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Interview with Koichi Tohei (4)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #113 (1998)

So far you’ve given us a great deal of valuable historical information. I wonder if now we might turn to the present state of Shinshin Toitsu aikido. Both in Japan and abroad, increasing numbers of people have been expressing an interest in Shinshin Toitsu aikido after becoming dissatisfied with other styles of aikido and aspiring to something different.

Your teaching focuses on ki; perhaps you could start by telling us how this ki differs from qigong (pronounced “chee goong”), the Chinese version currently popular in Japan?

It depends whether or not you are working with the universe as the object of your efforts. But, first let’s look at the word itself. The written character for ki originated in China. Originally Japan has no writing system of its own, so it imported the ideographic system of Han Dynasty China (202 BCE - 220 CE). We call these characters kanji in Japanese, from kan, the Japanese pronunciation of Han, and ji, meaning characters. Once imported, each character took on two different readings, one approximating the original Chinese and one which was the Japanese pronunciation for the word the character represented.

One good example would be the word kagami (mirror). Japanese originally had the word mizukagami, which literally means “water mirror.” Prior to the invention of mirrors, people would fill an unglazed vessel with water, let it stand until the surface of the water became still, and use that to see their reflection. The syllables in the work kagami came from ka (fictitious), ga (self), and mi (see). When metal mirrors, called kyo in Chinese, were later introduced, the Japanese retained the original Chinese reading of the character kyo, but also used the naive word kagami. These two words, kyo and kagami, mean exactly the same thing in Japanese, but the word kagami would be completely incomprehensible in Chinese.

It is the same for the character for person (hito). Its original meaning in Chinese, based on its shape (which shows two people leaning on each other) was to the effect that “people must rely on one another to get along in the world.” In Japanese we retain the readings nin and jin that approximate the original Chinese, but we also have the Japanese reading hito. Like mizukagami, the word hito existed in Japan prior to the introduction of Chinese characters. It comes from the classical language of Japanese spirituality, with a specific connection to the word naohi (direct spirit). The syllable hi expressed the spirit of the universe, and when this spirit coalesces into a physical form, you have hito (“spirit-stop”) - a person. The same applies to the word kokyu (breath); I teach my students to exhale with “haaah” sound and inhale with a “suuuh” sound - in other words, to use the more natural pronunciation instead of the words themselves. Whole-body breathing would be impossible if you tried to exhale with the sound “koooh” an inhale with the sound “kyuuuh” (i.e. kokyu).

From these examples, you can see that in Chinese it is the shapes of the characters that give them meaning, while in Japanese it is the sound.

Which brings us finally to ki, which is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese chi. (Now spelled Qi, to make matters even more confusing - Ed.) In Japan, the syllable, ki, expresses the meaning “spirit of the universe.” In Japanese there are about 900 different words that contain the syllable!

It was after I had already disseminated the word ki throughout the world that the Chinese qigong practitioners started imitating it.

Around the time I first went to Hawaii, in 1953, the use of the word qi and qigong had been completely banned in China under the Communist ideology. I must confess, I really wondered how they could ban something as universal as ki, but those were the conditions prevailing during the time I was teaching about ki. People came to Hawaii from all over the world to participate in my classes there, and the concept of ki therefore spread very quickly.

Seeing this, the Chinese subsequently removed the ban on the word qi in 1958-about five years after I began teaching it - and qigong practitioners started popping up like bamboo shoots after the rain. There were even some Chinese qigong teachers in Hawaii who claimed that the ki I was talking about had come from China, and so on and so forth, despite the fact that the Chinese themselves banned the very word!

The Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) once did a special feature on qigong. They tried a variety of different experiments to test it, but they didn’t get even a fraction of the results they were hoping for. They were rather at a loss about what to think when they then learned of the existence of our Ki no Kenkyukai (Ki Research Society). I happened to be out when they called, but Otsuka (8th dan, Ki no Kenkyukai managing director) talked with them. He explained that he didn’t know anything about qigong, but that ki is indeed something real, and that the things we teach about ki can be done anywhere by anyone at any time.

For something to be scientifically verifiable it must be both universal and reproducible. The things we teach about ki can be reproduced at any time, not just when we’re feeling well and not when we’re feeling poorly - whenever, wherever, by whomever, as many times as needed; otherwise it’s impossible to create scientific data. Science is built on universality and reproducibility.

On the other hand, there are many aspects of Eastern medicine and philosophy that have not been substantively verified. Eastern herbal remedies seem to be effective at some times and ineffective at others. These things follow their own logic, but universality and reproducibility should extend to them. It may be that our study of them is still incomplete.

Since science began accepting concepts like the infinite ad infinitesimal, we seem to have become unable to discern which of our studies reflect reality and which do not. This has, in turn, led to a tendency to think that everything we don’t understand must somehow still exist. This is the way ki is generally interpreted in the world today, with people thinking it must exist because it seems inaccessible or esoteric.

This occult-style ki just isn’t possible. That which does not exist simply does not exist, and that’s the end of it! Knocking someone over by glaring at them, for example: it’s so obvious that that sort of thing is fraudulent. It’s just not possible! There are some who would say that nobody knows aikido better than I do, right? So if I focus a concentrated glare on you, are you going to fall over? I doubt it!

Many people were surprised that I was able to throw the sumo wrestler Kurosegawa, seemingly without touching him. People think, “Tohei can throw people without touching them!” But that’s not right. I may not have been touching him with my hands, but I was touching him with my ki. A person that comes rushing forward to attack is preceded by his ki, and wherever that ki goes, his body is obliged to follow. (This is why it is impossible to throw people who are not really intending to attack you.) So all I had to do was evade his ki; I simply let him go where he seemed to want to go, and he fell of his own accord.

Ki is something that is conveyed from one person to another. If you like someone a lot, that person is bound to pick up on your feeling. The only reason it is possible for me to throw a very large individual who is moving in with a strike or other attack is that I am able to grasp his mind, his intention, the instant it manifests itself.

This is one of the things that Ueshiba Sensei truly wanted to teach. Much of the aikido we see today has degenerated into mere fighting. I call what I do Shinshin Toitsu Aikido (“aikido with mind and body coordinated”) because I don’t want to be associated with that kind of aikido. Aikido is a path to harmony with the universe, and it should suffice to call it aikido (since the name incorporates this meaning), but for the sake of clarity I added Shinshin Toitsu. Abroad it is referred to as “Ki Aikido.”

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