This is a part II in a series of posts on Uchi-Deshi Life written for a Japanese Publisher as a series of requests for more came rapidly. The first was an “Introduction to Saotome Sensei”, published prior to this one and has been read in fifty countries. Two vignette sections have been added that were not part of the original series, these are in the grey (“Keiko”) and blue (“Missing Time”) and will remain in subsequent series for practitioners wanting more details of physical practices and spiritual challenges, respectively.
Journey to Aikido
I grew up in a small rural area of the United States outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia and spent half of childhood in the forests and the other half in computers and gardening. While in high school, nearly a year before graduating, I had enlisted early in the United States Army. It was about this time, I had come across a quote of Basho, “do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” Little did I know that this quote would be the catalyst assembling a dream that had not yet been foreseen. While in the military, I studied many religious texts, like Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching (1990), which I always kept in the bottom right pant pocket of an Army battle dress uniform (BDU) that I wore. I studied Buddhist Suttas deeply, the Bible casually, Shinto texts curiously, and native lore explorationally. It was the early days of the world wide web, and one day I came across a story of Morihei Ueshiba and had experienced intrigue about his life and writings as he seemed to unite warrior and sage. Serendipity is a continual phenomenon in this life. I discovered that within the military base I had been stationed in Ft. Wainwright, Alaska, a gentleman was teaching aikido.
I called a number listed in a military directory and talked to the instructor whose name is redacted which shall be mentioned as to why shortly. He informed me that it was a children’s class, but that they had a few adults visiting regularly from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of which was a smoke jumper in the United States Army Reserves, Gordon Reid. Gordon’s job was to fly into a forest fire with his friends, jump out of a plane or helicopter, and fight a fire. I remember these people clearly; they became like family. I quickly attended every class I could, supplemented by training in the forests with the instructor. The odd thing about this was, that our instructor applied numerous combinations of atemi during practice, he was extremely fast. Another individual I knew from my unit also joined, he was a strong fighter and worked as a heavy equipment mechanic. The instructor possessed tremendous skill through Gōjū-ryū, and was very unpredictable, a skill he would later use in Special Operations units before we lost contact with each other, hence the reason his name is redacted from this article.
Keiko: Aiki-Ken & Aiki-Jo Familiarization
During this time in Alaska, the instructor asked each student to carry the bokken or jo around daily as much as possible, to get familiar with it, and make it second nature. We did this with school supplies in grade school, books in middle school, 10 kilogram backpacks in high school, to rifles and gear in Basic Training. These rifles never left one’s side, unless it was forgotten, which leads to different administrations of behavioral corrections as influenced by the educational theories of the day. This training is exceptionally transformative, as tactile-spatial awareness of the rifle, its orientation in space, sans touch, is maintained in some kind of sub-process, a kind of “daemon” process.
So, we did just that, some of the children took jo home, some bokken, and I had acquired a Bujin Design jo and bokken (Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei’s company at the time). I used to walk to the shop from the barracks if weather permitted, even to about -23C, as this sometimes felt like a heatwave coming from -37C, while still carrying the jo or bokken. Did it get glances? Of course, yet there was also precedent in the maintenance shop I worked in. One of the unit’s warrant officers who had been assigned to an automotive platoon carried a shillelagh around everywhere, only to set it aside when working. This was surprisingly helpful as nobody questioned the carrying of the weapon save for one beautiful remark, which shall be mentioned later.
The instructor and I, and the fighter and I spent quite a bit of time together training. Stories naturally emerged with sharing of time together. The reason the instructor was teaching aikido was because one day he visited Saotome Sensei teaching in Chicago. He was immediately called by Sensei for ukemi on the first day. He only remembered standing about to attack Sensei, and then remembered opening his eyes on the floor looking at the ceiling. He laughed telling this story, because he said that he tried harder, and the same exact thing happened, he was confused and excited. How could he not remember a thing? After a while, I became interested in traveling to Japan to become an uchi-deshi to live in a dojo to commit to practicing this art further. I shared this intention with the instructor. He shared more of the story about his experience with Saotome Sensei. He told me that after that seminar, he went home and took an entire wall full of trophies from his martial arts competitions, scooped them up, dropped them into a garbage bag, and tossed them into a dumpster. He felt like he knew nothing and decided to practice aikido. His wife was in shock but supported him.
Missing Times: The Noble Search, Part I
It should be noted that during this time of intense study, the reality of a noble search (see Ariyapariyesana Sutta) was realized to be the forefront of spiritual study and practice. Many interests that were deeply personal were explored (sexually, spiritually, verbally, mentally etc.). While these interests at the time conflicted with prevailing social acceptance (i.e., “don’t ask, don’t tell”; the U.S. Department of Defense’s official policy during the 1990’s regarding gays in the military), there was fierce determination to study formless truths moated by permutations of social preferences of forms (prevailing culture and sub-cultures). This required compartmentalization, and a tremendous amount of it. Do not mistake compartmentalization with paranoia, these are two different abilities; a distinction highly valuable for positions of national security. Compartmentalization is also a survival tactic of minorities in many societies where a density of the narrows through which gates of social mobility are modulated by majority reinforcement schedules of memes (i.e., stereotypes) correlated to results (i.e., attribution models, systemic prejudice) thus resulting in picking and choosing (i.e., segregation).
I must confess that I did not, and still do not, ascribe to a belief that talk of these investigations are of benefit (much to the chagrin of some of similar characteristic), because there was maximum faith (now direct perception) that equanimity and insight will be, is, and was the most valuable to discuss along with the requisite renunciation, which is exactly the entirety of bu. However, comma, it might be valuable to share a little insight for those exploring similar aspects of being—occasional weekend escapades during the military, and while living in the dojo, to Boston’s Back Bay Station served as a living testimony to the necessity of what in Five Element Theory (Jarrett, 2001) is called “nourishing destiny” (pp. xix, 41-61). It was here where this body was whisked away in a vehicle by a masterful being, where the neck was collared tightly, the body bound, and then tightly restrained, without hesitation, off to experience deep seated sexual investigations.1 Meditative equipoise and insight had continually been applied directly, skipping mountains of rigid logical reasonings, exchanged instead for climbing mountains of fluid sensory realizations. It should be warned with loud glaring lights, as Basho beseeches, “do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” As is said in the sutta on the Noble Search, “until you yourselves, know.”
The next vignette will be posted in a future post…
We trained as often as we could, the students were very committed, there was very little talking, and the instructor taught us striking, slapping, and all various forms of atemi on top of judo throws. We were invited by police departments in Fairbanks, Alaska to help teach volunteers self-defense. It was here that I traveled to an aikido seminar for the first time, meeting Frank Doran Sensei at Aikido North in Anchorage, Alaska and look fondly on that. Over time the instructor informed me that he had to depart for reassignment to a Special Operations unit. He passed a qualification course, and asked to leave the class in my hands, which was gladly accepted as a sense of duty to the students and children who trained diligently every class. He also felt that I did not need to go to Japan to practice aikido, and referred me to Aikido Shobukan Dojo in Washington D.C., as he felt Saotome Sensei offered the best training for someone like me. I took his advice and took some leave from the Army just before exiting the military to visit the dojo while also meeting friends working in the intelligence community for a career.
I remember seeing the dojo clearly the first day, that day there was a special yudansha seminar, and one of the students (Carol Alstatt) needed to ask permission for me to see the session. After learning that I had traveled all the way from Alaska via three days of Air Mobility Command (AMC) flights, the student gladly brought me in, and I visited nearly every session. I remember being emotionally moved by Sensei’s movements, what he spoke about, and then immediately started studied him, in that order. This is what I was looking for my entire life, and I decided to come back after departing the military, which I did. After the military, I lived temporarily with my parents far south of D.C. until I could find a place. I drove about 107 km to work at about 4 AM, then after work would drive 24 km to the dojo, train for two and a half hours, then drive 100 km back home. I did this ever day of the week, it was crazy. Looking back, I was traveling 230 km a day.
Shobukan dojo in the mid-1990’s was extremely busy. There were rows and rows of yudansha, and when Sensei was in town, arriving one, two, or three weeks before a seminar, he’d regularly teach most weekday evenings, some weekday mornings, and Saturday mornings. Sometimes his wife Patty Saotome would come along later and teach as well. It was amazing; and there were so many people to practice with…
This is a second in a series of articles on uchi-deshi life, stay tuned for more later. For reprints into other languages, please submit a contact request.
1 See the entirety of Ariyapariyesana Sutta, Kukkuravatika Sutta, Karen Horney’s Theory of Neurotic Needs, and limitless matters related to [topological primes] cognitive levels of development, Freud to Kegan.
Jarrett, L.S. (2001). Nourishing Destiny: The Inner Tradition of Chinese Medicine. Stockbridge: Spirit Path Press.
Schiller, D. (1994). The Little Zen Companion. New York: Workman Publishing Company.
Tzu, L. (1990). Shambhala Pocket Classics: Tao Te Ching (J.C.H. Wu, Trans.). Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.
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