January 25, 2009

elephantjournal.com feature interview: Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei of Boulder Aikikai.

No Mountaintop

An interview with Hiroshi Ikeda shihan, Chief Instructor of Boulder Aikikai in Boulder, Colorado, USA

*Reprinted with kind permission of elephant Magazine, Spring 2005 issue. The interview was conducted by Waylon Lewis, Editor-in-Chief of elephant. Photos by Tom Henwood.

Intro – I came to Colorado three years ago to attend the MFA program at Naropa University and to live in the Rockies (read: ski). But the clincher – the reason I left my beloved hometown of Philadelphia – was the chance to get thrown around like a rag-doll by one of Aikido’s masters, Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei.

In Japanese, Aikido literally means “the way of harmony with energy.” Having witnessed firsthand the carnage of WWII, Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei) argued that martial arts must “cultivate a spirit of loving protection for all things.” The manifestation of this principle is “musubi,’ or blending with an aggressive intention or action, then neutralizing the conflict. In an Aikido class, students learn cooperatively, each practicing the role of thrower (nage) and thrown (uke). Narrow ideas of victory and defeat eventually dissolve.

Hiroshi Ikeda has cultivated this spirit since he opened Boulder Aikikai, in 1980. His philosophy is to awaken and open the mind by honing the instrument of the body. His method is training, training, training. He runs a martial arts supply company by day, teaches classes by night, leads Aikido seminars around the world on weekends – all while raising a loving family with his wife and business partner, Ginger Ikeda.

— Thomas Henwood, elephant’s photographer.





Waylon H. Lewis, for elephant: First of all, thank you. To start, first things first, how did you wind up in Colorado?


Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei: Ginger and I came here on winter break one year, from Florida, where my teacher had brought me. I used to ski in Japan. And I saw in Boulder, when you walk around, so many young people compared to in Florida. There it’s a retirement place. No young people.

ele: So many people you could teach.

Sensei: Younger generation is important. Also, I’m from Japan – I need to have four seasons instead of two season.

ele: So, are martial arts just a form of combat training, or is there some meditation and contemplative aspect?

Sensei: Martial arts have two faces. Many, many years ago, in the 16th century in Japan, it’s always war, so martial arts is used for that. So one face is killing other people.

Other face is helping people. Like a katanta [long sword] in Japanese school. Satsujinken is “killing sword” and katsujinken is “helping people sword.” So it depends how you use it.

Ginger Ikeda: I remember you talked about [how] you have the choice: it can be a killing sword or a sword of life. You can choose not to use it. Right?

Sensei: It’s people, people.

Ginger: Whoever stands behind the sword.

Sensei: Hai. A knife is a weapon. You can use it for killing or for making beautiful cooking.

ele: So how exactly does that help a person who is training to punch or block someone? I mean, you’re not training 100 people at your dojo to go out and kick people’s butts. You’re training them to become better people?

Sensei: Judo, Karate and Kendo have tournaments. Before tournament, you’re friends. But in tournament, both sides think: “I want to win.” Little conflicts come in. Aikido doesn’t have competition. So, basically, it doesn’t have competitive mind: “I want to beat him.” It’s share with each other.”

ele: Before this conversation Tom was telling me that you are strongly rooted in your tradition, and because of that you’re able to open to other traditions. You just mentioned Karate. You’re inviting Kenji Ushiro, a Karate master, to your summer camp. He’s in competitions, right?

Sensei: In university, he started fighting regular Karate. And then he met Nikichi Zaha Sensei and changed to not beating people but helping people Karate. Any martial art can be a killing technique. And then, they can also help. Either way.

ele: Have you read The Art of War? Sun-Tsu? He’s an ancient Chinese general. The whole text is about how to win in war. But in one of the most famous lines he says, “The best way to win is not to have to fight at all.”

Sensei: Aikido is when you study how to look for no fight.

ele: A lot of people study martial arts so that if they run into an angry situation outside of a bar, they can protect themselves and stop it.

Tom Henwood: Yeah. [Laughs] Being able to calm down and realize what’s happening and say, “I don’t need this. It’s not important” – realizing that I can go home and go to sleep instead. [Laughter]

Ginger: In Thick Face, Black Heart there was a story about a warrior who was taunted by some “low-lifes” with weapons. They forced him to crawl. And he did. After, people said, “Why didn’t you just kill them?” And he said, “It wasn’t worth it.”

ele: There is a scene in a Kurosawa film – Seven Samurai – where the old master…

Sensei: He has a shaven head.

ele: Right! He’s looking at a fight that’s starting, and one of the guys is jumping around and yelling, making all sorts of dramatic gestures – and the other one is just standing there, waiting. The old master says, “You can tell what’s going to happen. This fight should stop.” Before this interview we were talking about Shibata Sensei [bowmaker to the Emperor of Japan who moved to Colorado to teach Zen archery, or Kyudo, to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Buddhist students]. In studying with him, when I was a child, he would always criticize “Sports Kyudo.” He would say, “Kyudo is not a sport, it is a walking meditation.” So – as opposed to competitive forms of martial arts – do you regard Aikido as a walking meditation?

Sensei: That’s one way to say it. In Kyudo, the object is not shooting target like in Olympic archery. Key point is how you shoot. Long time ago in Japan, teacher told me, “If your mind, spirit and body don’t get together, you cannot shoot.” You might not open the hand, which naturally comes open to shoot arrow. Japanese Kyudo is completely mental. It’s made up of formal movements. Before doing something, make yourself calm. That is beginning.

Judo, Kendo changed to sports. To win. So it’s losing meditation aspect. Aikido doesn’t have any winning, losing. So it’s more easy to meditate in practice time.

ele: What’s interesting, though, is that originally competition probably measured how connected someone’s mind and body were, how grounded they were, how clear their mind was.

Sensei: Yeah, competition is not bad. But for beginners, it’s difficult for body, mind, spirit to get together. If you practice, practice, practice…later, they can get together.

ele: The samurai tradition had some connection to Zen Buddhism, and Shinto-ism. Why? Did the samurai feel like meditation would help them?”

Sensei: People were fighting each other. If you are upset about something, you cannot have right judgment. Best way is you are calm. Then, you can have a good idea, good judgment, good words coming up. But if you are upset, you cannot do it. Samurai need to be neutral-minded and not upset: happy now, sad now.

People did Zen or flower arrangement or tea ceremony. Miyamoto Musashi, a famous swordsman, practiced calligraphy with sumi ink to calm himself, make himself neutral.

ele: And poetry – they would practice haiku as well. That’s great. In a talk you gave about Kyudo you said, “When all becomes connected – the individual, the weapon and the target – the arrow looses itself and flies into the center of the target.”

Coming back to competition not necessarily being bad, the root of being successful in combat would be being calm, centered, neutral. So from a practical point of view, how do you maintain that calm in daily life? It’s the same thing… you’re busy, you have a child, you travel, you teach a lot – you have a lot of responsibilities.

Sensei: My situation, I have different stages. I have home, business, dojo. I go to seminars, I have people to talk to – many different stages. So I do not carry business stage to seminar stage. If business has a little trouble and it always bother me? No. If I go to the seminar, I don’t carry that with me. I just leave it behind. So when I talk to people during seminar time, and my mind is completely there. Not carrying these things. In beginning you have to think, it cannot come naturally, you have to make it that way.

ele: Practice separating your activities…I see. So if after a long day I’m still thinking about work, I practice forgetting…

Sensei: Just change. I’m thinking about other thing too of course, I worry, but I can’t be at that place. So I cut it off.

ele: Before this interview Ginger mentioned our conversation last issue with Satish Kumar, and Indian gentleman who lives in England. And he was saying the opposite thing: “I work with my family, in my home and then, if it’s a nice day, I go outside and I garden.” You know, he mixes it all up. But it seems similar at some point…both of you are doing exactly what comes up. Do you feel like it’s important to separate your work and your home life?

Sensei: I think so, for me. I go to the center [dojo] and there are 80, 90 people there. I have to deal with them, talk to different kinds of people, during and after class time. If my mind is not right, people can feel that. I don’t want to give my problem to other people. This is my problem. Some people come to dojo really angry, and then this aggression comes out in the practice. And some of them injure others. That is not right.

ele: Whenever Tom and I disagree about the magazine, he attacks me. [Laughter]

Sensei: So that’s why I’m talking about neutrality. I do martial arts many years. I have weapons: my hands, my body. If I’m upset, I can attack easily. So I cannot do that to people. I have a problem? I don’t bring it with me. Different place.

Ginger: When I read Satish’s article, I thought, “That’s how we are. There’s no separation because we’ve done all of our work at Bu Jin [Sensei’s martial arts’ gear and clothing company] at home when we first started. It doesn’t feel as though there’s a separation. I agree with Satish: it’s all the same. We’d run out with the baby jogger and come back and fill orders… and then go to the dojo. But being neutral is being able to separate things, when he needs to. But somehow the identity is always walking and talking Aikido, at home and elsewhere.

ele: This is an interesting point. Sensei is talking on a subtle level. Mentally, you keep shoshin, or beginner’s mind, you keep that empty mind, you leave everything behind. And if you do that, your whole life can be mixed: work and play and family.

Ginger: If you’re able to turn it on and off. Because for a samurai, they had to be ready for someone to jump out of the bushes. [Laughs]

Tom: That is modern life – we’re always getting attacked by one thing or another. We have so many things, coming in from all directions.

Ginger: I’m curious whether training in Aikido as a meditation-in-action has enabled you to do that?

Sensei: These 25 years I moved from Florida to Boulder, our life is so busy. Many different things: we’re building up a dojo, building up a business, and fixing first house.

Ginger: Had a child…

Sensei: We worked all the time. Busy-ness makes easy to make separations. I am so busy, so I cannot carry one problem to another place. I have to cut. Automatically, I trained.

ele: That’s something that I’ve struggled with. I’m working so hard with this magazine, it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill, and I get tired. I get lazy. I don’t want to do it any more. I’m having to learn to separate everything and have a beginner’s mind. Otherwise, my mind is always full.

Sensei: Exactly. Meditation is wonderful to do if need to calm himself or herself. That is important for this life. Not always keeping busy, busy, busy except for sleeping time. We can be awake – still calm. Not necessary to go to the mountains or some place. Of course, if you have opportunity to go to Zen center to train, that is wonderful. But even five minutes – to just be yourself, be quiet. That is help too. Meditation sounds easy, but it is difficult. You’re sitting there, quiet, but always something coming in mind. Never quiet. People go to the mountains, quiet places, and then they can train. In quiet place, you can be calm. But if you go to busy place, you cannot make calm? That is not right. Important that even if in Manhattan, an airport – any busy place – you can quiet mind.

ele: That is the kind of meditation that actually prepares you to lead life. Because life is not quiet.

Sensei: That’s the reason I’ve been doing Aikido 38 years. Every practice session, there are noises going on. How can I shut out distraction? Meditation with movement. Have to try. Not coming naturally. “Okay, I want to quiet myself, focus.” That’s what I did many, many years. Now, I am able to do. If I am in an airport, airplane – so much noise, but I can sleep. People talking? I can cut, completely.

Ginger: Which can cause big problems… [Laughter]

Sensei: Sometimes I’m deaf! But I need to make quiet if I don’t have time to go to quiet place. 200 days a year I travel.

Tom: I can’t imagine traveling that often.

Sensei: I am teacher. If I teach a class the same way over and over…many, many years you do that, you get tired. So I have to make myself enjoy it. Teach in different ways.

ele: And the students probably learn better that way, because you’re fresh, open.

Sensei: I want people to enjoy and learn. When I was in junior high school in Japan, we had this serious English teacher. Everything was so straight, and I was so bored. And then new teacher came…just graduated from university. Fresh. He taught the book, but he put in a lot of funny things.

ele: So you were engaged.

Sensei: People were so happy. So I learned from that. When I go to seminars, I try not just to have people practice the technique over and over. Because everybody knows already the movement.

ele: You’re taking about shoshin.

Sensei: Beginner’s mind. A white canvas – that is shoshin. But every day, if people paint it, soon, they’ll have completely covered it. No place to put more ink. But if you can change every day to a white canvas…every color you can put there.

ele: You mentioned ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. They have these dramatic branches and flowers, but a big part of it is leaving space.

Sensei: Flower arranging has different schools with many, many different styles. My sister practices Sogetsu. They always have space. Other styles sometimes don’t have space in their arrangements.

ele: I studies ikebana when I was a child. Sogetsu. Trungpa Rinpoche felt like it incorporated form and space, that it was another form of meditation-in-action.

Sensei: If you put flower into space, that is shoshin. Empty mind, empty space – then you can do anything you want.

ele: You once said, “O Sensei directed us to train in joyfulness. It was clear that he understood the nature of learning.” You’re talking about shoshin, there. So how do emptiness and joyfulnessconnect?

Sensei: Freedom. Empty is blank canvas. You can put any colors – that’s freedom.

ele: Instead of it being all black and claustrophobic, you can joyfully paint whatever?

Sensei: Anything you want!

Tom: When you do demonstrations, you enjoy spontaneity – not choreographed, scripted attacks. You take what comes. Is that connected with joy and emptiness?

Sensei: Yes. But all martial arts also have basic steps, movements. Kyudo has. You have to have a foundation first. You cannot just have freedom all the time! You have to practice basic movements many, many years. Then later you basically only use your mind. Your mind moves.

Beginning is hard: everything is same, same. Cookie-cutter. Stamp, stamp, stamp. Then, from that, movements become liquid – any movement is possible. You have to understand foundation. Like making a wonderful house. So when I call people to attack and then respond to that attack, they are water, I am water – we’re connected. Shibata Sensei – his movements naturally come. He is notmaking them. But beginners, they must copy first and then this art becomes truly yours. That is the reason to practice, practice, practice. The brain understands and then flows through the body.

Foundation first. And then you can be any freedom you want.

ele: Kobun Chino Roshi, or the Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpiche, when they do Kyudo – they’ve studied for many years – instead of all the formal movements which I practice, they just take the Yumi [bow} and ya [arrow] and…it’s so natural…they just do it. I always wondered, “Why don’t they do all the forms?”

You said in one of your talks, “Emptiness is frequently interpreted as empty mind or not thinking about anything . However, a more accurate interpretation is being in a neutral state, without preconceived notions, plans, opinions or emotions. I think you can see that there’s a subtle difference.” I appreciated that. In meditation, people always think you have to empty your mind, or go to a mountaintop or retreat or spa and relax. But really, meditation is working with your thoughts. You’re not just trying to get away.

Sensei: If you completely empty, you’re dead. Fill up a glass of water, you cannot put any more water in. So always have a mind with empty space, to take in new things. Some people say, “I don’t want to listen to you anymore. I understand already.” That is filled-up mind. They not grow anymore. We are human beings; until we die, need to grow. Always. People go to top of the mountain? Mountains never have tops.

ele: Life doesn’t have a mountaintop.

Sensei: No top. Always top in front of you. You can get to the top but then you can see other side has a higher mountain. So you can’t say, “Okay, I got it. I’m on top.” When you get to the top of mountain, that is the end of your life. That is the top of your mountain. So we have to have open space in the mind, and always learn.

ele: You also said to strive for peace, or emptiness, you have to first, paradoxically, fill your mind up with learning, you have to be open and take everything in – and that’s egoless-ness.

Switching gears, who was your teacher?

Sensei: Mitsugi Saotome Sensei. He studied with O Sensei, aikido’s founder [Saotome Sensei lived with Morihei Ueshiba for 15 years, until Ueshiba’s death in 1969].

ele: Now, you’re about to have your 25th anniversary summer camp, after coming here with no students.

Sensei: A couple people followed me. And we found Richard Heckler. He was teaching in Naropa [University] at that time.

Ginger: And Wendy Palmer. They were here teaching a summer Aikido class at Naropa in 1980. We touched base with them, and some of the people that they were teaching started with us.

ele: Your website says that the most important form of Japanese etiquette is the bow. It’s something that I grew up with in the Buddhist tradition. What is it about? Is it saying to the person you bow to, “You’re superior?”

Sensei: No different than shaking hand. You can be just shaking hand, no feeling. But if honest and from heart, shaking hand, you feel this person’s feeling. Bow is no different. Bow or handshake. Must be sincere, must have spirit, must feel. Bow is not just movement. From your heart.

So before our practice, we bow to each other and also to god, basically: kami. But different kind of god than people think.

ele: Sure. It’s not like God up in the sky somewhere. It’s an energy? [Sensei nods] Is that like Fudo? [gestures to Sensei’s Japanese shrine with statue of an angry ‘protector god.’]

Sensei: Martial arts god. Fu is “don’t”; Do is “move”. Don’t move. Calm spirit. You talk about the empty mind? Exactly that. He looks angry and fierce, but he’s calm and strong.

For more: www.boulderaikikai.org

Many thanks to elephant magazine for allowing this article to be posted in the Bu Jin® Design Newsletter Archives.




elephant magazine is a sprightly walk-the-talk full color soy ink eco-paper quarterly dedicated to bringing together those working (and playing) to create an enlightened society. It’s peripatetic editor and ambassador, Waylon Lewis, happily announces that elephant will have national distribution in 2007. Look for elephant in your favorite meditation center, independent bookstore, food co-op or natural grocer, bodywork and alternative medicine office.




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