Current Sensei's Corners
This is a reprinted interview with Larry E. Bieri 6th Dan Shidoin. For those of you not in the know Bieri Sensei was my main instructor at Ohio State from when I started Aikido to 1996 when he moved to Ithaca New York with his wife. During that time I had the pleasure to accompany him to seminars and to camps throughout the Midwest. I was able at such a "young age" to have the company of M. Saotome Sensei. Y. Yamada, and M. Kanai. As Bieri sensei was friends with them and I had the opportunity to receive more than just training with him, but exposure to various aspects of the Koryu ways. Bieri Sensei often acts as an interpreter for M. Kanai Sensei at seminars, which also has added to my understanding of difficult meanings for the western mind to comprehend. Bieri Sensei also saw little political differences here in the US he affiliated with USAF but encouraged us as students to see and learn from everyone, whether it be Yamada Sensei, Saotome Sensei or Patricia Hendricks Sensei. I still have the good fortune to train with him albeit on a limited scope due to geography, but who knows maybe some day we will have the good fortune to perhaps have a seminar with him.
[Editorís note: Larry Bieri is a 6th dan, Shidoin. He studied many martial arts as well as Aikido in Hombu dojo while living in Japan. He is now the chief instructor of Finger Lakes Aikido in Ithaca, New York where he is university professor.
This interview has been reprinted courtesy of Dojo News, a publication of Aikido of Cincinnati of which Gary Bushorn is a long time member.
Photos courtesy of the Aikikai Foundation from the book, The 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Ueshiba Morihei, Founder of Aikido Memorial Photo Collection.]
Interview with Larry Bieri Sensei
By Gary Bushorn
During a long drive to Montreal, Larry and I talked about Aikido for hours on end and I decided that his views on our chosen art should be shared with everyone. I have compiled a few questions, which I had hoped would allow him to say the things I thought were so profound. I was partially successful.
GARY BUSHORN: Who were your Aikido teachers?
LARRY E. BIERI SENSEI: I was at the Aikikai Hombu in Tokyo from 1971 until 1987. During that time I practiced regularly and so I attended classes taught by virtually all the teachers who were there during the 1970s and 80s, some more regularly than others. I have trained under almost all the Shihan; of course the Doshu, and such well-known senior Sensei as Tohei Koichi, Osawa, Okumura, Yamaguchi, and Tada Sensei. Younger teachers during that period included Saotome, Ichihashi, Watanabe, and Sasaki Sensei. Then, during the 1980s, deshi of these teachers rose into the teaching ranks, including Shibata, Yasuno, Inagaki, Seki, Osawa, Yokota, and Miyamoto Sensei. At seminars, I was able to train under Shirata Sensei, Saito Sensei, Chiba Sensei, and others.
My first teacher was Okumura Shigenobu Shihan, who teaches the beginners' classes at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. Of course, there are literally thousands of people who can claim him as their first teacher, since he specializes (by choice) in teaching new Aikidoka. I consider him one of my teachers because I continued to attend his class regularly for the entire time that I was in Japan.
In addition to O-Sensei, Okumura Sensei's early experience was influenced by Tomiki Kenji Sensei, a student of judo's founder, Kano Jigoro Sensei, and like Kano, a professor of physical education. [Tomiki Sensei later founded the Tomiki Ryu Aikido, which is uniquely controversial in promoting a competitive Aikido.] I believe it was Tomiki's influence that caused Okumura Sensei to appreciate the value of blending technical training and conceptual understanding. As Director of the Testing Committee at the Hombu Dojo, he emphasizes the importance of organizing your technical information for better understanding and faster, more effective learning.
Naturally, for various periods I spent more time at one or another teacher's classes. I was closest to Ichihashi Norihiko Shihan who regularly used me as his uke. I suppose it was his emphasis on clean, basic waza that first attracted me to him. I enjoyed Yamaguchi Shihan's classes very much, as well. And Tada Sensei's dynamic style was most impressive. There was so much wonderful teaching available, it was basically a question of time and endurance.
G: Of the various martial arts you've studied, is Aikido special?
L: Well, Aikido is my chosen art and so it is special to me, of course. But I feel that it is also special among the martial arts, especially the modern arts. What makes it so is the appropriateness of its moral philosophy to the 20th century, and the immediate relevance of its training method to events we experience in our daily lives.
Technically speaking, there is nothing very unique about our tactics. O-Sensei adapted to his own purposes a particular portion of the traditional body of jujitsu methods, especially the areas dealing with locking and pinning. You can see most of our techniques in some form or other during demonstrations of various jujitsu traditions in Japan. Nevertheless, Aikido is a recognizably separate art because of the unique contributions of Ueshiba Morihei to the martial arts community.
First and most obvious is the Aikido training method. In traditional jujitsu ryuha (traditions) the performance of each technique is fixed in a form, a kata. These kata are repeated exactly as prescribed by the tradition. One trains to learn, perfect, and maintain the forms of the tradition. Everyone does the technique in exactly the same way.
Generally in Aikido, we follow this traditional approach in as much as our training is overwhelmingly through the practice of kata. Partners know in advance their role as either uke or nage and what technique will be performed. Each person attempts to mimic the technique shown by the teacher. Yet eventually we are allowed to move much more freely in response to our partner and our own body type, size, and even eventually our own inclinations.
This "freedom of expression" has resulted in a tremendous explosion of technical "styles" as O-Sensei's various students developed their own strong points I think that this individuality is one of the reasons that Aikido is more interesting to modern people than the older forms of jujitsu. It is one of the areas where O-Sensei was innovative in adapting to the needs of modern society.
Another area where Aikido is special is in the degree to which its philosophy and physical side are integrated. Much of what O-Sensei to say about peace, harmony, and world brotherhood has also been voiced by other budo teachers. Other modern arts have the discipline and, in many cases, philosophical underpinnings similar to those of Aikido. But while their philosophy preaches nonviolence on the one hand, their techniques still require the trainees to stand and fight it out on each other.
Ideally, Aikido practice and Aikido philosophy have an almost perfect coherence. We do not teach confrontative techniques and then end class with a disavowal, "don't try this at home, kids." Aikido calls upon us to make our philosophy manifest itself in the actual forms of our training. In all budo the form is based on combat or self-defense, perfectly legitimate and time-proven aspects of martial culture both in Japan and around the world. But Aikido was purposely developed to reinforce ideals of harmonious relationships and oneness with nature. We are asked to go a step beyond self-defense to reveal and make real on the mat a harmony and sense of "loving protection for all beings" that is the goal of Aikido according to the Founder.
O-Sensei selected techniques that he felt best expressed his ideals concerning both the discipline of the self and the control of violence. These techniques respond to attacks with movements which he felt reflect fundamental principles of the Universe, mostly circular and spiraling actions which control violence without resorting to the very same negative energy in which the attack was initiated. This demands that we maintain a high level of skill and awareness at all times, as well as moral rectitude. This is such a lofty goal that we need to have a good dose of humility as we train toward it.
This very close cohesion between what we say and what we do is one of O-Sensei's special achievements. My understanding is that he perfected this integration only after World War II, but its roots are firmly grounded in his personal understanding of Shinto and its religious feelings toward the universe and humankind as an element of that great whole. Twentieth century experience allowed O-Sensei to interpolate from a rather narrow, native animism to the whole world.
G. What are your feelings toward learning "the basics"?
L: From the fact that I attended the beginner's classes for 16 years, I suppose you could assume that I have a high regard for "the basics." In many classical Japanese bujutsu and budo, much emphasis is placed on the basics of the particular system. Although many older arts may not have a specific series of "kihon," often certain movements or kata may appear and reappear throughout a tradition, or be considered so important as to be included in every practice session much the same way as suwari waza ryotekubi-tori kokyu-ho (kokyu dosa) is always included at the end of every practice at the Hombu Dojo.
In the modern budo, kihon are almost always practiced in an organized fashion, perhaps reflecting a somewhat westernized approach to teaching. In Aikido we have basic footwork patterns called ashi-sabaki, basic hand-work called te-sabaki, basic movement drills sometime referred to as tai no henko (or tai no henka). These are building blocks from which both basic and advanced techniques are constructed. Together, the basics allow a person to progress faster, with better precision and a more complete understanding of principle, riai.
Some teachers attempt to organize information so that students will have an easier time assimilating the art. These systematic approaches almost always begin with an array of "basics" or "fundamentals. It s interesting to note that among the many "styles" of Aikido there is often more variation in the approach to teaching Aikido fundamentals than in the performance of actual techniques. So it appears that the famous teachers each saw fit to invest considerable effort to insure that their followers imbibed correct fundamentals.
G. What about "Learning techniques, then forget them."
L: There is training and there is application. One trains consciously and conscientiously so that in a real situation one can act without recourse to thought. Training with constant awareness to details and precision is a way of learning technique while developing awareness, in the present. The old adage about 'forgetting technique' is a way of expressing the state of mastery where there is no gap between thought and action, or between stimulus and response. This state is not achieved by common forgetfulness but by progressively more complete comprehension, to the point where oneness is realized and dichotomies are no longer relevant.
G: What is the value of martial arts or self-defense system when we are more likely to be attacked by a gun?
L: Despite the frightful rise in crime statistics, most of us go through life without ever being seriously threatened by an attacker. Given that fact, the question may well be stated, "Why study any self-defense at all?" O-Sensei experienced war, and one where nuclear bombs were used. Why study hand-to-hand arts at all? The point of the martial context is to instill in us a sense of urgency in our efforts at self-development and self-perfection.
For O-Sensei, the martial arts were a vehicle for disciplining the self, learning about interactions between one human being and another, and between each human being and the "Universal." The budo, martial ways, are simply means to promote spiritual realization. The martial arts and ways are useful in this area because the threat of violent injury or death is a potent stimulus to paying attention, to awareness. This situation leads us to think seriously about how we live, and about the value and meaning of life to each person as an individual and as a member of the larger community.
In the modern martial arts, especially Aikido, this community has been expanded to include the whole human race and the world that sustains us. Because of this, training becomes tremendously relevant to our survival and to the quality of our life. The positive effects of training contribute to our well-being and are constructive contributions to society everyday. This is probably more important than attempting to prepare for a hypothetical attack that most likely will never come. Many have pointed out that trained people don't 'attract' danger and more naturally avoid dangerous situations. If one does come, gun or " no gun, the trained person is more likely to be ready" for any outcome.
G: Many karate instructors teach from a Zen point of view point. Do you believe O-Sensei approached Aikido from that angle?
L: Definitely not. O-Sensei was a devoted Shintoist and saw Aikido as a manifestation of the truths and principles of life as expressed by the pantheon of Shinto deities and powers. O-Sensei himself never used Zen terminology or analogies in explaining Aikido and apparently was not happy when others did so. Even the current Doshu does not use Zen expressions, though he may quote others as referring to Aikido as "moving Zen." O-Sensei saw Aikido as a manifestation of the Shinto principles of purity, birth, and fruition, that is to say, of "fullness" and generation (musubi). His view was one expressed by the Japanese word "yu," existence. This is the antithesis of the Zen view of the world as "mu," void or emptiness. Of course, we could discuss philosophically how different these two are. To realize the universe by expanding to encompass all things is the Aikido "way." To absorb the universe by emptying the self so that all things may pour in is another "way." The latter Zen method was not O-Sensei's app roach, however.
G: How do you see the future of Aikido?
L: I would like to see Aikido continue to expand so that its message will reach a broader and broader spectrum of people. As I mentioned above, Aikido has particular relevance to modern society and will become more and more meaningful as the new century approaches.
I hope that the current trend to minimize the impact of political affiliations on actual training will continue and increase. There is nothing wrong with belonging to this federation or that association if the group is promoting a true Aikido message. But these divisions should not divide the Aikido community where it really counts, on the mats. We are seeing more and more seminars open to all, and this is a positive trend.
Harmony, mutual respect, and tolerance are essential and begin with two sincere people bowing in to train. If we in our Aikido community lose these things then we no longer have a message to give to the world and spreading our art would become meaningless. Promoting Aikido as just another fighting system would debase O-Sensei's message altogether. Each trainee has a responsibility to promote Aikido by training diligently, honestly, and with humility in light of the monumental task before us.
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