When I started martial arts in 1969 it was with a fresh faced innocence and a totally open mind. Like most of my generation, I had been raised on Bruce Lee in the tv series “Green Hornet” (“Hey Kato, get the car!”) along with steady doses of The Pink Panther who had his own Kato for comic relief (“NoooooOOO Kato, Not Now!), and David Carradine in the tv series “Kung Fu” (“Ah yes grasshopper, man who stand on street corner and hold sandwich in hand soon find many 4-legged friends”).
A lot of folks remember those cultural guideposts but the difference is that I was there for the premiere and not the re-runs.
Basically, martial arts of all kinds were still pretty new. It was only the 1960’s and most MA were being taught either by Orientals who emigrated here after WW II or by American servicemen just back from posting in the East. My Sensei began his MA career in Judo as an Air Force recruit and was eventually posted to Japan where he met other servicemen and training partners who were part Douglas MacArthur’s SCAP (Supreme Command Allied Pacific). Those senior military and Judo people were part of the larger group responsible for the lifting of the ban against the practice of MA in Japan.
In a very real sense then my Sensei and the others were the ones who saved MA since at that point they had been outlawed. One Japanese Sensei I trained under extensively (in Aikido and Jodo) once quietly spoke of training at night by candle light in out of the way locations because of the threat of being arrested by American M.P.’s in search of ex-military fighters and enforcing the ban on the practice of martial arts. She never liked talking about the war very much having lived through the worst parts of it and when we took her to Washington, D.C. on a training tour she refused to visit any monuments pertaining to the Pacific conflict and turned her head away as we drove by, but at the same time seemed to respect (but was very solemn) when we took her to visit the National Cemetery; that was how strongly that time period had impacted her life and how much each side in the conflict had lost.
So I relate this by way of illustrating how little was known about MA of any kind when it came out of the East and entered the West in a big way, post WW II. It was so new to Americans (everything known or suspected about it being mysterious) that almost all the information we had access to contained two very curious but important ingredients;
FIRST, it was all true, complete and pretty accurate (as far as we were concerned) since no one knew enough to begin to lie or invent myths about it (that came much later as the commercial value manifested itself). We were all totally ignorant. All the information was coming from people who were “fresh from the source or head-waters” as it were and because of that there were few skeptics on the mat. No one even knew enough to be a skeptic when the person teaching had been "over there" and no one else in the room had. We were all sponges soaking up any drop of knowledge that hit the floor and were completely enthralled by anyone who had actually made the pilgrimage TO Japan; much less actually being FROM Japan.
SECOND, everything was “magical” with the stories from our teachers containing all the wonder of people flying over cars and into walls and of Sensei being able to control any opponent with one finger only. The only thing anybody who heard stories like that said was something to the effect of, “Great! When do we have that lesson and where’s my uke? I’m ready!”
So now amplify this by the fact that we all, to one degree or another, were “flower children” of the 60’s; the actual beginning of the very first Indigo/Crystal Child generation, looking for meaning and purpose by abandoning our Christian, Jewish, Catholic, Agnostic, Atheist upbringings and looking to the East. Rebels all, each in our own way. My parents never understood and in all the years I trained they only saw me practice once, and afterwards my father walked out of the dojo shaking his head and mumbling something about a "tire tool" being a better weapon.
The East was different because everything was or seemed non-logical and intuitive in execution. The terms “total immersion training”, “intuitive assimilation”, “aiki”, "ki power", “moving Zen”, “reflexive response”, or “intuitive reflexes”, "internalization", and the like were common and regularly heard in the dojo’s of that time period. Everyone came to the dojo to train in Aikido or Judo or weapons forms with a completely open mind, with no negative or skeptical attitudes and a willingness to do the research (both in and outside the dojo) that was necessary not only to learn but to excel.
All of us at one time looked into and briefly pursued things such as Transcendental Meditation, Zen, Buddhism, Taoism, Arica, Gurdjieff, Mikkyo, EST and the like. We all jumped at the chance to take Tai Chi and acupressure massage/joint manipulation when a teacher came from Japan and offered it and some eventually became professionals at various forms of body manipulation that studied manipulating energy flows because we believed her when she said it would improve our Aiki-do and enable us to become stronger both internally and externally.
We (all of us) searched and looked and experimented and tried it all. The net result was a large group of us who finally became senior players, some of whom now teach and run their own dojo and MA organizations. Others are now dead, some are spiritually lost individuals, at least a couple in temple as life-long Buddhist Monks ("Hey! Bring me a bieru!") or literally on the reservation as Indian Medicine Men and others have gone on to become part of clans with secrecy clauses backed by literal blood oaths.
So why do I relate all of this and how does it impact each of you and pertain to lessons that I have found myself falling into of late?
During that period of discovery and growth of both the MA in general (and within each of us individually) we all were at the spring or the head-waters. It was all pure. It was all new. It was all in the original forms. Nothing had been watered down and it was all still pure art form, having not yet been distilled, canned and commercialized.
Perhaps most importantly, all the Sensei and their first couple of generations were taught and understood the foundations, the principles and the benefits of MA as they came directly from the East because if for no other reason than most of it was still under the supervision of the "old guys"; the Tengu; the grizzled Japanese (and Americans who had trained directly under them) who didn't talk much but who could dribble you on the mat like a basketball and never break a smile or a sweat.
Everyone who walked into those dojo back then got the pure “cask strength Scotch” as it were, not the watered down well-liquor variety where the bar tender takes a bottle that should only pour 32 jiggers and waters it until it will pour twice that. So all players got a good education in the MA from the technical, strategic and philosophical sides that were fairly complete in the panorama it painted in all of our heads, and in the dreams that it raised in all of us to strive for.
Today unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Over the last 40 years various forms of martial arts have now “gone Olympic”, “gone Hollywood” or gone "use this website and fear no man". Innumerable books, comics, video games and tv shows have taken their toll on the truth and as a result, almost no one today walking into a dojo has anything approaching a clear picture of what the MA are supposed to be about, much less what they can teach, how powerful they can make the long-term practitioner; and even less of what the ultimate potential of ability and knowledge is for anyone willing to spend 20 to 30 years or more in the steady pursuit of truth and the personal development of mind, body and spirit.
Everything has been perverted and distorted to the point to where sometimes even I have trouble seeing the true picture. It has become so commercialized that it's like buying the Mona Lisa in a Paint By The Numbers set that only vaguely resembles the art and has no life nor depth; like a creature from a two-dimensional universe.
This is one reason why as we steadily move our dojo here in Houston more towards a koryu-type dojo (or at least the closest we can come in an American cultural setting with people who work for a living) I decided some time ago that we will begin to educate everyone in the same classical concepts that I was taught.
It's time because we finally have (after 15 years of working towards it) a large enough group of committed black belts who will stay around long enough to make that possible. I can’t teach really advanced ideas unless I have a core of advanced players to assist me in “down-flowing” the concepts to the entire dojo group as a whole. Without that core of advanced players ready to learn, you are forever stuck at teaching the same fundamentals over and over again because it just won't stick.
So my players know to look for long lectures on some of the more arcane aspects of Aiki-do and Budo, and on how to open the mind and begin to enlarge ones' life-panorama in a quest for “the big picture”.
Some of it will be technical but much will be philosophical as it has always been my view (and the view of my teachers) that fully understanding the technical is simply not possible without a firm grounding in the philosophical and the spiritual. The three cannot be effectively trifurcated and if they are, the net result (given a sufficient time to mutate) becomes the “martial nonsense” that surrounds us today.
"Internal Power". "Combat Ready". "Reality Training". Pfffbbbtttt. Get a life for God's Sake.
This is also a prime reason as to why we require that all new players decide to train only at with us, not be "dual-dojo", and not attend seminars put on by other Sensei in other styles or in other organizations unless discussing it with me and getting my approval first. I may allow someone who is a brand new beginner to briefly train at their old school in an effort to help them in the transition to us (which granted, can be troublesome at times esp. if their old "dojo" was in a garage or health club) but I will very quickly demand that everyone make the choice of us or them.
I approve these requests when the material to be taught at a seminar matches what we already do, such as "internal power"; a phrase very much mis-used today and one that 40 years ago was only known as "aiki". Regardless of what you may call it (I personally like the older term as being more classically descriptive in defining but simultaneously "not-defining" it); things of this nature are not new and not magical but have always been a part of the fabric of Aikido. So if some other Sensei has a different way to view and discuss it, I am largely open and have been to a couple of these seminars..
I don't permit anyone to "dual-dojo" however because I become concerned that a player could come to us and receive good information that is almost immediately negated by someone else telling a different story. The difficulty then becomes the point at which they begin to go schizoid and bi-polar; Aikido player today and mixed martial artist tomorrow, or Ki Society today and Tomiki tomorrow, as they switch back and forth with no touch-stone or benchmark to gauge themselves against and with no firm foundation upon which to build their life and their martial arts career.
When I began this rule after opening my dojo 17 years ago it made total sense based on past exeriences. When I was a white belt and started training in old-style Budo it was expected without a lot of lame discussion. Today it seems that everyone wants to train everywhere which (when you view how that player performs) results in a clear and total inability to do either Budo #1 or Budo #2 correctly. What's that saying, "Jack of all martial arts and master of none." There was a reason behind forbidding the idea of "dual dojo" or of mixing Aikido cum' UFC cum' whatever way-back-when that hold true today regardless of the levels of ignorance out there today in the Budo-verse.
While I don’t pretend to know it all, or even to understand as much as any of my original Sensei, the simple fact that I’m almost 65 and was there in the dojo when Tomiki personally approved the foundation of his Aikido in the US and anointed my Sensei to run it for him, simply means that I was able to absorb material that is no longer readily available. Tomiki dictated and Sensei obeyed resulting in a purer and more complete form of transmission.
I’ve been around so long that all of my colored belt certificates were issued by my Sensei only as a means by which to encourage us because to the Japanese, to real players, a colored belt was invisible on the mat. Only a black belt held any real value back then and all of my early black belt diplomas were literally hand carried by special courier from Japan. Do your demo in front of a Japanese-style grading committee with the grading cards and video tape being sent to Japan for approval, and assuming you didn't fail, then 6 months later a limo from the Japanese consulate would pull up outside the dojo and a guy in a black business suit with white shirt and black tie would climb out holding a black brief case full of promotional certificates. And he didn't smile when he walked into the dojo door, bowed, and asked for Sensei. The first time I saw that I knew that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore (or South Texas either) and it only confirmed that I was both in the right place at the right time, and that I needed to focus and understand the difference between wheat and chaff or the serious vs. the un-serious.
Today, some 40 odd years later, everyone running a dojo that did not have exposure to those times, teachers and information (or who haven't managed to pick it up since) have an incomplete education in their chosen art form. We’re now about 4 generations removed with each successive generation resulting in less knowledge being passed on. They simply don’t have the picture in their head nor the information to pass on that would otherwise inform their students of what old style martial arts are all about (or are supposed to be all about). They might be very competent in their style of competitive Tae Kwon Do or MMA or kickboxing or Kiddie Jiujutsu or whatever; but none of those are martial arts, instead being modern derivatives based in martial techniques but now totally formulated for sports purposes, military training, law-enforcement or just plain old capitalist marketing and profit seeking.
This is why in the world of Aikido for example, teachers such as Chiba, Saotome, Ikeda, Tissier, Geis, Loi, Miyake and others like them are so highly regarded and respected in their own right. People who have trained with them and others like them put them first on their martial resume thus lending credence to their Curiculum Vitae.
Those senior teachers, and those who studied under them like myself and my peers, came out of those times and today for the most part strive to teach a complete picture of Aikido as being classical, technical, traditional, sophisticated, combat ready and self-defense oriented, but simultaneously a means by which we can grow and mature on a personal and spiritual level; something not possible while preparing for tournaments and international level competitions or doing massive repetitions of techniques more suitable for building aerobic conditioning than improving one’s spirit.
As a line (paraphrased) in an old movie script written by Bruce Lee said, “That would be true if pigs had wings and could fly”. However, referring to a pig as being an eagle (or even putting lipstick on it) doesn’t make it so and referring to today’s activities and calling no-contact karate, kickboxing or mixed martial arts (for example) a true and complete martial art, doesn’t make it so. A true martial art in the old sense works on your body, mind and spirit all at the same time. A single minded focus on street fighting, tournaments or aerobic conditioning does not.
So my teaching lessons have for a long time now have essentially dealt with everything that I have discussed above. When I began martial arts and Aikido many years ago I went into it with several expectations.
- I would learn self-defense.
- I would learn and develop a way of looking at the world that would improve my life by teaching me to be more relaxed, more focused and less ADD.
- I would learn a life-philosophy that would take away my negativity and enable me to think in a more positive fashion; not just sometimes but all of the time.
- I would become more self-confident in learning something that would allow me to fear no one (or least to fear few). You can never become bullet proof or invincible but you can begin to greatly minimize the number of people that you are concerned about.
- I would learn to trust my intuition and not strictly rely only on the dogmatism of logic or the pedantic pedagogy of worn-out maxims, memes and life-motto’s that are often repeated by out-of-work motivational experts and over-sexed/over-paid men of the cloth whether that cloth was spun from King James or Bodidharma.
- I would learn something that for all intents and purposes was “open ended”. That is, there was so much material on the technical level and so much inquiry possible on the personal and spibeceome infinite. It would no longer have a goal or end-point. It would become a life-long process of training, learning and improvement of every aspect of my life and by extension, the lives of those around me.
True martial arts are a process that has no ending in sight so here is the underlying, purely distilled intent; one that speaks both to the technical side (how to train) and to the philosophical side (how to view the role of each training partner) which in and of itself addresses how to set up and consider the training scenario.
The last time I saw the woman who was my (and my wife's) primary Japanese Sensei she was boarding the plane to fly home after giving Lynn Sensei and I both some very specific marching orders for our training since all of us assumed (quite correctly as it has turned out some 17 years later) that we would likely never see each other again.
“They (the Japanese players) forgot that the sword exists.”
What this means is that they began to focus only on the role of tori; and uke became a training dummy and not a very intelligent one at that. The assumption became over time that uke would never attempt to block and counter, much less counter-attack. Tori just moved through the kata assuming that he would always win and that uke would always be defeated. Openings began to appear in what tori was doing because now the mind-set changed from “combat” to “choreography”. Tori became careless and non-attentive and uke never once thought about what they could do should tori become sloppy and ineffectual.
In a sense, tori began to develop contempt for the role of uke (and by extension, the person playing that role in training). Contempt leads to lack of respect, which leads to disregard for the physical well-being of uke, which leads to …… the shadow side. And once you cross over to the shadow side, all the philosophy and spirtual growth that should be a part of Budo goes away. The failure to understand the primal nature and fundamental essence of Budo and martial arts makes the philosophical and spiritual no longer visible.
When considered in the Aikido paradigm we should look at it this way. I talk about the kata being set up so that tori always follows through and doesn't “pull the punch”. This idea develops the intuitive ability to not think, just complete and over time it becomes automatic. Tori throws uke or takes a joint lock and the follow-through to completion becomes so automatic that it can’t fail (due to “pulling the punch” or getting careless). In fact, once in a panic situation tori not only doesn’t “pull the punch”; the adrenaline surge in their system becomes so massive that they apply maximum power within the confines of principle; that is, they do the technique correctly and now they apply every ounce of power they have, making the technique even more effective.
But, uke has a role also. Uke takes the ukemi to escape the striking technique or the joint lock. Uke, in the case of Oshi-taoshi (a common elbow waza) drops out from under the arm bar as tori begins to apply the lock. Tori can now follow-through to completion, actually passing through the point at which the elbow would otherwise dislocate if uke were to simply stand in place.
Uke, by allowing the arm bar to develop but “going with the flow” and dropping down to the floor, trains their subconscious mind to automatically move with the attack, thus avoiding the elbow dislocation that would occur by resisting by dropping to the floor and allowing tori to complete the waza. Uke now learns that by not resisting and by dropping down or flowing with the execution of the waza, they get to that point at which the most likely opportunity to counterattack occurs and by that flowing with the waza, subconsciously learns whether tori even has the necessary kuzushi. If tori has it then the waza just "feels" effective and not "resistable". If tori does not then uke can just (by not resisting) "walk out of the waza" and then easily do a kaeshi waza.
Thus, both tori and uke learn to internalize all the facets of the technique and how to both take it most effectively and how to escape it most effectively. This is one manner in which true martial arts were taught. Both tori and uke learn, understand and through repetitive practice internalize an intuitive response that leads to understanding BOTH sides of the coin; not just the one so many focus on; to wit, how do I win?
True combat ability, true self-defense, true martial arts should be taught in such a fashion as to enable one to understand that a focus on only one side is incorrect. Both tori and uke have a role to play and both therefore need each other in order to go beyond mere technique and to emcompass the philosophical mind and the spiritual being with the physical and technical.
Tori must respect the role of uke and uke must respect the role of tori. Neither role is more important than the other. This respect for the role eventually extends to respect for the individual playing that role. Mutual respect leads to trust and mutual trust leads more effective and greater and faster dynamic training once that understanding of each role and trust is well established.
Additionally, the understanding should be acquired that although we talk safety, safety, safety, ethics, honest attitudes, trustworthy behavior, trust in each other, respect for every belt either above us or below us in seniority and grade, in the end we do martial arts and those martial arts were designed to dismember and incapacitate the opponent.
Aikido teaches combat arts in addition to ethics. Losing sight of Aikido’s origins (and failing to properly teach to them) loses sight of the “big picture” that Aikido makes possible so part of Sensei’ job is to relate all aspects of Aikido including those that may at time sound crude or blunt. In this fashion you gain a more in-depth understanding of Aikido and additionally, why we are so fanatical about safety and trust and how the mind and spirit functions in conjunction with the body; the whole obviously being much larger than the sum of the parts.
This was the lesson and the directive that was given us and what I will continue to emphasize more and more as our Yudansha develop into real Aikido players.
So Come to Class, Stay Lean and Stay Hungry.
L.F. Wilkinson - Kancho
Aikibudokan, Houston, Texas