“The Limits of Obedience,” by Anonymous

“When my own mind is so clouded as it presently is, how can I choose
a teacher to whom I can genuinely give my trust and obedience?”

faceless-imageI want to write today for two reasons. Well, perhaps more, but two overt reasons. The first is to seek feedback from others on my current situation. The second is to give others who might be in a similar situation pause for reflection on the state of their learning environment.

The issue I wish to write on today is about the limits of obedience. For the past year I have struggled with the idea of obedience and loyalty to a teacher. I have always sought to show respect and sincerity to those who teach, and the times when my own life and ego have gotten in the way of doing so even for a moment have left a bitter taste which only gets worse with time.

My understanding of most things is still very limited. I would estimate that about 10-15% of what I talk about when trying to express understanding is made up of actual experience-understanding and the rest is taken from words and actions of others. In time I hope this will improve but I am still young and “madda chotto yabanjin”, so please excuse my ignorance if I speak of things which I do not understand fully. I have read articles in many publications on the concepts of shu-ha-ri. I understand it to be a process of achieving freedom of movement, thought, etc., by way of initially mimicking another as closely as possible to overcome one’s natural ingrained tendencies and limitations, moving towards complete freedom. This idea has a parallel in the ideas of monastic obedience represented in the early monastic text The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It seems that in both cases obedience and mimicry, which in a crude way eliminate parts of a person’s accumulated personality, are counter-intuitive means of achieving freedom of action and thought. Freedom in this case is the freedom of responding seamlessly and thoughtlessly to the environmental stimuli, not the idea of an impossible “atomic” freedom so prevalent in Western culture today.

It seems to me that the necessity of obedience and the process of shu-ha-ri is reflected in the words of the song “you’re going to have to serve somebody/it may be the Devil and it may be the Lord but you’re going to have to serve somebody.” By placing the teacher at the head of our decisionmaking structure, we dethrone our hidden master, which I have simply come to refer to as the “Enemy.” Implicit in this relationship is absolute trust in the teacher. We must believe that like a national leader who is granted extraordinary powers in wartime, he or she will use our obedience only for the end of our eventual liberation and will relinquish their authority at the earliest possible opportunity.
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“The Way of the Warrior as a Path to Spiritual Mastery” by Charles A. McCarty

“He finally rebelled from this dark world of pasty-skinned scholarship,
and plunged into daylight in a contest with sun and steel.”

Yukio MIshima (1925-1970)

Those who have known me for long might be astonished to find with what difficulty I have found myself beset in undertaking the actual writing of this thesis. I am generally both prolific and relatively at ease in my writing. My research is done, my thoughts are more or less ordered; and yet a curious reluctance has paralyzed me for months; an unformed dread like a half-remembered bad dream.

I have come to value such apparently sterile plateaus, for they seem to overlay a gestation, or a working through, of concepts subliminally vital to an ongoing work. With the suddenness characteristic of discovery of that which was always underfoot, I have identified the barrier—that of words, and the power they have to form and delimit our existence.

Years ago I read a book by a Japanese novelist, Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel.(2) I was disturbed by this personal testament, for it expressed an orientation and outcome of martial discipline far removed from the spiritual growth which I envisioned. I set it aside, uncomprehending. I have been drawn back to it in recent weeks. Though still unsympathetic with the personal ideals of Mishima, I found that he had grappled with the same reluctance, the same dread which stilled my pen just when it seemed the task was about to be mastered.

Mishima recognized the corrosive power which words have on our experience. He described them as “white ants” eating away at the structure of reality, weakening and rotting, reducing the whole in order that it may be shared: For all that we share must first be attacked by the white ants of words. Shared meanings of language and culture both carve and shape the nature of individual experience, and limit the transmissibility of experience that has transcended words.(3)
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“Aikido Because It Is Hard,” by William Terrell

“What we do on the mat is sacred. It is life writ small. It is tradition lived in the present. Aikido is the gift to us from O’Sensei…”

I have no romantic notions of what it means to be a warrior. I served in the United States Marine Corps and worked for ten years as a deputy sheriff. I have seen the dead and the dying, the deliberate and the accidental. I have seen people shot, cut, burned, beaten, strangled, crushed, even literally hammered to death. I understand how fast violence can erupt/interrupt into our everydayness and destroy our lives. My goal is simply that of any warrior/father/husband: to be prepared to protect and defend myself, my family, my community.

One of the ways I choose to do that is through Aikido. I enjoy Aikido because it is hard, because it forces me to change, because it forces me to face myself. My first Sensei was irascible and difficult, but he gave me a solid foundation in some of the basics. His emphasis was on techniques for the world off the mat, especially the breaking and keeping of uke’s balance and in delivering solid strikes.

He believed (and rightly so) that Aikido is not a game nor is it a sport. Aikido is a matter of life and death. To treat it as anything less is a waste of time and an insult to the memory of O’Sensei. What we do on the mat is sacred. It is life writ small. It is tradition lived in the present. Aikido is the gift to us from O’Sensei and all those who taught him. His gift passed through Yamada Sensei to Dee Sensei to me. I am being forged as the next link in the chain.

Some critics dismiss Aikido as at best anachronistic and at worst a waste of time that instills a false sense of security in the practitioner. Would O-Sensei have developed and promoted Aikido if he did not believe it to be effective? Of course not. My answer to the critics is get on the mat and hang around long enough to understand what is going on. Feel the burn of nikyo, the swirling confusion and abrupt reversal of irimi nage, the panic of koshi nage done full speed. Test yourself in randori. Find out how to react when facing multiple attackers. Learn that getting your lip busted or being thrown hard will not kill you. Understand the power of Aikido before passing judgment.

Accepting Aikido as a way of life has to be a choice. A choice repeated week after week, day after day. The mat is the battlefield upon which we overcome ourselves and it is in the persistence, the refusal to succumb to inertia that we are made strong. Week in and week out I get on the mat because I have to, because it satisfies a basic primal need and is a way to channel the warrior instincts. It is not just the mat, Aikido permeates my life. Even driving 100 miles round trip is in itself an act of entering, of being uke. Trying to perfect the process of resolving one conflict while looking/preparing for the next. It is in the knowing when to push and when to pull, when to enter and when to turn.

Am I absolutely prepared for anything life throws at me? Of course not. Am I much better prepared? Indeed, I am.

November In My Soul
Learning To Be Silent


Hitohiro Saito: “Going back to Japan” by Renae Murray

Hitohiro Saito Sensei in front of Aiki Shrine, c. 1995. Photo by Sonoko Tanaka

“Saito Sensei ran hot on our heals and ready to teach those
of us crazy enough to brave the harshest season from distant lands.”

Going back to Japan is like going home. I remember the smells, the tiny houses, the narrow roads, the taste of Japanese food, and the fast rhythm of the language. I hit a hard landing in Narita, veering sharply to my right side, nearly ending up in the lap of the poor student going home for Christmas next to me.

The sun fell quickly and I had to make my way through the maze of railway lines back to Iwama. I knocked on the door, I felt scared, I wondered if Sensei had forgotten about my email, and even if Sensei remembered me. So many people have crossed through Sensei’s life, did my line of destiny make an impression deep enough? I inhaled the smell of incense deeply, its warm fragrance was a sharp contrast against the cold air.

I knocked, the smile on Hitohiro Saito Sensei’s face erased all doubts, he opened his arms and gave me a big bear hug!!! It was 9pm and he was dressed in a traditional royal blue yukata, and Hisako-san, his wife, led me to the Shin Dojo. It hadn’t changed since the funeral of his father, Morihiro Saito Sensei.

A long wood table speared through the middle with a wood stove desperately struggling to keep pace with the cold. After my futon was set up, on the mezzanine level, two students, Pedro from Portugal and David from Zurich, busily attended the stove in the old Yamabiko, the new shokudo preparing dinner. They informed me I would be allowed to sleep till 6:30 and would be exempt from walking the dogs for my first morning. Even though exhausted, I slept little, and was up at 6 a.m. with the first noises of the morning. We walked to the Tanrenkan dojo. It was my first visit, again the smell of incense was a perfume from heaven.
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“O-Sensei’s Spiritual Writings: Where did they really come from?” by Stanley Pranin

“The published books containing quotations attributed to Morihei Ueshiba available in various Western languages are based on “sanitized” Japanese versions of Morihei’s words.”

Recently, due to the publication of a series of books whose authorship has been attributed to Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, I have felt compelled to weigh in on the subject of what O-Sensei actually did write during his career as a martial artist. The answer is in brief, “almost nothing.”

Works attributed to him–both before and after the war–were based on his spoken words and lectures rather than on texts that he had composed himself. They were transcribed and edited primarily by his son, Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and by several trusted students having varying degrees of literary skills. This is especially the case after World War II. Much of what we think of as the spiritual writings of Morihei is based on material published in the “Aikido Shimbun” of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo starting in 1959 and continuing following his passing in 1969. What was published in the “Aikido Shimbun” as “Doka” (Songs of the Way) were actually culled from heavily edited transcriptions of tape-recorded talks and lectures given by O-Sensei inside the dojo and elsewhere.

To understand the rationale for the editing of Morihei’s remarks, one must take into consideration the times and psychology of the Japanese during this period. World War II had recently ended, and much of the population were either direct participants, or deeply affected by the war and its outcome. Japan had acquired the stigma of a defeated nation, and many Japanese wished to distance themselves from all things associated with the conflict and those that had led the country into it.

During the early postwar period, subjects related to Japan’s military and political institutions, State Shinto, and the heavy destruction wrought upon the country were topics many Japanese chose to avoid due to the painful associations they held. Moreover, Morihei’s active role in teaching at numerous military installations during the 1930s and early 40s was a subject that the Aikikai chose to mention only in passing for understandable reasons.

Given Morihei’s tendency to speak using religious terminology and concepts, and the difficulty modern Japanese had in interpreting his meaning, the decision-makers at the Hombu Dojo chose to edit O-Sensei’s words in an attempt to make them more palatable to the postwar generation. Another important consideration in this decision was the fact that the effort to disseminate aikido on foreign soil was in full swing. It was thought that foreign enthusiasts of the art would be incapable of understanding such religious imagery anyway, and that some might take offense considering that many early practitioners abroad were themselves war veterans, or adversely affected by the war.
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“Aikido – 9 Tips to help you safely recover from injuries” by Dunken Francis

Photo credit - http://proactivephysicalhealth.co.uk

“Both of these guys are very dedicated and are
already getting frustrated at missing regular training.”

These first 5 steps are taken from a neat little site “EHow” which seems to have advice on pretty much everything!

Step 1

Place a small strip of red tape on your uniform, over the injured area. A patch of red tape on your shoulder indicates that it’s still healing. Your partners appreciate this courtesy communication to take it easy.

Step 2

Attend the beginner’s class at your dojo, even if you are an intermediate or advanced practitioner of the art. Take this chance to focus on basic techniques at a slow pace to revive your muscle memory. Work joyfully with the people in class who really are just beginning. You carry valuable knowledge, and helping someone else will help you to remember how much you have learned.

Step 3

Take two classes a week for four weeks. Then, add a third class per week. If you like to train more than that, gradually add more classes. Even if you’ve been working hard in your recovery exercises, give your body time to get used to your return to Aikido.

Step 4

Write down on index cards the names and descriptions of attack and response techniques. Carry the cards with you and review them periodically through the week. Visualize your successful execution of these techniques. This will help you remember movements that may feel rusty and awkward.
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“Who Controls the Technique, Uke or Nage?” by Nev Sagiba

“I pretend to attack you telegraphing a single movement such as never exists in combat and you pretend to bowl me over with skill that is not there because I’m taking a dive.”

In Aikido partner kata training where a single technique or set of combined techniques or counters are practiced, who controls the technique? Uke or Nage?

The word “throws” is used a lot, by many, but if this were the case it would no longer be Aikido, but a form of judo expressing the same-old-same-old bully-victim paradigm of one person “doing something” to someone else following a contest of some kind.

In such case not only is it not Aikido, but nothing has been learned of the Founder’s paradigm of transcending violence. “Throwing” someone or pushing “them” over plays into the very illness true Aikido was formulated to transcend!

In any event what would we be reenacting? I pretend to attack you telegraphing a single movement such as never exists in combat and you pretend to bowl me over with skill that is not there because I’m taking a dive. Repeat on the other side then change roles alternating until a change is called. To what end? Yoga? Cardio? Calisthenics? Dance? We are both faking something, who-knows-what, whilst drowning in false ego.

Would we be reaching deeply, or at all, into our own dark side, where violence dwells, to root it out and to reveal a better way with this kind of frottage? I think not.

The only “spin” that should exist in true Budo is a good tenkan!

The Founder called Aikido, “An Invincible Budo.” What did he mean by this? That you could get yourself into a violent situation and always win? I think not. No mortal exists, ever has or ever will, who is so immutable. As revealed by the experiences of several supposed “masters of aikido,” a best keep secret, when attacked, they became the recipients of a sound hiding, following which, in each event, they mysteriously took an extended vacation until the bruises had healed over.

Self-deception is not “victory of oneself” and neither can it be of any practical use.

This was never the case with the Founder or his teachers. So what was lost on the way?
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“Subtle Energy Synchrony/ Meditation, ChiGung, Budo,” by Nick Lowry

“Over time we develop greater and greater ease in
dealing with what once was simply overwhelming.”

If you have a lot of pendulums swinging in a room, over a short period of time they all tend to entrain toward synchrony with the largest one. This works with people’s subtle emotional and energetic qualities as well. Folks tend to get in synchrony with the person who has the strongest energetic and emotive field. With this in mind, it behooves us to learn some good hygiene for the care and maintenance our personal energetics.

Learning to get grounded and centered with meditation (both standing and walking forms); to recharge your energy and fill your body and your aura with high energy through practices such as chi gung or kriya yoga (particularly something that includes both movement, visualization and sound or chanting), and to move from a fully embodied sense of steady free flowing confidence as we do with budo training (here we need efficient methods involving sweat and motion and including work from all ranges and including weapons work); these methods all go a long way toward developing this subtle quality. Plow the field and plant the seeds—slow and steady does the deed.
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“Change As Part of the Cycle of Movement in Aikido,” by Alister Gillies

“Serious practitioners of Aikido face the same situation that O-Sensei
faced: an uncertain future with no guarantees about the final outcome.”

I agree with most of what George Ledyard says in his article, but it does somewhat beg the question regarding change in Aikido. Certainly, the winds of change are blowing. They have been blowing from the outset!

When O Sensei and a few followers left Sokaku Takeda they could not have foreseen the development of modern-day Aikido. Similarly, when O Sensei instructed Bansen Tanaka to recruit the sons of wealthy parents as students, or entrusted Hombu Dojo to the care of his son Kisshomaru, he could not have foreseen the creation of a corporate Aikido. When the founder left Tokyo for Iwama, sick in body and mind, I feel sure that his intention was not to create a definitive style of Aikido as a legacy for future generations. Given what we know of the founder’s life, it is not unreasonable to assume that he was engaged in Shugyo to mend his ailing spirit. Everything he had believed, not least the spiritual uniqueness and divinity of the Japanese people (and therefore himself), had been called into question by the events leading up to and following the Second World War. While the nation was preoccupied with material survival and restoration, O Sensei set about a process of spiritual reconstruction that was to take many years. When he left Iwama, both he and his Aikido had changed.

O Sensei was always moving on, and everyone else has been playing catch up, trying to emulate, imitate, advocate, dispute and incorporate ever since. While O Sensei has left the building, the characteristics that were there at the beginning, schism, financial insecurity, and finding one’s own way (Do of Aikido), are still fundamental preoccupations – as any teacher running a dojo will tell you. It seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Serious practitioners of Aikido, those in it for the long haul, face the same situation that O Sensei faced: an uncertain future with no guarantees about the final outcome.

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

Is there anything that O Sensei left behind that can help us to navigate through our own confusion – because confusion there is, an abundance of it? If O Sensei were to take even a casual glance at an Aikido internet forum today, it is doubtful that he would recognise his own creation. He might well ask, as he often did: what are these people practicing? In the face of change, uncertainty is natural, but uncertainty multiplied by fear results in confusion. Did O Sensei leave anything behind? Yes, he left us with ourselves! Not this or that teacher, not this or that technique, not this or that explanation, but an untapped and rich resource of human potentiality that each of us can mine if we can only “become one with the universe”. What could be simpler; what could be more difficult? Fear is what prevents us from moving on.
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“Aiki Rehab,” by Nev Sagiba

There is no doubt that the movements of Aikido torque the joint differently and more fully than clumsy, crude movements of the unconcerned.

There can no doubt also that a little bit of something is better than a lot of nothing.

The more recent obsession with an excess of “taking ukemi,” only one way of testing efficaciousness, in this case that of kuzushi only, seems to have swamped the other benefits of Aikido training.

Another thing all but forgotten, in the wake of nonsensical excuse making philosophies, is the hard fact that the progenitors of Aikido, including the Founder himself, the main focus was on that of surviving extreme violence, above all else.

If one trains honestly on this basis, the fringe benefits are many. Dishonestly practiced these remain a mere wish which will remain unrequited and out of reach.

Practice focusing on precision, within natural limits, without invoking extreme action can trigger natural healing restoration from conditions which otherwise tend to cause the decay of mind and body sometimes referred to as ageing.

I would go as far as to suggest, that it may, over time, to some extent, influence stem cell behaviour in a beneficial way. If even in the least, but not insignificant measure.

The number of people who do not train fully as combat, but rather as a partner yoga/dance without ukemi, despite injuries, ill health and disease and show remarkable levels of recovery would indicate that the worth of Aikido, whilst superlative as combat once properly understood, in fact goes beyond this.

Many have so restored themselves as a result that over time, they became able to eventually embrace a more fuller and complete level of training.

This impressive array of recoveries and personal transformations, speaks for itself. Considered “anecdotal” only because no sufficient research has been mounted, the relevant individuals need no convincing.

Aikido is an art for healing body, mind, psyche and society. It also teaches to convert your disadvantages into advantage and maximize human potential.

Still, Aikido is more than “self-defence.” It is also an intense yoga that triggers many potentials other bodywork only does in part. Aikido’s interactional bodywork such is play fighting among friends, which when consistently practised, can contain a rather complete spectrum of physical training possibilities including; elements of free movement, can be aerobic and cardiovascular as well as anaerobic, incorporates some elements of resistance training (isotonic and isometric) and constantly deals with variable and unexpected dynamics each movement (kinetics and isokinetics), includes retro-gravity negative resistance, plyometic exercise and as well as developing muscle synergy, flexibility and muscle tone, speed of body to eye co-ordination, equilibrium and adaptivity. This must have physical health benefits. But importantly, we also work with the body-mind connection or chi/ki and thereby rediscover our innate potentials over time.

At whatever level or intensity you can practice, Aikido contributes to making a human being whole.

Nev Sagiba


“Morihiro Saito, Keeper of the Flame,” by Stanley Pranin

“O-Sensei, free from the distractions of city life, engaged in extensive experimentation, and made tremendous strides both technically and spiritually.”

Morihiro Saito Sensei always emphasized his role as the preserver of O-Sensei’s postwar technique of the Iwama years, comprising the period of about 1945-1955. It was during this time frame that the Founder formulated his concept of “Takemusu Aiki,” that is, the spontaneous execution of unlimited technique perfectly attuned to a given set of circumstances.

O-Sensei’s art underwent a dramatic transformation during these years, discarding much of the rigidity and harshness of prewar technique in favor of the flowing, yet powerful techniques of the Iwama period. It was this stage of the Founder’s development that is identified with modern aikido.

Morihiro Saito at his last USA seminar in 2000

Iwama was O-Sensei’s laboratory. It was in this environment, free from the distractions of city life, that he engaged in extensive experimentation, and made tremendous strides both technically and spiritually. The technical repertoire of the Iwama years was especially rich. It included hundreds of taijutsu techniques, weighed equally with the regular practice of the aiki ken and jo.

Much of this technical content fell into disuse after the Founder’s passing. In fact, many of today’s practitioners have never been exposed to these techniques. The reason that the number of techniques practiced today is relatively small compared to the Iwama years has to do mainly with historical circumstances. Please have a look at my essay titled “Is O-Sensei Really the Father of Modern Aikido?” for more on this subject.
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Quotable quotes from Morihiro Saito’s “Takemusu Aikido: Background & Basics”


“O-Sensei taught tai no henko, morotedori kokyuho,
and suwariwaza kokyuho in every practice!”

“Daily practice begins with tai no henko. First, open your fingers. The basis of ura movements is footwork.”

“If you look at your partner even slightly, his body will separate from you and there will be too much space between you.”

“In ura techniques, parry the strike from the gyaku hanmi position. In this way, you will be able to execute a rapid and effective technique.”

“You must use an escape to free one of your hands in order to do the technique. One way to free your hand naturally is to open your fingers and turn your body strongly inward to unbalance your partner.”

“O-Sensei said: ‘After breaking your partner’s balance, step in with your left foot with the feeling of knocking your opponent over and draw your right foot up behind your left.’”

“… as stated in ‘Budo’, “When pinning your opponent to the ground it is essential that his arm be at a right angle to his body'”

“Bring him down with a feeling of circular pushing and turning. O-Sensei said: “Don’t merely twist your partner’s arm.’”

“The method of parrying a yokomenuchi attack is described in the section on yokomenuchi training in ‘Budo’, “Invite your opponent’s yokomen strike with your ki. Advance with your right foot while striking the left side of your opponent’s head with your right tegatana.'”

“In shomenuchi ikkyo omote, the person throwing initiates the technique.”


“You will sometimes find it impossible to grab the wrist from above if you parry it too close to the hand. Many people fail in the execution of this technique because they are careless in parrying the strike.”

“As in ikkyo omote, thrust your left foot forward in a large motion to unbalance your partner for the pin.”

“When executing omote, or entering techniques from ryotedori, begin from ai hanmi with you and your partner in the same stance with the same foot forward. Ura, or turning movements, begin from gyaku hanmi, with both of you in a stance with your opposite foot forward.”