Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Five Principles - Looking Deeper" by Aki Fleshler Sensei

Chiba Sensei memorial class held at Multnomah Aikikai on June 6, 2017

Five Principles - Looking Deeper
Aki Fleshler, 6-dan, Shihan
Founder, Technical Director, Multnomah Aikikai
Portland, Oregon
June 5, 2017

[Disclaimer(s): Along with other senior teachers in BNA, I was asked to write a long piece for the community. I’ve never been very shy about this, but now that we are approaching the 2-year anniversary of Chiba Sensei’s passing, it might be thought that I am contributing to some kind of Sensei-worship. So I need to be clear here: Sensei was flesh and blood and mind and spirit, mortal, magnificent, and also on good terms with his own demons. He taught us that we must learn to “swallow the teacher whole and then spit out the poison.” Many of us have done exactly that.  My hope is that I can pass along the medicine which I retained.

Sensei often spoke of his work as a kind of gardening: he spoke of planting seeds deeply into his students, and then releasing them to see what would come of it. He also acknowledged that he was setting impossible goals for himself, but said, “I would rather be a noble failure than not try.”

I would love to have some confidence that any of my own efforts, on the tatami or behind the keyboard, could help some future student, or future teacher. And surely there will be someone who is offended by what follows, or who sneers at my naïveté, or who wonders how that grouchy old guy in the corner survived the training to which we are committed. However, all of that is out of my “span of control”.]

Some 10+ years ago Chiba Sensei presented to us his “Five Principles”. As I recall, he said that O’Sensei has shared “Six Principles”, and that we were to pay attention to that. However, Chiba Sensei was presenting principles based on his own personal experience.

The Principles:
    Liveliness and

In all honesty, this penetrated barely below the skin of my own practice and my own teaching. It seemed so clear that you could look at beginning, intermediate and advanced aikidoka and see little, partial, and finally mature manifestations of these principles. That was all I needed to see, all I need to know. Just keep training. Help students become more lively etc…

My perspective has shifted; deepened, I hope. Before elaborating, I need to share more about the process of training from my perspective.

* * *
Recently I was asked what was unique about Chiba Sensei. The undertone of the question was really, “How could you stand to study with such a person?” Indeed, from the outside, i.e, watching classes and demonstrations live or over video, the younger Chiba Sensei appeared to be brutal, uncaring, and violent. 

Sensei was famously concerned that Aikido would become de-fanged, watered down, lose its martial roots. To the very end of his career he would remind us of O’Sensei’s teaching: that the techniques of Aikido are potentially deadly, and should be practiced with all due seriousness and care.

From the inside, although the physical training itself was indeed quite risky, there was a dimension of relationship and communication, completely invisible from the outside, which was intimate, compassionate, and supportive. I don’t mean simply that we’d go out for beer and talk about life after class, or roll around on his floor listening to 1950s Top 40 (which we did). I’m talking about the crucible of the dojo itself.

The depth and meaning of this is only now becoming clear to me, over 4 decades since my first contact with this remarkable master.

For example, I was always astonished at how every class I took from Sensei was specifically intended for me, for what I needed in my development at that particular moment. Then I realized that everyone, even in a room of 300 people, felt the same! I asked my sempai how he did that… “I asked him the same question. He told me, ‘I walk in the room and stop, and feel everyone present, before taking another step.’”

Initially I accepted this response as a direct answer to my question. Somehow Sensei was able to “get” that I needed to see the relationship between ikkyo and kokyu-ho, or how to take ukemi from kote-gaeshi, while at the same time filling the needs of the other 299 bodies on the tatami.

Another example: Sensei urged us to “Know where your teacher is at all times!”, to “Walk in your teacher’s shadow!”  It seemed to me that this was simply encouragement to pay attention (no small thing), and to maximize the value of your time with your teacher (also important, to be sure).

Another example: Once he took a group of teachers outside to sit on the grass and listen to some stories. He told us that a teacher must have “claws of an eagle and heart of a Buddha” (as I remember it). Initially I thought he was telling us that in order to transmit  Budō, the Way of the Warrior, it was necessary to be ruthless and violent; but without the restraint of compassion and human understanding, we would destroy our students, so who would be there in the end to receive and pass along the teaching?

Likewise Sensei explained that teachers embody the “Bodhisattva principle”: some are satisfied to get to the “other shore”, even after a very long and difficult journey. Then there are those who feel compassion for humanity and go back to bring others across. In doing so, they, the teachers, must suffer through the journey again with their students; one must be willing to bleed all over again, to have one’s heart broken all over again! But in my bottom-line understanding: it’s the other shore that is the objective.

I had also heard — this from Sensei M Nakazono — that the character for Ai () could be read either as Love or as Combat/Battle/War. This seemed really clever to me: a vital encounter between two sides could be either erotic or violent; and perhaps sometimes, in some pathological manner, the distinction might even blur!

Also — again with Nakazono Sensei — after a particularly exhausting and terrifying two-hour session — we sat seiza until our legs were falling off — then he shouted at each one of us in turn demanding to know, “What is the purpose of Aikido”? Finally his answer, “The purpose of Aikido is to become a human being!” It seemed to me that he was saying, “if you can survive this, all the violence will be gone from you, and you can be a good person.”

* * *

After a very long time, it has become clear that my thinking and understanding was completely upside down.   Having survived a lot of extremely challenging life experiences, hearing the lessons of the dojo whispering in my head and my heart, louder than thunder, here where the road has led me:

    The real transmission of Sensei’s very personal embrace of each student in the class of 300 was not at all the techniques which he imparted, but rather the feeling of complete, unreserved connection.

    The real teaching of Know where your teacher is at all times! / Walk in your teacher’s shadow! was to fire up our own ability to connect, at all times, beyond our own personal boundaries, and ultimately to a way of self-denial and self-sacrifice.

    The real teaching of eagle’s claws/Buddha’s heart was that the Way consists of both sides, that the Teacher must transmit both sides, that the Student must absorb and digest and embody both sides.

    The real teaching of the Bodhisattva principle was that the Way is actually embodied in the shared journey of the Teacher and the Student, not in some destination that, once reached, releases you from further effort and sacrifice on your own behalf.

    The real teaching of the two sides of Ai is that Life and Death, Living and Dying, are the same, intimately fused at the root, and that one does not come without the other.

    The real teaching of “To become a Human Being!” is that even in the midst of desperate, risky, frightening combat, one can be conscious and compassionate, at every moment.

These are not abstract teachings. If you embody these teachings, then you embody Sensei, and his teacher, and his teacher before him. This is why we bow to the shomen at the start of class.

* * *

It is very natural that people come to study a “martial art” with a dualistic, mechanistic mindset, with raw physical self-defense as an objective. It is very natural that it would take a lifetime to penetrate beyond the technical to the soul-depth of this remarkable Way.

Recently I had an conversation (a martial encounter?) with a new student, who is ordained clergy. He was somewhat trained in western boxing, Thai kick-boxing, hapkido, and parkour (not considered a martial art, but…). In his training, he embodied the principle of break-or-be-broken, kill-or-be-killed — what Chiba Sensei called “Ai Uchi — mutual striking down”. He could not see or sense the principle of executing techniques with any sensitivity to the uke or moderation to the circumstance. He responded to techniques (hard to call it “took ukemi”) with rigidity and resistance, and, frankly, fear.  I marched him over to a sign on our wall listing Chiba Sensei’s “Five Principals”. “This is what we are all about. This is where we are going,” I said. I presented Sensei’s concept of “Ai Nuchi” — mutual passing through, with full commitment. “I don’t understand,” he responded. “What does any of that have to do with martial arts? what about the bad guy?”  I proposed that this was the path to a compassionate outcome for both him and his attacker, a complete way of life, and that if he really took his faith seriously then this was the only martial path to embrace.

He was not convinced.

* * *

But I did have my own epiphany. For Sensei, and for those of us who strive to embody his art, these are the principles of the Big Aikido.

to be Centered at all times and in every interaction,
to be Connected to all things and all people,
to be Whole in all your movement and all your stillness,
to be Lively in your responsiveness to the ever-changing,
to be Open to all that surrounds you, in every direction of time and space … 

The dojo is a pure laboratory where we can assess and improve our embodiment of these principles in their simplest, purest form.  Sensei railed against a “pleasure-seeking attitude” in our training, a “winning-losing mentality.” As I now understand it, these are deep flaws which block and undermine our acquisition of the “Five Principles”. I believe that training is no more than escapism, and a decadent self-indulgence, if we do not carry that embodiment and its continual improvement beyond the kata, beyond the tatami, beyond the walls of the dojo, and out into our wide crazy life in the wide crazy world.

If nothing else, this is my challenge to myself. I hope to meet with you again on that trackless path.

Aki Fleshler