Thursday, August 31, 2006

The full moon cut and Aikido

Continuing with the topic of the sword but in a more fanciful way, we come to the topic of Nemuri Kyoshiro. He is a swordsman played in a series of movies by the wonderful actor, Ichikawa Raizo. These were in turn based upon a series of novels written by Shibata Renzaburo. Instead of being a samurai, he is a "burai no to" or a rogue swordsman. So technically he does not have to subscribe to the samurai code of ethics. He is also a social outcast, half-Japanese, half-Portuguese. To top things off, he was conceived as part of a Satanic ritual. The stories play upon the fact that while the character is very dark and NOT a samurai, he lives in a very corrupt age in which all codes of honor are side by side with hopeless hypocrisy. He despises this lack of sincerity and constantly winds up protecting those(the elderly, children, women) that the system wants to destroy for one reason or another.

His sword style is that of the "Engetsu Sappo" or full moon cut. Faced with death he brazenly drops the tip of his sword down and begins to trace a circle, the symbol of the full moon. His enemies are told"Before the circle is complete you will be dead". Sometimes at the end of the movies his opponent will ask to see this cut, and Kyoshiro's response is that"It will be the last thing you see in this life".

I found this cut mesmerizing. It would be photographed slowly, and his sword would form a circle of strobe-like images. Beautiful, deadly, surreal.....When I was much younger this had a very profound effect on me. It seemed to me that this cut was a dimensional gateway that put the character in some sort of "no time no space" place.
And when I later got involved with Aikido, I wondered if there might be some connection..

When I arrived in Shingu, one of the questions I asked Hikitsuchi sensei was if there was some connection between what Osensei could do and Nemuri Kyoshiro's full moon cut. I remember that he broke out laughing so hard that I took that for a no. "Nemuri" means sleep, so when I developped the unfortunate habit of nodding off during his off the mat lectures on Aikido, Hikitsuchi sensei gave me the nickname "Nemuri Jack". Hikitsuchi sensei would constantly talk about the hang-ups a person had that would prevent him or her from acheiving a deep shugyo(spiritual practice). I asked Mary Heiny what mine were and she replied,"Sensei just thinks you're hung up on Nemuri Kyoshiro!"

I had some vindication when Tojima sensei took me aside and told me that sometimes when he attacked the founder, Osensei's movement made his body seem like a series of strobe-like images and he couldn't be touched. "You'd better believe that when Osensei moved it was like the Engetsu Sappo(full moon cut)," Tojima sensei said.

So what does the full moon cut represent? Since his sword is moving in a circle, Kyoshiro never faces his opponent in a set or static position. The cut seems to have a fatal draw where the opponent is compelled to attack before the circle is complete.
Even though the sword leaves the standard centerline position, it is obvious that Kyoshiro, while giving the illusion of an opening, is, in fact, not open at all. And the whole thing gives him a sense that there is something magical about him and his style.

I sometimes play around with the concepts in class. You can check a short sequence out . Ichikawa Raizo and Osensei share one thing in common. They both passed away in 1969.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

more Oh, the sword and aikido

One of the most fascinating aspects of Sadaharu Oh's autobiography is his very detailed description of the similarity between cutting with the Japanese sword and hitting a baseball. Because of his relationship with Aikido's founder, Morihei Ueshiba, he raises the question of what exactly does the sword represent in Aikido?

I've always gotten the sense that for the founder, the sword represented an interior place. Apparently he did not like students picking up weapons and getting caught up in moves they had picked up in "chambara" films. Terry Dobson and Robert Frager have both told me stories of how they were reprimanded by Osensei for handling weapons in a way that he considered incorrect. So what did Osensei consider a correct model for the sword?

Hikitsuchi sensei once related a story of a late night session with Osensei. It was just the two of them in the middle of the night training with bokken. Osensei's bokken was black. Hikitsuchi sensei had high ranks in both kendo and iaido.After a few exchanges Hikitsuchi sensei felt that even though he was holding a wooden sword that he had cut through something. Moonlight streamed through an open window and Hikitsuchi sensei saw that the end of Osensei's sword had been sheared off. He said he started groping around on the tatami in the dark looking for the sword tip. Osensei then asked:"Michi-san wa nani o sagashiteru ka? [What are you looking for Michio-san(referring to Hikitsuchi sensei)]. Osensei then reached into his kimono and pulled out the sheared off tip of his own sword and handed it to Hikitsuchi sensei. Hikitsuchi sensei was then told by the founder that he had mastered the Aikido sword. Hikitsuchi sensei later said that for one who possesses the secret of Aikido, even a wooden sword is transformed into a live cutting weapon("bokken demo shinken ni kawatte kuru.")

So perhaps Osensei was stating that the sword represented a magical and deeply transformative inner state that could then be translated into the outer world through a seemingly magical function(cutting with a wooden sword). This is something that is past purely technical understanding expressed through blindly rote practice.

Having personally done sword to sword practice with Hikitsuchi sensei, you felt great intensity and that what was seemingly wooden was really sharp and could cut. He himself was not big into set forms. He taught triangle, circle, and square, which, when freely allowed to formulate, create shochikubai no kempo. Sho is pine, representing square. Chiku is bamboo, the circle. And bai is plum, the triangle. More on the sword and aikido at a later date.

Monday, August 28, 2006

more baseball & aikido, Oh and Osensei

Sometimes a book becomes a real friend. You wind up taking it with you to lunch or late dinner, and while you eat you browse, search, and immerse. Such a book for me recently is "A Zen Way of Baseball" by Sadaharu Oh. As has been mentioned in a previous blog, Oh holds the absolute record for career home runs with 868, topping Aaron, Bonds, and Ruth. The book is currently out of print, but was purchased for me online by Seth Spitzer. Thank you.

Even though the title emphasizes Zen, it could very well have been "An Aikido Way of Baseball". Both Oh and his hitting coach, Hiroshi Arakawa, met with and had a personal relationship with Aikido's founder, Morihei Ueshiba. They incorporated such Aikido concepts as center, extension, focus into their training together. Oh was not allowed to get on the mat, his baseball employers fearing that it might be to dangerous. His coach,instead, trained at Tokyo's Aikido Hombu Dojo in the 1960's and even consulted with Ueshiba Osensei on his protegee's problems.

Oh initially describes himself as a young hitter gifted with good eyes and quick hands. His fatal flaw is that he had a hitch in his swing. Just as his bat should have been going forward to meet the oncoming pitch, he would automatically drag it backward. While his gifts allowed him to hit outside pitching, increasingly pitchers found it easy to confound him with off-speed deliveries and by pitching inside. One practice his coach used to teach him center was to have him stand on one leg while holding a bat. Oh got so strong in this position that an 8 year old child could hang onto his arm and not disturb his balance. It was labeled the "flamingo' style of hitting.

One game Oh is ordered by his coach to incorporate this in a game, to stand on one leg while waiting for the ball. Oh finds that standing on one leg somehow eliminates his fatal hitch, and he begins to become an outstanding power hitter. Much of the book is the quest by both Oh and his coach to delve into the true meaning of what it means to stand on one leg.

Osensei is a very important character in this book. Oh learns that true balance comes from the center point(2 inches below the navel) and that power is generated by being able to extend outward from this point. Oh learns, as do aikido students, that strength, both yours and your partner's, follows the flow of ki. And this in turn must flow from the center point. Osensei counsels Oh's coach to teach him to actively wait, that balance from the center has not only a physical and mental component, but a spiritual one as well. One day while observing Osensei, Oh asks the question;"How could I begin to do in a batter's box what Ueshiba sensei did in the middle of the dojo floor?"

Much of the rest of the book is Oh's quest to master himself through mastering the art of hitting a baseball. Osensei advises Oh that ma(interval or separation) exists for him only because an opponent, in Oh's case the pitcher, exists. He counsels Oh that he must remove the ideal that he and the pitcher separately exists, that when Oh acheives a unity with what before was an opponent, he will know what the pitcher will do before the pitcher does. These are very much Aikido concepts, though their execution is not easy. Oh also takes up the discipline of the Japanese sword, giving in fascinatint detail the similarity between a home run swing and the cutting motion of a Japanese samurai blade.

One of the main tenets of the book is that Baseball is an American game brought into the Japanese culture. Oh's devotion to his coach, his respect, and his ultimate teachability are very much traditional Japanese values, and would be unusual to find in this culture. But Oh brought to everything an individuality, a willingness to extend himself way past the cultural norm(even in Japan)that is unique. Towards the end of the book Oh builds a simple tatami room in his house like the one in his coaches house. And he hopes that one day a young pupil will come to him as he did to Arakawa to be taught. No one ever comes.......Arakawa himself tells Oh that Oh is too frightening to attract any pupil, that the one legged or "flamingo style" of batting lasted not only in Oh's generation, but only with Oh himself.

I remember in about 1970 the Willie Mays led SF Giants did some spring training in Japan. Over satellite a game between the SF Giants and the Yomiuri Giants was telecast in the bay area. Lon Simmons quipped that whatever the outcome of the game, that the "Giants" would be winners. I remember that Willie Mays had a double and that the game was tied going into the later innings. The Giants had a top closer named Frank Linzy, who threw a very heavy sinker ball. Oh won the game late with a home run off Linzy. Quite a memory from almost 40 years ago about a legend.....

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bruce Lee and Me and some Dame Diana, too

In, late fall of last year, I was invited by Joanne Veneziano sensei to teach a weekend seminar at her dojo, Emerald City Aikido. Since I found out that her dojo in Seattle was located just around the corner from where Bruce Lee is buried, I asked her if, after the workshop was over, we could visit his grave. She said we could do it on the way to the airport.

As you can see, we did find his grave. It is amazing how many people came to visit it just during the time that we were there. As with many people of my generation, he had a profound effect on me. Martial arts at that time were basically judo and karate was just beginning to be known. Mainly martial arts were exotic touches in the Bond films and "The Avengers". My first memory of him is as Kato in the "Green Hornet" tv series. His movements were fast and explosive, so there were no long drawn out fights. One strike, one kick and it was over. I used to watch the "Green Hornet" on Fridays at 7:30pm, then wade through things like "The Time Tunnel" to catch Diana Rigg on "The Avengers" at 10pm. Fridays were quite my thing.

"The Green Hornet" lasted only one season, but you could catch him in re-runs on local channels for awhile. I used to wade through the laborious plots just to see him move. In my first year in grad school(1970) he appeared on "Longstreet" in the episode"The Way of the Intercepting Fist", which allowed him to express the philosophy of his martial art.

I once visited a school in Seattle(along with Harv Moscowitz from this area) run by Taky Kimura, a major figure in the Bruce Lee lineage. Harv had trained there before Aikido, so we were allowed to do a couple of the classes. I remember all the push-ups and sit-ups.

For me he represents an archetyple:warrior, champion, artist..........Even though the aikido movements are vastly different from the striking and kicking emphasis of his Jeet Kune Do, he has certainly influenced the way I look at aikido. A lot of the free form staff movements were influenced by his words. I had to observe within myself the tendency to systemitize and categorize, as opposed to just feeling and allowing. This is hard when you are doing things you've never been taught and therefore don't "understand"....The sense of knowing through movement as opposed to "knowledge" is a very daunting place.

Bruce Lee and Diana Rigg do share a thing or two in my life process, aside from briefly sharing ABC tv's Friday night line-up in 1967. Bruce Lee died on July 20th(in 1973) which is Diana's birthday. And she married for the first time the same summer he died, which was during my first year of training in Japan. Let us just say that he was by far the better martial artist and that she is by far the better actor. Although if she were given some real training and he were allowed to further evolve, who is to say..........

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Of 30th Anni versary Celebrations & Big Mike

On Saturday, Aug. 19th, we had a special beach training and picnic at Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz. It was a beautiful late summer day, windy, and a little on the brisk side. A group of about 20 dojo members, ranging from very new people to very veteran students, assembled. We did about an hour of free-form staff movements, combining 4 and 8 direction movements with some partner practices. I'm just getting comfortable with teaching some of this stuff, and more on this in future blogs.

The training was followed by a picnic. Special thanks to Mark Kato for his hot dish, which went real well in the brisk surroundings of the day. There was a period of just hanging out, and then some of us went a little bit into some of the 30 year history of the dojo. For me the whole concept of teaching at the dojo began in early summer of 1976. I had been back from Japan for a little over a year and was teaching at UC Santa Cruz. At the time I was living in a small apartment close to the Twin Lakes beach in Santa Cruz. I received a phone call:"Robert Nadeau here. There is a dojo happening real quick here in San Jose. Do you want to be a part of it?" And the rest is history. Of course that was the dojo in its original location in San Jose's Japantown. I originally taught Friday nights, slept over in the office, then taught both the early kids' class on Saturday and then the adult class. I also started training Monday nights at Nadeau sensei's class, fascinated by his energy approach to the art. He combined fascinating and experiential energy work with very grounded movement, something that is still unique today.

On a sad note, I learned that Mike Collins, or "Big" Mike as he is affectionately known, is battling a malignant brain tumor. He is certainly a beloved and very valued member of our dojo community. Let us all join together in wishing him well and sending both him and his family good energy.

Monday, August 14, 2006

ASJ 30th Anniversary moment #1

Congratulations to Yu-Chen Shen on the birth of her daughter, Ellie. Certainly the creation of new life is the greatest miracle of all. And what can symbolize growth and evolution more than a young infant? Curious, at times comtemplative, emotional, profound(who can doubt the mysterious power of an infant's grip?)......At the same time, perhaps we as parents never again know the protective and nurturing aspects of love as when we are with our own young child.

Jenny and her mom,Nov.1978 at my mom's grave
This is the first in a series of historical moments in Aikido of San Jose's 30 years. They are not to be ranked, only they exist in the order that they come to me. November 8, 1978 was the day my daughter Jennifer was born. Her mom, Sarah, and I had a home birth, which means she was born at the old location of the dojo on North Sixth Street. We worked with 2 mid-wives, Robin and Pat, and the pregnancy was overseen by a doctor. Sarah and I had been living in the dojo since late 1977. We had both just returned from a period of Aikido training in Japan. The building lacked a formal kitchen space as well as a shower. Japan perhaps had been good training for making due with very little.

Sarah's water broke very early that Wednesday morning. We summoned our midwives and the long wait was on. At the time I was teaching Aikido classes at San Jose State University in the afternoon. I called Robert Nadeau's house in Mt. View and enlisted Diane Weinberg(now Diana Daffner) to substitute for me that day. At 3:45 pm Jennifer was born. I remember catching her as she came out. Instinctively, the first thing she did was to try to nurse on my left nipple. I still remember the shirt I was wearing that day. I remember that in those days, Ken Kubo taught the Wednesday evening class, so I was able to be with mother and daughter. Sarah, chose the name Jennifer, and since I could see that she had done all the work, that was fine with me. I probably would have chosen Emma or Diana(see belated Birthday blog), but she has definitely grown up to be a Jennifer. I gave her the middle name Michiko, the name of my mother who had died in 1975 and never got a chance to see my daughter.

I descibed the spartan living conditions of the dojo at that time. It was incredible how the birth of my daughter somehow changed all that. Even though living there was largely due to economizing so that the dojo could keep going, to me that place then became a home. Jenny lived there for the first 9 years of her life, until her mom and I separated. Until we moved to our new location, Jennifer spent periods when she would live upstairs at the school. When I was there, she would stay with me often on Thursday nights. Once I checked in on her and noticed that she had moved her bed to the exact place where she had come into the world.

I mentioned that I caught her when she came into the world. I could never do that now. She went on to start for the Del Mar High School Varsity Basketball team. Heightwise, she took after her mom. She now styles hair in Willow Glen(Somewhair,408-298-1733). And she is getting back into painting.

oil painting by Jenny for my birthday June 2006

Sunday, August 06, 2006

On athletes as archetypes, baseball & aikido

I've always been a big fan of Barry Bonds. Some of this is because I am a Giants fan, and i was certainly a big fan of his Godfather, Willie Mays. This is not about my opinions on the steroid controversy, but on what it means to hit (literally) a level that has never before been reached. Bonds success in his later years for an athlete(past the age of 36) as well as the radical change in his physique are red flags for those who present steroid accusations. I am not defending Bonds, as this will play out in court and in other arenas, and i am satisfied to let others decide. what i am going to present is a certain similarity to aikido's founder Morihei Ueshiba .
insisted that his physical prime was around the age of 52, when he stood 5'1" and weighed 180 pounds. He was probably a little tank who could turn on a dime. Was Ueshiba on steroids as well? He acheived a physical/spiritual/psychic level that has not since been reached since.He could sense attacks before they came, throw people miraculously with little or no physical contact, and acheived his best art in his 80's. Was he on steroids as well?

I think that Bonds, on steroids or not, reached another level. If it was done with steroids, they were not the only reason. During his record 73 home run year, as a commentator, Tony Gwynn said that, as a former batting champion, it was obvious to him that Bonds was swinging as if he knew what the pitcher was going to throw before the pitcher threw it. Precognition is a sign of being in this state. Even more impressive, though not as dramatic, as his home run totals was the number of bases on balls he was issued. And the low number of strikeouts to the high home run total means that Bonds was aligned to something. Miyamoto Musashi described this state as having "the body of a rock", ie a patience honed to perfection through an almost unreal physical/emotional/spiritual balance. Imagine going to the plate knowing that you might get one or two pitches to drive in the space of a week, yet refusing to go outside the strike zone for anything less than what you want. The strength to do that does not purely come from chemicals.

Personally, for me Bonds transcended the game. Watching the laser shots he hit awakened within me a genuine sense of awe. Trying to perfect my sense of center in aikido, I drew a lot of inspiration from him and learned a lot from him. Sports are just sports unless there is a transcendence and they are transformed to art. At this time the Michael Jordans and Joe Montanas and the Barry Bondses acheive the status of an archetype, reflecting to us a glimmer of the deeper potentials that are hidden in all of us.

For another connection between aikido and baseball, check out . It is a review of "A Zen Way of Baseball" by Sadaharu Oh. Even if Bonds passes Aaron, he will have a ways to go to pass Oh, the all-time home run hitter on this planet. Oh met Ueshiba Osensei and was counseled by him on the fundamental principles that connect baseball with the universe. Oh himself on his path to self-perfection trained with the Japanese sword and was instructed in aikido principles by his coach, Hiroshi Arakawa. It's a small world.

Friday, August 04, 2006

More center

Continuing on the topic of center. The concept of center is very important in the role of uke. Often times aikido is viewed as overly co-operative because we are not a competitive art. It seems to the casual observer that uke attacks and is thrown, nage receives the attack and throws. The roles are then reversed. Don't we need the active resistance of competition to polish our technique so that it is"real"?

One lesson one learns in aikido practice is that one's center is 2 inches below the navel. But the realization of training is that one's center is where one's attention is. Without an awareness of center, a beginner(and we are all beginners at one level or another) will put his /her attention on:

the attack
the attacker
the technique or form one is doing

All of these put one's center outside oneself. All of this creates some sort of push/pull or resistance. By keeping one's own center, one connects to partner's center and there is movement. This movement is mutual and interrelational. An uke can use his/her own center to block nage's center and movement, but our practice is more for uke to feel his/her center blended with in the motion. This feeling process is an active one, so , ideally, uke moves if there is a connection, and if there is not, moves to establish such a connection. this is done at a conscious feeling/experiential level and not at a purely intellectual one.

There is a martial/common sense component to all this. Tojima sensei insisted that both uke and nage work toward closing their openings(suki) or moments of inattention. Nage must resist the blind throw at all costs which would leave him/her open to another sudden attack or a dangerous loss of balance that is physical, emotional, or spiritual. Uke must be aware so as not to put oneself in an overly dangerous position by being too passive nor to actively resist the movement.

The danger of considering that competition defines what is "real" is that the emphasis shifts to something that is external, ie winning and losing. Being a Giants fan, I recently took a perverse delight when the Dodgers lost something like 9 games in a row. And I died daily when the Giants were on an 8 game losing streak. So observe how both inflation and deflation occur when the emphasis is externalized in win/lose. Osensei stressed "Masaka Agatsu" True victory is victory over the self. Wasn't he talking about the concept of center?

Thursday, August 03, 2006


The last week or so the major emphasis of the classes I have taught has been center. Technically that is a point about 2 inches below the navel that is referred to as "hara" or "tanden". Much of the practice of Aikido has gone into the practice of the techniques. And, while center itself is probably one of several foundational focuses, it is probably what everything else comes through when everything is integrated.

Nadeau sensei insists that at the Hombu Dojo of the 1960's the emphasis on center and energy flow was kept alive by Koichi Tohei sensei. Unfortunately, there was a split in the early 1970's when Tohei sensei left the Aikikai to found his own organization. A good question for today is: Has the aikido of today gone overmuch into just the training of technique? Another sub-question might be: Can the concept of center be acheived just through the practice of technique?

My own personal exposure to Tohei sensei is almost non-existent. I sat and watched a class held at a San Mateo gymnasium in early 1970. My first teachers, Robert Frager and Robert Nadeau, based a lot of their early energy awareness work on their experience with Tohei sensei. During my Japan period, surprisingly, the Tohei approach was emphasized at the Shingu dojo by Tojima sensei, who had studied Tohei sensei's approach through his books. More recently, Robert Koga has talked to me about Tohei sensei and his experiences with him.

More on this topic in future articles.