O’Sensei said that the two most important things for practising aiki are: “ki kata” and “tanren-ho“. We think we know what tanren-ho is: at its simplest it’s the repeated striking at a bundle of wood with a bokken, just as in those iconic pictures of O’Sensei and Saito Shihan in the fields at Iwama. But “ki kata“? Does that mean “kokyu-waza” (“aiki-waza” ) ? Or is it possible that O’Sensei is thinking of kata not as physical forms… but as ki-flow? The shape and movement of ki-flow? That, in fact, O’Sensei saw kata primarily as ki-flow – and maybe he wasn’t watching physical form at all?
One thinks of Zeami’s remark that the highest form of singing in Noh theatre is the “singing of no singing” – where the performer is so focused on what they are doing to the audience – on the emotion that they are creating – that they are not consciously aware of the sound of their own voice.
The more one translates O’Sensei’s words and thought, the more it becomes obvious that, for him, what happens in the mind is primary, and what the body does is secondary. Or more accurately: what the body does is part of what goes on in the mind.
This is hard for Westerners to understand, but it is precisely the way O’Sensei would have learned to see the world; studying and practising, from a young age, the utterances and movement of Shingon Buddhism… Utterances and movement and visualization…
As Pema Chödrön states: “It was one of the Buddha’s gifts to realize that the source of everything is mind.” (1)
O’Sensei’s boyhood hero, Kukai, who brought esoteric Buddhism to Japan in the year 806 AD, puts it more subtly: “…the esoteric teaching explains that [the elements (earth, air, fire, water, space)] are the Buddha’s secret all-pervading body. These…elements are not apart from consciousness, and though mind and form may be said to differ, their nature is the same. Form is mind and mind is form without obstruction or limitation…” (2)
And so, in fact, the very first paragraph of kata-instruction in the Budo mokuroku /manual begins with a non-physical instruction: “Having filled up with ki-energy…” Or, if this is a deshi taking dictation, it may well be that O’Sensei was saying: “fill up your ki-body…” (3) And a few seconds later, O’Sensei says, “…the totality of your kamae arises from the flow of kami-energy…” and then: “…always, your kamae is what you have in your heart…” (4)
And so O’Sensei continues, mingling physical with mental and with ki-instruction. Working through those paragraphs of kata-instruction, time and again a physical movement is coupled with the ki-mochi – the feeling – of some visualization. And over and over we hear: “draw out your opponent’s ***- strike with your ki…”
So is there evidence in the writings of O’Sensei’s students that he saw the world, and waza and kata, PRIMARILY as ki-flow?
Well, Saotome Shihan’s books are about nothing BUT this.
And when Saotome Shihan writes about the concept of ki, his very first recollection of O’Sensei is of O’Sensei talking about the ki-body: “O Sensei used the word ki in many different ways. He would refer to an aura as ki…” and Saotome Shihan continues, mingling mental, physical and spiritual: “…and concentration was ki. Sometimes it was confidence, sometimes vitality, and sometimes strength. He used it to describe the universal energy force and many times to describe the function of God….” (5)
More surprisingly, Morihiro Saito Shihan’s Traditional Aikido vol.1 – if you look at the original Japanese – embodies precisely this way of looking at the world, where the mind is primary and ki-flow – and the shape of ki-flow – is what one sees first, and is a matrix in which physical movements are embedded.
– – – it also helps to understand that in Oriental culture since “reason” and “logical principle” are not the highest values, “ri” is often best translated simply as “the workings of the mind” or “the mind at work” – – –
So Chapter one begins: “Suburi techniques, in performance, absolutely have to arise from a mind working in the aikido fashion. What we mean by “a mind working [in the aikido fashion]” is primarily that you have to do suburi having filled up with ki-power. A number of suburi putting in ki are better than 1,000 light suburi. Secondarily, your kamae absolutely has to be the back-triangle. Along with this, the tsuka-gashira of the sword must usually maintain a musubi-connection with your navel. The reason for this is that you will find that movements forward and back. left and right, [thus, in all directions] become easy in this way.”
Chapter one ends: “Sword as Harmonizing/Blending-Method As for harmonizing in Aikido sword-work, it’s very important not to get caught up in being uchi [that is: shite or nage] or being uke, but to work on harmonizing your ki, to proceed by creating an accord with aite.”
And Chapter three begins: “Irimi method There is a secret method for escaping out from the attack of a large number of attackers. It has a particular name: it is called “yamabiko no michi” [“the way of the mountain echo”]. This method is that as you emit ki, like a mountain echo your enemy’s ki comes back at you. But at that very moment, according to this method, you are [already] standing behind aite.”
And then, after a couple of doka: “Shomen-uchi Irimi-nage Calling forth aite‘s ki, and entering deeply to aite‘s rear, attach aite to yourself, and, just as you do when cutting deeply with a sword, with a sharp twist of the koshi, throw [aite]. (6) One has to ask: is “attaching aite to yourself” a ki instruction or a physical instruction?…
Some of O’Sensei’s best students, too, do write about O’Sensei not seeing the physical, when he taught. Hikitsuchi Shihan, of course, at some length in the Aikido Today interview. But also Saotome Shihan: “In my time that it was my privilege to observe [O Sensei’s] teaching he almost never taught concrete form. He was concerned with the study of budo and the spiritual meaning of Aikido, not the particulars of form… He wished to show the [workings of the mind] behind techniques and the essential thread that bound them together.” (7)
And André Nocquet Shihan: “UYESHIBA Sensei was never watching the practitioner’s visible movements, but he would go straight to his student’s heart, thinking about – the whole lesson long – [the student’s] motives, his thoughts, and his true intentions. ‘If your heart is impure,’ he would say, ‘you are full of internal tension, pride, repressed thoughts, confusion, and a thousand physical, mental, and spiritual ailments. You can never understand Aiki unless your heart becomes pure….When the original ‘ki‘ [of the universe] penetrates and animates the body, it has to be in complete control of it.’ ” (8)
Now. of course, O’Sensei himself talked about this many times. For instance: “If you want to study Aikido you must study the…movement of the universe, the flow and function of nature’s energy…The energy forces of life…these are Aikido principle and the basis of technique.” (9) But for Westerners who have a hard time getting into this mindset, it’s easy simply to not read O’Sensei’s writings in this way.
But, indeed, if O’Sensei did see waza and kata, primarily as shapes of ki-flow – wouldn’t it shed an entirely different light on his often-reported response to the request: “please, Sensei, could you show us that one more time…”??? (10)
– – – Peter John Still
(1) representing a Tibetan Vajrayana lineage, very close to Shingon…
(2) from the Sokushin Jôbutsu-gi. Quoted by Taiko Yamasaki in Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism p.66.
In Shingon – and in all Vajrayana – the thought that “everything is mind” becomes the thought that: “everything is the mind of the Buddha Dai-nichi-Nyorai” – the original energy-source of the entire universe. Omoto-kyo has a similar concept – with the kami-name Naobi-no-mitama: the spirit of the original God that is in every one of us. And so we have the opening statements of the first Takemusu Aiki lecture:
Aikido is the principle of eternal continuation throughout all ages of the one and same system of the universe.
Aikido is Heaven-sent truth and the marvelous work of Takemusu Aiki.
Aikido is the Way of union and harmony of Heaven, Earth and humanity.” – Takemusu Aiki, Aikido Journal translation
(3) “Ki-sei“. Both “sei” and “shin” have multiple homonymic meanings that are likely and worth considering when looking at transcriptions of O’Sensei’s speech. All the more because Deguchi and O’Sensei followed in a long populist tradition of coining punning neologisms to create additional layers of meaning (the very title of O’Sensei’s published talks, Aiki Shinzui is a perfect example of this!!!)
(4) And we might suspect that “outward roppo, inner
roppo, outward tomoe, inner tomoe” refer to “physical roppo, mental roppo, physical tomoe, mental tomoe.”
(5) Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, p.50
(6) Traditional Aikido, vol. 1, pp. 23, 38, 51, 53
(7) Principles of Aikido, p.1
(8) Maître Morihei Ueshiba: présence et message, pp. 281-2
(9) quoted in Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, p.35
(10) Interestingly, the only other reference I have found to “ki-gata”, is in a personal communication by “one of Hikitsuchi [Shihan]’s closest students” to Ellis Amdur, and relayed in Hidden In Plain Sight, p. 143, according to which, “Hikitsuchi [Shihan] was much more concerned with what he called kigata… – the ability to spontaneously change as needed within one’s movements.”