Uchi-Deshi Life: The Role of an Uchi-Deshi


This is a part IV 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. There is a little MDL embedded.

The Role of an Uchi-Deshi

The role of an uchi-deshi is undefined, uncertain, and beyond conventional understanding. This may be uncomfortable, and it is not without reason. While there have been many writings about experiences and expectations of uchi-deshi, I’d like to offer a different approach, and focus on core abilities developed through a close relationship with a being that has truly realized emptiness. Morihei Ueshiba, Mitsugi Saotome (Sensei), and now it is confirmed…. realization of emptiness is truly a prerequisite for mastery of aiki. Carl Rogers, a renowned psychologist once wrote, “empathic listening provided one of the least clouded windows into the workings of the human psyche, in all its complex mystery.” An ability to listen empathically is the primordial disciple’s skill. This is yin, it is emptiness. Just as ikkyo is the first principle, mu (emptiness) is the first principle’s context, and it is here beyond mu that an uchi-deshi commits to keiko without trying, changing, and forcing natural behaviors.

Mitsugi Saotome teaches entering.
Left to Right: Robert Deppe, Mike Rosario, Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, and Cliff Judge
(Roy Æ Hodges, 2005)

An uchi-deshi places all efforts in studying more than technique, more than strength, an uchi-deshi studies straight to the heart of keiko itself, straight to an intimate understanding of the ways of the ancients and the many future beings to come, and it is through keiko that bu is realized, where aiki is born. This requires study without interrupting what is studied. Just as a doctor cannot ask a mother to stop mid-delivery to study birth, an electronic technician cannot stop a rocket in flight to repair it, so too a warrior cannot stop the battlefield to fix a strategy. True budo is beyond a turn-based strategy game­—it is visceral, it is organic, it is the world in which limitless beings live. While the dojo is a place to practice the way, an uchi-deshi chops the proverbial wood, and carries the proverbial water.

Keiko: In Buddhist canon, there is a concept of śrāvaka. This crudely is translated as “hearer”; a being that immediately puts what is heard into practice, beyond habituating ritual. These beings are asymptotic in that words, expressions, and art truly are as street signs pointing to phenomena. Sometimes the lag is so short, that it may not be clear that the shravaka has already considered heard, placed, perceived, studied, changed. The hearing changes decades of perspectives (passed) and behaviors (to come). Only śrāvaka can recognize śrāvaka. The śrāvaka is exactly a tantra-ka; these are inseparable aspects of tranquility exactly as insight. The gap from hearing to change for śrāvaka approaches zero speed – instantaneous insight accompanies limitless tranquility. Instantaneous tranquility accompanies limitless insight. It is a mistake to think “in these” or “of these”. Words are shredded by wisdom; limitless entry is exactly limitless emptiness.

“Where is a beginner to begin?” is asked. The novice treads water only to discover begin, only to discover tread. The śrāvaka is exactly budoka, where budoka arrange hearing and production of sounds, verbal intimation, for benefit of limitless beings, pointing through sound. The same in sight, taste, touch, smell, mentality. Self-view no longer interrupts, the entropy cost of maintaining self-view gives way to joy; other-view no longer interrupts, the entropy cost of maintaining other-view gives way to love. We-view no longer interrupts, the entropy cost of maintaining we-view gives way to compassion, they-view no longer interrupts, the entropy cost of maintaining they-view gives way to equanimity. Just seeing the fact of “enduring” (the original etymology of “suffer” when Buddhist teachings reached European languages) helps liberate life [ from [ high entropy maintenance of ] fixed views ]. This is bodhicitta, this is aiki wisdom, this is nigi-mitama.


It is a firm conviction that O-Sensei and Sensei are both truly deeply realized human beings, and while initially this had been understood by faith, this has become understood more directly. Each deshi is going to come with different habits and potentials, and these habits and potentials will vary with contexts. The Japanese language is highly contextual and implicit, whereas English language is less contextual and explicit, and I feel that culturally, the Japanese need for contextual awareness is perfect for a budo practitioner to learn how to see. One need not speak Japanese to learn this ability, one can practice poetry. This contextual awareness is important in learning how to truly and deeply see, listen, taste, smell, touch, and increase awareness of the workings of mind. Dedication is important, and dedication to context, and the teachers of compassion and love is profoundly necessary. If an uchi-deshi is dedicated to these qualities, there will be little trouble, yet if an uchi-deshi is dedicated to selfish behavior, dedicated to preferred others, or dedicated preferences of this or that group, there will be tremendous trouble.

Mitsugi Saotome Shihan – 30th Anniversary Series – Michi III (2006)
(Roy Æ Hodges, Photography)

Missing Times: The Noble Search
Part III

A fast friend from New York City who I had been introduced on a few occasions invited me to a comic-con, as an animal, and it was suitable. Fast forward to today having attended furry conventions, there is a phenomenon of evolution. Living in a dojo, to visiting gay cultural environments touched by the AIDS crisis, to working with ABHPM in support of a mission to realize death and dying as part of western medicine was a blessing. Comic-cons where identities are mutable; furry-cons where identities mesh with zoomorphic tendencies, are familiar. These facilitate a wonderful iconoclastic presentation alongside native traditions, martial, as well as spiritual traditions. I cannot think of any native culture finding equilibrium with an environment, that also did not experiment with and adopt these.

I had never been satisfied with limitless offerings of identity nor the mechanics of identity. Peggy Kroder, a key supporter while in Shobukan, once said that others paint on your blank canvas, and I’m also left no longer wondering as to the fact that the blank canvas is perhaps a painting too. What had been painted over to arrive at “blankness” temporary? Observations mutated into questions.

A chief question—what problem did a monastic robe originally solve? Adopting a robe has always been a motive, it has always seemed the right thing to do, yet which one to choose? What is the function that quantizes selection? This is part of the noble search, it is a requisite condition. The robe’s function is exactly related to a protection of environments within which beings live. Blood from a tree related to many cultural fetishes suddenly becomes a reminder to asuras, devas, and brahmas of tolls that technologies, arts, and identities place as yokes, exacting, upon humanities who had reached equilibriums with environments. The thus come (tatha), the gone forth (gatha) is truly no longer part of a hierarchy.1 Hierarchy, class, caste; limitless illusions.

Communal Autonomy

It is important to understand that an uchi-deshi’s skill in private sessions might be revealed slowly, and in public sessions might be hidden. This is reminiscent of stories of bodhisattvas, where people might not even know that a bodhisattva is right in front of them. Perhaps a tengu or enlightened being is right before you, one might not know due to obscurations. Some uchi-deshi hide talents and practices, and others may not, yet I find that uchi-deshi that progress the furthest do a fair share of hiding of skill beyond peers, even those of great renown. Behind closed doors however, or intimately traveling together, one might see or experience these talents and abilities. Many ascetics intentionally refrain from gaining renown to retain independence and autonomy, much like how Japan isolated itself for many years to find its way. I find this need for communal autonomy honorable and dignified. This also can be found in budo and academic life as well. This sense of autonomy is critical for uchi-deshi, and I consider uchi-deshi as highly respectable as doctoral students. Doctoral students have achieved a high level of autonomy in their contributions to the field they work in, an uchi-deshi is no different. I would expect an uchi-deshi to contribute to the welfare of the world’s beings and the environment’s homeostasis. 

Mitsugi Saotome Shihan & Roy Æ Hodges
Co-Collaborative Notes on Annutara Samyok Sambhodhi Principle
(Mitsugi Saotome Shihan & Roy Æ Hodges, 2020)

There is an outer shrine and an inner shrine, and there are outer shrine guardians and inner shrine guardians. The outer shrine guardians are easy to recognize publicly yet amidst an interior of a shrine, inner guardians may defend a shrine in strange ways. A kinship with Buddhist monastics is familiar. Monastics make vows not to display abilities for the purpose of gaining followers, gaining good food, gaining good robes, yet spontaneously manifest abilities as needed to resolve suffering through joy, love, compassion, and equanimity. Their efforts pay homage to these very practices and their merits accumulated are dedicated to the benefit of limitless beings.

The Gift of a Compass

On my first birthday at the dojo, which was always around the time Sensei would return to town for three to four weeks before Aikido Schools of Ueshiba’s Summer Camp, he gave a precious gift that I recall vividly, he came downstairs in the afternoon while the dojo was quiet, and the lights were dim. I had finished practicing aiki-ken with a few students privately and sat in the office tidying a bit. Of course, I stood up quickly when Sensei came downstairs out of the house. Sensei held my shoulder and said, “the whole world giving you a map, so many maps,” and Sensei gestured as if people from all directions are giving me maps, “parents, university, job… but nobody giving you compass.” My heart moved greatly. Sensei smiled, and grinned, “Sensei giving you compass,” and he reached out with his hand to put an imaginary compass in my hand, and I remember closing my hand gently. It is an uchi-deshi’s practice to, as deeply as Zen haunts the forests, “to drill in at every angle,” and that is exactly what I did day after day when observing Sensei, and “myself”.

Mitsugi Saotome Shihan cuts cardboard for Kata-Gami (Roy Æ Hodges, 2020)


1 See “48(8) Things” in Anguttara Nikaya: Book of Tens