Hidden in Plain Sight
by Ellis Amdur
In my recent blog, Aikido is Three Peaches, I attempted to sketch out how Ueshiba Morihei described his own aikido, based on his long, transcribed presentation to Goi Masaharu’s Byakko Kai. Summing up, I believe that: a) He viewed aikido practice as a kind of physical kotodama, to give him (and perhaps others) the power to enact mankind’s primordial role in uniting Heaven and Earth. Aikido, for Ueshiba, was misogi, a purification ritual. There is no doubt that he saw it as a martial art, but its main purpose was not going to war, self-defense or improving human relationships. That these might also occur were intrinsic to the art, but subsidiary to the greater goal. b) Ueshiba did not see himself as a Messiah figure with the purpose of redeeming all of mankind or converting them to his views. Instead, he was a kind of Shaman, with the responsibility to mediate and set right the relations between Heaven, Earth and Man. Therefore, he did not take an active role in helping others becoming like him. Aikido practitioners were, to him, like workers on an assembly line - they did their part by practicing and this, like prayers, increased spiritual energy. At the same time, he believed that others could be as he was, but it was, as he said to Terry Dobson, up to each of them to “Find out yourself.” c) It is through ukemi, not imitation of the teacher’s waza that one begins to achieve skill in aiki. This leads to a fascinating resonance in the creating of skill and strength.
- Tori functions much as uke does in koryu - providing the uke in aikido practice (really tori, from a koryu perspective) an increasingly intense and difficult set of problems which he or she is required to solve - sensitivity, blending, maintaining connection, integrity of movement, vulnerability to atemi, ability to execute atemi, etc.
- If uke and tori are mindful of this function, uke gets stronger and stronger and this manifests in increasing ability in waza, particularly blending and counters.
- If uke is not aware or mindful of this, AND if the teacher sees uke’s function as a means to display his or her own skill, uke never “absorbs” the lessons and essentially performs like a trained monkey on a string.
The result of such practice should be the development of an individual who is athletic, supple, and quickly responsive to dealing with force, from whatever angles it comes. In addition, hard training and harsh ukemi will develop an intrinsic toughness as well. Nowhere in the above system of practice, however, is there training to develop the explosive power that sends an opponent flying, as we see in the 1935 Film of Ueshiba at the Asahi News dojo. Nowhere in that training, either, is Ueshiba’s tenacious power to uproot a tree that Yukawa, the strongest man in the Kobukan, could not budge (as described by Shioda Gozo), or standing rooted at the edge of a tatami with a mass of soldiers trying to push him off, unable to budge him in the least (as described by Shirata Rinjiro).
It is claimed in some circles that although Ueshiba was one of Takeda Sokaku’s strongest Daito-ryu practitioners - perhaps the strongest - that under the influence of his religious practices, his Daito-ryu changed to such a degree that it became something else, a watered-down martial art - aikido. Ueshiba allegedly rounded out and make expansive the precise, focused Daito-ryu techniques, weakening them and diluting their martial content.
It is certainly fair to criticize the waza of “aiki-bunnies:” fluffy airy movements that imitate nature - the flow of clouds in the sky, the wind in the trees, or water down the drain. One can also criticize those who merely train by rote the small compendium of techniques in standard aikido, as if this set will cover all contingencies of combat. It is equally valid to criticize - at least on grounds of naiveté - an attempt to move directly to a kind of “divine aikido,” beyond form and technique. If there is a way to heaven, good wishes alone don’t get you there - in truth, you have to follow “the way.” (At the same time, one must be concerned that the way might merely be the Yellow Brick Road, and all one does is arrive at Emerald City, but save that for another time).
Notwithstanding these types of criticism, I do not recall any instance of anyone attempting (at least successfully) to level them against Ueshiba Morihei. In one of the accounts I read in Aikido Journal, General Miura, a Daito-ryu practitioner, challenged Ueshiba, believing he had betrayed Daito-ryu with his “innovations,” but was easily defeated and left converted. It is certainly possible that Takeda Sokaku was a “stronger” martial artist than Ueshiba Morihei - Hisa Takuma seemed to believe so - but were any of Takeda’s successors truly his equal? I recall reading an interview with Takeda Tokimune where he stated, “He was the favorite student of Sokaku … . Mr. Ueshiba accompanied Sokaku a great deal. It was more important to travel with Sokaku than to study with him during the regular practice time. And what’s more, he also taught as Sokaku’s assistant … . . He practiced the most of anyone. He was very enthusiastic and my father taught him intensely.”
Did Ueshiba simply get all his skills from Daito-ryu - an art that he taught in his own version as late as the nineteen thirties, at which point he gradually permutated the techniques, offering Daito-ryu Lite for the spiritual edification of the masses? Although this assertion is common, I find this puzzling because of the immense respect as a martial artist that Ueshiba received well after his alterations - from people outside his own school. To give just two examples, there was a recent interview published on Aikido Journal by a famous karate instructor - Konishi, I believe his name was - who termed Ueshiba as the greatest martial artist he had ever met. Haga Jun’ichi, the famous/infamous kendo/iaido champion, referred to Ueshiba as the best swordsman in Japan.
I also find it puzzling because he, alone, among the disciples of Takeda, is described not only as a master of aiki, but also immensely powerful - and exerting and manifesting that power in a far different way than a weightlifter, and different, too, from what is described about other practitioners of Daito-ryu. His aikijutsu and jujutsu skills are almost surely Daito-ryu based, but there was, apparently, more to Ueshiba than that.
If Ueshiba was so great, however, why has there been a gradual decrease in the skill of aikido practitioners over the last couple generations - from the giants of the prewar era, to the brilliance of the immediately postwar, to the mere excellence of the young current shihan? There is no one among the young shihan who strikes awe in the greater martial arts community. Is it then true that aikido is, in fact, a watered-down practice? Or is aikido potentially wonderful, but Ueshiba such a mediocre teacher that he simply couldn’t communicate what he knew? Or was his aikido replicable and well taught, but hardly anybody actually paid attention to what he really was teaching? Not the esoteric material on Heaven, Earth and Man - I am referring to the physical art.
Let us postulate that Ueshiba did pare away quite a bit from the corpus of Daito-ryu - not only waza and kata - but intrinsic material as well. As he fleshed out and rounded the techniques into aikido, his successor students would have lost access to information that would have enabled them to become first-rate Daito-ryu practitioners. But rather than assuming that this vitiation of waza was acceptable to Ueshiba because he had his mind on Shinto gods and purple clouds, let us further postulate that it may have been of little concern because there was another piece that he was teaching which, if attended to, would make his art of equal power and efficacy to the best of Daito-ryu.
There are accounts - rueful complaints perhaps - by many of Ueshiba’s students that he would teach a technique only once, and students were left to their own devices to figure things out. This is not unusual however. One of my koryu teachers told me that he would be practicing over on the side - suburi, perhaps, and one of the old men would holler over at him, “Hey kid, look at this.” They would do a kata once - and he was expected to figure out exactly what was presented. On more than a few occasions, I have taught my student a kata one or two minutes before we are about to go on stage at an embukai, and I have every expectation that he will do it correctly. If he knows the essence of the ryu, the details are easy to piece together. So it is too simplistic to claim that the old man kept the goods to himself just because he was stingy with his teaching method.
In a recent conversation I had with Stanley Pranin, he mentioned Suzuki Shingoro, one of Ueshiba’s friends of his young manhood. Ueshiba occasionally traveled back to Tanabe, where he used to meet with Suzuki and several other friends throughout his life. In a brief account of a trip of his own, Stanley shows that Ueshiba had, only here perhaps, an eye-to-eye relationship with equals - not between martial artists whom he thought were his peers, or with other shamans and gurus - but simply among friends. This, alone, is a fascinating story, and I hope that Stanley will flesh out his brief account of his interviews with these old friends someday.
Stanley told me one other significant bit of data. Shingoro was about five feet, ten inches, and over 220 pounds. He was a local sumo champion. Shingoro related that, when Ueshiba returned after considerable training in Daito-ryu, even so, he could not measure up to Suzuki’s strength. But shortly after his stay at the Omotokyo headquarters, he again returned home, and in that interim, Ueshiba had become unbelievably powerful. Suzuki stated that he could not match him.
The romantic viewpoint would be that Ueshiba had some sort of magical, spiritual experience that awakened untapped paranormal powers - some sort of “dragon energy” that lay, coiled and asleep, at the base of his spine only to emerge after Ueshiba tapped into the cosmic source. Two problems: First, Ueshiba did not claim an enlightenment experience until many years later, and that was an apprehension of cosmic unity, not power - it came after he had come into his powers; secondly, if enlightenment was all it took to develop the ability to exert paranormal force, there should have been titanic Zen monks, Shugendo priests and Taoist wizards slinging boulders and tree trunks all over Japan.
There has long been speculation - mostly in the West, but also from Abe Seiseki as well - that Ueshiba must have learned secret training methods in one of his trips to China. As I have written before: the dates really don’t fit. He had his awesome power and skill before his first trip to China, and a breakdown of the dates he was there, whom he was with and how long he would have had any time to meet, much less get initiated into any real Chinese martial arts training, makes this dubious in the extreme.
Could he have learned these training methods - qigong, as it is referred to in China - somewhere else? It is, in fact, very possible. The Omotokyo community in the early part of the century resembled a Japanese incarnation of two similar one’s in other countries: that of Gurdjieff in Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and that of Sri Bhagwan Rajneesh in India and America. In all three cases, the sect was led by an outrageous, sexually provocative, con-man-genius, with both genuine spiritual attainments and very grave human foibles, including a lust for power and a grandiose sense of his own entitlement to the best luxuries his followers could offer him. It cannot be denied, however, that each was an exciting and charismatic genius, who drew kindred souls to him: the spiritually greedy, the materially greedy, the sincere seekers, and other men and women of considerable attainments in their own right. It was a kind of New-Age center with dietary fanatics, yogis, shamans, philosophers and practitioners of all kinds of esoteric spiritual exercises.
In Omotokyo’s case, contacts with China were actually quite deep. Deguchi incorporated Taoist doctrine, reworked it into Shinto myth and language and called it his own. He had contacts with similar neo-Taoist sects in China as well as in Tibet. Not only did he travel to China, but China, and the rest of Asia came to him.
I have been carrying on a many month long correspondence with a friend of mine - Mike Sigman. We’ve mainly talked about methods of generating so-called internal power, this being a field I have become increasingly fascinated, a field where Mike has many years of study before me. He notes several points in regards to aikido: first, in the films of the old masters, he sees them doing techniques which manifest some of the same principals as the Chinese “internal” martial arts; second, the basic exercises such as torifune-undo and furitama are standard qigong practices in China, and can be used for power building - not standard body-building muscular development, but so-called qi development. This should be considered a biomechanical process of neuro-muscular development, not the creation of invisible cosmic rays you can beam at will. (Having no skill or first-hand knowledge in this area, I will not try to go further in explaining it. I’ll get back to you in five or ten years if my own studies bear any fruit in this area).
What I am suggesting is that Ueshiba, already a dedicated and very skilled man, one of Takeda Sokaku’s very best Daito-ryu students went to meet Deguchi and became his pet martial artist. I believe he met other people, Chinese perhaps, or Japanese mystics who traveled to China, Tibet or India and here he learned basic, power-building exercises qigong. Further, because he learned these training methods in the context of the religion to which he had passionately converted, he treated them as spiritual practices, which he surely viewed as precious information, not mere physical mechanics.
I did a brief search on the Aikido Journal site, and also some other sites on the web, and saw approximately eight different exercises listed. I would refer you to the following two to get Abe Seiseki’s teaching in this area. www.page.sannet.ne.jp/shun-q/INTERVIEW-E.html and http://www.doshinokai.com/article4.htm, as well as John Steven’s The Essence of Aikido. Abe suggests several-hours-a-day training. In support of this, I recall one interview with one of Ueshiba’s first students (unfortunately I can’t remember the citation) where he, a young man, asked Ueshiba what was the secret of his physical and martial power. He replied that it was chinkon-kishin and misogi. This, folks, is a “smoking gun” - a clear explanation rather than mystic flight.
There are several kinds of secrets - Gokui - in Japanese martial arts. The most mundane are tricks or special techniques to defeat other people in combat. Others are presented at the end of the road - practices such as mikkyo, which can be used to enter into the founder-of-the-ryu’s experience, or to attain special power or knowledge. There is one final type of Gokui: “hidden in plain sight.” The teacher does it every class, and everyone ignores it, waiting for the “warm-ups” or “basics” to be over to get to the real deal. “Find out yourself,” said the old man. Is it possible that he didn’t mean that one had to go away wandering into other arts and realms, or dropping by other esoteric teachers, be they Zen, yoga, t’ai chi or Tempu Nakamura’s shin shin toitsu? Maybe all he meant was to pay attention to what he was doing in class.*
So I’m offering a few bits of research to you:
- Some of my readers may have contacts with Omotokyo. Ask! Some of Ueshiba’s aikido students in the Omotokyo community are still alive. Elderly, but alive. Ask if any of them recall other teachers, doing any sort of solo practice, or if Ueshiba, in his younger and more transparent days, gave any detailed instruction on power and ki development. If so, what exactly did he teach? What physical organization? What breathing patterns and methods? NOTE: Details of the breathing methods are of paramount importance! Does the technology, in fact, still exist within the surviving aikido world?
- Some of my readers may be studying with some of Ueshiba’s eldest surviving students. Abe Seiseki, as cited earlier, seems to be taking pains to teach this material. How about Sudanomari Kanshu? Are there others still surviving? Ask! I can state from first-hand experience that teachers are not always as secretive as is claimed. They simply wait for someone to show interest. Did Ueshiba emphasize standing practice, or the other, so-called “aiki taiso” as more than warm-ups, but instead, as a long-term study in development of power? Ask. There are only a few years left, beyond which time there will never be a chance to ask again.
- Try an experiment. Practice these exercises for an hour or more a day. There is a problem, however. The exercises will need to be coordinated with the breath and subtle neuro-muscular organization. If you don’t have them, get the DVD’s of Ueshiba that have him doing these exercises. Watch them over and over again to ascertain his breathing patterns. What is his abdomen doing? His mouth? His neck and throat?
It would be wonderful would be if people actually versed in these procedures were still alive. I am sure that each got a piece of the puzzle, rather than an entire system clearly mapped out.
This, I believe, is the missing link in the creation of Ueshiba’s aikido. Yes, aikido is interesting, regardless. It offers reconciliation of enemies, the martial art of love, great exercise, cool outfits, wonderful friends, and a few self-defense techniques as well. But is it incredible? That’s what drew me to it in the first place - the kung fu I was studying at the time was pretty cool too, (excepting the “martial art of love” thing). But aikido first drew me because of its apparent potential for something wondrous. And with all due respect, the techniques themselves are not wondrous - similar methods can be found in a variety of martial arts.
Among the reasons that Daito-ryu is becoming popular is the greater variety and sophistication within the technical corpus, as well as the sophisticated training in aiki techniques. But I will reiterate - perhaps what made aikido what it was in Ueshiba’s hands was not merely a watering-down, limiting and spiritualizing of technique. Perhaps the missing link - power development in a very different form from that of Daito-ryu - is what Ueshiba added to make the pared away elements from Daito-ryu irrelevant to his aikido. Maybe he was either more explicit in his teaching on breathing and solo power development methods to his early students, or perhaps they were hungrier and paid closer attention to everything the man did, whether they understood it or not, and this is why such men as Shioda, Inoue, Shirata and Tomiki, to name only a few, were giants in their own right.
In a famous interview, Ueshiba was asked, “Did you discover aikido while you were learning Daito-ryu under Sokaku Takeda?” He replied, “No. It would be more accurate to say that Takeda Sensei opened my eyes to budo.” Many have read this and viewed it as a slight on Takeda, that Ueshiba is both grandiose about his own role, and ungrateful towards his teacher. Others have chosen to interpret this as Ueshiba saying that Takeda taught what NOT to be. It is also possible, that Ueshiba is being both accurate and respectful. Rather than a dismissive slight, it may simply be a clear statement delineating where Takeda’s influence stopped. Aikido really was something else - and the Omotokyo influence was not mere spiritual marzipan - it was the yin/internal training that completed what Ueshiba took from Daito-ryu. If I am correct, aikido still has the potential to be a complete and wondrous study. But without the training that Ueshiba, himself, said was the secret of his power, all we have left is the equivalent of one of those outline drawings at a crime scene. The position is proper, and all the limbs are in the right place. All that is missing is the body.
*By the way, I do not believe, based on Tohei Koichi’s statements, that he got everything the old man offered - but in his concept of relaxation, which he coupled with other, supplemental studies, he must have gotten a large portion of it, and reworked in his own way. Tohei was, despite his claims of disinterest in the mysticism, paying close attention, and this is why he, as a young man, found such favor with Ueshiba, as different personalities as the two of them might have been.
(editor’s note: this article was originally published as a blog)