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2006 COLORADO AIKIDO CAMP - From Inspiration to Action: The Heart of Budo as Transmitted by Kenji Ushiro Shihan

by Ikuko Kimura

Published Online

This translation was originally published in the Featured Articles section of the Bujin Design website:

Dou Magazine (“Dou” means “path” or “way”) is a Japanese publication focusing on prominent leaders and practitioners of traditional Japanese arts. Among the areas of interest are the martial arts and budo, music, ceramics, calligraphy and more. The article below, which appeared in the October 2006 issue of Dou, is reprinted with kind permission of the editor. Special thanks to Jane Nason and Dan Nishina for their fine translation services:

Dou magazine editor Ikuko Kimura traveled to the United States to prepare this in-depth look at the week-long Aikido “Summer Camp in the Rockies” sponsored by the Boulder Aikikai (Boulder, CO) under the direction of Hiroshi Ikeda shihan. This training camp, held each year in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, brings together martial arts practitioners from around the world, transcending styles and affiliations. Over the course of the week, participants’ eyes were opened to the importance of sincerity and earnest striving for self improvement in training, and of technique that is free from complicity and concession. This article looks at the impact these fundamental aspects of Japanese martial arts culture had on this year’s participants, and what changes they experienced over the course of the week. For this special report, our editor followed Kenji Ushiro, one the best known martial artists in Japan, as he dove into a week of instruction at this year’s camp.

The Theme: “Origins” (Genten)

This was the second year for Ushiro shihan to instruct at the Colorado summer camp. His first visit, in Summer 2005, came about after he met and struck up a friendship with Ikeda shihan at the Aikido Journal Aiki Expo event in the United States.

“Ultimately, we strive always to focus on the essential in our training. As Ushiro sensei says, in budo, one must first of all be strong. However one does not become strong simply through vigorous practice. This year’s camp gives us all an opportunity to go deeper in our training by absorbing some of what Ushiro sensei is exploring through his practice in terms of entering into and disrupting the functioning of an opponent, nullifying the attacker’s power, principles of breath, and the use of ki.”

At the Colorado camp, now in its 26th year, participants train, eat, and lodge together for a full week. The instructing shihan at both this and last year’s events were camp sponsor Hiroshi Ikeda shihan (Boulder Aikikai, 7th dan), Mitsugi Saotome shihan (head of Aikido Schools of Ueshiba) from Florida, Frank Doran shihan (Aikido West, 7th dan) from California, and special guest instructor from Japan, Kenji Ushiro shihan (Shindo-ryu karate-do, 8th dan and All Japan Kendo Federation Iaido, 7th dan).

This year, camp participants traveled from Turkey, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France, England, Canada, and the United States, and all available spots were filled well before the end of March. Many of the 250 participants were instructors at their own dojo, and virtually all were black belt ranked practitioners. In addition, the camp roster represented a broad range of high level professionals from many fields, including university professors, lawyers, scientists, psychologists, engineers, researchers, and corporate executives. All shared the same strong desire to bring away all they could from the week’s training.

Ushiro shihan arrived two days before the start of camp, and spent practically every spare moment engaged in enthusiastic discussion with Ikeda shihan on all aspects of budo and training. Their conversations turned frequently to the topic of contemporary martial arts training, particularly within the context of aikido, karate, and mixed fighting arts.

Acknowledging and Overcoming Obstacles on the Path

One frequent topic of discussion among aikido students is the question of how much cooperation is appropriate when playing the role of attacker. Specifically, has an overly literal interpretation of aikido concepts like “harmony”, “unification” and “joining together” resulted in practice styles where partners are so hyper-sensitive to technique that they end up unwittingly colluding with each other to the detriment of the practice? Another equally significant and much-debated issue focuses on the quality of attacks, and a perceived lack seriousness and martial effectiveness.

At this year’s camp, these issues in aikido practice were compared to the trend in contemporary sport karate to focus solely on athletic strength and ability, and the consequences of training with the narrow goals of winning competitions or earning promotions and rank.

The underlying premise for the focus of Ushiro shihan’s teaching this year was that the objective of budo training is not solely proficiency in the fighting arts themselves, but rather to fully realize in daily life a mind and heart that are based on the foundations of budo. The more serious each student’s focus was during this year’s camp sessions, the higher the standards they held themselves to during training.

Entering the Spirit of the Opponent

“Bujutsu requires, above all, unwavering seriousness and focus. Our practice must constantly reinforce this seriousness, and further sharpen that focus.”

What are the characteristics of serious practice according to Ushiro shihan? In contemporary budo training, we frequently see practice scenarios wherein one receives or evades an opponent’s attacks. However, in simply receiving or side-stepping an opponent’s initial attack, one will certainly be defeated by their second strike. If the attacker is wielding a knife, one is stabbed. One hallmark of the seriousness that Ushiro shihan demands is the ability to control the attacker in one movement.

“If one is to truly pursue budo, even as a beginner it is essential that practice lead to achieving the ability to control the origin, or onset, of the movement of the opponent.”

At a further level, above that of “controlling the onset of the movement,” is the ability to “enter into the heart” of the opponent before he can move, thereby controlling the encounter before its initiation. This control occurs entirely before any visibly detectable movement on the part of the attacker. As such, this level of practice eclipses the realm of the intellect and logic. This training takes place in the domain of ki. It is said that the founder of aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, stated, “If you can see the workings of the opponent’s ki, you can know whether they are going to attack with a kick or a punch.” As such, both the most fundamental and the highest level of aikido training is concerned with controlling the adversary by sensing and capturing an intent to attack at the level of the opponent’s ki.

Because it is not something that can be grasped through words or seen with the eyes, the only way to approach this level of training is to learn from a teacher who has mastered this ability. It can only be learned through experience. Further, according to Ushiro shihan, it is through kata training that a student can begin to build the foundation for this kind of experiential research.

“Through kata, students can enter into conversation with their own body. Over time, the disparate parts become unified, and through this unification, the body begins to transcend its physicality. This in turn makes it possible to discern the intent of the opponent, and to sense where the opponent’s spirit is clouded. The opponent’s mind, and the intent to initiate an attack, can be sensed as it manifests. Once you are able to control, to suppress, that intent, the opponent is unable to translate it into movement.”

It is important to explain that the kata training discussed here does not refer to the popular karate kata, modified for competition, that one encounters today. Instead, Ushiro shihan speaks of kata that are rooted in centuries of tradition, with the highest value placed on concrete application. By tracing further and further back to the sources of bujutsu, you discover embodied in these kata not just a codified series of steps or physical movements, but a comprehensive system of training designed to engage the body, the heart, and the mind. This system arose from the very real demands of defending oneself, one’s family, and one’s homeland, and is the context within which Okinawan karate and its living kata were developed.

This year’s Colorado summer camp was an extended exploration of the origins and foundation of budo and budo training. Under the guidance of each teacher, students were encouraged to question and refine their current training practices, and begin their own investigation into these principles.

The Essence of Budo: Nullifying the Opponent’s Power, and Ki

In aikido, practice often consists of using circular movements to avoid or lead an opponent’s attack. However, this category of response is possible only against certain categories of attack. When up against the straight and explosive strikes of Okinawan karate, circular movements would never be fast enough.

In modern karate and other competitive martial arts, most practice is comprised of nothing more than moving the hands and feet in response to different attacks. This kind of practice depends on strength, speed, and timing. As one gets older, however, there is no guarantee that one can continue using this kind of strength. Everyone, at some point, will hit the ‘wall of advancing age’.

In order to address this limitation, it is necessary to find something that is not based on physical power - something not visible to the eye, something that controls the opponent even before contact is made. This is ki. If one can cultivate ki, then one can utilize it in all aspects of life, says Ushiro shihan.

During the camp, there were many demonstrations of the use of ki. When one can manipulate ki, then one can soften the opponent’s body, causing them to ‘float’, raising or lowering their center of gravity - with complete freedom. No matter what kind of attack may come, it can be nullified with the use of ki at the onset, and the opponent cannot follow through with the attack. Even if the opponent is able to go through the motions of an attack, they cannot put any energy into it, and are easily felled. This is true with grabs as well. The moment the opponent grabs, they are already unable to use their body with any strength, and can be effortlessly toppled.

“Using ki, you can enter into the opponent’s center instantly, directing them at will through the hips and knees. In the case of throws, too, it is not an external rotation that breaks the partner’s balance, but an internal one. Because it is applied internally, the opponent cannot feel it.”

When one is thrown by such an internal nullification, the throw betrays no sense of direction and uke cannot tell which direction he or she is being thrown. Ushiro shihan pointed out numerous times during training that the type of ukemi usually seen in aikido in which one slaps the mat with their hands, was dangerous. After some thought however, he said he could see the reason for such ukemi.

“From the perspective of bujutsu, the fact that there is such a thing as ukemi at all is odd. Ukemi may be possible on tatami, but what about stones or concrete? Also, the rotation of the throws in karate is fast, so even on tatami, putting the hand out could result in injury. The speed of the throws is different.”

So how does one do ukemi without using the hands? In this seminar, Ushiro shihan demonstrated how to receive the fall using only the feet. By falling this way, the impact is absorbed, while at the same time ki continues to flow and breath remains ‘alive’, even in the face of a fast, strong throw, and the susceptibility to subsequent attacks is thereby lessened. After experimenting with this unfamiliar style of ukemi, the seminar participants were surprised by the unexpectedly helpful results.

Ki - “Softly entering into the center”

What is crucial is where the technique originates from.

Ushiro shihan has already entered the opponent’s center from the moment of contact, causing the opponent to ‘float’ for an instant. The subsequent throw is an ‘after the fact’ application. When one tries to throw without the ‘float’, the intent to throw is transmitted to the opponent, who then becomes tense. From there, the interaction becomes either a contest of strength, or the opponent cooperates by falling or flying to create the technique.

During the camp there was an interesting setting in which we could understand this ‘floating’ very concretely. It was at the nearby hot springs where we all went to relax after training. In the pool, camp participants gathered around Ushiro shihan wanting to feel his technique. He threw them freely in the water, left and right, up and over. Because we were in the water, it was easy for both those being thrown and Ushiro shihan to have the feeling of floating. Whenever someone grabbed Ushiro shihan’s hand, their center of gravity instantly popped up. They were completely ungrounded, and little force was needed to throw them around in the water.

In the dojo as well, people who had experienced Ushiro shihan’s throws described them as something softly “popping” into their abdomen. Those watching could not see this, but the person receiving the technique could clearly feel it. They could feel something from within Ushiro shihan coming toward them. It wasn’t muscular strength, and it wasn’t twisting or torque, so there wasn’t any pain, but their balance and structure were completely broken from the inside out.

“To throw is to betray how one is using one’s strength. As a result, it is possible for the opponent to take ukemi or rotate around the line of force. However, entering the opponent, takes away their ability to function so that they cannot take ukemi or possibly not move at all.”

A Smile is the Result of Harmony

During weapons training, when Ushiro shihan used a wooden jo, the results were the same. He did not control the opponent by twisting or bending. The instant an attacker grabbed the jo, they had the feeling that they were being turned around. From there, they felt as if they were collapsing as they fell to the side or backward.

“If one turns only the outside of the jo, when the opponent grips tightly, one cannot turn it. I am turning the inside. This is the power of ki that arises by harmonizing with the opponent. It is a power that, even if the opponent feels it, they cannot do anything about. It is energy.”

A frequent scene at the camp was the involuntary smile that lit up the face of an attacker the moment they were “floated” by Ushiro shihan. It was the instant they sincerely felt the technique working on their body. This was the result of true harmony and unification, without force, and without collusion.

As the classes became more advanced, another unusual scene unfolded. When Ushiro shihan sent his ki to participants who could not previously do a technique, they could suddenly do it. The astounded participants exclaimed, “I can do it!” Enabling the students to experience success in this way is an innovative way to teach, and could indeed be a revolutionary way to conduct the training of bujutsu.

“This energy that I mentioned, the more I train, the more it accumulates and gets stronger. I feel that there is even more of this wondrous energy to develop in the future. I’m really looking forward to experiencing more.”

The Biggest Factor in Cultivating Ki is Daily Practice

Ushiro shihan states that ki solves everything. Ki is neither strength nor timing, but energy that spreads out from the hara to the entire body. Furthermore, there are levels of ki; from the most elementary, to levels that have no limit. All budo training begins from the starting point of learning to bring out this ki.

Exactly how can one nurture ki? Ushiro shihan cultivated his ki by repeatedly practicing kata, and by the practice of free sparring.

“True ki emerges through practice. Ki is not just automatically there. Through the practice of free sparring, when your body cannot escape, your heart and mind cannot escape, when you notice that you can enter your opponent without being overcome, then ki begins to emerge. The necessary basis for entering is kata. However, it is not that kata comes first, nor is it that sparring comes first. Each must complement the other in order to begin to feel and develop ki.”

But the greatest factor in cultivating ki is everyday, real-world practice, says Ushiro shihan. He not only practices budo but he also runs a successful company. As an electronics developer and researcher, he works with major entities such as Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Sony, NEC, Sharp, and even NASA. He has developed numerous integrated circuits based upon his own patents. He has amassed an extraordinary amount of business experience. The severity and competition in the business world is on an entirely different plane than that of competitive sports. Ushiro shihan practices and preserves the foundations of budo, by reminding himself of his experience in that strict, demanding, real-world business environment, even amidst our relatively peaceful modern times. He believes that is the way budo training in the modern world should be.

Leading by Example

By the middle of camp, many participants attended to Ushiro shihan’s instruction with increasing seriousness, even those who were at first somewhat hesitant or confused. I noticed during the week how humble all the practitioners were about learning Japanese martial arts. They had a wholehearted and genuine desire to gain more knowledge. It was truly refreshing to see such an open and straightforward approach.

Reciprocating the participants’ attitude, Ushiro shihan continually demonstrated what he was teaching. “The best way is to show one-on-one.” This is Ushiro shihan’s preferred methodology, whether he is instructing kick boxers and full-contact karate practitioners, or teaching football and rugby players how to tackle. His policy is, first, “Come at me any way you like.”

“I don’t start by laying out my own conditions. I adjust to the style of the other person. I always let the opponent come at me however they like. If the other person is of the same style as me, I know what to expect and the experience becomes ‘watered down’. Because they are not, there is always some tension.”

Attending the camp were not only aikido practitioners, but also people with years of experience in various karate styles, kempo, and kenjutsu. For most of them it was only their first or second time to meet Ushiro shihan. Most people towered over him. Regardless, one after another he neutralized their power and was able to control them. Proceeding with undeniable force, all were overwhelmingly convinced. As a result, after every class, he was surrounded by a crowd of people with questions. Ushiro shihan answered each question politely saying, “Let me show you.”

International Exchange Through Budo

I asked Ushiro shihan what struck him about teaching this year.

“I felt that, compared to last year, people’s understanding of technique was much deeper. Therefore, I decided to raise the bar and teach a higher level of ki. Last year it didn’t feel quite appropriate. In today’s practice, what we did may have appeared simple, not flashy performance type stuff, but the techniques were on a much higher level - even translating became difficult. I could teach on that level because the enthusiasm of the participants came across to me. I could sense the attitude with which they listened. Then when we threw our partners, there was some real substance to it. Then the ukemi became more difficult to do. The person being thrown surely felt this difference.”

Indeed, practice on the last day was the sum of previous classes and the level of concentration in class was different. Whenever the participants succeeded in doing something, the expression on their faces changed instantly. People who were previously throwing without any expression would break into a smile in spite of themselves when they could feel they were getting it. There were people who were happy being thrown also. This was a great example of training with the body instead of the mind.

“I can feel very clearly in my own body when I am using my strength to throw, or when my partner is blending with me and falling down by themselves. True confidence can never come from over-cooperative training. Only by giving up the use of strength can you experience the wonder of genuine technique, and through this experience, you are humbled and can finally begin to make real progress and growth.

I think it is wonderful that people from all over the world can come here and participate in this Japanese budo and be deeply moved and feel joy. The people who were here and felt something, learned something, will feel this change in the way they live their lives. I believe that is how we can have a truly meaningful international exchange through budo.”

Exchange of Ideas with Saotome Shihan

Over the course of the week, attending classes and following the teachers closely, I was struck by the friendly atmosphere and the strong bond of trust between the shihan, especially with Ushiro shihan and Saotome shihan. Their meeting last year was a great opportunity for them both and their exchange deepens each time they meet. In between teaching classes or during meals, they were always having lively discussions about budo. The topic was not limited to budo, however. Their conversations included questions of education, culture, the environment, and world peace as well. At night, it was not unusual for them to talk non-stop until two or three o’clock in the morning. Witnessing these two shihan and their exchange of ideas, I was reminded of the importance of these kinds of rare encounters.

“How many people can we truly relate with and completely trust? Not many. That is why, when I speak with Ushiro Kenji sensei, I am very delighted. True encounters are not indicated by how long you have known each other. It’s a ‘once- in-a-life-time encounter’ (ichi-go-ichi-e).

I sent Ushiro sensei a book, but it was not a book about bujutsu. Ushiro sensei is not someone who confines himself to live within the small world of bujutsu. His world transcends styles and schools. He incorporates a larger cultural and traditional context into his training. His Budo and his entire life are completely integrated. This is what I thought when I read sensei’s interview in ‘Do’ magazine.

When I am talking with Ushiro sensei, whether it is about art, the future of Japan, society, architecture, or culture, I forget the passing of time. I feel as though I have found a brother.” (Saotome Mitsugi shihan)

“I feel that Saotome sensei is recreating Ueshiba sensei’s aikido - aikido that is not about simply defeating opponents. Meeting someone with true ability like Saotome sensei, I felt for the first time that I could connect with someone beyond the context of our individual categories and styles.

Seeing sensei’s writings, listening to him speak, reading his books, I understand how much effort and hardship he has gone through. When I speak with Saotome sensei, my mind becomes crystal clear. Because sensei has studied so much, he gives me a reference point with which to judge my own progress. It is wonderful to be able to drink and share ideas with him like this. As Aida Mitsuo’s poem says, “There are meetings that can change the very foundations of your life.” It has been truly a priceless encounter for me.” (Ushiro shihan)

At their parting, Saotome shihan said to Ushiro shihan, “How well and far you have studied and developed budo. Your development of ki is especially wonderful. Many people are just going through the motions, and instead of approaching the source they get further from it. You have strived for a higher level of budo from within, and are realizing it. It’s wonderful.” Ushiro shihan has continually studied and developed new things in his work. Upon the foundation of that study and development, he instructs other budo and sports, such as swimming, baseball, and rugby, transcending narrow categories. All of his teaching is based on the scientific principles of reproducibility, objectivity, and universality, and a pursuit of depth of understanding.

Saotome shihan instantly recognized Ushiro shihan’s creativity the first time they met. I believe he could not have done so if he were a person who put a lot of emphasis on organizations, rank, territorialism, and styles. I believe he has the ability to see people as they really are.

With such great understanding and respect between the shihan, the participants of the camp were able to accept and learn from Ushiro shihan without concern for divisiveness.

At a Crossroads: From Inspiration to Action

And then there is Ikeda shihan, who invited and arranged for Ushiro shihan to come to the camp. He spared no effort in his quest to further the growth of his students while simultaneously striving for and deepening his own understanding. I spoke to Ikeda shihan on the last day of camp.

“Even if the number of people practicing aikido reaches the tens of thousands, there is no meaning if we are fighting among ourselves. It only means we are moving in the opposite direction from O-sensei’s philosophy. Peace cannot be made unless we all come together - not just karate and aikido, but all budo.

The kind of power through kokyu that Ushiro sensei has been teaching is completely different from what is usually thought of as kokyu. All of the people who came to this camp experienced this. It may have been only an introduction to this kind of practice and this kind of power, but I think it was a real plus for people to be able to experience it.

As a teacher, one of the most important considerations is how we are bringing up new people in the art, both now and into the future. There will be no growth if we just repeat what is currently being done. For ourselves and for the Aikido of the future, it is necessary to completely change the way aikido is practiced. I think we have come to this critical crossroads.”

Needless to say, how to work through this crisis, as Ikeda shihan describes, is the next problem. Any practitioner can have as their goal controlling and overcoming the opponent without using strength, without touching. However, we must ask ourselves if practice that entails only technical explanations and mindless repetition provides us with the necessary tools for achieving such a goal. The circular movement of aikido at first glance appears to be soft, but the fact is, that there is still a collision of forces, and anyone who has practiced has felt this collision.

By seeing and experiencing Ushiro shihan’s nullifying “zero power” techniques and feeling zero-power in their own techniques when Ushiro shihan extended his ki through them, many of the camp participants realized just how much they had been depending on strength in their efforts to make the techniques martially effective.

Many people called Ushiro shihan’s instruction “eye-opening”, “innovative”, and “new territory”. However, a way of training that would promise future progress along this same path was not so clear. The inspiration, and the accompanying uncertainty put us at the crossroads, and the beginning of a revolution in the way we think about training. Our challenge, then, is to take this inspiration and turn it into action. Isn’t this the start of true shugyo (training)?

Whether Ushiro shihan teaches beginners, competitive martial arts champions, rugby, football, or baseball players, his fundamental approach remains consistent. His methodology is both universal and adaptable. And, the ki energy that is at its foundation demonstrates a connection to a much wider and much greater potential.

Ki developed through budo can be utilized in everyday life. What Ushiro shihan attempted to convey at the camp was not the know-how of his style, but his own personal embodiment of the art of karate, and his way of living life.

Pride in one’s accomplishments and self-confidence backed by experience is important in training, but these should never be allowed to slip into conceit or arrogance. Transcending categories and styles, Ushiro shihan interacted with the many open-minded participants who sincerely welcomed this teacher who could definitely ‘walk the talk’. Though they had different cultures and different languages, he taught the students with direct heartfelt personal contact. Once again, throughout this camp we were reminded that budo training is training of the heart, and the ultimate goal of training is that through budo, we become better human beings.