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Interview with Renown Aikidoist John Stevens
Part 2
by Cheryl Matrasko

Where do you see your current direction in martial arts and specifically Aikido? 
"If we reckon O'Sensei as the Father, and his direct disciples as the Children, we are the Grandchildren of the Art, and it is typically the third generation that puts the art in an established form, for better or worse. In my view, Aikido is a vision, and that vision must never be lost. That is why, I have devoted my life to providing, through my publications, access to the teachings of Ueshiba Morihei.

"It is fine to be innovative, indeed necessary, but in order to create something original one needs a firm grounding in the basics. Every great calligrapher in Japan, typically spends years and years copying the classical texts prior to developing his or her own style. The same should be true for Aikido. Every Aikido student should have a thorough acquaintance with Morihei's biography, and his writings BUDO and the ESSENCE of AIKIDO."

What are current Aikido's strengths? 
"I truly believe that Aikido is the martial art for the 21st century, emphasizing cooperation over competition, life over death, the equality of all human beings. We just must keep to the original vision."

Is the Sempai / Kohai relationship still alive in Japan? Is it still a cultural aspect of Aikido in Japan? Where is it going? Is it disappearing from Aikido classes? What do you convey to your students as proper behavior, as an Aikidoist of high caliber? Do you ask them to strive for this?
"Yes, the Sempai/Kohai system is disappearing from Japan. As an American, I never emphasized it much anyway and I am not sorry to see it go--the system was too often abused."

Is Aikido "hard" or "soft"? Is this a bad term to describe one's Aikido practice? (I know this is a general question, but maybe you can elaborate on this in your own terms.)
"Every Aikido technique has a diamond (hard), willow (soft), water (flowing), and air (ki) dimension and it takes a great deal of experience to develop the proper intuition for applying the appropriate dimension. 

"Also, every Aikido technique has an educational, historical, practical, and  Philosophical aspect. The techniques are a repository of human (and divine) wisdom that is difficult to discern but undeniably present." 

Is Aikido is becoming cultist? Three months ago, I was having dinner with a few Aikido friends, and I mentioned that I was reviewing your book. This "cultist" subject suddenly came up. It wasn't directed to your book, but it was a subject that was born from the subject matter I brought up.
"Aikido is not a religion but it is more than a martial art. Aikido is based on a vision, a spiritual vision, that Morihei expressed in terms that are usually construed as 'religious' because of his background -- Shingon Tantric Buddhism and Omoto-kyo esoteric Shinto. Aikido is a 'Way,' a vehicle of transformation and in that sense it is more  akin to Tantra than any formal religious system. However, as I mentioned before, one meaning of Aikido is 'appropriate response'.

"If I am trying to explain Aikido to a group of Catholic nuns, I employ Christian terminology. If I am explaining Aikido to a conference of scientists, I will talk about quantum physics. If I want to impress a bunch of lawyers I will define Aikido as a "win-win philosophy." To put it simply, "spiritual" can be defined very broadly. I am an essentially religious person in the most eclectic sense, so the way I practice and present Aikido seemscloser to religion than a martial art but that is my style, and if I may be bold enough to say so, the style of the Founder. I am aware that some have criticized my book INVINCIBLE WARRIOR as hagiography rather than objective biography -- as if there can be such a thing as an objective standpoint-- but in fact all that I am doing is to present the Founder in the best possible light. All of us want to be remembered at our best."  


John Stevens demonstrating kaiten.

Was there a particular audience you had in mind for this book?
"First of all, it is addressed to dedicated Aikidoka (and other serious martial artists) who want to see Aikido presented as a total system. Too much modern Aikido is presented piecemeal. That is why Aikido people are always combining Aikido and other martial arts like karate, iaido, or tai-chi, Aikido and some other kind of meditation such as zazen, Aikido and other health systems such as shiatsu and yoga. Aikido, as conceived by Morihei Ueshiba, is a fully integrated system that includes complete utilization of the body (waza, physical techniques), mind (chinkon-kishin, meditation techniques), and speech (kototama, sacred sounds, including kiai). Aikido has its own rich cosmology and profound philosophy that is in danger of being lost, or worse, ignored.  And since any good philosophy contains universal truths I hope the book will also inspire readers who cannot actually practice Aikido in a dojo for some reason.

"In my talks, I often point out that while Aikido is a particular path that will only be practiced by a small number of people, Aiki Okami—the all-encompassing spirit of Aiki-- is the universal application of Aikido principles that anyone can try to do."

What prompted you to write this one?
"I felt compelled to write a book that presented Aikido and its philosophy as an essential element of the emerging world culture, not as a "Japanese martial art consisting of throws, locks, and pins." Somewhere I saw a list of the most important discoveries of the 20th century and Aikido was one of the entries. I agree and believe that Aikido has a real role to play in the 21st century."

Do the beliefs of the late Onisaburo Deguchi still have a profound influence in Aikido today? Will this change?
"Morihei Ueshiba always maintained that Onisaburo Deguchi was his root guru.

"Aikido philosophy is not abstract. As with all Asian systems, the experience comes first then the philosophy. Both Onisaburo and Morihei had extraordinary exposure to a vast variety of teachings--Shinto, Taoism, esoteric Buddhism, Christianity, western science --- and incorporated many different elements into their own mature philosophies. Both men were extremely eccentric visionaries, however, so a lot of stuff they said is hard to swallow, but the core of their teachings is sound. I believe that all Aikido students should know something about Onisaburo, especially his art (calligraphy, paintings, and pottery) which is out of this world."

What do you see as being major influences in Aikido philosophy in the future to come? 
"While I constantly stress the universal aspects of Aikido, I believe that there will be more integration of Aikido theory and practice with the local cultures. That is, the philosophy will be presented less in Japanese terminology and concepts and more in terms of the individual culture. Whenever I conduct a seminar outside of Japan I always encourage the students to express key Aikido concepts such as misogi and masakatsu agatsu katsu-hayabi in their own idiom. One meaning of Aikido is 'appropriate response', and it is not appropriate to build a pure Japanese-style Shinto dojo in the wilds of North America. Local culture must be respected and represented. That is why I am very pleased when I see old church buildings transformed into Aikido dojo."

What would you recommend to the serious intermediate Aikidoka, for good groundwork for Aikido study. (Personally, I would recommend a formal education, with a major in Eastern studies, philosophy, languages and maybe a minor in business management - finance, etc., if they are looking to make Aikido a career.)
"Nothing specific, just an open mind and the desire to read as much as possible about Aikido (including all my books). Both Onisaburo and Morihei, incidentally, had little formal education but Morihei (and my teacher Shirata Sensei) never stopped studying."  

Do you have advice for everyone on good practice habits? 
"Masakatsu Agatsu Katsu-hayabi."

What type of behavior do you disallow in your dojo? (i.e.. such as bullish, negative, obnoxious or outright physical abuse). What do you do to discourage it? (Surprisingly, I get many letters detailing physical abuses on the mat. Students want to know if this is usual and permitted by the instructor. Sometimes, the instructor has been detailed as performing these abuses.)
"O'Sensei maintained that "No one should get hurt practicing Aikido." Abuse by anyone, especially instructors, should never be tolerated. "

What would you like to see from your Aikido students? 

  • What would you like them to accomplish from your instruction?

  • What is your class format like?

"Every class begins with a good warm-up based on the exercises used by O'sensei and Shirata Sensei. This followed by breath-mediation (as described in the book AIKIDO: THE WAY OF HARMONY). Then there is kototama chanting. Prior to actual training one needs to calm down and cleanse the body, mind, and voice.

"During seminars, I always talk a bit about Aikido philosophy, following the example of O'Sensei and Shirata Sensei. During training we try to cover all of the technical pillars-- shiho-nage, irimi-nage, kaiten, kokyu, osae-waza, ushiro-waza, and tenchi-chi. We practice aiki-ken and aiki-jo everyday."

If you could ask O'Sensei a question, what would it be? 
"I have been asking him questions everyday for 20 years."

*****

I am very grateful to John and his editor Ms. Elizabeth Floyd of Kodansha International Ltd. for this interview! Thank you both very much.

Please note that John Stevens is the author of many other publications, that are available in many other languages:

AIKIDO: THE WAY OF HARMONY
THE SECRETS OF AIKIDO
THE PHILOSOPHY OF AIKIDO
THE SHAMBHALA GUIDE TO AIKIDO
BUDO
THE ESSENCE OF AIKIDO
THE ART OF PEACE
INVINCIBLE WARRIOR: BIOGRAPHY OF MORIHEI UESHIBA
TRAINING WITH THE MASTER
THREE BUDO MASTERS: KANO, FUNAKOSHI, UESHIBA
BUDO SECRETS  

Photographs displayed with permission from Scott Aitken. 

Thank you Scott for allowing us to use your photographs for this interview!
© 2001 photos by Scott Aitken, www.ScottPix.com

Any reproduction, or further use of the photos, articles, and other literary materials from these web pages without the direct written permission of the photographers, owners, or authors is prohibited.

9/9/2001

© 2009, Aikido World, Inc. All rights reserved

    
Cheryl Matrasko is a Network Analyst for the department
of Networking and Communications at a prominent
Chicago hospital. Formerly the LAN Administrator for
Northwestern University Medical School - Department of
Obstetrics and Gynecology, and assistant LAN Administrator to the previous MIS of the School of Law. 

She started Aikido in 1965, studying under Isao Takahashi
as her first instructor. She enjoyed working out under
many well known Aikido instructors during her tenure with
Takahashi Sensei, and thereafter following his death in
1971. Cheryl has dedicated time with instructors in
Northern Shaolin Long-Fist, Seven Stars Praying Mantis,
and Daito-Ryu Aikijujitsu to extend her martial arts
education and perspectives. Currently, she is instructing
Aikido at Northwestern University's Chicago Campus and
supporting Aikido World Journal.
  

 


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Michio Hikitsuchi 10th Dan 1978
(C. Matrasko as uke)
© 1978 C. Matrasko

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9/11/2001