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Interview with Seishiro Endo

by Ikuko Kimura

Published Online

This interview was published in Japanese in Dou, No. 144 (2005) by Aiki News, Japan and translated into English by Daniel Nishina and Akiya Hideo for Cosmos Online. We would like to thank Stanley Pranin, Aiki News, for his kind permission for the translation and issuing it here.

Seishiro Endo Sensei

We previously inquired about your aikidô training about ten years ago (issue 106). This time we would like to ask about your changes of thought about aikidô since then, from the viewpoint of “dô” or Tao.

Japanese people have a tendency to attach “-dô” to everything. This can be seen not only with budô but also with sadô (or chadô, the art of tea ceremony) and kadô (the art of flower arrangement), for instance. We even hear of sumô-dô, salaryman-dô, keiei-dô (the way of business). People attach “-dô” to various aspects and activities of our lives in order to give them special meaning or to distinguish them as areas of mastery. Yet, I don’t think many people, including myself, really know what “dô” is. At some point I began to wonder why there were two ways to say one thing e.g. budô/bujutsu, kendô/kenjutsu, jûdô/jûjutsu, aikidô/aikijutsu, and thus started to explore the difference in meaning.

I feel I more or less have a grasp of the meaning of “jutsu,” but when it comes to “dô,” I feel it means something immense, deep, wide, and unclear. In my desire to somehow make it clearer, I sought books relating to Taoism, Lao-tzu (Lao-zi) and Chuang-tzu (Zhuang-zi). Tao can also be found in Confucianism and its virtues: Jin (仁, humanity), Gi (義, righteousness), Rei (礼, propriety), Chi (智, wisdom), Shin (信, faithfulness). It is said that Tao is to seek and realize, and thereby equip the self with, these virtues. We might say that this is “Tao for the people.”

According to Taoism these virtues comprise a Tao as conceived by humans, and true Tao is that which has existed before this artificial Tao ever came into being. Lao-tzu expressed as follows: “The path that can be regarded as The Path is not the great eternal Path. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name1.” This means that Tao is a fundamental, universal principle that has always existed before any artificial Tao came into being.

In Chuang-tzu’s book of “Chi-hoku-yû” (荘子 知北遊篇)2, it is written, “There is nowhere that Tao is not. It is everywhere.” The entire universe is Tao, and it is ki that gives birth and life to all the phenomena in the universe. It is also said that in order to know that ki and the flow of ki, one must know Tao. It appears that this is the origin of the words, “Seeking Tao,” and “Mastering Tao.” Lao-tzu referred to one who has mastered Tao as “mu-i-shi-zen” (無為自然, natural and unaffected). Chuang-tzu interpreted this as “emptiness unlimited” or “absolute nothingness3.” When one grasps and masters the flow of ki of all the phenomena in the universe as it is, one is in the state of “mu-i-shi-zen” and “absolute nothingness.” To strive to attain such a state is a true way of life for humans. This is what Taoism teaches.

What has changed in grasping aikidô as Tao?

I encountered the following words regarding seeking Tao: Lao-tzu said, “In studying, one accumulates everyday. In carrying out Tao, one reduces everyday. Through reduction upon reduction, one reaches the point of doing nothing, whereupon everything is complete.” Dôgen said, “To choose the path of Buddha is to learn the self. To learn the self is to forget the self.” Kanô Jigorô named jûdô and took as a key phrase, “Softness overcomes hardness,” based on Lao-tzu’s 36th text, which states, “Soft and weak defeats hard and strong.” “Soft and weak” means soft and supple. When one is in such a state one can feel ki, match the partner’s ki, and fall into a state of riding the flow of ki. From there one becomes able to move in a “mu-i-shi-zen” manner. On the other hand, “hard and strong” denotes a rigid and unyielding state, in which one can move only with the ego fully exposed. Based on these ideas, in seeking Tao, I now have as a major goal to practice softly in such a way that I rid myself of egotistical consciousness.

Could you elaborate on “softness”?

We are endlessly told during practice to release the strength and tension from our shoulders and not to use the strength in our arms. Then what should we do exactly? No one actually teaches how to use the body or what we should do regarding our internal states.

30 years ago, for the first time I heard a way to realize the above from Yamaguchi shihan: “Put strength into your lower abdomen and use your feet lightly.” Subsequently I learned that the kyûdô shihan Awa Kenzô, in teaching Eugen Herrigel, instructed him to put strength into his lower abdomen, which Awa confirmed by striking him there. Awa said, “In drawing the bow, throw away all the strength in your body and draw with only your mental/spiritual strength.” I later came across the words of many people known to be masters and have found that they all say basically the same thing. In order to practice with no strength and to rid oneself of egotistical consciousness, I have come to practice while always keeping in mind the words of forebearers (masters). Even now I continue by trial and error, as I will explain next.

In the beginning I would continuously practice the tori role of shômen-uchi ikkyô. Wherever I went I would practice only ikkyô. I did this for more than six months. Later, I would continuously practice a single technique for 30 minutes to a full hour. The best experience I had was at a seminar in France, where attendance exceeds 300. I would continuously practice a single technique with each and every participant. Performing one technique over a thousand times was the norm, as I would continue until I got to every participant.

What I noticed in practicing this way was that, while my movement may be awkward when I start, as I go through more and more repetitions I start to get into a rhythm and my movement becomes more flowing. Also, I almost forget which technique I’m doing. I face my partner, and when he moves I respond naturally. In addition I become better able to see myself. I came to wonder if this is what is meant by mushin (no mind) and releasing strength. It is like being in a trance.

As I continued to practice this way wherever I went, after some years it ceased to matter whether my technique worked or not. I meet my partner, move, and my partner’s balance is broken. My ki is extremely concentrated and I use my body smoothly and lightly. Furthermore, I began to check my use of my body, arms, and feet in the midst of movement.

Next in practice, in jiyû-waza for instance, I decide not to do anything forced or requiring significant strength. When I meet my partner, if I feel engagement (atari), I refrain from trying to engage him or her. If my partner resists, I accept and value the feeling of the reaction and change my movement with respect to that feeling. Then I make the movement my own. The more I release strength and relax, and the softer I try to be, the easier it becomes to feel my partner’s ki and respond to it.

Recently I have been organizing what I have learned from my experiences – the encounters, the engagements, how to use my body, arms, shoulders, and feet, and states of mind – and have gradually incorporated them into practice.

Could you tell us your thoughts regarding teacher and student?

When we learn something, we call the person teaching, teacher e.g. shihan, shishô, sensei. It may be that these different words indicate different meanings and significance depending on how a person is learning, but it can also be said that they are all same. In recent times, in entertainment industry-related contexts, there is still a tendency to use the words shihan and shishô, but in general we call the person who teaches, sensei, and the person who learns, seito. So, is the shihan-deshi relationship the same as or different than sensei-seito? If both the one who learns and the one who teaches have strong devotion and consideration for each other, and their relationship is deep and long lasting, I believe it doesn’t matter whether we say seito or deshi.

Now we have the words uchi-deshi, the student who resides and trains in the dôjô, kayoi-deshi, the student who commutes to the dôjô, and soto-deshi. The uchi-deshi takes care of the shihan while training together, thus creating the strongest bond with the shihan as well as gaining the richest teachings. Indeed, the ultimate thing that can be gained by being so close to the shihan is to know the breath of the shihan.

Currently there are few actual dôjôs and most people begin their practice in some sports center or gym. In such places one needs only to fill out the registration paperwork to become a member, start practicing, and enter into a teacher-student relationship. I don’t believe a shihan-deshi relationship can develop in such places. However, more and more people are showing a tendency to go ahead and say, “So-and-so is my deshi,” after a short period, and speak of others as if they were possessions. As for the students who started out their practice pleasantly in a convenient location, the teacher calling them deshi may impose an unwanted pressure and lead to disappointment in the teacher’s actions.

In Zen, it is said, “Take three years to find your teacher.” A monk who is in training is referred to as un-sui, which is taken from kou-un-ryû-sui (meaning to flow and move naturally, without stopping or attaching to anything). They flow and drift like water and clouds, searching for a master with the capacity to guide them in their training, before finally calling on a temple. After being admitted to a dôjô, they begin their training under a teacher. If, after spending some time training under the teacher, one felt that that teacher was not suitable, it was acceptable for him or her to leave the dôjô and search for another teacher and dôjô. Such was an indication of the seriousness with which one undertook his or her training.

This must mean that a student must be capable of making a good selection of a teacher. You wrote on the Saku Dôjô website, “If one has been practicing for over 15 years, one should try to find one’s teacher based on careful consideration. However, when you think you’ve found ‘the one,’ you must practice thinking seriously and diligently on every single movement and every single word of that person.”

Actually, the number of years doesn’t really matter. However, in Japan, once one decides on a teacher, it is considered improper to change to another teacher. On the other hand, if one simply started out at a convenient or local dôjô, I think it is okay for him/her to go anywhere to learn – of course after informing the instructors. In the end, if a student feels that he/she absolutely cannot keep up or that the practice is of no value, he/she should just go to another dôjô. The student must be feeling the discomfort because he/she is putting forth all his/her effort. Anyone who strives to grow will have such experiences. When a student finally determines that he/she has found his/her teacher, he/she should spend at least ten years following that teacher, hanging on every word and syllable of that teacher.

You wrote, “In aikidô practice, it is necessary to avoid becoming preoccupied with whether or not techniques are effective, and first simply repeat the forms, both uke and tori, correctly. … One should be mindful to take the time to absorb into one’s body everything from techniques involving small movements of the arms and legs to larger and simpler movements, in such a way that strength is not overused.”

In Japan, we transmit and learn culture through forms, often becoming captive in those forms, so much so that our culture has been called a “culture of form.” Forms are the heart/mind of our forebearers and a mode of transmission of the same. It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebearers created. We remain faithful to the forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.

In Jikishinkage-ryû and Mutô-ryû, it is said that we must rid ourselves of all habits that we have acquired since birth without noticing or intending. This is in order to completely deny our impure egos and take away any distinction among mind, body, and technique. We achieve this negation by thoroughly practicing forms and attacks, to the extent that body and mind are forgotten.

To practice by forms means to be able to repeat the same thing. In repeating the same thing, we rid ourselves of habit and make our bodies absorb that which is correct. In addition we can broach the experience of mushin. In thinking this way, I think the form of uke, not only of tori, becomes unavoidably necessary.

Is there such a thing as uke forms in aikidô?

In aikidô there is virtually none. Even if we take just shômen-uchi, there are a multitude of ways to strike, which makes executing the forms the way they are supposed to be executed and absorbing them into our bodies very problematic. In order to properly carry out the stage of shu, the stage for learning the foundations, it is absolutely necessary to attack and take uke in a clear and correct way, even if this means movement in practice becomes rigid. Also, there should be no concern about effectiveness in this stage.

Because there are currently no set uke forms, there is too much emphasis on the tori forms. What this means is that one must execute the tori form even if it is forced. Although the idea behind forms is that they should not be forced, we do so anyway, and regardless of how many years of experience we may have, we are preoccupied with whether techniques are effective, breaking the forms. “If there is attachment, there is no still and quiet mind (heijôshin).” Looking inward and entering into a practice of releasing strength become impossible.

In conclusion

Much time has passed since I began thinking about aikidô as a way of seeking Tao. Of course I don’t think I’ve done enough, but I am coming to be sure that this direction and way are right. That said, I don’t even presume to think that I will be able to master this art that has been dubbed a “-dô.”

Nevertheless I question whether these “-dô” are currently being taught with the objective of realizing the original Path. I wonder whether currently the various “-dô” have ceased to be nothing except for winning/losing, strength/weakness, beauty/ugliness, etc.

Translation from Dou, No.144, Spring issue 2005 (Aiki News)

You can find more about Dou at the Aiki News website.

Notes by the translators

1, The problematic word in the phrase is “chang” translated here as “enduring and unchanging”. It could also be understood, however, as “common, ordinary”, which would reverse the meaning of the entire phrase. The “enduring and unchanging” way is the creator of the universe, while the “common or ordinary” way is a road leading from one village to the other. Clearly, the phrase wants to establish the difference between these two aspects of the word “dao” but it is vital to understand which one is which. There could be several possible interpretations:

“The path that can be regarded as a path is not the great eternal Path.” - The road that is seen as a road under our feet is different from the great Tao I am going to be speaking about.

“The path that can be regarded as The Path is not an ordinary path.” - The road that is understood as the Great Tao is different from the ordinary road where the donkeys carrie rice to the market.

“The Path that can be regarded as The Path is not the great eternal Path.” - The Tao that can be conceived as the Tao cannot be the great Tao because that is inconceivable. The great Tao cannot be understood by the mind, cannot be expressed in words.

After 2500 years of debate and guessing, scholars of the book came across some new early manuscripts [which] provided material that was much older than anything before. And all the material says that the word “chang” for “enduring” or “common” was actually written as “heng” which means “constant”. The substitution took place during the Han dynasty as part of putting into practice the name taboo for the emperor’s personal name. In any case, the archaeological discoveries had cleared the ambiguity about the meaning of the word and we can be certain that it means “constant, eternal, unchanging” and refers to the great Tao.

“The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.” - The structure of this sentence is the exactly the same as that of the first one, only “dao” (path) was substituted with “ming” (name). It seems that grammatically we do not really have a problem anymore, we can translate the sentence as “the name that can be used to name things, is not the constant Name.” But what does it mean? What name? The book talks about the Way but it does not really talk about names. Maybe the book was not, but the entire country was talking about the importance of names. One of Confucius’s great pursuits was to “rectify the names” (zheng-ing). This could be understood more as setting the terms right, a key issue before going into a heated debate. In those times a name was understood as a tag that was attached to an object, sort of like today’s nouns.

2 “知北遊” (Zhi-bei-you, or “Knowledge rambling in the north”) means that a person of wisdom or knowledge goes on an excursion to north (

3 Not a relative idea of non-existence, the opposite of existence.

We would like to thank the Aikido Saku Dojo for permission to host this article here.