If you are a long-time martial artist, you have likely been either the recipient, the victim – or both – of the “wise old master” phenomenon, whereby budō students reverentially enfold their teachers as martial, moral and mystical juggernauts sans reproach.
There is perhaps no popular martial art more susceptible to the “wise master” and abusive teacher complex than Aikido, an elegant throwing art whose founder, Ueshibal Morihei, was ascribed nearly supernatural ability, was a practitioner of an obscure, highly mystical religion, and whose students seemed to be particularly adept at factional in-fighting while practicing the Art of Harmony. Therefore, there is no one better to talk about the beauty and beasts of the Aikido world than Ellis Amdur. Iconoclastic, rebellious, yet fiercely holding to some of the most traditional values of Japanese martial culture, Ellis Amdur brings something new to martial arts writing – a startling honesty about the flaws, not only within martial arts culture, but also within its practitioners, often using himself as an exemplar of the latter.
We sat down with Amdur-sensei to talk to him about Aikido, his complex relationship towards it and his new, dramatically expanded Dueling with O-sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior Sage.
You are best known for your prominent role in the world of koryū, both as a practitioner and a historical researcher and sometimes out-spoken critic. Yet you have written two books on aikidō, produced a DVD on ukemi (falling properly) and have been involved in developing a new system of aikidō training. What keeps bringing you back to this subject even though your formal training as a student ended in 1978?
Photo courtesy of Niels de Vries
I started training martial arts while still a teenager, and soon started training in a version of Chinese martial arts. Then, at the age of 18, I saw Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. The aesthetic in the movie and the behavior of the protagonists, particularly how they handled themselves in the face of violence, deeply affected me. But then, it was just a movie, a fantasy about a country far away and a time long ago. Several years later, when I walked into an aikidō dōjō, I saw some of these cultural nuances, albeit in modernized and attenuated form, and realized in an instant that I’d been looking for Japanese martial traditions for years. Aikidō led me towards the belief that martial training must encompass moral responsibility, dignified behavior, stoicism and integrity of action. Aikidō was my gateway into older Japanese martial traditions.
I first began writing about aikidō in the 1990’s, with a series of essays that eventually became Dueling with O-sensei, after an invitation from Diane Skoss, then editor of “Aikidō Journal.” Although I was no longer active in the art, I saw aikidō as a wonderful vehicle to convey some of my ideas to a wider audience than I’d ever be able to do through koryū. Dueling with O-sensei was only ostensibly a book about aikidō. I addressed subjects of universal concern, that affected almost everyone I knew training martial arts and combatives. For example, I once got a letter from a warfighter in Iraq who told me that he happened to read the chapter “Hiding in the Shadow of the Warrior” right before going out on a mission, and he attributed this to his being able to stop himself from violating the rules of war and committing an atrocity in a fluid violent situation. It gave him, he wrote, the ability to stop his impulse and keep his humanity.
My contrarian ideas proved challenging enough that some people became curious how I might express them through the aikidō that I criticized, but also clearly respected. They invited me to teach. At first, I had no interest in this, but it became an intriguing intellectual and physical exercise: how could I express my ideas on physical aggression and combative effectiveness within the context and techniques of modern aikidō, a rather abstract ‘sketch’ of combative engagement. In other words, how could I respect the ‘house,’ while not abandoning my principles?
It soon became clear to me in these seminars that many people had never been taught how to protect themselves from injury. In fact, many were being taught ways of ukemi (receiving techniques) that guaranteed that they would be injured, sooner or later. I believe that this was due, in part, to the grandiose narcissism of Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of the art. His students (and those who became students of his successors) were expected to respond in a way that allowed him to express the principles he was sketching out with their bodies. His students were at his disposal, and it was up to them to survive his techniques. Rather than ukemi for survival, it was ukemi to illustrate ideas. Natural athletes and those who were innately durable did fine, but once aikidō became an ‘open art’ that welcomed any and all, a number of people had their lives damaged rather than enhanced due to the injuries they incurred. Hence I created my DVD, Ukemi from the Ground Up with filmmaker Shari Dyer. Unlike some instructional videos, it’s about survival only. It’s ‘working class’ ukemi—I don’t care how you look, just that you aren’t hurt while trying to learn. It’s applicable to any martial art that has a component of taking falls, not just aikidō.
Years later, I started writing a blog on the “Aikido Journal” website. I became fascinated in the subject of internal strength, the use of the body in the most efficient manner possible, a methodology that is, in many ways, ‘counter-instinctual.’ The nervous system, the connective tissue, the mind . . . everything . . .are coordinated in a way that leads to an impeccable integration of the forces of gravity and ground through a relaxed body. It is a subject that I first heard discussed in aikidō, although it was almost completely lost in the modern-day art. Similarly, I read about similar things in various koryū systems, but I saw little evidence of it there either. It was, however, initially through my contacts with various teachers of Chinese internal martial arts that I began to actually learn these skills, and it was as if the missing pieces of the koryū I studied finally made sense. It was like finally resetting the lens in a telescope. You could see far already, but now with a lot more depth and clarity. It also was the missing piece within aikidō—a lot of the art that doesn’t make sense becomes clear with the addition of the study of internal strength, which was at the heart of what Ueshiba first learned in Daitō-ryū and then taught in his aikidō. He did so, however, in a way that most people couldn’t see. Instead, they ‘wrote him off’ as superhuman, and concentrated on a much more mundane interpretation of the art. I began reworking these essays in light of my own study of this subject and started to do a lot of research to prove my then somewhat controversial thesis that internal strength training methodologies permeated traditional Japanese martial arts. This became my third book, Hidden in Plain Sight, a subject we should return to when we publish the new expanded edition of that book in the fall of next year.
Let’s just get the marketing question out of the way: why an expanded edition and what’s new?
Dueling with O-sensei was my first book. I wanted to rewrite it because it could have been better edited, better designed and better organized. Beyond that, I’d done a lot more research on Ueshiba Morihei, particularly the founder’s, intimate connections with Japan’s pre-and-post war far-right. (Many of his partisans concede this in pre-war Japan—in fact, that becomes part of the origin myth of aikidō that he transcended such base and violent ideas—but they claim that he became an enlightened sage after the war. Ueshiba was a remarkable man – perhaps a great man, in the conventional sense – but he was a close friend and supporter of not only mere right wing political figures, but also terrorists and assassins. This continued without any change after the war as well, something I establish in this version of the book. Many have deified him as an apostle of peace, almost like Gandhi, and he was anything but that. One far-right activist I met in Japan admiringly said of Ueshiba, “Ueshiba-san wa uyoku no uyoku deshita.” (“He was rightwing beyond rightwing.”) It is not that I see myself as a muckraker. Rather, I think we can learn best from great men and women when we know what their struggles were, how they became the kind of people they were, and also what they were not, despite wishful fantasies to the contrary. The profound metaphors on reconciliation, harmony and peace, that excite so many, actually come from an amalgam of messianic neo-Shintō, a genuine desire for a better world, and Japanese far-right politics, the latter under the rubric of yō naoshi, which essentially means to correct a corrupt world (and the latter by any means necessary). We can move towards our own goals in this area when we understand the context they were originally created.
Secondly, I wanted to write more about my early days training in aikidō and some of the wonderful people I met and studied with. That period of my life was absolutely magical, and writing about it brought back not only memories, but also a felt sense, a return to that period. I could feel the summer heat of Tokyo hear the cicada’s whirling murmur, and smell the grassy odor of the tatami mats upon which I slept.
Finally, I wanted to write more essays on how the principles of Japanese martial arts in general can be embodied in one’s life. Japanese martial arts have taught me how to be fiercely compassionate, and through that, I’ve been able to step into some terrible situations and some terrifying situations (not necessarily the same), and change them for the better.
All in all, I think there are eight new chapters, encompassing about one hundred new pages.
Your martial training began with aikidō, with the rather larger-than-life character of Terry Dobson, in the sometimes larger-than-life world of 1970s New York. One of Dueling with O Sensei’s most powerful chapters is its very first, which is an elegy to this complicated figure. Without spoilers, Terry was hardly the sort of figure one imagines as the serene, martial arts master – physically and temperamentally the antithesis of Ueshiba Morihei, despite having been one of his uchi-deshi. What of “Terry’s aikidō” lives in Ellis’ budo?
Actually, that’s not necessarily true about Terry and Ueshiba. They were both intoxicated with salvationist fantasies, and both bigger-than-life characters of immense selfish appetites. (People are more circumspect about Ueshiba, but you might get one of R. Crumb’s comics of Mr. Natural to get an idea of this aspect of Ueshiba. Yes—really. That outrageous!). The biggest difference, in my view, is that Terry had a sense of proportion and perspective, that Ueshiba, a demigod within his own closed world, did not. He knew when he was an asshole, and was often later embarrassed by it. I’ve never seen any evidence that Ueshiba had that capacity for self-reflection.
As to what of “Terry’s aikidō lives in me,” technically quite a bit. Beyond that, however, we are quite different. Unlike Terry, I’m not messianic in the least. I don’t see aikidō as a means to save the world. Terry had a lot of difficulty parsing proper boundaries between teacher and student—not only in terms of relationships, but also in terms of how much responsibility he had to ‘help’ people with their psychological issues, as he perceived them, whether they asked for it or not. I don’t try to heal people on the mat.
On the other hand, in part thanks to Terry, I’m not too impressed by the pretensions so rife in budo. Although Terry was certainly a more of a wildman than I, often more id than ego, I’m probably more rebellious than he was when it comes to martial arts society. I know how to behave (and in good ‘Japanese’ fashion, I can bow to an idiot, if social rules or tactics demand it), but I cannot stand the martial arts guru or as you put it, ‘the serene, martial arts master.’ If a person really has those qualities, or is otherwise admirable, I will offer them genuine respect. But my best teachers have simply been human beings who know more about something than I do—not god-like figures. I think the title of my book speaks exactly to that point. What should be outcome of a duel be if, perchance, no one dies? Hopefully: reconciliation and respect. I did that with Terry in person and Ueshiba in absentia.
(On the other hand, it is true that I never came close to assassinating Khrushchev. No lie! Terry wasn’t on any mission for the government, either. He was just a young ex-Marine, barely out of his teens, alone in his mother’s apartment in NYC with a rifle and a scope. This was during Khrushchev’s infamous visit to the UN. Security then was not anything like it is now, and he decided initially that he just wanted to use the scope on the rifle to see the infamous man on his distant balcony waving to the crowd. He drew a bead on his left ear. Then he put his finger on the trigger, idly at first, and then it came to him that he could save the free world from the Communist Menace!!!!! The only reason he didn’t fire is that he was too afraid of how his absolutely ferocious mother would react. He was terrified of her, and with good reason. Were it not for her, he would have started WWIII. Then again, it was due to that woman that he was so messed up that he almost did so).
Training with Terry Dobson ultimately took you to Japan. How long did you train aikidō in both places, and how would you characterize the difference between the art you learned in 1970s New York from its Japanese counterpart?
That’s actually the subject of a lot of the book, particularly some of the new chapters. I trained about two years in the states, and two years in Japan. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but I suppose I trained about three or four hours a day in the US, while in Japan, I probably averaged six or seven hours a day. I think I got about 8000 hours in four years. I had the benefit of extremely high-level instruction in the states, not only at Terry’s place, but also at Yamada Yoshimitsu’s New York Aikikai and frequent trips to other dōjōs.
Many instructors in the states, Terry most prominently, were big on the alleged moral dimensions of aikidō. Few instructors in Japan did the same—at least they didn’t talk about it very much. There were certainly profoundly spiritual teachers within the Japanese aikidō community, but they practiced their art as a Shintō rite, an offering to divine powers, rather than as ‘embodied moral instruction.’
The other major difference between American and Japan at that time was quality. In the early 1970’s, most dōjōs in the states, other than the very biggest, only had a few high level students. A second dan was a stud and a third dan was remarkable. In most Japanese dōjōs, on the other hand, I could easily practice with powerful high-level trainees one after another. It was like going from high school basketball to the Big Ten college league.
This brings up an interesting question that links your two martial worlds: you have discussed the challenge koryū have in surviving intact when they are removed their from their cultural milieu – or rather, what remains of it. Having trained both “at the source” of aikidō with a number of students who trained directly under Ueshiba O Sensei and abroad, do you think gendai budō (modern martial traditions) are as fragile in their transmission?
Modern martial arts, for the most part, are activities that welcome everyone rather than a select few, and therefore, they are flexible and adaptable. For better and for worse, they are open to change. If one were to consider a brilliant traditionalist such as the recently deceased Shirata Rinjiro, it is unlikely that his legacy in aikidō will fully be transmitted. Do his successors do justice to the intertwining of Ōmotokyō (the syncretic neo-Shintō religion), his profound personal morality and incredibly powerful technique? Let us consider a larger legacy such as the Yoshinkai of Shioda Gozo. In his codification of his teachings, he ‘organized his genius’ away. He was freeform and natural in his movements, whereas most Yoshinkan practitioners never surpass the rigid formulaic practice that Shioda developed for mass education After his death, the Yoshinkan fissioned, with many of his finest and most loyal successors each forming their own group. There should be hundreds of people who have equaled or surpassed Shioda. Yet few, if any, have come close, because most became masters of his system of training, not the core of what he taught.
On the other hand, evolution is not best served in a small enclosure. As much as aikidō (or any other modern martial art) run the risk of being watered down, widespread dissemination and liberality of interpretation also offers the opportunity for creative generation. There is not doubt that there are many modern martial arts schools whose practice cannot even be termed poor—it is fatuous. But there are other dōjōs, such as that of Robert Mustard, who practices as ferociously as anybody in the 1930’s or 1940’s Japan, and the Tenzan Aikidō of Bruce Bookman (both these men are training brothers to me), that combine exemplary technique with a community of trainees, from children to old folks. Bruce’s dōjō is as fine as Kuwamori Yasunori’s dōjō, my ideal, the subject of one of the last chapters in Dueling with O-sensei.
Essentially, your discovery of Araki-Ryū marked the end of your formal tutelage in aikidō. Why?
Remember what I said in my first answer above. I was looking for what I sensed (whether it was there or not) in that movie starring Katsu Shintaro and Mifune Toshiro, a combination of raw violence, psychological acuity, a fierce adhering to tradition, a behavioral code of rigor, and a natural social hierarchy based, in part, on how much integrity and courage one lived one’s life. I perceived this most explicitly within the Araki-ryū of my teacher, and in a different fashion, within Toda-ha Buko-ryū. Furthermore, I was then very much focused on combative effectiveness, even if the weapons were archaic, and aikidō, a very abstract martial art, was simply not what I wanted to do. It was only in recent years with my rediscovery of the possibilities of aikidō as a vehicle for the development of internal strength (whole body coordination for the use of powerful technique) that my interest really got rekindled.
Did your aikidō teachers accept this, or did they see you as the baby who bit the breast?
Honestly, I don’t think very many people saw me as important enough to get upset about (well, maybe Terry did). To the degree that anyone really noticed, they respected me enough to respect my choices, because they saw that I continued to train with integrity.
I have read some notable koryū teachers or practitioners express the idea that gendai arts, and often aikidō in particular, are unsuited for cross-training in a traditional school. You seem uniquely suited to comment on that. Do you see any truth in this? If so, why? Is the issue mechanical, tactical, androgogical, or just one more martial myth?
That can be a problem, particularly with ‘true believers’ who imagine their modern art is the best martial art ever developed for anything and everything, and also with people who are so imprinted by the modern art they practice that they cannot learn the very specific physical requirements of the koryū they are also training. This is actually a huge problem in Japan, where many of the koryū have joined with the kendō, iaidō or naginatadō federations and they deliberately and/or unconsciously shift their techniques to conform to the monolithic gendai art they’ve joined. Yet I have a number of students who train in modern martial arts and they do great! I actually require my Araki-ryū students to train in some modern grappling school, and many of my Toda-ha Bukō-ryū students also happen to practice iaidō, aikidō, and Filipino escrima. The question for me is if they can keep things separate – that they do not mix their koryū practice with their modern martial art. If they can do this, I’ve not problems with it whatsoever.
Many people come to martial arts because they are “seekers”. This seems particularly true of aikidō. Why do you think that is?
Aikidō has been propounded as a ‘spiritual’ martial art. With its white-bearded founder offering rambling disquisitions on martial technique as the embodiment of the forces of the universe, and many teachers talking about the art as offering a method for the reconciliation of conflict, it draws many looking for everything from otherworldly bliss to a way out from the knot of violence that is destroying so much of the world. And the latter goal, in many ways, possible. For example, the recently deceased Tom Osborn’s, Keganin no Senshi (“wounded warrior) project has been a wonderful help for warfighters struggling with combat related posttraumatic stress disorder. And Miles Kessler has been teaching aikidō to young Palestinian and Israeli kids in Israel and the West Bank. In an environment of hatred, these kids are physically touching and helping each other! These are two of uncountable individuals who have been inspired by aikidō and on a moral level, have made it something finer than that which the founder himself created. Although it may well be true that the founder and his first generation were ferociously able martial artists, there are many today who, although not nearly as powerful martial artists, have taken the concept of the reconciliation of humanity in enormously creative ways. Aikidō may well be far from the top of the list for someone who wants to clear out a bar room brawl, but it has cleared the cobwebs out of the minds of hundreds of thousands of people who use its practice as a vehicle towards becoming finer human beings.
Whereas Old School is very much a work of cultural anthropology and historiography, Dueling with O Sensei is a far more intimate book — and also a cautionary tale, where you take a brutally hard look at what can go wrong in martial arts training, both as the student and the teacher. Sadly, this seems to be a recurring tale that anyone who spends much time around the arts eventually encounters. What is it that draws someone to these arts, especially as a teacher, that seems to lead to this?
The longest chapter of the book focuses specifically on this question. In brief, people are drawn to martial arts because they are drawn to power. There is nothing more human than this. And more bestial as well. Power, however, is not synonymous with morality. If one does not possess moral rigor, then it is easy to be swayed by one who is charismatic, charming, or manipulative. Unfortunately, martial arts can be Petri dishes for pathology. Not only the best, but also some of the worst of humanity achieve leadership roles in martial arts.
Since the teacher-student/mentor-mentee relationship in martial arts is ripe for abuse, and many students join a martial art in their late teens or early 20s, do you have a short list for how a prospective student can identify and avoid a toxic training environment?
Sure. Could you trust him/her with the well-being of your pet or your kids? Could you ask him/her to house sit and leave your diary on the kitchen table and be 100% sure that it wouldn’t be opened while you were gone? Do they make you feel worthwhile, or someone who is flawed? Are you full of adrenaline and happy when you go to train, or sick with fear? Do they ask or require anything of you that, were they not your sensei, you would refuse?
So as an aikidō “prodigal son”, what do you think is the key worth it offers its adherents? Why, for example, might you point a young man or woman to aikidō over a koryū, or, for that matter, to a koryū over aikidō?
That’s up to ‘you,’ not me. The martial art one chooses actually chooses you. It demands that you practice it. (I put it that way, because I’ve not particular interested in people who are training for a hobby, so I’ve nothing to say about them). In a koryū, though, not only must the art may speak to you, but also the teacher must believe that the art needs you. Speaking here with traditional rigor, it’s not about your wishes. Koryū, if it is still real and not a gendai budo in old trappings, is a kind of living entity with its teacher as the embodiment of the tradition. One way to put it is in gendai budō, you learn from a teacher; in koryū, you ‘learn the teacher.’ Beyond all that, I don’t really point people towards martial arts. People should find their art and their teachers on their own.
Now the obvious final question: what’s next?
As always, I’ve several writing projects. I started a general website/blog www.kogenbudo.org (‘Kogen’ is my play on words that means “old-modern,” because I’ve a foot in each camp. This is a vehicle for my essay writing on martial arts, as well as a general site regarding my training. I will also have guest bloggers, people whom I respect, write about their arts).
You and I, of course, will be publishing an expanded edition of my out-of-print third book, Hidden in Plain Sight. I’m working on it now, and it will be at least as radically revised as Old School and Dueling with O-sensei, with a number of new chapters.
I have released a DVD and book entitled Threat De-escalation: : How to Effectively Assess and Diffuse Dangerous Situations under the auspices of the United States Concealed Carry Association.
I’ve also released Body and Soul: Toward a Radical Intersubjectivity in Psychotherapy. I know that this book sounds radically different from anything we’ve discussed, but it actually describes how some of the deepest concepts we’ve been discussing can be embodied in psychotherapy, particularly when death – either suicide or murder – is a definite possibility.
Also, several years ago, I participated in a large project with the Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA). We were striving to create a body of knowledge to assist in the development of people (specifically warfighters and law enforcement officers) who can successfully manage high-risk, high-consequence social interactions in an unfamiliar environment, particularly where there is a power differential. These are people who are potentially viewed by the ‘local’ participants as outsiders, perhaps being seen as a potential threat or holding power. I was used in a kind of ‘outlier’ track, a subject-matter expert who was viewed as having some original ideas outside the ‘standard model’ that had been established by orthodox research. What I had to offer was primarily derived from my studies in koryū as well as from twenty-five years working in the area of crisis intervention. My research associate, Robert Hubal, and I have decided to publish the work we accomplished within our track to contribute to the overall body of knowledge in this area. This is an example of bringing knowledge from koryū into modern situations, knowledge that was specific to the ryū that I studied. My job – actually my entire career— has been an endeavor to bring this knowledge into a present context while retaining its full potency, in service to something greater than myself. Returning to your first question, Dueling with O-sensei is at the heart of this.