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Interview with Bruce Bookman

by Meik Skoss

Aikido Journal #106 (1996)

Bruce Bookman, 5th dan, is Chief Instructor of the Seattle Aikikai. He began studying aikido at age 12, under the direction of Yoshimitsu Yamada of the New York Aikikai. In 1978, he went to Japan to train at the Aikikai Hombu dojo, where he studied under Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Kazuo Chiba. In 1980, Bookman returned to the United States, and established the Seattle Aikikai. A professional aikido instructor, Bookman has recently begun to produce quality instructional videotapes.

AJ: For the record, Bruce, when and with whom did you begin your aikido training?

Bruce Bookman: I began training twenty-five years ago, in 1970, at the New York Aikikai with Yamada Sensei.

And why did you begin training?

I needed self-defense. I looked in the yellow pages and discovered that the martial arts school closest to my house was the New York Aikikai. I had no idea what they taught there; martial arts were martial arts, as far as I was concerned. I went to the dojo and just fell in love with aikido.

So it was love at first sight?

Yes. I saw one of the senior members doing a forward roll, and it looked so smooth and beautiful that I just had to learn how to do it too. I didn’t even care if aikido was self-defense, it just grabbed me. I went out and got a gi right away and came back and started training. Yamada Sensei also impressed me very strongly right from the beginning. He was such a kind individual and I always felt him to be a very nurturing presence.

It’s hard to describe all the ways that Yamada Sensei has helped me. He had something that I wanted—mastery of this art. Yet, he was one of the kindest people I have ever met. I recall the times I was called up to his office for these little talks. I can almost remember them word for word—the attitude adjustments, talking about training and how it related to my life, how a dojo operates, how to interact with other people, and the whole idea behind aikido. One thing that I genuinely appreciate about Yamada Sensei is that he has very few pretenses. At the time, I was reading everything I could about aikido. I had spiritual ideas about the art and Yamada Sensei would go through and destroy every single one of them. Any preconception that I had of what an aikido teacher should be, Yamada Sensei helped me to dissolve. And this helped me to be able to absorb more. It was quite spiritual, in a way. Yamada Sensei probably wouldn’t describe himself as a spiritual person, but I think that at some very important level he is.

So how do you look at aikido now?

I believe that aikido is graduate-level training, because it takes you out of the dichotomous arena of winners and losers and suggests that there is a third option, a way of peaceful reconciliation of opposing forces that’s mutually beneficial. Now, here’s where the problem is. It is a very easy thing to say “peaceful reconciliation of opposing forces” and “mutually beneficial.” In some respects aikido is no different from any other martial art. It’s not very peaceful to throw somebody on the floor or to twist their arm. If you are trying to apply a technique on somebody who is really coming at you, I’d like to see if you really can do it without putting a scratch on them. We are shooting for an ideal here. It is convenient to hide behind a facade of spirituality. What I understand is that O-Sensei came across his spirituality through a long and, at times, bitter struggle.

In recent years I’ve found cross-training to be very helpful. When O-Sensei first started teaching aikido, it is well known that he accepted mostly those who were already very accomplished in other martial arts, in more combative styles. They must have come to appreciate not only O-Sensei’s outstanding ability but also the spirituality that he brought to his art. That is why I say that his teachings must have been like graduate training to hard-core martial artists looking to bring their practice to completion. As aikido got more popular, and as people without martial arts backgrounds got into practice, the positive effects that training have on people’s lives was undeniable.

There is no competition in aikido, so you can shelter yourself pretty well. I’ve practiced with people all over the world and now I feel I need to do more study to understand the nature of violence and the reality of conflict, to try to trace my way from violence to the peaceful reconciliation of conflict that O-Sensei talked about. I don’t feel that we should ignore all of the work that O-Sensei went through before he got to the point where he could say that aikido is the way to reconcile the universe. It is easy to read a passage from O-Sensei’s memoirs, get out on the mat, and make pretty circles with a cooperative uke, and come away from practice with the notion that we are in perfect harmony with the universe. Here lies aikido’s challenge. How do we keep the practice alive, spontaneous, with an element of risk, without competition and destructiveness? Additionally, how can we do this without segregating practice by weight divisions or gender? It’s a tall order and I don’t claim to have an answer. The answer to these questions will be different for each aikidoka. What I think is important is to pose the question to yourself and to work on it in training the way a meditator works on a Zen koan. For me cross-training in other combative martial arts has been useful. As an instructor, I find competition to be a pure experience of adversity. I don’t suggest that everybody do this, and for many this type of experimentation is impractical. It’s like studying English in college. If you plan to go into business when you graduate, you probably don’t have to take a lot of Latin and Greek courses. But if you’re going to be a full-time scholar, then a background in Greek and Latin is very helpful. I teach aikido professionally, therefore it suits me to cross-train from time to time in striking and grappling arts.

We can’t draw on Morihei Ueshiba’s account. We have to build our own.

I agree. Again, it’s easy to fall in love with the words, like in reading a good poem. But good poets are writing from some personal experience, and O-Sensei is like that, too. You have to have some experience. Your art has to be backed up by something. I don’t feel that you can take O-Sensei’s art, the way he did it when he was eighty-five years old, and practice that way as a young person. I think that’s where a lot of people fall into a trap.

You’re raising an interesting point. Aiki training, in your opinion, is graduate training. You’re saying that people come to aikido and look to Morihei Ueshiba’s art and technique—after his many, many years of experience—as their model. Do you think that people should have experience in another art first? Or, if you accept them as raw beginners, do you encourage them to cross-train? If you encourage them to cross-train, when is that appropriate?

That’s a very difficult question, and I’m in the midst of working out a lot of these things in my own mind right now. It depends on what you want out of the art. What’s most important is that you’re not fooling yourself. Most people who come into the art are looking to temper their spirit somehow. When we practice we symbolize an attack and a defense. We work out different kinds of confrontational situations as alternatives to retaliating by destroying the other person. This kind of daily practice, done over and over again on a physical level, has an effect on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.

It permeates everything in you.

Yes. It is obvious with adults and especially with children. Through their practice they become less aggressive people. They think of alternatives to violence, and I believe that the world becomes a better place as a result of this type of training. To take it to the point where there is a perfect reflection of the spirit in physical technique—that’s another issue entirely. What you will do will mirror how you train. If you train with boxers all of the time, then you’ll be able to deal with boxers. If you practice with grapplers, then you’ll be able to deal with grapplers. If you’re not used to how a boxer attacks and you get into a physical confrontation with one, you are going to be in trouble unless you are such an incredible genius that you can see the theory behind shomenuchi and how to do it entering in an irimi movement, and then apply that to a fly punch combination of a world-class boxer. To do that requires a kind of genius. You have to keep a reasonable perspective. There are many who become aiki philosophers, and think “Ah! I have a theory about this, I’ve discovered it! You know, it seems right, it’s good.” Then, when they meet a skilled person who is really trying to clean their clock, they may be disappointed in what they can actually pull out of their training. Aikido is a martial art. It is an effective method, but it takes a long time to master. Mastery takes very careful observation and careful study. You’ve got to risk a little too.

Risk in what sense?

Well, this is hard to talk about because it’s such a complex process. Before you can understand harmony, you’ve got to understand conflict, because if there’s no conflict, there’s nothing to harmonize. Studying conflict is dangerous. What I try to do in my own training is get right on the borderline, where I’m really stretching my own limits, trying to understand the nature of conflict. That’s where my cross-training comes in.

So you take physical risks and mental risks, in the sense that you really challenge your assumptions.

Yes. Also, I feel that I’m risking my self-image.

So you’re taking emotional risks as well?

You have to put it all on the line if you’re going to be honest about your practice.

Now you were saying that the art must be flexible enough to deal with all manner of situations, all manner of attacks, on a technical level. So your cross-training both widens your experience and deepens your understanding of conflict in the physical, emotional, and cognitive or theoretical senses. What kind of cross-training are you doing?

I did American-style boxing. I found a boxing coach to work with who was a Golden Gloves Champion. He has trained many amateur champions and currently spars with professional boxers. He and I sparred about twenty rounds a week. We did drills on footwork, focus mitts—all of the traditional methods for American boxing. I also practice jujutsu. I visit the Machado brothers in Redondo Beach, California, for training in Brazilian jujutsu, then work with some of my students and other martial artists in Seattle. I find some of the things they have come up with to be very intriguing. While on a philosophical level there may be a lot of differences, on a mechanical level I find what they do fascinating. Their personal manner and their style of doing martial arts are quite exceptional.

So where does it all fit in to aikido? I’m giving myself a semi-sabbatical and just trying to absorb these things the way they’re given to me, without trying to approach it as an aikido instructor. I’m just trying to approach it as a human being and then see what it means to me. Also, these other disciplines are highly competitive; they tend to be more aggressive in their training. For me, this sort of training brings up very personal things that go all the way back to my childhood.

I don’t really have any idea now where my cross-training is going to end up, or how it will affect my aikido practice. I feel that it will have some effect. One key way in which it helps me is that it puts me in a training situation where I don’t have much control. In an aikido class, the situation is very orderly and you always know the outcome.

There is a lot of risk involved. It’s dangerous to box. You risk all sorts of things, even without boxing competitively. I had to stop boxing due to an eye injury.

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