Out of the Dojo but Still in the Dojo
In the past twenty years I have been to many places in the world that have been considered dangerous. I did not go to these places because there was alleged danger; I went because there were people in these places that needed support.
This past summer I visited Illigan City on Mindanao Island in the Philippines for the first time in two years; one time in June, followed by a visit in July.
In 2007, I first visited Mindanao in cooperation with a medical mission executed by the US military in remote areas of Mindanao. I met many local people on this mission and this direct communication resulted four years later in the completion of the AHAN Mindanao Learning Center in Illigan City, Mindanao in 2011.
The AHAN Mindanao Learning Center is coordinated by Ava Yancha Sensei who received her training at Nippon Kan General Headquarters in Denver. Ava’s father was a respected leader in this area during his lifetime; known by the local people for his leadership, establishing a hospital and bringing the Boy Scouts to Illigan.
Mindanao has been plagued with tension, unrest and violence between small Islamic armed activist groups, (reportedly linked to the international terrorist organization, Abu Sayyaf) and small underground Christian armed activist groups for many years. Because of her family legacy, Ava is in a unique position to work for peace for all of citizens of Mindanao, especially in the Illigan area. Ava has a special relationship with many leaders including leaders from both of these activist groups. The AHAN Mindanao Learning Center has become an important neutral haven for all sides to come together.
On one of my many visits to the AHAN Mindanao Learning Center, I heard a story about a Muslim neighbor who had been harassing Ava and her students when the center was first built. A Muslim student of the AHAN Mindanao Learning Center went to a leader of one of the small Islamic armed activist groups in the area and told him of the of the threats against the AHAN Mindanao Learning Center and the good things that were happening at the center. The leader went to visit the boisterous neighbor and hinted gently, “You have a very nice house here, I like you.” Words of this nature, coming from an activist group leader are meant as a warning in the Philippines. The neighbor took the warning to heart and never bothered Ava or the AHAN Mindanao Learning Center again.
People who live in peaceful areas might not know what it is like to live in a world where people with money are constant targets for kidnapping and where veiled warnings from small armed activist group leaders can have serious, even deadly consequences behind them. This is life in Mindanao and I go there not because it can be dangerous, but because I now have friends there that are living and working for peace.
The small Islamic armed activist groups in the area are not the only groups capable of violent retribution. There are also small Christian armed underground groups that I have heard are called “pig hunters”. These small groups hunt for bounty, usually as snipers, attacking small groups of Islamic activists from far distances, sometimes 500 to 600 meters away.
I heard firsthand about a young Muslim female activist that lived in the nearby town of Marawi. She had scars on her back and her stomach from two gunshot wounds she received while riding in a car with her brothers. She had lost one of her kidneys, but miraculously she had lived. These wounds she believed she had received from Christian hard-line underground counter-attack snipers and she was still waiting for the opportunity to have one of the bullets from her body removed. It is difficult to really know who wounded this young lady as even among the small Islamic armed activist groups there is in-fighting.
I met him again this summer. He had just been promoted to a higher position as a commander of one of the small Islamic armed activist groups in Mindanao and he was gearing up for a major campaign.
This long history of fighting has resulted in a deep mistrust and hatred on both sides. In Mindanao, Muslims and Christians both carry with them many reasons to mistrust. There have been so many victims on both sides, and when victims fall in any conflict, it only propagates more victims. It is a vicious cycle that if not stopped will only escalate. In this kind of environment in Illigan City, the threat of violence is always a possibility.
The AHAN Mindanao Learning Center has become a place in Illigan where all people can come together and share. Under Ava’s leadership it has become a place where both sides are welcome and where negotiation and peace prevail. Both sides I believe take pride in protecting the AHAN Mindanao Learning Center and take a vested interest in its well being.
Basically I believe that deep down all people would prefer to appeal for peace. On the outside however both sides in Mindanao continue to fight. After decades of fighting, politics and economic gain have become woven so deeply into the fabric of the tension between these groups that is it very difficult to rectify.
The AHAN Mindanao Learning Center has not however been impervious to tragedy.
I visited Illigan City this past June to begin the planning of the rebuilding of a community center destroyed by storm for the Badjao tribe of ocean migrant people. Construction began on the new, AHAN New Life Center and work was progressing rapidly with the efforts of an enthusiastic AHAN Mindanao crew of volunteers.
One fateful day in early July, one of our AHAN Mindanao team members was murdered; shot by a contract killer on his motorcycle as he was returning home to his family from the AHAN New Life Center construction site. It was his birthday…
He was a quiet man who attended Aikido practice every day and participated in every AHAN Mindanao project, always with a smile. I knew him for many years and never knew that he had retired from a distinguished military career, serving as a security guard for four generations of Philippines presidents; Presidents Marcos, Akino, Astra and Aroyo.
He never spoke of his military career, spending his time in retirement helping children and advocating for education for young people.
Within a week of his death, the sniper was arrested and sadly, he was Islamic and already wanted for the killing of three other retired military veterans. It is still not known who hired the killer and so far no one will come forward. Everyone is afraid of retaliation.
There is no death penalty in the Philippines so this murderer will go to jail and some day be paroled back out onto the streets. As a side note, the going rate for a contract killing in Mindanao is about $500 USD. For this murder, we heard he received $1000 USD.
In July I went to Mindanao in the Philippines to attend the opening of the New Life Center for the Badjao tribe. What made this trip a very different experience was that I also went to attend a funeral.
When the Islamic armed activist commander I spoke of earlier heard what had happened to our AHAN Mindanao member he became very upset. He came personally to the AHAN Mindanao Learning Center in Illigan City armed with a 45. Animated with anger, he spoke, “A Muslim who would do something like this I will kill.” I respect his straight spirit, but the reality of retribution in Mindanao is extreme. In a very different world, he could be a very strong leader.
I have told this story to friends here in the United States and the usual response is, “How can you go to such a dangerous area”. My answer has been, “When I go to countries that might be dangerous I always know there is a possibility that something could happen. There is a risk, and I take every precaution and stay as protected as possible. There are always risks, even in places that are known to be safe. My approach is the same regardless”.
Wherever I travel, I travel with respect. This is my first rule. More important than the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans”, I stand at the same level with the people I meet. I do not judge and I remain completely neutral of opinion on the politics, religion, social structures, tribal issues or other concerns of the people I visit.
I listen…to everyone… from every side. I do not judge or get involved or offer an opinion. This I believe is the reason I am able to return from my travels to Nippon Kan Headquarters. I take the role of listener, even though sometimes I do not even speak the language. I am the outsider and showing respect for others opinions and culture builds relationships.
There is a Japanese saying “Hobo Kore Dojo” which means “The world is my dojo”. This is true of my practice and the world has become my dojo. A dojo is not defined by a building; by its walls, roof and mat for flooring. The dojo is any place where people can connect, exchange ideas and learn something from one another.
Some of my students do not understand this idea and post on Face Book that “Gaku does not practice Aikido any more”. They draw this conclusion because for about six months a year I leave the dojo with a shovel, bags of cement and a hammer instead of a bokken. It is especially difficult for those who draw this conclusion to understand that when I support our AHAN activities, especially in “dangerous” areas, I am in the dojo.
Let me explain.
Some Aikido organizations hold tournaments in their practice. The intrinsic philosophy of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba did not include tournaments for good reason.
In a tournament one side wins and one side loses. The word for tournament in Japanese is Shiai.試合
To write Shiai試合in Japanese Kanji, the term is made of two kanji symbols. The first kanji stands for tournament and the second kanji symbol stands for death. Shiai死合therefore literally means “a fight to the death”.
The teaching of the Founder went well beyond Shiai and in his later years he taught that BUDO is LOVE.「武は愛なり」
This teaching of the Founder was not only practiced by Morihei Ueshiba. A very similar interpretation can be found in the teachings of other great kenjutsuka (sword masters).
During the Edo period, 1603-1868, the Shogun Tokugawa’s kenjutsu shihan (swordsmanship top instructor) was Yagyu Shinkage, Ryu style. Munenori Yagyu created Muto Dori which is the expression of the innermost core of this sword master’s techniques.
Before the great swordsman Yagyu died he left a message for his family. He told them, “I never once used the sword displayed before you on the altar and this philosophy must continue through this family”.
The Founder Ueshiba’s revelations were very similar. During the Founders last years in Iwama, he had on display in the shrine room a sword. On the altar, the Founder had a tachi or largesword on display that was sheathed in a plain wooden sword case called shirazaya. The case was sealed where it would open to draw the sword with thin piece of white paper wrapped and stamped to prove that the seal was never broken. The display symbolized that the Founder was already “Beyond the use of the sword”.
Some Aikido instructors of today completely misunderstand the meaning of Muto Dori, thinking it is the “catching of a sword with bare hands”. This is at the same time amusing and disrespectful to the true masters of Kendo and Iaido. Aikido instructors that practice this interpretation do not understand the original meaning of the words Muto Dori.
Muto Dori is not a technique for catching and taking a sword with open hands. Muto Dori means to end a fight without drawing your weapon; to keep your sword in its sheath. It means to use your sword for daily practice, to be diligent, skilled and ready, but to never draw your sword. It means ultimately to resolve conflict without violence.
Muto Dori is not a physical performance. It is a realization and the knowing of a philosophy that comes from long practice and experience… Fully realizing Muto Dori does not come only from practice within the walls of a dojo, but from knowing how it is applied to the outside world. Those who have reached the level of resolution to be ready to lose their lives in a fight and fight to win without fighting are practicing true Muto Dori.
A martial artist who stays only within the confines of the dojo cannot become a true martial artist. At some point one must step outside of the dojo to truly understand, standing without a keiko gi,bokken or jo; even leaving students and the title of “Sensei” behind as well.
It is now my challenge and part of my own practice to stand alone at times in the world to understand the true meaning of Muto Dori.
I began my practice of Aikido 50 years ago and moved to the United States 39 years ago. My dojo in Denver has always been independent and I have never been supported by any organization.
Today I have reached a level in my life which I credit to the hardships I experienced in Denver. I give credit to what I learned during my early days when I was poor, hungry and my efforts were deterred by some local Japanese Martial Art leaders with questionable ethics.
I have slept under bridges and survived by eating grasses growing along a creek bed. Not too many people know that about me but these experiences have also been part of my journey.
All of these experiences have served as fertilizer and made me grow stronger. The experience of my own personal struggles has been my source for the wisdom and understanding needed to work through AHAN in parts of the world most plagued by strife and hardship.
For the last 22 years, I have been feeding the homeless and those in need in Denver and for the last decade I have reached out to help others in several countries around the world. I do this because I have lived through many of their same experiences and understand what they are going through.
For me, the most difficult experiences I have had throughout my life have been the best shugyo(practice). All that I have learned by coming to the US and dedicating myself to the practice of Aikido has become AHAN. For my own shugyo in Aikido, AHAN is the final chapters of my practice.
We as martial artists all someday will have to leave the dojo. It is not by choice, it is part of life. We all get old or sick or life takes a serious turn in a different direction. I too must prepare for that time.
It is not necessarily valuable for a martial artist to stay in the dojo until they fall over from old age. A young airplane pilot learns how to take off and fly very great distances at top speeds. An experienced pilot knows how to slow into a graceful landing. Samurai in the movies go out in a blaze of glory, but this is not true for the true martial artist. Part of devoting my life to Aikido means to understand the grace of my closing chapters.
In Bangladesh I have seen children without arms or legs left outside by siblings begging for money. In India I have seen people step over naked, crying, abandoned babies left lying on the street on their way to work. In Myanmar I have seen the bodies of people slaughtered viscously in religious wars. In the Philippines I have seen the children searching for food in piles of garbage in the most miserable of conditions. I witnessed all of this as I traveled as Gaku Homma Sensei, Aikido Instructor, and I did not have the power to change any of these tragic circumstances.
At first after returning to Denver after experiencing such horrific realities, I became depressed. The depression worsened as I thought deeply about the human tragedies I had seen in the world. I am the owner of a Japanese Country Foods Restaurant in Denver and watching happy customers in my Denver restaurant enjoying their meals and drinks with friends was such a different experience than what I had seen in the world that it was hard for me to reconcile the two experiences.
The depression I felt reminded me of my early days in the United States; days that were also very difficult and painful. I finally reached a bottom of this depression, and from the very depths of this depression arose a strong motivation, a motivation to try to make a difference where I might be able.
A power grew from the bottom of all of those painful experiences, the power of Muto; the power of being freed from any attachment to personal gain or fear over outcome or my own personal future. Carried by this motivation I began using all of my resources and energy to build orphanages and learning centers in these places that had affected me so deeply.
I am not burdened with concern or fear, nor am I thinking of reward. I do not seek anything for myself. I do not pose any threat because I come with an open hand. I come without opinion on local politics, tribal conflicts or religion. Those that I meet in faraway lands know this; they know that I come open with empty hands and they do not attack.
This is my realization of Muto Dori and it gives me the power to build for others. This was the teaching that was passed to the uchideshi by the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. The Founder taught that “Budo is Love”. I am just following his teaching and carrying out his mission. If then, something were to happen to me, if I were to die in one of these forsaken places where AHAN is at work for others, then I would die content because I am not running away but moving forward on this mission of the Founder. I am happy with this.
In June of 2013, an AHAN dormitory for 30 children was completed in Sittwe, Myanmar, an area torn by tribal and religious fighting. In July 2013, in Illigan City, Mindanao, Philippines the New Life Center for the Badjao tribe was completed. This center makes the 9th AHAN orphanage or learning center that are now functional.
I think about my life, that I spend half of my time flying all over the world. I am very aware of all of the people who have supported my efforts; the people who continue to support me at Nippon Kan Headquarters.
In my early days in the United States it felt at times like I was drowning in a river and no one was there to throw me a line. It seemed ironic to me that after I struggled and crawled onto the banks by myself that some of the same people who would not throw me a line, were there wanting to give me an award…
Now I appreciate all of the experiences I have had and I keep going, thinking about what I can and will do next. I move forward with appreciation; my feelings are completely different.
Kashari- Fukashari “Out of the dojo but still in the dojo”. Everything I do is part of my practice and part of the dojo; not one step out of the dojo do I take.
I hope that my students, especially my younger students can understand that Sensei is still in the dojo. With the spirit of Muto, I jump into the reality of our world community without titles or guise. Every step and every moment has purpose and every lesson I learn I use to teach inside the dojo. This is “Engaged Budoism” that I practice and this is my mission. I hope my students will be able to understand.
Nippon Kan AHAN Founder
Nippon Kan General Headquarters Kancho