Thread: kotodama
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Old 09-15-2002, 12:05 AM   #13
Peter Goldsbury
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Dojo: Hiroshima Kokusai Dojo
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Dear Ernesto,

Well here are a few more thoughts about your difficult questions.
Ernesto Lemke wrote:
Dear Peter,

I found your remark concerning Shirata Sensei and Kototama intriguing. In his case, he would in a real sense have spoken from experience, but I wonder how his thoughts where on trying to transmit this aspect of his aikido practice to others. Especially to those who did not share his background. Keeping in mind his background in Omoto Kyo, he was indoctrinated from a very early age to not question kototama practice as we, the current generation of practitioners, are inclined to do. Basically, because we are totally unfamiliar with it in every sense of the word.

PAG. Well, the Founder had the same problem in "Takemusu Aiki". He was describing aikido as kotodama and one wonders how much his listeners in the Byakko Kai understood. His own disciples did not do very well, apparently. We are even further removed because we have even less grounding in Japanese Shinto mythology.


So, is having a cultural background or understanding of the cultural aspects surrounding kototama practice as performed by Omoto Kyo practitioners, a must for having a real understanding of its actual meaning? And if so, then what is this actual meaning? Something beyond the rational and into the realm of the mystique?

PAG. Yes, but an understanding of the cultural background, and even the theory, is not the same as the practice. To take an analogy with something I know about, are you familiar with the writings of the Christian mystics? I am thinking especially of the works of St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola, though there are many others. They were all Spanish and were writing within a certain cultural tradition. I think it is important to understand something of this tradition and even more of the Biblical background on which it is based. But this itself is no substitute for the long hours of meditation required.


I wonder if we need a rational in order to grasp this essentially Japanese practice. I am and have been interested in aikido history and that helped me a lot to gain a better understanding on where it is aikido came from but the secret of aikido is in the practice of aikido itself is it not? Reading about getting thrown is not the same as landing flat on your back. Approaching kototama the same as a technique therefore seems to make sense. Total focus and concentration on the here and now. Moving Zen if you will. Masakatsu agatsu katsuhayabi.

PAG. Well, for a number of years I have studied the "Kojiki" and other ancient texts in Japanese. So I have some idea of the background of kotodama. But I have never practised kotodama in any recognizable way. Why? Because I am not Japanese and I do not practise Shinto. (Actually, this is why some of the discussions in William Gleason's "The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido" do not quite ring true to me. I think his book is outstanding, but you need to have the "Kojiki" and other texts with you, as you read it.) I think a near-native familiarity with the Japanese language is essential for practicing kotodama as an exercise. The reason for this is not any quasi-"mystical" features of the Japanese language, but some quite interesting linguistic features. However O Sensei did not practise kotodama as a set of spiritual 'sound exercises', but as his own personal communication with the kami. I think modern practitioners of kotodama miss this essential element. I am not saying that practising 'sound exercises' is bad, or even calling this 'kotodama'. But it is rather different from what the Founder was doing, in my opinion.

In any case, neither O Sensei nor anyone else ever suggested that kotodama was essential for aikido training and I have never been taught to see aikido as kotodama. So the aim of my own researches has been to throw light on O Sensei as man who lived at a certain time in Japan's history.


But this is perhaps only so when you can actually study under someone whos own experience is such and Shirata Senseis certainly was.

PAG. In my opinion, Shirata Sensei was able to discern how aikido for O Sensei was a kotodama, and I think this is the way he approached it himself, that is, as an expression of what we might call a deeply religious or spiritual attitude to the world.


And so I wonder, how would he talk to you, a westerner, about this seemingly mysterious Japanese practice? Would he just ramble on and on, without giving a second thought on whether the person he spoke to was actually able to follow him? O-Sensei did it seems and still Shirata Sensei claimed (and I dont question this) that he was able to understand some of the things he was saying. But of course, this was after years and years of study, study, study. But he had a headstart which none of us today have.

PAG. Well, I asked him, as I have asked other shihans who spent some length of time with the Founder. Usually, the answers express regret that they made no effort to understand what the Founder was talking about. Those who answers were very illuminating were Shirata Sensei, Okumura Sensei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba. All related O Sensei's talk about sounds (words, actually) to the "Kojiki". Some other shihans said that they had never learned enough of the backgound at school to make sense of what the Founder was saying.


I am really interested in learning whether Shirata Sensei expressed kototama in Japanese or universal terms. Everything I read or heard him say concerning aikido, especially philosophically, sounded very cultural and required a cultural understanding if ones desire was to extract any universality from it. His personality though seemed to beam universality even though he was a very traditional man, meaning everyone acknowledges moral virtues such as sincerity, friendliness and modesty. In my mind, Shirata Sensei seemed to be the personification of such virtues.

PAG. He talked to me in Japanese and talked about kotodama in Japanese terms. However he was a "man of his word", as one might say in English, and tried to practise what he believed. This showed in his character.

Therefore, I am more then interested in your opinion.

Best regards,

Ernesto Lemke
And to you. I will respond to your last e-mail message as soon as I have the time.

P A Goldsbury
Hiroshima, Japan
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