This week in 2010, the Global Inner Aikido Seminar at Maredsous was being held, for the first time, without its instigator, Sugano Sensei. He was in New York, too ill to travel, and indeed with only a few days to live. Ten years on, Aiki Kai Australia will commemorate Sugano Sensei's death with an online training session on 29th August.
On 31st October 2010, a commemoration ceremony took place at the Yeunten Ling Tibetan Buddhist Institute in Belgium, bringing together many of Sugano Sensei's European students. Here is a short article I produced at the time to sum up my impressions of that event.
Sugano Seiichi Shihan
Yeunten Ling Tibetan Buddhist Institute
October 31st 2010
A recurring theme in O Sensei's recorded teachings is that of three realms of awareness: the Manifest, the Hidden and the Divine. This is what kept coming to mind when I reflected on the experience of last Sunday's ceremony and tried to collect my thoughts.
The Manifest: the visual splendour of the Tibetan Buddhist temple is impossible to describe to anyone who has never seen one; a plain exterior belies an interior which is... well, gaudy isn't the right word, but almost every surface which can be is ornately carved, painted and/or bedecked with bright tapestries . There are vivid images and bright colours all around - and when the ceremony begins, these form the backdrop for Tibetan chanting, the drone of sonorous horns and the thud of bass drums.
I was also struck by the sheer number of people - I would estimate perhaps 300 or so, among them many familiar faces from Sugano's courses and seminars in Belgium over the last few decades. There were brief, sincere addresses from Dany Leclerre (on helanf of the Francophone Aikido Federation), Luc Vermeulen (on behalf of the Flemish Aikido Feredation), and Louis van Thieghem, who has taken on Sugano's role as Technical Director of the Global Inner Aikido School. These sketched out Sugano's many travels, whether in geography (from Japan to Australia to Belgium to New York), in study (of Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, fencing and acupuncture), or in his journey through practice, research, teaching and illness.
Our presence in a Tibetan temple was a reflection of the time Sugano spent as a monastic in the Himalayas. Lama Karta, who led the ceremony or commemoration, graciously acknowledged this as the rituals concluded, and offered the Institute's support for all those in Sugano's aikido communities, as we try to follow his example and his teaching.
The Hidden: as most will acknowledge, aikido hierarchies can have their tensions from time to time, and historically Belgium has been no exception. However, in my experience of Sugano's teaching, such distinctions simply did not exist on the tatami. For all that it may have been unspoken, there was a strong sense of community among all those who gathered on Sunday, regardless of federation, community or language. I think Sugano would have expected nothing less... and I hope he would have looked on it with contentment.
And the Divine? Well, when you are immersed in unfamiliar sights and sounds, with chanting in a strange language, it can be hard to relate it to whatever ideas of religion you may have - but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes having your normal frame of reference taken away makes you look at things differently. I later found this comment from a talk about the Amitabha Dewachen (Tibetan) tradition of Buddhism: "You cannot develop an aspiration on someone else's behalf."
And that, in turn, brought to mind something Sugano himself said about his time learning about aikido from O Sensei:
“Partly I think he made me more aware that Aikido was something I had to continue to search for. He didn’t provide any system; he had some system so that you’re always following up, but he wasn’t providing it. The individual person had to search for himself."
The Commemoration ceremony reminded me that I am lucky to have been taught by Sugano, and I'm grateful that he showed me where the next steps of that search might take me.
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If you are self-isolating or in lockdown because of COVID-19, it's possible you may be prevented from practising aikido for weeks or even months. It's also important to keep physically active, for your physical and mental wellbeing... so what's the answer? You will have to find a regime that works for you, in your personal circumstances (how much space do you have, does anyone you live with also practise aikido, and so on).
Here are some thoughts, based on the assumption that you don't have a practice partner, don't have tatami, but do have some outdoor space and a jo and bokken.
- Keep doing the usual warm-up and stretching exercises ("undo"); you probably have room to do these indoors, but outdoors is also good. Practising them on your own is a good way to internalise the exercises, rather than being led through them at the start of a class. Take time to note which parts of the body you are working on, and be mindful of any problem areas.
- Kokyu-ho exercises, like torifune (the rowing exercise) are useful outside the normal warm-up routine, too.
- Practise basic steps and body movements (tai sabaki); changing hanmi, pivoting, turning; shuffle-step (tsugi-ashi) and alternate step (ayumi ashi). Stay stable. Practising outside, on uneven ground, is useful for this.
- Combine the basic steps and movements with bokken work; a simple shomen or kiri tsuke as you move.
- Work on the "7 movements" jo form. Once you are comfortable with it, develop by adding movement back and forth. Once you are happy with that, increase your fluidity by adding circular movement. Smibert sensei has demonstrated this at several seminars.
- Now is also a good time to re-inforce your aikido vocabulary. Write down the name of the technique, and then a sentence or two that describes it to you. This will help you when it comes to grading.
Domo arigato gozaimashita.
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In aikido, we learn both from applying the techniques and from receiving them. One cannot learn aikido by doing only one or the other. We also learn that aikido has the potential to do harm, and that we have a responsibility to understand how to practice it safely and beneficially - not selfishly or harmfully.
Thinking about the current coronavirus epidemic, one can look at it in two ways: first, what is my risk of catching the virus? Second, what is the risk of my passing it on to others?
Catching the virus is clearly bad for the individual, but passing it on to multiple other people is worse for the population as a whole. I would encourage everyone to limit their contact with others, so as to slow the rate at which the virus spreads, and help keep vulnerable people safer.
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