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Discussion with Zen Scholar Shigeo Kamata & Tendokan Shihan, Kenji Shimizu

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #89 (Fall 1991)

Aiki Forum features discussions with individuals involved in the martial arts in various capacities, such as writers, editors, video producers, etc. In this way we hope to offer alternative viewpoints in order to gain new perspectives on how others view aikido, Daito-ryu, and the martial arts in general. On this occasion our guests are Shigeo Kamata, Kenji Shimizu and Japanese Editor Ikuko Kimura.

Left to right: Kenji Shimizu, Shigeo Kamata, and Stanley Pranin

Pranin: Morihei Ueshiba was clearly influenced by the Shinto religion, in particular that of Onisaburo Deguchi of the Omoto-kyo. However, Zen was an influential factor among the Meiji era martial artists. Could you name some of these people?

Kamata Sensei: I believe that Tesshu Yamaoka is the most famous of those who were strongly influenced by Zen. His Muto-ryu style arose from Zen. Muto-ryu was first devised by Munenori Yagyu (muto, no-sword) during the reign of the Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa [1623-1651]. He wrote a book entitled Heiho Kadensho that includes two volumes known as Setsuninto (Death-dealing Sword) and Katsujinken (Life-giving Sword) in which the influence of Zen is apparent.

Pranin: I believe that Jigoro Kano and other practitioners of the traditional martial arts during the Meiji era were also influenced by Zen.

Kamata Sensei: Yes, that is true. In the Edo era, Zen philosophy was adopted on a large scale into swordsmanship, and thus it is only natural that martial artists of that time were influenced by Zen, although there were some who rejected it.

When a martial artist is young, his sword is merely a “killing sword,” but as he reaches maturity, he does not even draw his sword, much less kill a man. We can see this change in the swordsmanship of Bokuden Tsukahara, who in his later days no longer aimed to kill with his sword. If this is viewed negatively, we can regard the change as a weakening, but in addition there were some spiritual factors which changed the nature of his swordsmanship.

Ueshiba Sensei too seems to have trained in his youth only to become strong, but after he was exposed to Omoto-kyo he could perceive the power of the universe, a power far greater than his own. After that, his aikido changed from mere techniques into an art that also included a mysterious power. I think that anyone who pursues a martial art aims first to become strong, but eventually the possibilities of the art are exhausted and, while trying to break this deadlock, one can come to perceive God, or the spirit of the universe, or Zen, or some such thing.

Pranin: Ueshiba Sensei used to say, “Aikido is based on the sword.” How did he explain the role of the sword in aikido to you?

Shimizu Sensei: He didn’t explain it very fully. In fact, he used to get very angry when he saw us training with weapons. I think he thought that the basis of aikido was taijutsu, so that we, who were as yet untrained students, should not study anything that was not essential to aikido. First we had to learn empty-handed techniques in order to train our bodies.

O-Sensei was severe with our training and used to oversee us even when we were unaware of his presence. When our training did not meet with his approval he used to advise us in a loud voice. He was very careful in watching our training.

O-Sensei often showed us the principles of aiki (aiki no riai) using a sword. I think that these days there are too many people who use a sword when doing aikido. If O-Sensei were alive, he would scold them severely, and would say, “This is not aikido!”

O-Sensei used to give us a sword and say, “Strike me at me!” But we never could, because we were overwhelmed by his spirit as if we were merely puppets. He captured our spirits and we could not strike at him.

Pranin: You might say that you were beaten even before you attacked him.

Shimizu Sensei: Yes, we were completely baffled. I heard that in his early days he often ordered his students to attack him with real swords, but before they could strike they had already lost. I suppose that they too were overwhelmed by his spirit, like a frog that is mesmerized by the stare of a snake and cannot run away.

In the martial arts, which for me means aikido, the power of spirit can be cultivated regardless of age.

Thus, even if an opponent is an old man, we should not allow our ki to slacken. For example, a young man can be overwhelmed by his older opponent’s ki, so that he cannot apply any techniques.

It is said that when Tesshu Yamaoka slowly raised his sword, his opponent was compelled to bring his head under it. As a result, he killed no one. Once an opponent hung his own head as if bowing, there was no need for Tesshu to kill him.

Kamata Sensei: I have the impression that Tesshu was a person who had a very strong and powerful character, while at the same time he was a natural and relaxed man. The same thing can be said of his sword. Although he had trained for a long time, he never displayed his skills.

Pranin, Kamata, and Shimizu

Pranin: Kamata Sensei, in your book, Zen and Aikido, you described Takuan’s central thought, which is to harmonize the spirit of human beings with that of the universe. I think this is the most important goal. I understand that Ueshiba Sensei said, “Aiki is love.” Do you think there are any similar points between the thoughts of Takuan and Ueshiba Sensei?

Kamata Sensei: I believe that Ueshiba Sensei did not read Takuan’s books because he was a member of the Omoto religion. However, although these two men expressed their thoughts in different words, they do have something in common. For example, Takuan did not use the word “love” which is a modern term; instead he used the phrase “all-encompassing embrace.” According to Takuan, love meant to embrace all things around one. This love is utterly different from the general concept of love, and Takuan argued that once a man can embrace his opponent, he is able to embrace all of his opponents, even if he is attacked by five or ten at once.

Pranin: I understand that O-Sensei said, “When there is one enemy, we must act as if there are ten thousand; when there are many enemies, we must treat them as a single enemy.” I think this is the same as what you have just said.

Kamata Sensei: Musashi Miyamoto also said the same thing in his Book of Five Rings. But if a man feels restless or uneasy, he cannot act in the manner Takuan suggests. Once surrounded by ten opponents, he will flinch, no matter how well he has been taught to regard ten enemies as one. His body will be unable to move, much less succeed in real fighting.

There is an old saying among martial artists that in a real conflict it is difficult for a practitioner to step into his opponent’s maai (combative distance). To cope with this, the Jigen-ryu of Satsuma [present-day Kagoshima Prefecture] has an exercise in which one steps forward into an opponent’s maai, putting one’s body within range of the opponent. When the opponent has a real sword, even when one thinks that the distance between the two is one meter, the actual distance is three. This is why the practitioner cannot strike down his opponent, and can at most merely scratch him. Thus, the people of Kagoshima first train to enter into an opponent’s maai. Once a practitioner enters into his opponent’s maai he can be struck and so he risks his own life to strike down the opponent. He is prepared to be struck down and is trained to strike down his adversary by counter-attacking the opponent’s attack twice. Thus, it is impossible to practice entering into an opponent’s maai using a real sword.

Shimizu Sensei: In Japanese we say, “Niku o kirashite hone o kiru” (if the opponent cuts your flesh, cut him to the bone).

Pranin: Shimizu Sensei, you have been teaching abroad for many years. I think foreigners and Japanese differ slightly in their reasons for learning aikido. Have you ever been questioned on matters of philosophy by your foreign students?

Shimizu Sensei: Yes, I have. First of all they ask me why only a limited number of Japanese people learn aikido despite the fact that they have access to such a splendid martial art. Also they ask me what I think of rei (etiquette) and bu (martial arts).

Pranin: How do you answer them?

Shimizu Sensei: I have a hard time answering. But there actually are Japanese who are diligently studying aikido. As for the second question, I answer as follows: It is best to achieve victory without fighting, and the saying “Rei wa sonae nari” (etiquette is preparation) is the wisdom we use to avoid discord. But if we overlook ill manners because of cowardice, we encounter a situation “where might is master, justice is servant,” and the world comes to be governed by the law of the jungle. Since ancient times it has been said that true preparation is to denounce ill manners and champion justice. We call these preparations “bu” (martial arts). Aikido must be learned in order to cultivate the spirit that can denounce ill manners and bring justice, and to learn to intuitively perceive danger and acquire body movements to cope with it properly and instantly. I have the impression that both individuals and society, which is insensible to circumstances, are fundamentally weak.

One day a person who wanted to enter my dojo asked me, “It is said that aikido is moving Zen, and I know nothing about Zen. Will I be able to learn Zen?”

Kamata Sensei: I do not think he needs to learn Zen. The goal of aikido is to train the hips, just as in Zen. We use the word seikatanden to mean the hips. This technical term refers to the ten-centimeter region of the lower abdomen. We must train this part both in aikido and in Zen. Shimizu Sensei advises us to perform circular movements with the hips. This is very difficult to practice; at first we move the hips describing a simple circle or a simple sphere, then we must perform the exercise in three dimensions, describing many circles. Takuan presented a similar theory to Munenori Yagyu.

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