by Régis Soavi
This seems to be a recurring question in the dojos and one which divides practitioners, teachers, as well as commentators in more or less all schools. Since no definitive answer can be given, one turns to the story of martial arts, to social requirements, to the history of the origin of human beings, to the cognitive sciences, etc. entrusting them to provide an answer which, even if it does not solve the problem, will at least have the merit of justifying what is claimed.
Aikijutsu has become a dō
From the moment it has dropped the suffix jutsu to become a dō, Aikijutsu has acknowledged itself as an art of peace, a way of harmony on the same basis as Shodō (the way of calligraphy) or also Kadō (the way of flowers). By adopting the word that means the path, the way, has it become for this an easier path? Or in the contrary does it compel us to ask ourselves questions, to look again at our own course, to make an effort of introspection? Does an art of peace necessarily have a compliant side, is it a weak art, an art of acceptance, in which cheaters may gain a reputation at little expense?
It is certainly an art that has managed to adapt to the new realities of our time. But do we have to foster the illusion of an easy self-defence, within everyone’s reach, suiting any budget, with no need to get involved in the least bit? Can you really believe or make people believe that with one or two hours of practice a week, furthermore excluding holidays (clubs are often closed), one can become a great warrior or acquire wisdom and be able to solve any problem thanks to one’s calm, peace of mind or charisma?
Does the solution then lie in strength, muscular work and the violent arts? If a direction exists at all, it can be found in my opinion, and despite what I have just said, in Aikido.
A School without grades
Itsuo Tsuda never gave grades to any of his students and, when somebody had a question about that, he used to answer: “There is no such thing as a black belt in mental emptiness”. One might say that these words had ended all discussion. Having served as an interpreter between O Sensei Ueshiba Morihei and André Nocquet when the latter had come to Japan as a learner, Itsuo Tsuda later acted as an intermediary when French or American foreigners showed up at the Hombu Dojo to start learning Aikido. This allowed him, since he translated the students’ questions and the master’s answers, to have access to what was underlying the practice, to what made it something universal, to what made it an art beyond pure martiality. He talked to us about O Sensei’s posture, about his amazing spontaneity, about his deep gaze which seemed to pierce him to the very depths of his being. Itsuo Tsuda never tried to imitate his master whom considered inimitable. He was immediately interested in what inspired this incredible man capable of the greatest gentleness as well as of the greatest power. That is why, when he arrived in France, he tried to pass on to us what for him was the essential, the secret of Aikido, the concrete perception of ki. What he had discovered, and later summarized in the initial sentence of his first book: “Since the very day when I had the revelation of ‘ki’, of breath (I was over forty years old at the time), the desire to express the inexpressible, to communicate what cannot be communicated had kept growing in me.”*
For ten years he travelled Europe to make us Westerners, who very often had a Cartesian, dualistic frame of mind, discover that there is another dimension in life. That this dimension is not esoteric but exoteric as he liked to say.
A School with its own specificity
There is obviously a variety of motivatons leading people to start this practice. If I think of the people who practice in our School (the Itsuo Tsuda School), apart from a few of them, there are not many who came for the martial aspect. On the other hand, many of them didn’t see anything martial about it at first sight, even though at each session I show how the techniques could be effective if performed with precision, and dangerous if used in a violent way. The martial aspect arises from the posture, the breathing, the ability to concentrate, the truthfulness of the act of attacking. Dealing with a learner, it is essential to respect the partner’s level, and to practice known forms.
But the discovery one can make by practicing known forms goes far beyond that. It is about making something else grow, revealing what lies deep within individuals, freeing oneself from the underpinning influence exerted by the past and sometimes even by the future, on our gestures, on the whole of our movements, physical as well as mental. Indeed in our dojo everybody realizes that.
The session starts at 6:45am. The fact of coming to practice so early in the morning (O Sensei and Tsuda Sensei always started their own sessions at 6.30) has neither to do with an ascesis nor with a discipline. Some practicioners arrive around 6 every morning, to share some coffee or tea, and to enjoy this moment before the session (a pre-session so to speak), sometimes so rich thanks to the exchanges that we can have between us. It’s a moment of pleasure, of conversation about the practice, as well as about everyday life sometimes, and we share it with the others in an extremely concrete way and not in the virtual way that society tends to suggest us.
Of course all this may appear regressive or useless, but it avoids the aspect of easy entertainment and does not encourage clientelism, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but in that way there is less of it and with time it evolves.This is because people change, they are transformed, or more precisely they find themselves again, they retrieve unused capacities that they sometimes thought they had lost or often, more simply, had forgotten.
Yin the feminine: understanding
There are so many women in our School that equality is not respected, men are outnumbered, by a narrow margin of course, but that has always been the case. I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of women but what can one do? As far as I know they do not form a separate world, unknown to men.
As a matter of fact, for many men, maybe it is so!…Nevertheless I think all a man has do is to take into account his yin side, without being afraid of it, to find and understand what brings men and women closer and what separates them. Is it a matter of personal affinity, is it a research due to my experience during the events of May ’68 and to this blossoming of feminism which revealed itself once again in those days, or maybe more simply is it the fact that I have three daughters, who, by the way, practice Aikido all three of them: the result, whatever the reasons, is that I have always encouraged women to take their legitimate place in the dojos of our School. They take the same responsibilities as men and there is of course no disparity in level, neither in studying nor in teaching. It is really a pity to have to clarify things like that, but unfortunately they cannot be taken for granted in this world.
Despite everything, women scarcely take the floor, or I should even say take up the pen in martial arts magazines. It would be interesting to read articles written by women, or to devote space in “Dragon magazine special Aikido” to the female perspective on martial arts and on our art in particular. Do they have nothing to say or does the male world take up all the space? Or else maybe these sectarian disputes on the efficiency of Aikido bore them, for women seek and often find, so it seems to me, another dimension, or in any case something else, thanks to this art? Itsuo Tsuda Sensei gives us an idea of this “something else”, which is perhaps closer to O Sensei’s search, in this passage of his book The Path of less: “Do people see Mr Ueshiba as a man completely made of steel? I had quite the opposite impression. He was a serene man, capable of extraordinary concentration, but very permeable in other ways, inclined to outbursts of ringing laughter, with an inimitable sense of humour. I had the opportunity of touching his biceps. I was amazed. The tenderness of a newborn. The opposite of hardness in every way one could imagine.
This may seem odd, but his ideal Aikido was that of girls. Due to the nature of their physique, girls are unable to contract their shoulders as hard as boys can. Therefore their Aikido is more flowing and natural.”**
Yang the masculine: fighting
We are educated to competition from early childhood ; under the pretext of emulation, school tends to go in the same direction, all this to prepare us for the world of work. They teach us that the world is tough, that we absolutely need to gain our place in the sun, to learn to defend ourselves against other people, but are we so sure about that? Wouldn’t our desire in fact tend to guide us in a different direction? And what do we do to achieve this goal? Could Aikido be one of the instruments for this revolution in social values, habits, should it and above all should we do the necessary effort so that the roots of this evil corroding our modern societies may regenerate and become healthy again? In the past there have been examples of societies in which competition didn’t exist, or hardly existed in the way it does today, societies in which sexism was absent too, even though you can’t present them as ideal societies. Reading the writings on matriarchy in the Trobriand islands by the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowsky, discovering his analysis, may help find new leads, and perhaps even remedies to these problems of civilization which have so often been denounced.
Tao, the union: a path for the fulfillment of the human being
The path, in essence, not that I am an idealist, justifies itself and takes all its value by the fact that it normalizes the terrain of individuals. For those who follow it, it adjusts their tensions, restores balance, and it is appeasing for it allows a different relationship to life. Isn’t that what so many “civilized” people are desperately seeking and what in the end is to be found deep inside the human being?
The path is not a religion, furthermore it is what separates it from religion that makes it a space of freedom, within the dominant ideologies. According to me the way of thinking that seems closest to this is agnosticism, a philosophical current which is little known, or rather known in a superficial way, but which allows to integrate all the different schools. In Aikido there is quite a number of rituals that are kept up even though their real origin (the source O Sensei drew from) is not understood or there are sometimes other rituals that other masters found through ancient practices as Tamura Sensei himself did. Those rituals have often been associated to religion whereas the fact could be checked that it is the religions which have taken over all these ancient rituals to use them as instruments serving their own power, and way too often they are used for the domination and the enslavement of people.
A means: the respiratory practice
The first part of the session in O Sensei Ueshiba Morihei’s Aikido, far from being a warming up, consisted of movements the depth of which it is primordial to retrieve. It is neither to get an intellectual satisfaction, nor out of some fundamentalist concern and even less to gain “higher powers” that we continue them, but in order to return to the path that O Sensei had taken. Some exercises, like Funakogi undo (the so-called rower’s movement) or Tama-no-hirebori (vibration of the soul), have a very great value, and if they are practiced with the necessary attention, they can allow us to feel beyond the physical body, beyond our sensation, limited as it is, to discover something greater, much greater than ourselves. It is an unlimited nature which we take part in, in which we are immersed, which is fundamentally and inextricably linked to us, and yet which we find it so hard to reach or even sometimes to feel. This notion that I made mine is not the result of a mystical relationship with the universe, but rather of a mental and physical opening which many modern physicists have reached through a theoretical approach and are trying to verify. It is something that you can neither learn by watching Youtube videos, nor by consulting books of ancient wisdom, despite their undeniable importance. It is something you discover in a purely corporal way, in an absolutely and fully physical way, even though this dimension is expanded to an unusual extent. Little by little all the practitioners who agree to look in this direction find it. It is not related to a physical condition, nor to age and obviously not to sex or nationality.
Almost all psychologists consider that the essential part of what will guide us in our adult life takes place during our childhood and more precisely in our early childhood. The good as well as the bad experiences. Therefore particular care should be taken in education to preserve the innate nature of the child as much as possible. In no way does this mean letting the child do whatever he wants, making him a king or becoming his slave; the world is there and surrounds him, so he needs reference points. But very quickly, often shortly after birth, sometimes after a few months, the baby is put in the care of persons outside the family. What happened to his parents? He no longer recognizes his mother’s voice, her smell, her movement. It is the first trauma and we are told : “He will get over it”. Sure, unfortunately it is not the last trauma, far from it. Then comes the day care center, followed by kindergarten, primary school, junior high, and finally the baccalaureate before perhaps university for at least three, four, five, six years or even more.
But what can you do ? “That’s life.” I am told. Each of these places in which the child will be spending his time in the name of education and learning is a mental prison. From basic knowledge to mass culture, when will he be respected as an individual full of the imagination that characterizes childhood? He will be taught to obey, he will learn to cheat. He will be taught to be with the others, he will learn competition. He will receive grades, this will be called emulation, and this psychological disaster will be experienced by top as well as by bottom of the class students.
In the name of what totalitarian ideology are all children and young people given an education that breeds fear of repression, submission, decommitment and disillusionment? Today’s society in wealthy countries does not propose anything really new: work and free time are only synonyms of the roman ideal of bread and circus games, the slavery of the ancient times is only turned into our modern wage employment. A somewhat improved state of slavery ? Perhaps… with spectacular brain washing, guaranteed without invoice, thanks to the advertising for products that is pushed on us, with its corollary: the hyper-consumption of goods both useless and detrimental.
The practice of Aikido for children and teenagers is the opportunity to go off the grids proposed by the world around them. It is thanks to the concentration required by the technique, a calm and quiet breathing, the non-competitive aspect, the respect for differences, that they can keep or, if necessary, retrieve their inner strength. A peaceful strength, not aggressive, but full and rich of the imagination and the desire to make the world better.
A practical philosophy, or rather, a philosophical practice
The particular character of the Itsuo Tsuda School derives from the fact that we are more interested in individuality than in the dissemination of an art or a series of techniques. It is neither about creating an ideal person, nor about guiding anyone towards something, towards a lifestyle, with a certain amount of gentleness, a certain amount of kindness or wisdom, of balancing ability or exaltation, etc. It is about awakening the human being and allowing him to live fully in the acceptance of what he is in the world surrounding him, without destroying him. This spirit of openness can do nothing other than waking up the strength pre-existing in each of us. This philosophy leads us to independence, to autonomy, but not to isolation, on the contrary: through the discovery of the Other, it brings us to the understanding of what this person is, also perhaps beyond what the person has become. This whole process of learning, or rather this reappropriation of oneself, takes time, continuity, sincerity, in order to realize more clearly the direction in which one wishes to go.
What lies beyond, what lies behind
What I am interested in today is what lies behind or more precisely what lies deep inside Aikido. When you take a train you have an objective, a destination, with Aikido it is a little bit as if the train changed objective as you moved further, as if the direction became at the same time different, and more precise. As for the objective, it pulls away despite the fact that you think you have come closer. And this is where you have to recognize that the object of our journey is the journey itself, the landscapes we discover, which become more refined and reveal themselves to us.
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* Itsuo Tsuda, The Non-doing, Yume Editions, 2013, p.9
** Itsuo Tsuda, The Path of less, Yume Editions, 2014, p.157