Riding the dragon

All things considered, the Founder of Aikido is as close to us as an Hyperborean could be. The galactic space between his words in "Budo", the only technical book he devoted to his art, and the understanding of a beginner makes this immensely rich book nearly useless to acquire the technical basis of Aikido.

Why didn't Morihei Ueshiba take that opportunity to establish a method that would have avoided so much wandering to all those who have followed his steps on the Path? Was it such a difficult task for him?

The problem is different for the complexity of such a work is not only linked to the capacity of the man who undertakes it. Let's see why.

Plato had defined man as an animal with two feet and no feathers. Diogenes, the cynic, then plucked a rooster and threw it in front of the philosopher's disciples, saying: "man, according to Plato!". The lesson here is that any definition is incomplete and does not fully define the whole reality.

The same applies to Aikido. Any pedagogy is a limit. Whatever the value of a method, it can only take into account one aspect of reality. And there is no straight paved way that could guarantee a linear progression for whom steps on an Aikido tatami for the first time.

One generally knows that such techniques as ikkyo and shiho nage are complementary, or nykyo and kote gaeshi. There is a huge temptation to build a pedagogy around that type of relations because it frames the learning process in an attractive rational order. Such an attempt can be found in Tadashi Abe and Jean Zin's books, pioneers in the fifties. The above mentioned techniques are classified by their links into the respective categories of Ikkajo and Nikajo.

That classification is not irrelevant for it takes technical realities into account, like the symmetry between complementary rotation directions. For Ikkajo, that relation is to be found with the action on the elbow by a rotation which leads, in one direction to ikkyo and in the other direction to shiho nage. For nikajo, one can find the same relation at wrist level with nikyo or kote geashi as consequences.

As far as this relation between these techniques is justified, it only describes only one aspect of reality. For the rotation symmetry is not enough to take into account other equally crucial links like the relation in terms of body movement between ikkyo and irimi nage.

Therefore, by excluding irimi nage from the ikkajo category and putting it in Gokayo, one builds up an incomplete system which hides a part of truth or rather chooses between two truths. Because the body and footwork for irimi nage's throw and ikkyo's cut are strictly comparable. Taking this aspect into consideration, linking these two techniques in a teaching / learning system is equally relevant. Splitting them in two categories becomes arbitrary.

Let's compare now irimi nage and kote geashi. As far as the footwork is concerned, these two techniques are identical. Splitting them between two different categories as Nikajo and Gokajo is also arbitrary.

But then, if ikkyo, kote geashi and irimi nage are closely linked around a same principle of movement, why not create a new category where they could all fit?

Such a category would be justified by the fundamental similarity in terms of movement and would then added to the Ikkajo-Nikajo-Gokajo category. It would allow to solve some wholes in the Ikkajo category. But it would still be incomplete since it would not cover the similarity with other movements like shiho nage with kote gaeshi under the triple aspect of the imbalance angle, the spiral of the throw and uke's landing point which are constants.

Should we build then another category, then a fourth one, a fifth one...? Until where?

The sankajo category gathers related movements such as sankyo and kaiten nage. However the rotation direction is now identical where it was symmetrical between ikkajo and nikajo. They are related because they're identical, apart from the throw. Sankyo is therefore not in the category following nikajo, its internal rule puts it aside the two previous ones. The problem is that this category does not reveal the important relation between uchi kaiten nage with shiho nage (put in the ikkajo category). However, whether tori applies gyaku hanmi katate dori uchi kaiten nage or ai hanmi katate dori shiho nage omote, he does exactly the same thing with his feet, his arms and his whole body.

In that respect, shiho nage and uchi kaiten nage are closely related but that relation is lost if they're set in such different categories like ikkajo and sankajo. It must be noticed but as such it is not a serious issue.

The most serious problem here is that none of these categories is able to reveal the link between shiho nage, uchi kaiten nage and happo giri: the sword movement, which is of the same nature, also contributes to the common origin (ichi gen) of all these movements. The undifferentiated unity gives birth to families of forms such as shiho nage, uchi kaiten nage and happo giri which go beyond the divide between "weapons - empty hands" and show how irrelevant it can be. These links, beyond categories borders, become nearly invisible once all the movements split in different categories and these categories split into study fields: tai jutsu on one side, buki waza on the other. Believing that the "weapons of aikido" can be learned separately is a great illusion. These words are meaningless taken separately. For their truth only exists through their union, which is perfect.

The overview of the kajo categories would be incomplete without a last remark. The classification of ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo and gokyo into five different categories does not allow the understanding of the deep link of these five "techniques" ordered as successive steps around the same concentric spiral applied on the same body movement. Seen from that point of view, if one wants to reveal and explain that spiral, splitting these techniques will lead the student to think he faces five different movements while it is the same one which different conclusions..

Having reached that point, and to prevent any misinterpretation, I do repeat that all ikkajo, nikajo, sankajo, yonkajo et gokajo categories are relevant and very interesting for the relations they reveal. But is obvious with the above mentioned examples that building a pedagogy structure leads inevitably to categories which force to choose criteria in order to gather techniques. These choices can be relevant and useful but it leads to look down on other equally important criteria and puts the practitioner at risk of losing Aikido's reality if he does not one day leave the teaching method he was offered in first place.

The difficult of any method does not depend on the cleverness of its creator, it is linked to the very nature of Aikido, a living entity in which all parts coexist in a close interdependence, just like an organism in which all parts are not organized independently one from each other. Any teaching choice can't but simplify that reality, up to the point it may become unrecognizable.

One can't mention the weapons of Aikido without noticing immediately that this debatable denomination is already a pedagogical choice. Teaching for an hour the empty handed techniques of Aikido and aiki ken or aiki jo for the next hour is not natural, it is already a work method. And that method, like any other method leaves the deep reality of things outside.

We saw with happo giri an example of that type of relation which can unite in Aikido the sword techniques with the body techniques. The same relation exists for spear techniques.

But if the teacher teaches the kumijo as series, the beginner can't see in the exercises more than than a fight simulation, a "sparring" only useful to learn how to handle and manipulate his jo. In this narrow and formal frame, he can't link the exercise to anything else. His / her linear understanding is a consequence of the leaning method.

Let's be clear. I'm not saying here that this learning is useless but the contrary: it is absolutely necessary. But I'm asking to pay attention to the fact that passing and sharing knowledge find their limits in the pedagogical frame. That is a necessity and does not depend on the technical mastery of the teacher, which is an other issue.

If the teacher does not want to lock his students in the sterile repetition (beyond a certain point) of a conventional exercise, he has to leave the artificial initial pedagogical frame and enter the complex reality of Aikido.

He must for instance show how the movement of the sixth kumjo is not different from tai jutsu techniques called kata dori ikkyo omote and muna dori ikkyo omote and how these techniques are not different form the jo suburi called katate hachi no ji gaeshi and again, not different from the jo dori kokyu nage. He must also show the undifferentiated common origin which makes these relations possible. He must open his students' minds to the affiliation and the family spirit which make Aikido much more than the mere hobby our Ministry of Sports wants to reduce it. The tiniest leaf of a century old oak, its trunk: they all come from the same acorn. The growth of the tree and every part of the tree were in the humble fruit - because they come from that same unique principle - each is related to all the others.

If the student is not gradually awaken and brought to see that deep heart in O sensei' art, he ends up thinking that Aikido is all about the pedagogical method he has been proposed and that he has accepted. He can't understand that this was just a tool.

Having warned about the dangers with any method, I wouldn't like my words to be misunderstood and discourage the elaboration of a pedagogical frame for leaning the basis of AIkido. After all, one needs to begin with something and unfortunately there can't be a teacher behind each student as it happened in the traditional transmission between a master and a disciple. We now have federations. Good or less good, it does not matter, they are all confronted with the problem of transmission. That can't be criticized and they must be left in peace. With two conditions however.

The first condition is that a technical syllabus shouldn't be presented as Aikido but for what it is: a necessary constraint for studying.

The second condition is that teachers must be able not to abandon students to an eternal and endless repetition. They must able to show, when time as come, the true way of Aikido, transgressing the initial scholarly rules.

O sensei, not me, shows that path:

Bun wa mata
Omote ni tateru
Sono toki wa
Mitama wa tsurugi
Yorozu nichibiku

When learning becomes superfluous,
Let yourself be driven by the heart of the movement
Which enters your spirit and your heart like fire.

Morihei Ueshiba, Doka 65

I wouldn't conclude without strongly stating that this path is the exact opposite of learning a catalog. A catalog, a syllabus is a dead thing. Even when known perfectly well, it just can't rise to the freedom Aikido offers. Any syllabus, if handled carelessly, can only teach tricks. The Aikido that can be found in an exam sheet is not Aikido, it is bloodless didactics, a dry antique in a museum window.

I express the wish, maybe naive, that the persons in charge of technique in federations could recognize that major issue: why O sensei never gave any name to his movements? One must think about that fact. The technical terms we use nowadays are not his. Other people after him have imagined them. Why? Was the Founder incapable to hook a few words on his techniques while being able to write esoteric poems, having devoted his life to studying Shinto mythology? Why did he not? And the true answer is thus expressed: is not because he chose not to? One can't avoid the question, it must be answered.

But if one knows how to read, O sensei gives the answer:

Shin no bu wa
Fude ya kuchi niwa
Kotobure naseba
Kami wa yurusazu

Writings or talks
Can't help to approach the authentic Bu ;
The gods do not allow
One to hide behind words.

Morihei Ueshiba, Doka 8

O Sensei was not alone in history to think this way. That idea is far older than him. The old Celtic culture developed without writing. The druids refused to write down their knowledge. The written language, it seems, close some doors. In Aikido, the written language dissects the living movement born out of the union of water and fire to make it fit a lifeless syllabus.

The path towards life and freedom opens up when the adept can see what no beginner could. When he sees at last, behind the apparent differences between Aikido techniques what is their common ground, what makes them breathe and live, and at the end, how they can no longer be seen as mere techniques anymore. Eventually, he will be able to forget all technique, any syllabus, any method to let himself be carried by the link between all forms. That is riding the dragon, the cosmic snake which unites Heaven and Earth, or, as Morihei Ueshiba said: « standing on the floating bridge of Heaven ».

Philippe Voarino, Valberg, December 25th, 2010

Illustration: Dragon of the Kenninji temple, Kyoto

Dragon of the Kenninji temple


Terrific information. For me personally I hear connections and reminders from past training with Pierre Chassang and his instructions to focus not on techniques but on principles...this coming from 15 years ago or more....and then zoom to my present area of interest with thoughts of floating bridge of heaven coming right up to today lessons as expressed by Chris Li below.

Perhaps it can be seen that while there are many paths....if the destination is the same then they must converge at some stage.

Thank you for this website , hugely informative and helpful.




Hello Daren.

Pierre Chassang is still alive and on the Floating Bridge of Heaven. He is 93, probably one of the oldest aikidoist in the world. We have a cup of coffee from time to time. He will be happy to here about your mail.

Philippe Voarino

What is Traditional Aikido?

Aikido is not a sport, it is a martial art which laws (takemusu) are in harmony with the laws of the universe. Studying them allows the practitioner to understand his place in the universe. Aikido was born in Iwama, O sensei achieved in that village the synthesis of tai jutsu, aiki ken and aiki jo.

Where to practice Traditional Aikido?

The International Takemusu Aikido Federation (ITAF) brings to the practitioner the structure he needs in order to work as close as possible to the reality O sensei MU defined. The official national representations are the guarantee of a teaching faithful to the Founder's.

The weapons of Aikido, aiki ken and aiki jo

In modern Aikido, weapons are hardly taught, if taught at all. In O sensei's Aikido, on the contrary, aiki ken, aiki jo and tai jutsu are unified and form together a riai, a family of harmonious techniques stemming from one unique principle. Each techniques helps understand all the others.

Aikido, a martial art or an art of peace?

Peace is a balance between a human being and the world around him. The true martial art's goal is not to become stronger than one's opponent but to find in that opponent a way to realize harmony. There is no enemy anymore as such, but an opportunity offered to reach unified ki.

Copyright TAI (Takemusu Aikido Intercontinental)