AJ: I understand your aikido underwent a change as you entered your 30s?
Endo: When I was 30 years old I dislocated my right shoulder. That event brought me to a turning point. Seigo Yamaguchi said to me, "You've been doing aikido for 10 years now, but now you have only your left arm to use, what are you going to do? Up to then I hadn't trained very much under Yamaguchi Sensei, but after he said that I made it a point to get to his classes as much as possible. I started to realize how much I was relying on the strength in my upper arms and body during training. I asked myself whether I could go on doing aikido like that for the rest of my life. Yamaguchi Sensei's question was just the thing to send me into a tailspin, into the next level of training that I needed to pursue. I took the opportunity to turn my approach to aikido around 180 degrees. I'm sure everybody remembers being told on at least one occasion to "take the strength out of your shoulders." Yamaguchi Sensei also talked about this - about doing aikido without relying on strength. It's more easily said than done, of course. When you try taking the strength out of your shoulders, it often happens that your ki goes with it! That's to be expected.
You might draw an analogy with learning to ski. When you follow a skilled teacher you seem to improve rapidly and to swish smoothly down the slopes. But things start to fall apart the moment you try skiing on your own with no teacher to guide you. I experienced something similar in trying to rid my aikido of strength. I could do it when Yamaguchi Sensei was around, but as soon as I went somewhere else, I found myself suddenly incapable. It was very frustrating and I'd always end up falling back on powering my way through techniques. I struggled with that problem for nearly six months.
I think it was Shinran [1173-1263, founder of the Jodoshin sect of Pure Land Buddhism] who said, "Even if what my teacher Honen tells me seems mistaken; even if it seems I am being misled, I have absolute faith in what I have been doing and so I follow my master's way, even if it leads to Hell." I thought, well, why not? If I'm going to be misled by Yamaguchi Sensei then so be it! Yamaguchi Sensei told me the same thing, "Even if you don't understand it, just take my word for it and do it. Just give it 10 years or so." So that's what I did. Rather than trying to get rid of strength and then falling back on it when the techniques didn't work, I resolved to explore the no-strength way exclusively, no matter what. But, even though I'd made up my own mind, the training environment hadn't changed. It didn't take long to realize that my training partners weren't simply going to fall for me when I tried throwing them without using strength.
I had no alternative but to say to them, "Look, I can't really do these techniques right now, but can I ask you fall anyway?" It was a highly unusual thing for a 4th dan to ask. People were a bit surprised. Anyway, that's how I began my "squishy" approach to training. I took extreme care to avoid getting frustrated, because I knew that doing so would send me right back to relying on strength. When I was taking ukemi for Yamaguchi Sensei he would murmur things under his breath like, "The more you let go of your strength, the more your ki will concentrate," and "Focus your strength in your lower abdomen." I tried to remain acutely aware of what was going on when taking ukemi, no matter what was done to me, and after a few years I began to understand what he was talking about and what he was doing. I knew I had finally found an approach to training that would work for me.
From then on I worked to intensify that feeling by doing one technique exclusively for a certain period of time. For example, I would do nothing but shomenuchi ikkyo for six months, no matter what dojo I was at. Training like that gave me a deeper understanding of each technique. It helped me realize how to approach each technique in different situations, and also how the principles from one technique could be applied to other techniques. When I'm teaching these days, I often say things like, "Look closely at yourself and feel what you're doing," or "Feel your partner and know the relationship between yourself and your partner." By self I mean both your state of mind and the physical balance of your body, as well as the relationship between the two. There's an expression, "mind, technique, and body are one" (shingitai itchi). When your mind is in disarray, your body isn't able to move efficiently and effectively. Likewise an unbalanced body can agitate your mind to the point where you will be unable to correctly understand your relationship with your partner, and this will prevent you from doing the technique you need to do. Once you've made the initial encounter (deai), shifted your body appropriately (taisabaki), and unbalanced your partner (kuzushi), it is essential to then instantly perceive what technique will naturally spring into being given the set of conditions emerging between the two of you.
O-Sensei talked about "becoming One with the Cosmos" or "being at one with Nature." One way to interpret this is that, rather than simply forcing your way through techniques according to your own one-sided will, you should perceive what techniques come into being naturally. That is, the techniques that arise naturally, given the relationship between you and your partner. We usually learn aikido by going through the techniques one by one, repeatedly practicing whatever the teacher shows us. That means we have to do that particular technique no matter what, even if it involves unnecessary effort and movements that don't arise entirely naturally. It's important to be able to monitor yourself and recognize such unnatural effort. You need to be perceptive and objective enough to say to yourself, for example, "My last technique was good, but the meeting (deai) between my partner and me is no longer working." It's important to constantly check yourself to make sure you maintain an awareness of whether or not the movements you're doing are truly natural ones.
It was only after I began training without using any strength at all that I was able to instantly change whatever technique I happened to be doing into some other technique. It makes sense, of course, that the less effort there is involved, the easier it is to switch to something else. As I was working through that concept, I also recalled that O-Sensei often used to say, "When it's like this, you do this, when it's like this other way, you do this other thing," all the while never doing the same thing twice. I thought, "Ah, I think I know what he meant by that!" With that sort of approach you never end up using excessive effort because one thing simply changes into another as needed.
Imagine a river full of stones. When the water encounters small stones it flows over them. When it encounters larger ones it flows around them. Even if you dam the river the water doesn't really stop; the potential energy is still there swirling around and building up behind the dam, trying to break through or spill over the top. Aikido is the same. It's no longer a "living" path if you limit yourself to meeting an encounter with a specific technique. It's important to be able to change and move on to something else the instant the conditions change and what you're doing ceases to have the desired effect. It's not just a matter of flowing into something different when you find yourself blocked; it's also necessary to investigate how to "store up energy." We all have possibilities we're unaware of, so we need to think about how we might draw out, amplify, and apply that latent energy.
In the "Tora no Maki," a work said to contain quintessential secrets of martial arts and strategy, it says, "What comes is met; what goes is sent on its way; what is in opposition is harmonized. Five and five is ten; two and eight is ten; one and nine is ten. In this way should things be harmonized. Distinguish appearance and reality, grasping both true intent and concealed strategies and deceptions; know unseen potentials and hidden implications. Understand that which is of the grand scheme and attend to details and particulars as necessary. When a situation of life or death is at hand, respond to the myriad changes taking place and face situations with a mind free of agitation."
This passage has provided me with vast food for thought. Those words are probably applicable not only to aikido training, but also to many other aspects of life. Certainly, we learn such things through our aikido training but, realistically speaking, most of us spend more time outside the dojo than in it, so it would be strange not to acknowledge that what we learn in the dojo extends to other aspects of life as well. It's not altogether appropriate to speak of winning and losing when talking about aikido, but the best kind of winning, I think, is when you have achieved harmony with your opponent, and both you and your opponent have felt that harmony.
In my view, the best technique is one in which neither party experiences feelings of having won or lost, but rather of having "met successfully." Such a thing does exist, even if it happens only one time in a million. Our goal in training is to make that occurrence one time in half a million, one time in a hundred thousand, and so on. Whether or not a person has faith that that one time will come, and whether or not they overlook it when it does, depends on how seriously they approach their training. I place great importance on this kind of thing. The person who maintains a diligent awareness of his or her self will realize it when that one time comes around. With that sort of awareness you can scrutinize yourself and feel your relationship to your partner. When a given technique turns out perfectly, it is perfect only at that moment; when the meeting between you and your partner is flawed it won't turn out perfectly. When that happens, you shouldn't necessarily try to avoid it but accept the imperfection and consider how to make the best of the relationship.