It Had to Be Felt #41: Shirata Rinjiro: "Your Aikido Techniques Must Become Majestic"
Shirata Rinjiro sensei was universally admired. Although the extremely modest Shirata sensei would never make such a claim, it is the consensus of Kisshomaru Doshu and many others that Shirata was one of Morihei's favorite and most trusted disciples. Shirata Sensei was devoted to the Ueshiba family and the cause of Aikido. At Sensei's funeral ceremony, sponsored by the Aikikai, Kisshomaru Doshu said, "Shirata Rinjiro represents what Aikido is meant to be."
I was with Shirata Sensei for fifteen years. Training with Sensei ran the gamut of physical aikido: body techniques from all kinds of kamae and attacks coming from any angle; an extensive repertoire of aiki-ken and aiki-jo techniques; and most challenging of all, riai, the relationship between the movement of the body and the movement of the sword or jo. Sensei taught techniques in series, typically in groups of four or eight variations. We practiced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different techniques; Sensei keep pulling things out of his aikido hat.
Sensei was constantly changing the techniques. It was not tweaking or refinement of a technique; it was a different expression. To be honest, the ongoing permutations could be frustrating; more than once, I would execute a technique exactly the way he showed me previously but he would announce, "No, don't do it that way!" It was difficult to suppress the urge to say, "But that is the way you told me to do it!" I guess he was teaching us not to set anything in stone.
Primary, however, was the preparation before actually practicing the techniques. Sensei performed the bow-in with the most reverent manner. To Sensei, Morihei was a living presence, and he was greeting someone he really knew, physically and spiritually. After that, we would begin with long series of warm-up exercises, a kind of aiki-yoga. There was always chinkon-kishin and kokyu-ho exercises, seated and standing, and then shiho-giri. If it was a seminar, Sensei would invariably give an aisatsu, a formal greeting. He would thank the participants, usually talk a little about the spirit of aikido, and caution us to train slowly and carefully so no one would get injured. "No one getting injured in Aikido training," was a key point in Sensei's approach (as it was for Morihei). Sometimes, Sensei would get carried away and talk for ten minutes or more. He continued to talk during the training, explaining the proper attitude in applying a technique and the meaning rather the execution—that changed day-by-day anyway. Sensei often quoted Morihei during training and talked about his own memorable experiences.
In the early days, I would take ukemi for Sensei at a seminar for an hour or two straight. However, I never got winded or injured. In fact, I had more energy at the end than when I began. At one seminar, I was Sensei's uke for an hour of nikkyo variations. My wrists were tingly to be sure, stimulated, but not at all swollen and sore. These positive experiences were not due to my being a good uke; it was the effect of Sensei being a skilful tori.
The best thing about training with Sensei was his infectious love of Aikido. His seminars were joyful. He was always smiling during training, actually beaming much of the time. Sensei frequently went well over the time allotted to him during a seminar. He was having the time of his life so it was hard to get him to stop. Sensei was very funny, on and off the mat, in an understated aiki way. Occasionally during training, Sensei would tell a student (including me), "dame " (bad) but we heard the comment "yoroshii"(good) much more often. Nevertheless, Sensei could be scary sometimes, especially when he was holding a sword. His face transformed into that of a warrior god, and his eyes changed color. If he was uchi-tachi, he leaped though the air like a tengu cutting all the way down to the mat. It was terrifying. Also, Sensei would on occasion act like he was back in the days of the Kobukan. His atemi (including kicks) came out of nowhere, perfectly timed and dead-on. More than once, I was nearly floored by one of his atemi. It was painful where he struck me, although interestingly, the spot was not bruised or swollen.
In the last five years of his life, from age seventy-five to eighty, Sensei's techniques grew more pure. His posture got straighter, his movements became seamless, and his bearing brighter. It was during this last period that Sensei developed misogi-no-ken and misogi-no-jo, based on his sixty years of aikido training. The last time I took ukemi was near the end of his life. Sensei showed a technique that I had never seen before (in fifteen years of training.) I wanted to see "how it felt." I went down in flash. In the pin, I could not move. It felt as if I was bound in wire or caught in a vice. The only way I can describe the pin is "majestic." That was Sensei's final technical teaching to me. "Your Aikido techniques must become majestic."
Regarding the history of Aikido, Sensei had a perhaps unrivalled panoramic view. He had encountered all the major figures both before and after the war. When Sensei was a lad in Yamagata, Deguchi Onisaburo stayed a week at the Shirata household. Sensei remembers being bounced on Onisaburo's knee, and being told, "You have a lot of potential." Sensei was one of Morihei's earliest uchi-deshi, and met Takeda Sokaku. Sensei experienced the Omoto-kyo suppression with Morihei. After the war, Shirata sensei was a prominent supporter of modern-day aikido, eventually becoming the Director of the All-Japan Aikido Association. He used to say, "The old days were good; the new days are better." We spent countless hours discussing the history of aikido. I relied heavily on Sensei's version of aikido history in my books because he was actually there, involved in the principal events and associated with the main players. It was first-hand information that I considered most valuable.
By far the most important thing I received from Sensei is on the spiritual level. This calligraphy hung in Shirata Sensei's dojo: "Those who practice Aikido must first learn its spirit; if the spirit of aikido is not understood, the way will never be attained." Sensei was always studying, annotating Morihei's poems and other writings. On occasion, during a discussion he would spontaneously write an Aikido principle on a scrap of piece of paper, or even a napkin.
Shirata sensei believed that Morihei was an incarnation of Ame-no-mura-kumo-kuki-samuharu ryu-o. He believed that Morihei's mission on earth was to teach the true meaning of budo. He believed that Aikido was based on Morihei's enlightened vision of the cosmos: it is a vehicle to harmonize heaven, earth and human kind. The purpose of aikido, our mission as aikido practitioners, is to bring the world together through aiki, so as to eliminate disharmony, hatred, bloodshed, and war. He believed that Morihei taught, "Aikido is misogi." Since Sensei maintained that aikido was hikari no michi, the "Path of Light," as aikido people we should always emphasize the most positive and brightest aspects of our tradition. Shirata sensei believed in all these things. So do I.
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John Stevens has written books on every aspect of Aikido: technical, historical, and spiritual. He lived in Sendai, Japan for thirty-five years where he was a professor and Aikido instructor at Tohoku Fukushi University.
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