On performing Embu…

 – – – by Kimbal Anderson Sensei

Sometimes – and we just did this – I ask you to come participate in an embu. And there’s a lot of.. well…  not a lot of people know what it means…even Japanese: the modern Japanese don’t hear the word much. But what traditionally was done was a formal kind of presentation of your art. That could be tea ceremony, that could be whatever, … in our case – you know – aiki.

Well the difference between that and what happens now is that it was given as an offering. So in some cases you were doing it as an offering to the local deities: the village shinto deities, or maybe a big temple, or to someone important like the daimyo or even the emperor…

But there’s a real difference between “we’re going to do a demonstration, a bit of salesmanship and theatre” and an embu – they’re not the same thing at all – and that quality might get lost in America. Because our attempt to be…  you know, surface egalitarianism has resulted in the loss of some really powerful potentialities that people have, because in fact, any person can become  – even if momentarily – empowered by the environment, or in this case the kami you’re having come down to look at this thing you’re doing.

In many forms of embu, in many forms of ko-ryu, in karate, say the teacher takes the role of  uke: so they’re the one receiving what the student’s doing. And then it usually ends with “this is the final move” – which would usually be the end of the fight.

But in aiki, the concept is that we purify the world by training. You’ve probably realized that when you train, you feel changed: and you can come in grumpy, or whatever, and you leave feeling exhilarated. We have some long, long training, and instead of becoming exhausted, you tap into this good thing in you, right?  Like:  last night  by the end of training, everyone was finally relaxed enough to train! So the idea of embu for me is the idea of a sacred activity. O’Sensei would do like misogi-no-jo waza: he was purifying the dojo, and attracting the attention of all the supporting environmental energies. But it requires a different kind of concentration when you do it.

Peter-san got me an opportunity to do embu for the victims of the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake 1)… and I remember when I was considering doing it: it’s such an extraordinary thing that happened: the world got turned upside down so that earth became sky, water is over the earth… so it’s de-harmonized from its normal state. And so restoring it to harmony has to be at the heart of the embu. In ancient times, you would do certain kinds of movement, offer food, all kinds of things in order to get the the attention of Nature in order to restore harmony. And  sometimes, well, it’s like a catalyst:  you have to give a drop of something and it changes the formula so that energy will be restored: in this case, the spirits of the people who were killed – just eating their lunch – – – you were just driving down the road and suddenly a tidal wave took you out into the middle of the ocean…

So I had to think about establishing a connection to that phenomenon before I did a sword-embu.

And so I have this piece of driftwood… it’s an old plank from probably a pier or some old building. It’s very old: it’s been tossed around the ocean so it’s all soft. I picked it up on the beach and brought it home and I’ve had it thirty years probably. So I got that and a sambo – an offering tray, a formal tray – and then I put a little bowl of water, which is the element which we needed to calm, and a flower for the people that… you know…

So what you’re doing is usually:

  • recognising the situation
  • producing the correct connection to Great Nature
  • and then performing that which you’ve been transmitted…

So, now, the lineage of a martial art…  any of you, because you’ve been exposed to it, could spontaneously combust with its knowledge or even just for a moment have the understanding  flow effortlessly through you.

So the millions of the repetition of the kata exist within the actual lineage of the art and you practise to create a body that can receive this level of movement. This is the go-den idea that it’s not so much that you need to learn the kata:  you need to get everything out of the way so the kata can move through you. And so the kind of concentration, at least that I attempt to locate each time, is the zanshin mind. Every motion has a sense of total consciousness to it. There’s no sense of “product, ” or that you’re doing it to impress. You’re not doing it for the enjoyment of the audience  – in the sense of clapping and laughing and all that – but so that their spirit enjoys it:  the calmest, deepest part of the them sees the art and absorbs it.

Now, obviously, in feudal times you didn’t show off the inner secrets of some srt you had to a whole group of locals, because you did not want to give away the surprises in case you had to fight. So it was generally done somewhere with a fairly secluded feel to it. I always feel that O’Sensei – the films of O’Sensei – are not showing much. They’re interesting, and you can learn a bunch, but they are not showing the inner aiki.

Because he had a really strong thing about not just letting anybody study it. First you had to have letters, you couldn’t be a criminal… all kinds of stipulations… With good reason, I think.

That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want the microphone at this last embu we just did, for Japan Day 2015.

I didn’t want it to become a show.

I said, ” we want to present the energy of what we do in the happy spirit in which we do it.” But also that there’s a real sense of seriousness to it.

You see it in great pianists:  they sit down… they’re in maybe a hall that’s well known, and the energy of a thousand predecessors is there, and… well they’re just there. And they generally are very simply attired: it’s not Liberace, right?

They sit down. There’s a pause… a deep pause, like a breath, a collective deep breath…

And then they do that thing.

And so playing a very well-known, deep classical piece is embu. You’re presenting that energy.

And so in popular culture what we tend to do is we feel like we need to throw our personality into things. And so all of a sudden you have someone riffing off of Beethoven, or something. Well,  it’s not embu. It shifts into something else: a personal display of skill.

It’s not bad.

But if I say we’re going to go to Japan Day and do this embu, it’s to let the living spirit of our art be seen. And that’s the important part. And we do it from a place of “it’s not an advertisement, it’s not entertainment… it’s meant to simply exhibit that energy as purely as we can.”  In that place… with a beginning and an end… as an offering to consciousness.

And I think that when I invite you to come, it’s very much what ancient, classical theatre was… you all did wonderfully, by the way… because it’s a bit interesting to be simply put in the middle of it… right there in the middle of it… You know, I don’t prepare for an embu. Usually they were never prepared for: that would be considered contrivance, and whatever the spirit was that needed to be expressed that day, you’d be getting in the way. So, well yes: I brought jo‘s. I brought a sword… I wanted to have all the equipment available for whatever needed to happen in the moment – but no specific plan.

And the thing is, for you participants, there’s something that happens: you create a space – you know we talk about position, location, time and amount: well, we created all four of those things, consciously, with our embu.  It creates a field of consciousness: very like ancient theatre… a field of consciousness… It’s like a perfect cup to hold the thousands of years of training of your system, and then you’re saying  “here it is.”

In the case of sacred things that were done for the local energy-flow, the local spirit-energy…at least in Japan there was a feeling that there was an aspect of Great Nature that had a sort of a personification. I don’t think they thought, like the ancient Greeks, that Zeus walked around in a human form, but there was an aspect that could be present and could be an audience, could be attending to something. And so usually the form is very much:

  • attract the kami
  • make offering
  • show gratitude for what you’ve absorbed…

And you realize that it is not something you learn or master, but something that flows through you and refines you  – makes you a worthy channel for that kind of flow and energy and whatever.. It benefits you by transformation. In some cases, doing embu, you can get this feeling of almost super-gratitude that you’ve made contact with something – and that you can exhibit it in public, or even to a small group.

So in some embu, the teacher says to the students:  “You do 5 minutes. You do 5 minutes. You do 5 minutes. You do 5 minutes….”  And I would do that. Because I’m sure that you can let go and let whatever happens happen… flow through you… it doesn’t have to be a presentation of your skill at all – it’s just freedom to let it happen to you. And something will come to you. And that I think is good for the practitioner to realize that it will come to you, and that the Universe is right there.

A lot of people have a difficulty in feeling that they can connect with the Universe and receive wisdom: that it only happens sometimes, that it’s very special, that you have to walk on your knees to Jerusalem or something… whereas for us, we just touch a blade of grass. Now, getting yourself to where you’ll let it happen: that’s another show… but that’s what we  do with aiki: we purify. There’s a misogi quality.

What I remember about that evening of doing the sword-drawing for the earthquake and the tsunami was a sense that I was not performing anything.  I was doing what has been built in over years and years of practice, but I was doing it to call the lost spirits out of that moment, to re-establish a sense of connection to things, and also to calm the earth: to get the water where it belongs and the sky where it belongs and the earth where it belongs, without force…like Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto: to get the order re-established through this special dance and singing, rather than by forcing…

You know, the Western metaphysical image is of some sort of Gandalf-ian “I’m more powerful than nature and I will subjugate it!” Well the other image would be that Nature loves you, and because you can love  i t ,  you make this channel of energy between your states.

I did read once about a Hula that fell into disuse and was being re-performed… you have to know: there are several traditions: there’s an embu kind of Hula and there’s a party kind of Hula… And there’s just a little story about a martial arts guy who was there, and he’s watching this thing, and there’s evidently a couple of very famous people there. And he’s looking at them, and thinking: “oh, they’re too old to be doing this,” and he thinks that they’re just there in the audience because they’re the ancestors of it…

And it was raining. and this little old lady comes up to him, and was smiling… and he said  “Oh man, it’s going to be raining”… and she just smiled. And she sang this song  [clapping]  and did this little Hula thing, singing this beautiful song.  He could have no idea what she was singing because it was ancient Hawaaian. He said suddenly the sun came out, rainbows appeared, and they went ahead and did the Hula. And he didn’t realize till later that she was the Grand Master-Mother of all Hula-dancers. But she was just like this little, unassuming…  but in her case: she had no fear about it:  so was just:  “well this is  a b o u t nature…”

And I think about Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto [clapping] stomping her feet, bringing the sun out, stomping the darkeness. All the other gods begin to clap, and laugh, and the sun itself gets so curious about “Why is everyone happy when my august presence is not there”… and the sun came out and…

…the whole story of aiki revolves around this.  O’Sensei’s choice of metaphor is very much what he grew up with.

So when you do embu, you are the messenger, right?  And so in that effort, when I train you, I am looking at getting one-pointed concentration – so you can hold your mind on the subject of what you’re doing – and restoration – so when your mind, which is restless by nature – it has kannagara:  it flows and it’s restless by nature – to see the cycle of it and to restore it to calmness. See the cycle of it, restore it to calmness.

Do not try to subdue Great Nature. Learn its form. Learn to ride on its waves. It’s the wind-horse,  the magic horse. So our training’s mostly about that. You must stop denigrating yourself. You can’t put yourself down, in this case: it’s one more restless wave, right? And so as you mature in your training, you bring yourself back to this calm place without any sense of failure. Because you know the calm place – you haven’t failed –  and you may discover your own rhythm:  your own kannagara rhythm… maybe you go like a set of ocean-waves hitting the coast. You can count them, right? Three soft, two big, and… who-hooo! And you discover that your own nature’s like that. That you’re not in any way separate or different from Nature itself. But you have maybe never observed your own nature, because people have always been interrupting you…

… you know: you’re trying to deepen your connection to yourself and Great Nature, and you get interrupted: the tyranny of the urgent: “What are you doing?” “Why are you doing that?” “If you just do this it’ll be better…”  They don’t know. Only you are going to know.

So embu can be just this moment where the fruit of  your practice is offered to the Universe.

Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.

1)  The Boise edition of Shinsai: Theaters for Japan, March 2012

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