Uchi-Deshi Life: Discovering the True Students and Masters


This is a part VI 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.

A Disciple of “Uchi-deshi No More”

Stories of living with masters can be found in all matter of religions, philosophies, arts, sciences, and businesses. If there is doubt, study remedies this doubt, and this too requires study. In budo, what is studied is the very phenomena of mastery; behaviors, emotions, cognition, perception, social interaction etc. This is a way of illuminated wisdom; tada-ima, ichi-go ichi-eh. It has been said that “when the student is ready, the master appears,” and I’d challenge students to really investigate what readiness really means, what appearance really means; what that “comma” means. The student is not me, the student is not you, the student is not we, the student is not they; the student is perception, the student is kikubari, the student is sincerity, the students are these very senses, the students are these very hands. The master is wisdom, the master is skill, the master is study, the master is joy, the master is love, the master is compassion, the master is equanimity; all things the phenomena of “Sensei” professes, and the phenomena of “Shihan” models since the dawn of keiko.

For the first decade I knew Sensei, he was very public in stating, “uchi-deshi, no more.” Today, Sensei says it openly, and proudly, “you are my uchi-deshi; connection to O’Sensei.” He says, “too much humble, nobody respects you. Must be proud, make good aikido life.” These are difficult words to translate. When Sensei talks, it is the concept that is transmitted mind to mind, and when Sensei moves, it is the concept that is transmitted body to body. The entire being of Saotome Sensei, is as the women in May planting rice in the spring to prepare for a bountiful harvest. Sensei’s name is also a teaching, even the characters for “sensei” are also a teacher. As Basho once wrote, “do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

Mitsugi Saotome Shihan
Redlands Aikikai, California, USA
(Roy Æ Hodges, 2018)

Missing Times: The Noble Search, Part V

Late while living in D.C., I had decided to work at the Big Bad Woof with Pennye Jones-Napier (a dojo member) and her present wife, Julie Paez. Things changed quite rapidly working with them. These two women helped in many ways. Past artistic behavior, through drawing, fabrics, and more came alive here. Clothing started changing to accommodate for this work life. Practice at the dojo was diminishing as work and a distance relationship with the tulku from San Antonio was being developed. While working with the two ladies, software had been built to build a mobile inventory management system based on IP developed prior. It came together quickly.

Shortly thereafter, when evaluating vendors for a new point of sale system, the owner of the vendor asked to see this software, and right on the call in front of Pennye and Julie, he offered to buy the software in return for equity, deferred compensation, and a decent six figure salary. He invited me to join his business. He was based out of Laguna Beach, California. It was yet another difficult life choice that would walk from the two women that really helped “me” come out, and the career that was forming. They blessed it knowing that the chance would not arise again, and I started working with Mike and his small garage-team on trying to make a difference with Main Street by adopting technology that Wall Street was using much to Main Street’s demise.

Entering the Inner Shrine

If an inner shrine of uchi-deshi life is entered directly, this is the spirit of irimi. Without wavering, profound transformation is possible, this is human potential; it is driven as far as sincerity is deep. Through sincerity, without obscuration of self/other, one learns to forge and temper potentiality in relative safety of an inner shrine. Uchi-deshi life is a life of refuge, just as it is for Buddhist monastics, Shinto mountain ascetics, Christian monks, Islamic Sufi, Hindu ascetics, and native warrior-shaman. Conventionally, uchi-deshi need not be warriors, some arrange flowers, some devoutly pray, some tend gardens, some brush calligraphy, some drive vehicles, some sign executive orders, and some draft mission plans. What is present is a deeply profound sense of refuge, that there is a safe place to do the work of not only human maturation, but eventually social maturation, and for a few, universal maturation. If an uchi-deshi is blessed with direct perception of emptiness, which is required for mastery of aiki, the deshi might realize that the entirety of the universe is the refuge, the entirety of the universe is the blade­–inseparable. Emptiness is exactly form, samsara is exactly nirvana. Beyond past, beyond present, beyond future; marubashi–illuminated.

Meeting one of “The Inner Shrine Guardians” of the Track
MotoFit Group, Oregon Raceway Park (ORP)

The Oral Tradition of Katsu Hayabi

The last thing to share before closing, is the role of an oral tradition. It is now realized that an uchi-deshi receives a sensory transmission beyond words that illuminates words. This is the power of kotodama, this is the power of punctuation, the power of rhythm, the power of syncopation, the power of thematic transformation. Over time living with a master, truly deeply living with them, millisecond by millisecond, day by day, one may, if listening empathically, without any sense of identification, without any sense or desire to change the situation, see intentions bridge variable gaps of space and time to expressions; completely unseen before. This is where an uchi-deshi truly enters the inner-shrine, everything before is the outer-shrine. This is hiden, and it is here where gendo shihan gather in the shrine’s accommodations and where the manifest, and hidden, meets the divine. Without this key, words will only discover the shrine’s location, but one will not be able to enter it, and even when entering, one may not be able to see it. When the world needs what is in the shrine, it will shine brilliant. Katsu hayabi is as the vajra, it is as earth to the peak of a temple’s pagoda. It is as a lightning bolt, sharp, and piercing, such is the power of divine punctuation.

An uchi-deshi is a key holder of oral tradition, and with completely common words and expressions, their punctuation, as atemi, ride waves of sensory impressions where the warrior heart of love works in the world with what is given, beyond complaint, enjoining sagely compassion. An uchi-deshi moves through life, dynamic, and truly stands on a floating bridge uniting. O’Sensei shared with Saotome Sensei, “irimi-nage, ten years; ikkyo, whole life.” This is the spirit of ikkyo, and the spirit in which this text was written. I hope that you too can find this spirit, for the things in this article are things the world needs joy’s, love’s, compassion’s, and equanimity’s help with. To discover a peaceful living amongst limitless beings in this world, and the next.

Keiko: Atemi I

Speed & Alignment. In the United States Army, the fighter who was training with us and who had become quite a good friend, shared striking tips and helped develop impact alignments that had been passed through his family and his own teachers. He was Korean American, and struck very hard. This was a good foundation for bare handed precision strikes.

Fluid Momentum. Another practice that paired with this at the time was iron palm, because it had been read briefly that the “iron palm slap” had been validated scientifically, at the time, as the strongest in foot pounds of force per square inch. This is when I started slapping and “tapping” stumps, sand, ball bearing sacks, and eventually, steel plates (the Army had lots of heavy steel, and depleted uranium armor).

Compression Wave. If I ever was in a waiting moment, I used to sit and drop the palms on concrete and work with reverberations. Sensei of course would catch this on occasion, and I know when Sensei is interested in something because the eyes “brake”. That changed one evening when he shared with Mike and I, a practice he was excited to share. He described placing an hanging egg in a little string net behind a hanging pillow. The practice was to punch the pillow fast enough to break the egg, but not moving the pillow or the egg. Immediately when he had described this, things changed in the subsequent keiko sessions with bare hand, aiki-ken, and aiki-jo. Unannounced, the practice was executed at my mother’s house, in Virginia, and is helpful.

Reverberation Ratchet. The next big help in striking came from Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, and a particular individual and his close personal students. These were the hardest hitters I had ever met, besides a few others later. It is an evolution on iron palm and what Sensei had shared, and the lesson had been contained in the discovery of Contrapposto as illuminated by John Willson. Now, it goes without saying, the warning, “if you don’t practice this every day, it will make your taijutsu worse,” John said emphatically, and so did his practical deshi, koinu (a close friend and confidant of many years). This warning is true, as examples were provided, so I practiced it daily after everyone left the dojo, and committed to only practicing it on the mat when Sensei was teaching deep stances reminiscent of “ship fighting”. It now only comes out if “kiba” comes out, otherwise it “sleeps in the heavens”.

There are many more principles, and this is a good start. Nature provides the best teacher for studying atemi. Earthquakes may be studied for practitioners well versed in the aforementioned.

Refuge for the Benefit of the World

An uchi-deshi life is critical for the transmission of aiki, take musu aiki, shobu aiki, and future evolutions of aiki. Sincerity, timing, distance, principles, perception, insight, joy, love, compassion, equanimity, wisdom; these are just a few phenomenon that an uchi-deshi studies from beginner to mastery, setting aside force or manipulation. This is no different than a student of psychology or medicine pursuing a Ph.D. in the refuge of a university, or a soldier pursuing warriorship in the refuge of basic and advanced training. For a budo uchi-deshi, true to the meaning of budo, the refuge is in the presence of one who has went before, a guru, a master, for the body, speech, and mind is a living shrine. This is a path where direct perception of emptiness is victorious over interruptions of concepts of self, and when that self is defeated by insight, the friends of joy, love, compassion, and equanimity can be recognized and simultaneously live in harmony without interruption, just as the four spirits, and do its work in the world selflessly, as a warrior, as samurai. Masagatsu agatsu is exactly the whole of uchi-deshi life and it truly is the first step of take musu aiki which gives birth to shobu aiki, and beyond. As for the Katsu Hayabi, that’s transmitted directly, mind to mind. It truly is a divine gift of kami, for the benefit of limitless beings. 

And what is an uchi-deshi? It’s beyond me, it’s beyond you, it’s beyond we, it’s beyond they. The true uchi-deshi is this very mind, this very body, and this very spirit. The uchi-deshi is that which unites heaven and earth, life itself, between the thin crust of this planet and the vast space above; it is worthy of divine love and compassion. As Sensei has said, “if I can do, you can do.” That’s the written transmission, and now for the courageous, what remains is the physical-oral tradition, mind to mind, for the benefit of limitless beings and the care of limitless planets, called “home”.

This is the loft over the mat where I had lived.
Aikido Shobukan Dojo, Washington D.C., U.S.A