Shuhari roughly translates to “first learn, then detach, and finally transcend.”
- shu (守) “protect”, “obey” — traditional wisdom
— learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs
- ha (破)”detach”, “digress” — breaking with tradition
— detachment from the illusions of self
- ri (離) “leave”, “separate” — transcendence
— there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical
Aikido Without [Shu] and [Ha]
I was shown an interesting video recently by one of our Nippon Kan Headquarter graduate uchideshi alumni from Italy.
In the video, the demonstrator introduced himself as “a student of the late Morihiro Saito Shihan and the last uchideshi of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba”. He went on to say that after the death of the Founder, he had continued to serve Morihiro Saito Shihan as his student.
The subject of the video was “Toate” or “throwing techniques without touching”. These were techniques for throwing people without touching them and were introduced in the video as “gokui or the inner most mastery of the Founder”. The video on You Tube linked to other videos of famous Aikido shihan (high level instructors)performing in an All Japan Aikido demonstration. This association gave this Toate video legitimacy and linked their techniques to Aikido. As the video was playing, you could hear sounds of laughter from the audience in the video where these techniques were performed.
The early 70’s in the United States saw a rise in interest in “mystical, magical” martial arts as depicted for example in the hit TV series “Kung Fu” starring David Carradine.
Beginning in the early 70’s there was also a style of Aikido that claimed to mysteriously and magically develop human potential. This style was taught as a practice that would solve work and relationship problems and cure human disease. It even claimed to improve one’s golf skills, in case you were in need of a little help with your game!
At the time of its introduction, the philosophy of this style of Aikido was quite seductive and claimed many mysterious powers. There was a lot however about this method that could be challenged and doubted.
There were many demonstrations used to sell potential students on the magic of this style of Aikido. One popular demonstration was “the unbendable arm”. In this demonstration, the arm of the demonstrator could not be bent with the force of many men. In another demonstration, a demonstrator lay horizontally, raised off the floor between two human “end pieces”. When sat upon, the demonstrator’s body did not bend.
In those days, probably the most used demonstration was sometimes called the “human anchor”. In this demonstration, a demonstrator asked for a couple of volunteer to lift him off the ground, holding him by the forearms and pushing him upwards. The demonstrator is lifted easily into the air, assisting the volunteers by stiffening his body and lifting himself upwards. The demonstrator then talked about the power of Ki and asks the volunteers to lift him up again. This time the demonstrator cannot be lifted off the ground. He explains that this is the result of realizing “Ki Power” and the illusion of this mysterious miracle was born.
In reality, these demonstrations are just tricks of physics. If the demonstrator totally relaxes and bends his knees, it is very difficult to lift him up, especially from the angle where his arms are been grabbed. These performances used to remind me of the snake oil salesmen and magicians I used to see at carnivals as a child…
You also have to remember that in the early 70’s there were no personal computers or internet so our level of access to information was limited. Even intelligent and educated people would get hooked by these performances and the mental manipulations used on them to sell these techniques.
In the 70’s I was familiar with all of the magical Ki techniques used by these styles of Aikido but I am not familiar with what these styles are teaching now in this very different era.
I first learned of these tricks from my teacher in 1976. He even had a secret manual that had been distributed to instructors to teach them how to perform these demonstrations. The manual gave instruction on how to stage the demonstrations, control the minds of the people in the audience and persuade them to join class. At the time, for a very short while, I even thought this might be a good approach until I realized that this method was not the teaching of shugyo (practice) which was taught by the Founder.
I decided instead to write about how these mystical Aikido demonstrations and illusions were performed in my first book, Aikido for Life, which was first published 25 years ago. Aikido for Life is still in print and has been translated and published into 7 different languages around the world. You can read Aikido for Life online on the Nippon Kan website at http://www.nippon-kan.org/
When I wrote this book, some Aikidoka commented that Gaku Homma’s Aikido has no Ki.
This was not true either. I do not deny the existence of Ki, but I think we need to wake up from the misunderstanding of the illusions that have been created around the concept of Ki. The more you focus on finding Ki I believe, the less chance you will have of finding it. In fact seeking an illusion based on misunderstanding can make it more difficult to know who you are in the world and be able to see outside of yourself. Years ago when the use of these methods were at their peak, some students and even some instructors came to my dojo that had seemingly completely fallen into this illusion and magical interpretation of Ki. It was somewhat disconcerting and cult like, and I couldn’t help but wonder how one could understand reality and Ki from this perception.
In the old days, another popular demonstration was the “Ki test” which was performed during aiki taiso (aikido exercises). For this Ki test, students stand with their hands in front of them as they usually do during wrist twist exercises. The instructor stops them and tells them not to move as he pushes into them from their hands. The students that don’t move are praised and the students that lose their balance are made to feel guilty or inadequate for moving. The students that moved are told that if they were to master their Ki through practice of these techniques, they would not move. The instructor then performs the test again and miraculously the student does not move. Praise is now used as the instructor announces to the audience that the student has now realizing his Ki.
If you start your practice on the assumption of an illusion, your practice journey will be skewed. This approach to teaching Ki in the United States in the 70’s gained in popularity and then subsided in only a few years. Ultimately many of the high level instructors that used this unbendable arm- Ki test approach abandoned this method and split from organizations that revolved around this method.
I have taught how the unbendable arm and the unmovable body are performed at seminars all over the word. The response to learning how these tricks are performed is usually one of laughter. I think that being honest about these methods is good for the validity of our real Aikido shugyo or practice.
Since I had not seen Ki demonstrations used as much in many years, I thought that the illusion of Ki Power had subsided. Not so, it seems.
Today there has been an emergence of a new generation of instructors that go beyond simple tricks like the unbendable arm. This new generation of instructors are performing a new level of “magical” techniques with Toate (throwing without touching) or Kyo Mei (throwing by mental vibration and mental power) demonstrations. Some of these instructors are also claiming that these techniques were the last realizations of the Founder Ueshiba toward the end of his life.
This new phenomenon of “throwing people without touching them” was first highlighted on a comedy show by a famous dance instructor of the Japanese actress Kaoru Yumi on Japanese television.
Amazing their audience, people misunderstood that this was Aikido since Kaoru Yumi and her dance instructor both had black belts in Aikido. Ultimately the dance instructor became independent of Aikido and changed his association of these Toate techniques from Aikido to a breathing art called OO. By then however, it was somewhat too late as many Aikido instructors had already jumped on the Toate band wagon and were using the name of the Founder Ueshiba to sell their new magic.
My opinions on Toate and Kyo Mei techniques relate exclusively to the practice of Aikido; I do not judge or have an opinion on anyone practicing another martial art.
Claiming that Toate or Kyo Mei is somehow related to the late teaching of the Founder Ushiba is a completely false claim.
The Founder’s movements in his last years can be called free movements. I know because I lived with the Founder during his last years. He used a free movement style not because it was somehow magical like the Toate instructors claim; his movements were simply those of a very elderly man. The free movement he used in his last demonstrations was also the same movement he used every morning in his personal prayer ceremonies at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama.
When the Founder practiced free movement, it was our job as his students and as his uke to follow the Founder’s movements and take proper ukemi. Any student close enough to the Founder to be his uke moved with profound respect; working to his greatest ability to react to the Founders gestures and perform to the very best of his ability.
I assisted the Founder during the demonstrations where the Founder demonstrated that he could not be pushed over by students pushing him with their hands to his forehead. I would stand in the position closest to the Founder with my hand on his head or his hip with other students pushing behind me. During those demonstrations I never pushed with force on the Founder and held back the exertion of the other students pushing behind me with all of my strength.
This relationship between the Founder and his students had nothing to do with the Founder’s ability to throw people without touching them; it had everything to do with respect for a great teacher.
The shihan (senior instructors) of that day that were close to the Founder knew well that the demonstrations of the Founder and his students were cooperative. It was understood that the Founder’s uke would always move as directed by the Founder’s gestures out of respect for a great but fragile, elderly man. None of the shihan ever talked about this publicly at the time, which seems now to have been a grave mistake. This silence seems to have encouraged this false legacy that the Founder had some kind of magical power.
Techniques where people are thrown without being touched were never demonstrated by the Founder. Some people have said that “techniques without touch performed by Founder were his final gokui or final realization or understanding. This is absolutely false and these “techniques” belong only to this new generation of instructors who claim to possess these magical powers.
Today these Toate instructors stand in the middle of a circle of students and with a flick of their hand make all of their students fall down. No one ever saw the Founder demonstrate anything even remotely related to this and there are no instructors alive today that were even around the Founder in his last years.
In his final years at Iwama, there were only two people that cared for the Founder on a daily basis. One was Kikuno Yamamoto and the other person was myself. It was our job to wash the Founder’s body, groom his hair, massage his legs and body, scrub his dentures, serve his meals and read to him from his Omoto Kyo books in the evenings.
Toward the end of his life, the Founder suffered with what was called rei kai monogatari or what we would call today symptoms of senility. He would lose his temper and begin screaming about issues that had happened long ago or would wander in the garden after midnight. We were fearful of his sudden outbursts of anger and worried after him when he wandered, following him closely until he would wander back.
When the Founder lost his temper there was nothing we could do but wait it out and because of his stature, no one could challenge his behavior. Today, with all of the advancements in senior care, I think the Founder would have received much more medical and psychological treatment for his condition than in those days.
It was a big surprise to me when I later read in biographies of the Founder’s life that his bursts of anger were “inspired by God” or that the kamisama (gods) were speaking through him. This was unbelievable and not true in my experience.
The late Morihiro Saito Shihan and his wife were also there to care for the Founder but it was me and Kikuno san who lived together with the Founder and knew what kind of life he led in his last years. Kikuno san and I were both under 20 years old and the Founder was very lonely in those last years. Very few people came to visit the Founder in Iwama, and those that did come would leave a bottle of sake as a gift for the Founder and a tamagushi (donation) for the shrine with the Saito family. They would inquire about the Founder’s mood and leave quickly if the Founder was irritable that day. No one wanted to risk his wrath by visiting him on a bad day and most people just stayed away. Thinking of those days now, they were very difficult days indeed.
I do have one good memory of an evening the night before the wife of Mr. Sunao Sonoda, the former Japanese health minister and the wife of Kanshu Sunadomari Sensei were coming to visit the Founder. The Founder was as excited as child and the evening was delightful. Unfortunately, evenings like this were few and far between in his last days.
Toward the end of his life even the shidoin (junior instructors) and shihan of Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo were wary of the Founder’s visits. There were many times when I would call Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo to let them know that the Founder was coming without notice only to be ordered to try to stop him. When the Founder did come to Tokyo Aikikai Headquarter shidoin and even his own son would often sneak away to avoid him; fearing he would lose his temper and deliver a “message from the gods” to anyone who got in the way.
The younger shidoin and even the elder, senior shihan at Aikikai Headquarters did not spend any time with the Founder during his last years in Iwama. At the very end of his life, the Founder was moved back to Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo where he spent his final days, but he was very ill and under round the clock care. Most assuredly no shidoin or shihan would have had the opportunity to learn any last gokui or final realizations from of the Founder at that time.
Even students who practiced at Iwama dojo during the Founder’s final years did not spend time with him other than during practice. The Founder’s practice was very quiet where only the soft sounds of feet sliding on the tatami could be heard. No break falls, slapping the mat or even kiai were allowed. The students left the dojo quietly after practice through the door that was designated only for students and they never were involved with the Founder outside of practice. No student would have had an opportunity to receive any kind of “secret gokui teaching” of the Founder as the only students that were involved with the Founder’s life outside of practice were me and Kikuno san.
I know of one old video that was made of the Founder’s practice at Iwama, and in that video you could hear the sound of kiai during practice. These practice scenes were scripted by the director however for dramatic effect and did not reflect real practice. In this video you can also see the Founder drinking tea with his wife in front of the shomen or front altar in the dojo. This would never have happen based on the Founders religious protocol and was also scripted by the director. There was a scene in this video where the Founder was going to the Aiki Shrine to pray that was filmed in mid day. The director wanted a more mysterious feel to the scene so it was my task to wave smoke containers around to make it seem more like an early misty morning. You can imagine that at the end of this day, the Founder was not very happy…
Claims from any instructor who teaches Toate as something learned from the Founder as the last real Aikido teaching of the Founder are completely unfounded and very disrespectful to the Founder. These instructors are doing nothing more than inventing a sales pitch to persuade students to join them; the same type of techniques that was used by Aikido instructors of old who used the concepts of Ki power. Both use shame on potential students to make them believe that they are not living up to their own potential or have the ability to receive the instructor’s powers unless they join their classes.
On the same You Tube page where a Toate demonstration video was played, I watched another video where one of these Toate instructors, claiming to be invincible, challenged another martial artist to attack him. Within seconds, the Toate instructor was knocked flat to the ground and sent to the hospital…
Even with all of the evidence of the fallacy of these claims of being able to throw or move people without touching them, the claims continue and sadly, continue to be associated with Aikido Founder, Morihei Ueshiba.
The Founder’s Aikido was based in shugyo (practice) and shugyo is based in the important concept of Shuhari. There are stages in our practice defined by Shu, Ha, and Ri. Shu describes basic level comprehension, Ha a more integrated understanding and Ri an ultimate realization. One must graduate from Shu to Ha to Ri with a lifetime of practice and each level cannot be realized without the other. (Also see the link and definition at the beginning of the article for reference). These instructors that claim that Toate is the last great teaching of the Founder believe that Toate is the Ri in Shuhari.
The concept of Shuhari is a process of understanding and you cannot skip over Shu and Ha and try to teach your own interpretation of Ri, claiming it to be from the Founder. For one, Ri does not belong to any person and second, the Founder would never have followed this kind of thinking. I do not like seeing the reputation of the Founder used in this way and I believe that if the Founder were able to see his name associated with this nonsense he would be angry.
Aikikai Headquarters needs to make a stance against these Toate instructors. If they do not, this misrepresentation will continue to spread throughout the world. This type of teaching is especially dangerous in a world where more and more black belt instructors do not finish their own techniques and do not take ukemi.
There are many instructors in the world these days that seem to have skipped the process of learning to become instructors. I have seen instructors that only copy the way they have seen the Founder move in films without understanding the reasons for the Founder’s movements.
I have seen instructors imitate the way that the Founder performed the technique Iriminage for example as a very elderly man. At that time the Founder would extend his arm upward without much body to body contact to throw his uke and take a few steps forward after the throw.
It is amusing to see this move imitated when actually the Founder was stepping forward after the throw because at his advanced age he was no longer able to stop his own momentum. As his students, we were always watching the Founder closely during these times to make sure he did not fall.
These Aikido instructors that want to jump over the foundation built of Shu and Ha and reach for the ultimate realization of Ri without process are on the wrong path. There is no shortcut to ultimate understanding, and to try to sell the “essence” of Aikido is nonsensical. The Founder said “Aikido is misogi waza or a practice in purification.” To pursue worldly gain instead of practice is not the Aikido of the Founder.
For many years not that long ago, our telephones had dials and were dialed to operate. Today phones are operated by touch or even voice command. Our lives today are filled with conveniences and our access to information is practically limitless. One result of all of this technology is that we do not observe, process, understand and remember as much with our brains; we rely on smart phones to take pictures, videos and recordings instead. We don’t care how this technology was perfected, only what is the newest and fastest and how it can benefit our lives.
I see many instructors today that do not see to focus on the process of practice. They want to jump straight to the conclusion of a lifetime of dedicated practice; to realize the essence of Aikido without working for it. They ignore the Shu and Ha in Shuhari. They are like consumers who want the newest product or to be able to “download” the answers without study. Mastering the technique and philosophy of Aikido can only be achieved through dedicated practice or shugyo. This new phenomena of teaching only the “essence” of Aikido without practice will only increase as technology develops in our lives, and I worry that this kind of thinking will end the process of shugyo. Ending shugyo would be one more step toward the end of Aikido itself.
Watching a demonstration video of Toate I heard an instructor comment, “Does he really hold the rank of 7th degree black belt? He has no understanding or foundation of basic movement and technique. The only reason he can throw his students is because they are trained well to roll”. The instructor in the demonstration was even wearing his hakama backwards as he demonstrated techniques without touching.
Shu-Ha Ri in Aikido is a process of practice. Today instructors teach that there is only Ri; turning a blind eye to the learning and experience necessary in Shu and Ha to ever be able to reach Ri.
Young Aikidoka! Anyone can do these “throwing without touching” techniques if you have a good uke! I used to be an uke for the Founder and performed in many demonstrations with him. I practiced diligently to be a good uke which meant I could throw myself! There were times at the Iwama dojo during the daytime when no one else was there that the Founder would call me to private practice. These were casual practices, and the Founder did not usually even wear his hakama.
Usually when someone practices Aikido movements by themselves, they practice the nage or throwing side. I also practiced the uke side by myself and practiced taking ukemi without a partner! The Founder never had to throw me seriously; I was a very good uke all by myself.
I never knew when the Founder might call me to practice, so to always be ready I wore my keiko gi top and pants over my regular street pants to be ready…just in case.
So you too could make a Toate video with your friends and post it on You Tube. Get creative and see who can make the best one! If you realize how silly this all is, it will be a big step towards moving your practice forward in a better direction.
Most of the soba tsuki or close attendants to the Founder have not come forward with personal stories of the Founder. I have done so because the Founder was a great man, but it is not true to his greatness to make him sound like he was some kind of a god.
My wish is to warn those that might be taken in by these opportunistic Toate instructors and the falseness not only of their claims, but of the travesty of associating the name of the Founder with their schemes.
It is my job to ring the bell to let you know.
It is my opinion and my experience that the ultimate understanding of Aikido or Ri is found only through constant practice; through repeated repetition of Shu and Ha. Concentrate your efforts on everyday practice and do not be swayed by instructors who tell you there is no need.
Most important to understanding Aikido is to continue, day by day…Shu… and… Ha.
A Zen Story
One day, there was a young unsui (priest in training) that approached the roshi (master priest) after morning zazen (zen meditation) to ask him a serious question. “Where where you Roshi and what were you doing the moment that you became enlightened?” He answered, “I have lived in this temple since I was 10 years old. When I was over 80, I was walking in the temple gardens one night, thinking deeply about my zen life question. It was dark in the garden and I ran into one of the boulders in the garden, hitting my shin. “Ouch” I cried out and at that very moment everything became clear and I achieved enlightenment”.
The next night, many of the young unsui lined up in the garden in front of the boulder and began hitting their shins upon the rock…
What took me many pages to try to explain in this article is written well in this very short story…
That is zen.
Nippon Kan Kancho
October 20th, 2013