Miles Kessler spent many years in Japan studying aikido as well as practicing intensive meditation in Burma. Since 2005 he has been living in Israel where he directs the Integral Dojo in Tel Aviv teaching Aikido and Dharma practice. He is also the founding director of Aikido Without Borders, a N.G.O. which uses aikido and youth leadership training to bring Israeli and Palestinian people together. The interview was conducted by Tom Collings in October, 2011.
TC: Miles, could you share something of your background and how you ended up living and studying aikido in Japan?
As a boy I was nurtured on fringe cultural fantasies of martial arts and eastern mysticism. In addition to growing up doing various sports, I was also into several martial arts and I had always dreamed of going to Japan to study with the masters. That dream came to fruition at 25 when I traveled to Iwama, Japan to train as uchi deshi with the late Morihiro Saito Sensei.
Incidentally, I am deeply grateful to Stan PranIn of Aikido Journal because it was through our correspondence that he kindly provided me with the introduction letter to Saito Sensei. Back in those days it was not possible to enter the Iwama dojo without such an introduction and this simple act of trust on his part turned out to be a key which opened a door to a path that I still walk to this day.
This first trip to Iwama was for 2 months during the summer. It was “gasshuku” season when the university aikido clubs came to live in the dojo for all of July and we had 5 classes of intensive training each day. This was it for me. I knew on my first day there of total immersion in a traditional Japanese aikido context under Saito Sensei, that I had found what I was looking for. The next year I moved back and ended up living there for 8 years, including my first year as uchi deshi.
My time at Hombu Dojo and in Iwama was mostly in the 1970’s, what was Saito Sensei emphasizing when you were in Iwama, and what techniques/training exercises did you practice most often?
I was in Iwama from 1988 to 1997, which made me the 3rd generation of Saito Sensei’s western students. To the end of Saito Sensei’s days there were certain things about training in Iwama that never changed. There was daily training in both empty hand and weapons, all classes had a strong emphasis on clear and precise basics, and we were always encouraged to push our edge physically, mentally, and technically.
Saito Sensei is widely known as the primary person who preserved O Sensei’s Iwama empty hand and weapon’s technical legacy. But, it is also important to understand that Saito Sensei’s aikido changed and evolved over the years. Not only was the aikido Saito Sensei taught in the 8 years that I was in Iwama different from previous periods of his life, I also saw a continued evolution each year. He just kept changing and getting better.
Saito Sensei’s aikido was always known for being very powerful, but during my time in Iwama when he was in his 60’s his aikido expressed a power that was principles based and clearly non-physical, coming from an inner source that was beyond the perceptions of most of us students. This was reflected in the training environment where Sensei never allowed students to force techniques, or to be too rough with training partners. It had to be clean, or you would hear about it in no uncertain terms. Perhaps this is just my perception, but it did seem that there were less injures than the two previous generations of students had.
Also, during the trainings all the senior students were instructed to locate our partners leading edge of ability and train from there. We were taught to use strength appropriate to our partners’ level, and to be responsible for each other’s further development. Saito Sensei was very sensitive to how we trained and was a master at keeping us all at our respective developmental edges, encouraging us if there was too much slack, and discouraging us if there was too much force.
Finally, the precision and sophistication of Saito Sensei’s aikido grew more and more refined, and I saw this develop over the eight years I was in Iwama and after. His posture grew more relaxed and natural; the effort put into techniques was less, and the power that came out was more. His weapons took on a polished speed and sharpness that never ceased to blow our minds. And his teaching didactic had a good 30 years of development that reflected logic, sophistication, and systematic genius. For we students, very little time was wasted in gaining a solid foundation in the practice.
There was a time when you left Japan to study Buddhist Insight Meditation in Burma. Why did go all the way to Burma to study meditation?
When I left Japan in ’97 I felt that my belly was full, and I was satisfied with what I had gone there to learn. I felt at the top physically in aikido, but I was beginning to feel that my emotional and spiritual development was lagging behind. I was starting to realize that what I was seeking in aikido was actually spiritual development, and I simply was not finding it anywhere in the aikido world in Japan.
Of course, Japan does have deep spiritual traditions such as Zen, but personally I didn’t feel drawn there. I had started meditation on my own a few years before and dabbled in Zen, but I was really inspired by the Insight Meditation books of Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. I really connected with Vipassana meditation and was very inspired by what they taught and who they were as teachers. They both had practiced in Burma under Sayadaw U Pandita, so after leaving Japan I went off to Burma following their footsteps.
Please explain the practice of insight meditation and about your teacher?
Vipassana meditation is a high level mental discipline that leads the practitioner through stages of intuitive wisdom by systematically developing effort, mindfulness and concentration. This intuitive wisdom arises through a deeper and deeper contemplation into the universal characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self. As this process gradually deepens, the mind becomes purified from the many types of greed, hatred and delusion that dominate the stream of consciousness. The gradual development of Vipassana culminates in an “enlightenment” experience, and as such is one of humanity’s sacred liberation paths.
Sayadaw U Pandita was my first formal spiritual teacher in the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation. In many ways, he was the archetypal spiritual warrior and master that I was seeking when I went to Japan, most perfectly embodied by this simple Buddhist monk. As a life long monk with over 50 years of guiding students in meditation, U Pandita had a teaching skill like nothing I had experienced before. He possesses a great understanding of the path of practice and is highly skilled in moving students through the developmental stages of insight.
U Pandita saw his work as akin to an arrow maker who removes the flaws in the arrows, shaping them to perfection so when shot, they fly straight and true.
In Vipassana meditation, the ego goes through a systematic dissolution, and it is often the case that the ego does not go easily into this process. So where the student holds on to egoic attachment and resists the spiritual process, there the teacher needs to step in. U Pandita was a master of navigating the yogi’s egoic defense grid, which was not always a pleasant experience. As an uncompromising “truth” teacher, he never hesitated to give the “bitter medicine” as a cure.
His tough love could be devastating, but if the student could keep the faith and work it through, it always brought them to a more authentic relationship to reality. When U Pandita was satisfied with the student’s progress, he would send them back into the world, shooting them like the proverbial arrow without worry as to where they would land. He would often say “a true arrow always hits it’s target.” So when U Pandita was satisfied with your practice, he would send you back into the world to carry on as a vessel of the Dharma.
O’Sensei clearly devoted enormous time and energy to meditation and spiritual retreats, but he never insisted aikido students do this. These days, serious meditation practice is largely absent from aikido dojos both in and outside Japan. What is the relationship between aikido and meditation, and what can a student get from it?
Simply speaking, meditation leads one to transcend the limited and relative boundaries of the ego. Only when such an experience arises can aikido then become an expression of spirit itself.
Whenever you see a martial art that includes spiritual cultivation, the practices tend to be of the “non-self” school. This is because when one is able to become empty and transcend all sense of self and other, one can then fight in a way that is liberated from fear and all concern for self and other. This includes many of the traditional Japanese martial arts schools where training in meditative states produced warriors who were extremely effective at “Zen in the art killing and dying.” This is simply because from the “non-self” perspective, no one kills and no one dies. Reality is all-empty, or “non-self,” and this is the ultimate Truth.
O Sensei expressed a deep capacity for emptiness, and he mentions it often in his writings. Be that as it may, his aikido was not an expression of the “non-self” spiritual perspective. O Sensei’s enlightenment was clearly of the “non-dual” nature and his aikido is an expression of that. A perspective where the self/other dichotomy collapses into Oneness. From this perspective, all is One, and the experience is, as O Sensei said, “Uchu soku ware”, or “I am the universe.” O Sensei often stated that aikido is a path of Love. So from this perspective, instead of being liberated from fear and all concern for self and other, one will actually become liberated from the illusion of separateness, and then have TOTAL concern because self and other are actually one.
So, as one develops the capacity to go into deeper and deeper states of meditative consciousness, the boundaries of the self gradually dissolve and disappear. This state experience has the effect of loosening the structures of the ego and allowing space for consciousness to expand towards spirit. As one’s identification gradually shifts from the egoic self towards spirit, it completely changes the way we see the world. Fear drops away, survival reflexes relax, and we can actually begin to create the capacity to experience others, from the inside. By combining meditation with aikido practice, these deeper spiritual insights can gradually become integrated and expressed through the art. The spirit in you and the spirit in me is the same spirit. What can be more aikido than that?
When did you move to Israel, and how did you get involved starting Aikido Without Borders?
One day while on one of my retreats in Burma I was having my interview with U Pandita, and out of the blue he asked me if I wanted to go to Israel to help spread the Dharma. At that time, I had no intention of going to Israel, but nevertheless told him I’d think about it, never expecting anything to come out of it. About six months later, I was teaching in Europe and an old friend invited me to come and teach at his dojo in Jerusalem. So I first went in 2000, a few months after the second Palestinian intifada had broken out. Suicide bombers were hitting cafes and buses almost daily, and the Israeli army was hitting back with regular reprisals in the West Bank. It was very much a war zone. In the midst of all of this conflict, I was surrealistically struck by how amazingly beautiful and spiritual Israel is. It is without a doubt the one place on this planet that has simultaneously the most destructive and creative energy that I have ever experienced.
I included Israel in my yearly teaching tour and eventually made Tel Aviv my home base during the eight years of moving between Asia (for retreats) and Europe (to teach aikido). As I was coming to the end of my formal Vipassana training and I knew that it was time for me to move on from my “personal enlightenment project,” enter back into society, and to give back to the world. Although I always believed I’d end up living the good life back in the U.S., there was something about the endless loop of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that made me look deeper. I felt compelled to respond to what was in front of me, and my intention became clear. Work full time to raise the level of consciousness and culture in Israel and Palestine through aikido and meditation. It was as if all the 16 years of previous training had prepared me for this.
The spring that I made this decision (2005), the American non-profit organization Aiki-Extensions organized an international Aikido peace conference in Nicosia, Cyprus, which I got myself into. There were 100 aikidoka from 8 different conflict zones around the Mediterranean and Middle East and this included a group of Israeli and Palestinian delegates. After a 5 day “Aiki-Love-Fest” it was clear to all there that aikido was a powerful medium for addressing the regional conflict, nevertheless, not one person was willing to take on the task of continuing the work back in Israel/ Palestine. The timing was synchronistic because this was what I had come to do. So with financial support of Aiki-Extensions and together with about 20 Israelis and Palestinians I lead the “Salaam-Shalom” dojo in East Jerusalem for 2 years. It was a wonderful “experiment” that unfortunately wasn’t meant to last. But by that time it closed we had built durable bonds with a group of Israeli and Palestinian aikidoka and we kept training in different places in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the West Bank.
In 2007 we re-organized and formed the N.G.O. Aikido Without Borders and we are currently working at different locations in Israel and the west Bank.
How do you use aikido to confront the conflict and hostility between Palestinian and Israeli people?
The situation here is not just a matter of opposing sides simply not agreeing, They are looking at the issue from completely different perspectives. Both sides have completely different social discourses and within these discourses there simply isn’t the capacity to agree. For 60 years now (and long before that) each generation has continued to perpetuate the mistrust, intolerance, and in some cases even hatred. Like Einstein famously said, no problem can be solved at the level of consciousness that created it. This is certainly the case here. So the work of AWB is all about cultivating that next level of consciousness.
As a microcosm of a harmonious society an aikido dojo is a learning community that fosters the values of harmony, tolerance and mutual respect. The fact that the art is nested in a Japanese cultural context is a great benefit because it’s culturally neutral. And, of course the principles of aikido are universal, so everyone can get them regardless of cultural interpretations. These conditions are the prefect context for cultivating the level of consciousness where creative solutions to difficult problems can arise.
Aikido Without Borders does this by focusing on children and youth who will be the leaders of tomorrow. Our children’s and youth program has 3 pillars: 1) Aikido training and nurturing the embodiment of the it’s principles 2) Leadership training and teaching youth the methodologies that cultivate tomorrow’s leaders 3) Community out reach, which involves community volunteer work as well as cross-cultural trainings.
Our approach is to nurture young adults from both sides of the conflict using the same methodologies and change technologies so that there will be a common context, and creating a common aikido language. Then eventually bring them together in an international seminar for creating cross-cultural bonds.
How can the aikido community support these efforts?
It is our goal to establish twin children’s and youth dojos in both Israel and Palestine. We have a detailed plan to run a 2 year project reaching about 80 children. We’ve already received a small grant from the U.S. Embassy for designing the curriculum in English, Hebrew and Arabic, which we completed in September. Our next step is to do an intensive teacher’s training at our home dojo in Tel Aviv for Israeli, Palestinian and international instructors. Then we want to fully implement the project.
To be able to have a full impact here our most urgent need is funding. If any of the readers out there feel inspired to help with the AWB initiative, they can go to our website where they can find ways for supporting Aikido Without Borders:
Thanks Miles, I cannot think of anything that would please O’Sensei more than the work you are doing – using aikido as a literal tool for peacemaking. I hope many readers will join me in supporting your efforts.