Zan Shin

Proper Finish.

“Zan” is remaining, or left over. In this calligraphy “Shin” means mind or spirit. Aikido must be practiced with “good “Zan Shin”: balanced, clean, generous of spirit.

Akira Tohei Sensei

Photograph: Tohei Sensei

Remembering Akira Tohei Sensei

For twenty-four years, from its founding in 1975 until 1999, Akira Tohei Sensei set the tone for practice at the Midwest Aikido Center. Sensei’s presence was so influential that even his most senior students never had to make decisions about how Aikido was taught in the dojo. People watched closely what he did and the way that he did it, and then tried their best to do something similar. In fact people who spoke English perfectly well, as their native language would suddenly start speaking broken Japanese-English because that was the way he spoke English.

Tohei Sensei’s Aikido permeated his life. The way he looked at things, the way he carried himself off as well as on the mat, the way his Aikido interwove with every aspect of his life was all carefully studied by his students. I hasten to add that he was, as is true for any human being, far from perfect. Neither did he like being placed on a pedestal and would mimic putting something up on an imaginary pedestal, then kicking it over. (Actually it was a good example of how he would not let himself be placed in a vulnerable position.) Never the less, his direct influence on his students was profound.

We have however, ten years after his passing, come to something of a milestone. Today there are more and more students who have never had the benefit of direct contact with Tohei Sensei. Some are teaching and some are participating in the decision-making of the dojo.

Perhaps it‘s a good time to examine some of the fundamental principles on which Tohei Sensei’s Aikido was built.

Humility was a quality he consistently demanded from himself as well as his students. He believed that without humility one could not see oneself clearly and make necessary corrections. He would use the metaphor of a glass of water, saying that when it was full one couldn’t add any more to the glass. In order to learn one had to “empty oneself” first. It made his Aikido and that of his students flexible yet centered, very much like the misogi breathing he taught in which one pushed out all the air from ones lungs before taking in more.

The emphasis on humility made the study of Aikido with Tohei Sensei something that encompassed more than technique. He was not afraid to tell someone that they were practicing “too much”, especially if other important areas of their life were being neglected. He would say “family first, then Aikido”. He was always most interested in developing his students into “better human beings” who could take the lessons they learned in the dojo into the broader world.

He taught basic techniques a good portion of the time, and wanted his students to have a firm grasp of “kihon waza”. He disliked it when people tried to put on too much of a show with their Aikido, and he frowned upon overly dramatic ukemi.

He thought it was shallow and misguided when people placed too much of an emphasis on rank. During class he wanted sempai to work with kohai and help them with constructive criticism, but he discouraged long lectures.

Tohei Sensei’s favorite Japanese word was “Agatsu”, “the victory over oneself”. Just like the swordsmith who pounded and folded layer after layer of hot steel over itself, until a blade of exceptional strength, flexibility and refinement was created, one forged ones own spirit out of ones actions. It wasn’t necessarily easy. I remember a number of discussions that centered on the difference between “what was good and what was easy”. What was easy wasn’t always good. Tohei Sensei wasn’t interested in “easy”. He talked about the salmon that struggle to swim upstream in order to spawn, how no matter how many times they are thrown back by the force of the current they never give up.

Agatsu meant that during practice, or under the stress of a test or demonstration
one always stayed in control of oneself, that one was always clear-headed and fully aware of the ability of one’s uke to take safe ukemi. Of course it went without saying that nage would always be aware of any injuries that uke might have and factor uke’s physical condition into practice. That attitude established an atmosphere of trust. It meant that people could practice hard with one another without the fear of someone losing control.

Tohei Sensei would say, “good etiquette is good martial art”. Respecting others was a good way of interacting with friends as well as enemies. He taught that if you were attentive to the needs of others you would begin to anticipate what they wanted even before they asked. If you were careful to place yourself in the correct “maai”, or distance, you would not only be in a position to fully appreciate the generosity of friends, but be forewarned of the intentions of people who wished you harm. “When does the attack begin?” he would ask. If you respected others you tended not to put yourself in jeopardy. When students would ask him where to throw their uke he would ask them where it was easiest for uke to be thrown. He would say, “uke is half guest”.

Tohei Sensei respected his students and their desire to learn Aikido. He took you wherever you were at and started teaching. It didn’t matter if you were slow, or weak, or if you didn’t know your right foot from your left. If you had the desire to learn he was there to teach. Patiently, painstakingly, step by step he would help you along the way. He believed it was the obligation of the teacher to lift the student as high as the student could go, even if that meant the student would surpass the teacher.

He wanted kohai to respect their sempai for their knowledge and their willingness to share what they knew, and he wanted sempai to respect their kohai because the kohai were the mirrors through which the sempai could see themselves.

Occasionally Sensei was asked how, since all of his teachers and sempai were in Japan, he was able to continue to grow and deepen his understanding of Aikido. He would say that if he thought for one minute that coming to this country would have kept him from continuing to learn Aikido he would never have come. Then how did he do it? His response was always the same: “I look in the mirror”
Art Wise, June 24, 2009

Cyril’s Article on Tohei Sensei

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