Monday, October 07, 2013

Book Review

I certainly didn’t see this coming 40 years ago. But as I look back it does make sense. Linda Holiday sensei’s book ‘Journey to the Heart of Aikido’ recounts her experiences as an American woman training in a very traditional martial arts school deep in the country. If she had trained in Tokyo she would have been sheltered by the presence of many other foreigners. But she, another foreigner Dick Revoir, and I spent most of 1973 training at the Shingu dojo(Aikido Kumano Juku dojo) in Wakayama Prefecture. So I was privileged to share some of the experiences in the first part of the book. It certainly does bring back memories. Often times one defines oneself in terms of what is going on in one’s immediate life and it is easy to lose perspective on other parts of one’s journey. So going through the book has been somewhat of a homecoming for me as well. Sometimes we don’t realize how events shape us. And certainly this was a major part of my life as well. So this book and recent events have certainly brought up a lot of memories, mostly jumbled, that I have been sorting through and dealing with.

But onto the book. Of course Linda Holiday sensei is a dear friend so how to properly frame this? First of all, it is a  truly marvelous book. And in simple terms it is a good read. I have seen translations she has done from Japanese to English, but I don’t believe I have ever experienced this much of her writing. I was very impressed and it took me by surprise. She tends to write factually with feeling. And she can turn a very elegant phrase as she goes. I was reminded that when I first met her she was a student at UC Santa Cruz and I believe an art major. So it is not surprising to see that art background now show in her writing.

The first part of the book is her journey. How she started aikido locally at a club at UC Santa Cruz. People do not realize that at that time Aikido was not well known at all. I had started at that same club a year earlier, which had been started by Robert Frager sensei, then a professor of psychology at Merrill College. He was at that time closely tied to Robert Nadeau sensei, who had a dojo in Mt View. So for me at that time Santa Cruz and Mt. View were the centers of the aikido universe. And so for her to go from that environment to training where she did was quite a shift. These days someone in her position would be thinking about what they were going to do after they graduated. In Shingu we would oftentimes commiserate about people we knew going on to other things after college and here we were facing daily training, life uncertain and focused on the next training, and trying to figure out the secret of irimi nage. So given the change in cultural values such a journey is well not impossible certainly unlikely given the change in cultural values. The seventies were a time where people were searching for themselves. I had the year before she started taken Frager sensei’s class the Psychology of Far Eastern Religion and began aikido training and the combination of that certainly changed my life. I remember leaving for Japan with a one way ticket and roughly $600 and trusting implicitly that everything was going to work out. I knew it. And everything unfolded pretty much perfectly. So I’m sure it was very similar for her.

The rest of the book is about the teachings of Motomichi Anno sensei. When we first arrived in Shingu Hikitsuchi sensei was the head of the dojo, the dojo-cho. The next tier down were the shihan, which included Motoichi Yanase and Yasushi Tojima senseis as well as Anno sensei. They were both 6th dans. Anno sensei was a 7th. It is touching how he has survived and even thrived in the tests of time. He was when we met him in his very vigorous forties, as were the other two. Hikitsuchi sensei was in his mid-fifties. They were all very active. The training was intense and physical. There was basically one gear: all out. I recollect it took us a bit to adjust to this. I had been attracted to the spiritual message of aikido when I began in the States. That message was there but in a different form culturally as well as training wise. There was no set, think, then do. Everything was intense and in the moment. One’s conduct and behavior off the mat were also seen as part of one’s development and shugyo(spiritual advancement). It could get physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. Somehow though Anno sensei, Yanase sensei, and Tojima sensei would pull you through with their sense of commitment and inner strength. And Hikitsuchi sensei was often times the catalyst for sudden situational changes that could also be spiritual lessons.

Osensei is a great part of this book. And Anno sensei’s impressions of him  are from someone who knew him directly. Please consider that Anno sensei was basically a factory worker in a small coastal town in very rural Japan with minimal education. Through his contact with Osensei and his own striving towards personal and spiritual development, you see not only the knowledge but the wisdom he has developed. And that wisdom is shared in this book. But you see now what is termed lineage. Osensei was quoted in the book as saying aikido didn’t come from him, it came from kami(spirit, divine energy, very difficult to translate). So the transmission goes from kami to Osensei to individuals like Hikitsuchi sensei, Anno sensei, Yanase sensei, Tojima sensei to those of the generation of Linda sensei and even myself. The term in Japanese(which was clarified for me by Laurin Herr) is jikiden, which is direct transmission. I remember attacking Hikitsuchi sensei and feeling I was in an energy field within which time moved granularly, like the full moon cut in the Nemuri Kyoshiro films. That feeling is still in my body. And I try to transmit that to my students. This book came into being from Kami through Osensei to the rest of us. Perhaps the lasting message of the book is not to be content to simple bask in its beauty and the profound beauty of Anno sensei’s heart, which, incidentally, comes so wonderfully across. As Anno sensei did, as Linda sensei did in her devotion of the art and to Annos sensei’s teachings, put it in your body. Tojima sensei once told us, knowing we would go back to America at some point, not to try to memorize things. Trust the body. The body will remember.

Devotion was once described to me as when you love somebody or something the way you yourself want to be loved. And this is apparent in the book from kami to Osensei to Anno sensei to Linda sensei. And in that lies the real message of the book. The kami can be perceived as just forces or powers. Osensei went far enough on his journey he was able to find that kami is love. He passed that on to Anno sensei who has passed that on to Linda sensei. The training situation of the Shingu dojo in 1973 probably can’t be duplicated. Time brings change. But I believe if the message of the book is deeply felt you can hook into this lineage. Anno sensei stresses effort. Put out the effort. Win over yourself. Don’t give in to laziness or a sense of mental comfort. I interpret that as forging. Think of all the impurities in iron. Heating it in fire, shaping it, then immersing it in water. Time and time again. To me that is not effort. It is not giving up on that to which you are devoted no matter what. And continuing to go forth. As you can see, the book has inspired me as well……….

On Saturday October 5th the formal book launching was held in Santa Cruz. And yesterday October 6th there was training at Aikido of Santa Cruz. Anno sensei took the last class. We must not forget Mary Heiny sensei, who arranged for that seminal group of foreigners in 1973 to take up residence in Shingu and start training at the dojo. And upon coming back from Japan, Mary sensei was instrumental in setting up the Sister Cities connection between Shingu and Santa Cruz. She is also a very dear friend.

On a much sadder note I was informed that Tom Okamoto, one of the original students at Aikido of San Jose when the dojo opened in 1976, has passed on. He was in Hawaii and died in a swimming accident. A warm and vibrant man, he will be missed…….