Memories of O’Sensei (2)…

At six thirty in the morning, excepting those days where quite suddenly he has decided to make a teaching trip away from Tokyo,  Uyeshiba Sensei comes into the dojo. He is truly a “great master” [ – an “O  Sensei” – ], precisely because he never plays at being “Master” and never behaves as if he is in charge.  Already, our paths had crossed in the stairwell, where he was politely climbing the stairs with small steps, in his socks. He had stopped to talk with a Japanese student. He was smiling a lot,   open-faced, bright-eyed. He seemed to be quite amused. He is this way a lot. He looks at one and all with in jovial and sympathetic manner. He talks a lot. In the dojo, he talks all the time.

I have already stated that “he is truly a Great Master”, and that is why I’d like to make a distinction between him and all the other “Masters” I’ve seen and glimpsed, by calling him, with every bit of humility I possess: “This dear old Gentleman, so completely open-hearted and profoundly happy.”  Why should I go along with the obsequious convention of bestowing on him a title to which, absolutely, he is entitled, but which is a platitude? I prefer to express the profound affection which I feel by sometimes calling him “The Dear Old Gentleman who is very much enlightened”,  and sometimes  “The very dear Old Gentleman who is gently poking fun”…  ( but the very next day he was transformed into “The very dear Old Gentleman full of laughing sympathy”)…

So he comes onto the mat without ostentation or unusual ceremony. This morning, I would say of him, on the whole, that he is  “the very dear Old Gentleman who is being a little waggish”.  He takes up a position in the middle of the mat, and after the bows, before the characters “AI-KI-DO” painted on a strip of cloth, he does his daily chanting,  completely oblivious of his audience.   He is filled with the rhythms and rituals of his very personal Shinto, and he performs them without flourish. Then he turns to face his students, and quite simply sits on the ground, takes off his socks, and begins to rotate his ankles, and tap on his feet, to encourage good blood-flow in his limbs. He manipulates his toes, because he thinks he could use that,  looking at everyone with a smile,  and talking all the time.

Everyone makes the same gestures as he does, without any ado. Then, standing up, the “very old man so dear to us all” performs the “rowing” movements which we think we know so well. But, I have it on good authority from an older,  long-time student: his movements are  completely different from what we are doing – and what we think we’re doing. I can confirm it, because it over time became very clear to me, that for him it was nothing to do with “a warm-up exercise” that mimics the movements of rowing, but something completely other than that, and bearing no relationship to that.  At the very least, the odd angles and the very special rhythm of his movements showed me clearly that this “Very old man, so very powerful, so very fast”,  was not at all thinking of the same things as we were during these exercises…

But let’s move on, as he does, to what’s next.

Everything that we are used [in France] to doing as “warm-ups”,  he does too,  but not as “warm-ups”, and not necessarily every day, and not systematically. And when the “So impressive and so very serious old Gentleman”  stands up, and does a whole variety of “arm movements”, these, too, are anything other than physical preparation.

After what I would call the “establishment of a particular state [of mind and body]” – not wanting to be more precise, because I would like to stay objective, and thus visual – the “Very simple old man” has his disciples, old and young, attack him:  running at him threateningly and trying to grab him.  Standing, the Master shifts his torso,  and with it,  his legs and arms. He only grabs hold when he is going to pin a solitary attacker.  Against multiple partners, attacking together, this tactic of throwing without taking hold allows him complete freedom of movement. His hands – always free – continue their motion after his partner falls, gestures which are astonishing in their apparent lack of function. Uyeshiba Sensei  envelopes the air, makes one volume of space after another round and  spiraling;  in this way, he is always in motion, and able to precede the next attack, welcome it, and sweep in a different direction than the preceding, without ever allowing a moment of dead time – of standing still – to intervene.

Beyond techniques, beyond the movement of hands, the Art of Ueshiba Sensei is simple. His perfectly controlled defence, perfectly tailored to the power and skill of his partner, seems to be an embodiment of kindness.

His face stays calm and smiling, while his circling movements swirl like a cyclone… because it is the image of a cyclone that seems best to define Aikido, both in its accumulation of natural forces, and in the swirling deployment of Kokyu,  or “Breath”.

So what is the Old Master doing?  He makes it clear to one and all, to even the greatest experts, that he is not in the least impressed by their superlative skills in Aikido – the Aikido that he himself taught them. He has gone beyond that, the “tremendously skilful Old Gentleman”, and he shows  them that.  What he shows, with his tai-sabaki  of small, very fast steps, and by his lightning gestures,  are living forms:  flashes of  lightning, a leaf caught in a whirlwind, the taking flight of a bird/hand that is suddenly in your face,  a branch that is suddenly next to your leg, sweeps your leg out from under you,  and throws you to the ground – or a different branch that is pointing at your throat and forces you off-balance when you try to strike at nature itself. For if you do that,  nature itself strikes you down, using your own inability to face up to what is real.

Even though,  at this point in the class,  everyone on the mat is trying to imitate the Old Master – who is chuckling to himself, quietly and affectionately –  no-one comes close to managing it.  There is not a Master in existence who could truly “be” like the Master. Everyone tries hard to copy him – and that’s all they are doing, whereas they would all have to be able to – and know how to – recreate in their own way the inspired conjuring of the “Grand old Artist” who, with his limbs, embodies Nature itself, so very amused by our efforts against it.

And when he has played his tune for long enough – twenty minutes or three quarters of an hour after he stepped onto the mat, the “still young Artist” gives you to understand that he salutes you and wishes you good luck…  With everyone bowing very, very low, the “Old Gentleman who’s enjoying himself, and for whom there is no drama, ever”,  puts on again his socks with the big toe separated from the other toes – – – and exits the dojo.

And there is the greatest paradox yet:  “He who was capering, laughing as you fell on the mat”,  is accompanied and almost completely supported on the stairs by one or two long- standing students who seem to believe completely in their utility here… and “He is completely in agreement with them.”

The Aikido of “self-defense” stems from the idea of using that which seems to be dangerous and harmful, to disarm the attacker or to put him at our mercy. That is the Aikido of all the experts, ever since Ueshiba Sensei created this Art of Peace which pacifies the attacker because the practice of this Art has already pacified the one he is attacking.

But what inspired the oeuvre of Ueshiba Sensei was something greater still. It can be summed up in this way:  Imitate Nature itself, which simply toys with anyone who would disturb it, and in particular anyone who would trample it in their haste to move too quickly towards their goal… To articulate and illustrate this thesis, [O’Sensei] used in particular to  exercise his skills on attacks that an uke would launch “all-out”. At this level, his teaching was elevated far above the Aikido of “self-defence”.  It became a moral exposé and a penetrating critique of our way of life founded on more and more speed in the service of a desire to seize, to have, and to strike.

So that every time he motioned a student to attack, it was a new Aesop’s fable –  or maybe one by the Frenchman, La Fontaine – which he then transmuted into gestures on the theme of the moment.  But, just as when we read those moralizing poets, we were far more absorbed in the astonishing variation and in the immediate and obvious, than in the deeper lesson. But it is the deeper meaning of these infinite variations that we have to tease out:  and here it is, as it appears to me:  “Nature will trip you up in the direction you are weakest,  the one you are least aware of,  because you have no time to think of it in your hurry to grab quickly or strike hard.  These lessons of human morality, [O’Sensei] would bestow on us smiling, and even laughing openly.  So let us remember this:  as ethics,  or as an art of self-defence, Aikido is never dramatic. Let us never forget that. This, the masterpiece of Ueshiba O’Sensei is peaceful and happy, and in his every gesture the old Sage would tell us that the more profound truth, the one that lies beneath the ephemeral, is happy and benevolent.

– – – Dr. Pierre Warcollier in the Revue Aiki-Do,  in the series Les Cahiers du Budo, 1965,  cited in  Les arts martiaux interiorisés ou l’Aikido de la sagesse, by J-D. Cauhépé and A. Kuang pp. 36-40

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