taking your partners head off, but a level of realism is required for the learning process.
Whole Body (Zentai)
A good attack is delivered with the whole body and not just the arm. The arm therefore should be an “unbending one” and the armpits should be closed so that the arm and body act as one. An attack with a floppy arm is both ineffective and results in a technique which fails to control ukes body. A whole body strike is made with total commitment and when it fails to make contact (i.e sh’te avoids) it results in uke losing their balance.
In Yoshinkan Aikido, certainly whilst practicing kihon waza, uke’s role is to move in a prescribed way to assist sh’te to perform the technique. Once the predetermined movements are learned by sh’te, then uke can add a little resistance to test sh’te’s posture at key points in the technique. Thus it is crucial that uke maintains awareness and sensitivity to sh’te.
You only need to see a snapshot of an uke receiving nage wasa to realise that a degree of agility, flexibility and suppleness is essential to a good performance. The body needs to be trained therefore to perform this role.
Whilst uke’s attack must be both committed and realistic, a degree of relaxation needs to be maintained otherwise injury is inevitable. Furthermore a tense body is restricted in its movements which would produce poor technique and yes, you guessed it….more risk of injury. In the words of the late Thomas Makiyama sensei, “relax, react, relax”.
Similar to commitment, it is essential for uke to display strong spirit when performing ukemi especially during embu (demonstration). This idea is neatly summarized in the japanese expression “nana korobi ya oki” (seven times down, eight times up).
There is indeed a high degree of skill in the execution of ukemi, which can be under-rated by practioners and laypersons alike. Good ukemi, apart from all of the foregoing qualities requires good technique and timing which requires constant practice.
Mushin – No Mind
If uke tries to anticipate the movements of his/her partner, the result is likely to be unsatisfactory. This may however be acceptable in certain circumstances, such as,where a senior is trying to lead a junior aikidoka through a kihon waza technique through the role of uke. Generally speaking uke should not anticipate but adopt an empty mind “mushin” and go with the flow. In real life combat the attacker would be focussed on the attack alone, thus it is unrealistic if uke is thinking ahead to the outcome of the encounter.
We know that where we place our mind can affect our physical body. By thinking “down” and dropping our weight underside we can become very stable and heavy. This is clearly not what we want from our uke. Instead uke should visualise their weight “topside” and project their energy in the direction of the attack, this represents a kind of commitment as mentioned previously.
In conclusion……….please don’t devalue the role of uke, work hard to be the best uke that you can and above all enjoy the experience!!. Consider this, most of the “aiki stories” which abound are all about the amazing technique that one received rather than the technique performed. These memories of the “highs” felt whilst being thrown by excellent technique stay with you forever.