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TAE Journal, Edition 10, Bukiwaza and its place in Aikido. By Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros

FROM EDITION 10 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – AUTUMN 2023


At the present time, the question of weapons and their place in Aikido remains a controversial topic with the Aikido community roughly divided into three groups.


 

Those who claim that weapons are not important (or more extremely, should not be practised at all), those who have incorporated weapon systems from other traditional weapon schools into Aikido and the schools coming from first generation teachers who have had direct weapons instruction from the Founder and later incorporated these teachings into their own aikido.

 

As far as I am aware, this latter group comprises three notable teachers: Michio Hikitsuchi (10th dan), Koichi Tohei (10th dan) and Morihiro Saito (9th dan). Of these three, Hikitsuchi Sensei and Saito Sensei developed sophisticated weapon training curricula and integrated it with their taijutsu forming a synthetic and complimentary body of techniques.

 

O Sensei was apparently cautious in both teaching his weapon system and in

giving permission to instructors in teaching it themselves. Saito Sensei studied with him for over 24 years and to my knowledge was the only recognised successor to this particular body of knowledge within the Aikikai, in the sense that he was given permission to teach weapons in addition to taijutsu, by the Founder himself and which he did on a daily basis in the Iwama Dojo (and in Hombu Dojo in the 60’s when he would visit the Aikikai Hombu Dojo).

 

Many of O Sensei's other students were already well conversant (if not already experts) with other weapon systems and later, when becoming teachers in their own right, readily incorporated this background into their own understanding and teaching of Aikido. A very sophisticated example of this group is the system developed by the late Shoji Nishio Sensei (8th dan).

 

From what I have seen, this last group has become the dominant weapons influence in the Aikido world today: the result being in fact a hybrid system consisting on the one hand, of Aikido taijutsu, and on the other, Iaido, Kenjutsu and Jodo techniques incorporated and themselves modified by the movements and principles of the empty handed side of the art. The value of such an 'incorporation' is certainly debatable and can be argued either way. It is however beyond argument that the original spirit behind these arts is fundamentally different from Aikido. Iaido is the Art of Killing 'through unsheathing the sword' and Kenjutsu is the Art of Killing 'with the unsheathed sword'. Aikido is fundamentally not about defeating or killing the other but about reconciliation and neutralisation of conflict.

 

O Sensei also made this patently clear through the writings and poems he left behind. It is this going beyond the dichotomies of either winning or losing, killing, or being killed which sets Aikido apart as a unique Martial Art and makes it particularly relevant (to my mind) in today's world where, when we face conflict (of any kind) we must ask ourselves whether our usual strategies and 'solutions' are not themselves part of the problem. Violence begets violence and what we resist tends to persist.

 

I make this observation as to the Spirit of traditional weapon systems with full respect for those Arts. I think that Iaido is one of the most aesthetically beautiful martial arts I have ever seen. My question is as to the compatibility of spirit or intention behind these arts with the spirit of aiki and whether they can be combined without consequences. The spirit or intent of an art is not an abstract matter but in my opinion is encoded within the very movements, strategies, and techniques of the art itself.

 

In the following brief discussion, I will focus on the system Morihiro Saito Sensei developed as I am most familiar with that one versus the other two teachers mentioned above (Hikitsuchi Sensei and Tohei Sensei) where my knowledge of their systems is insufficient to comment on further.

 

The next question to consider is the relationship between weapon training and empty handed technique, and whether they can actually form a synergistic and complementary whole, or rather are separate systems, practised in parallel, or even in conflict with each other.

 

Morihiro Saito Sensei was clear that weapons were an integral part of the art and that this was also O Sensei’s position, who we have on the historical record as having practised with weapons extensively.

 

Saito Sensei called the relationship between training with weapons and practising empty handed ‘Riai’ (‘ri’: principle, ‘ai’: harmony). This term refers to the harmony - and mutual reinforcement - of the principles underlying the practice of both branches. He once commented that just by watching someone’s taijutsu he could see if they practised weapons or not in the sense that weapons training clearly enhances empty handed practice in specific ways. This is evident in one’s handwork in my opinion.

 

Within the Aikido that Sensei taught, my understanding is that weapon training is at the root of, and complimentary to, empty handed techniques in the following principal aspects:

 

1. Basic footwork, hip-work and handwork. General body dynamics (tai sabaki).

 

2. The dynamics of distance and timing (maai), the rhythms of blending (awase).

 

3. Zanshin. The broadening of attention and presence beyond the apparent limits of the engagement with another (or others).

 

These three aspects are the same for both taijutsu and bukiwaza. For example, the hip work is the same, the footwork (triangular) and movement patterns  are the same, the timings are the same as is the training of eye work (metsuke) and zanshin (‘remaining’ awareness). At no point is there a conflict between the training of one branch and the other.

 

One argument I have heard (from senior Shihan who are against weapon training in principle) is that with weapons we are striking and injuring our partners and that it is this that goes against the spirit of mutual preservation in the art.

 

This is a good point, but I think it is a misunderstanding.

 

The following is strictly my opinion, so of course I do not put it out as a formal position, but something to be considered only.

 

In the Japanese sword arts, we encounter the dual concept of the ‘sword that kills’ (satsujinken) and the ‘sword that preserves life’(katsujinken). Of course, in Aikido we seek to wield the latter. However, to make that choice (to preserve rather than kill) we must actually have a choice, i.e., we must be able to wield the first sword as well. Then we can make a choice.

 

This same ‘choosing’ is evident in taijutsu. All the techniques are potentially lethal. Consider nikkyo. We can break our opponent's arm, or we can control and pin them to the ground. I would argue that you cannot do the latter without the knowledge and ability of the first.

 

In the weapon system if we consider specifically the sword, there are two aspects to the ‘choosing to preserve life’. The first is that in Saito Sensei’s Aikido the sword is a bokken, a wooden sword which IS the weapon and not a substitute for a shinken. The strikes are percussive blows and not cuts and thus can be used in less lethal manner than when using a steel blade.

 

Second and most fundamentally.

 

The last finishing move in all of the kumitachi. This is a cut that slices through our partner's attack while we remain on the line of their entry. In this finishing move (pure irimi), we have a clear choice: we can finish striking into our partner's body (yokomen) or we can stop right in front of their centre line stopping all further attack. It is the latter that we practise. Aikido is a modern Budo, and a commonly accepted meaning of this term is to ‘stop the spear’. To be able to enter into the source of conflict and stop it before it can develop is considered the highest level of martial arts. It is this that we practise and all the levels of the system lead to this ability (see below brief exposition of the levels of weapon training).

 

The advanced practice of the kumitachi is all about dealing with pressure and an aggressive attack but the spirit of the Aikidoka is to stop and neutralise the attacker, not kill him. It is this choice that essentially defines Aikido.

 

A further point that can be made here is that the final forms in the sequences of the advanced weapon kata (ki musubi no tachi, kumijo 6-10, ken tai jo 6-7) all involve neutralisations versus strikes or ‘stops’. This additionally underscores the intent behind the forms.

 

Beyond the above points, weapons training not only supports and advances,

taijutsu in very specific ways, but also has advantages unique to itself. A few examples:

 

1. Body work as a solo practice (suburi and kata). Many martial arts (karate, tai chi, etc) spend a considerable amount of time devoted to solo training before engaging in partner work. This allows for the work on physical structure to take place without the distraction of dealing with a partner grabbing or striking you. We are given the opportunity to put ourselves in order physically and mentally before testing that order under the pressure of an attack. A further advantage of solo training is that we can train anywhere at any time without the need for the dojo or partners.

 

2. Self control and precision. There is no armour in Aikido. In partner practice attention, precision and control are therefore strongly emphasised.

 

3.Extension. When training with a weapon, the aim is to make the weapon an extension of your whole body and of your centre in particular. This is what we also seek in taijutsu, but the very nature of ‘fusing’ with a weapon encourages this process of extension in a way not so easily felt in empty handed techniques.

 

4.Distance and timing. All martial arts are basically different ways of dealing with these two parameters. In distance, we need to become acutely sensitive to distinctions such as: safe distance, one-step striking distance, non-step striking distance, grabbing distance, clinching distance. We need to understand the angles and lines of approach. And we need to understand the three basic timings (go no sen, sen no sen, sen sen no sen) and become sensitive to the rhythms of an encounter. All these aspects are magnified by the very nature of practising with weapons and can be more easily appreciated.

 

5. Intensity. It is difficult to perform an empty handed technique at full speed and at full power. Consider shiho nage for example. It is simply far too dangerous. However, in weapon training with appropriate distance controls we can practise full speed attacks and responses safely. This is important as we need to be able to experience states of high intensity while remaining grounded, centred, and calm. Weapons practice can offer accessible - and safe - training of this.

 

6. Attention. The strict observance of etiquette is both necessary for reasons of safety and for the training of attention (Saito Sensei once commented that 'a polite person is an attentive person'). Being attentive to the relational process as it unfolds (presence), is a central (if not THE central) aspect of Aikido practice. If one’s attention wanders or becomes diffuse, the chances of an accident increase. The nature of weapons practice by its very nature demands strong attention. Of course, the same can be said for taijutsu. But it is much easier to practise in a sloppy distracted manner with empty handed technique than it is to do so when facing an armed opponent.

 

Takemusu Aiki Bukiwaza, basic overall progression and structure:

 

Within the training system a logical order of practice and development of three levels can be appreciated:

 

The first level is the level of suburi and kata. At this level we work without a partner on integrating and unifying our body dynamic and joining with the weapon, making it an extension of our feeling. This is the first level of 'blending' with the ground, with ourselves, (on all levels) and with the weapon.

 

The second level is beginning to work on blending with another through simple 'one (or two) step ‘encounters'. This level is very flexible and although there are a few sequences which have become almost as 'fixed' as the kata, it is a wide area of practice open to experimentation and improvisation. From what Saito Sensei told me, the majority of the training sessions with O Sensei in Iwama were on this level of 'simple' awase.

 

Level three. Complex blending through the extended sequences of the kumitachi and kumijo. This level builds naturally upon the previous two and is far more demanding in terms of technical skill and mental/energetic stamina. The different katas and their partner sequences explore specific 'problems' or challenges of maai, intention and blending. The variations are further extensions of this level and again are flexible. Sensei repeatedly stated that the variations of the kumitachi for instance were given as examples and that trainees should explore the possibilities of the advanced forms by devising their own. This is obviously an advanced level of practice.

 

Conclusion

 

It is the present writer's opinion - and experience - that training with weapons can definitely enhance one’s empty handed technique and contribute in unique ways to one's development as an Aikidoka. I believe that the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, in crafting and creating the unique spirit of his art modified the techniques and aims of the weapon systems with which he was conversant, making them technically and spiritually congruent with the empty handed side of the art.

 

It is this spirit of harmony (Riai) that can be appreciated in the system that Morihiro Saito Sensei inherited and developed from his teacher Morihei Ueshiba.


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