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It Had To Be Felt #64: Sekiya Masatake: "A Living Manifestation of an Art"
It Had To Be Felt #64: Sekiya Masatake: "A Living Manifestation of an Art"
by It Had To Be Felt
10-06-2019
It Had To Be Felt #64: Sekiya Masatake: "A Living Manifestation of an Art"

Shihan is not a rank. There are no specific criteria to achieve it, other than being a 'model,' a template—a living manifestation of an art. This is a person whose very presence demonstrates the ‘way.' Sekiya Masatake was such a man.

I first met Sekiya sensei at a seminar at the Northeast Aikikai in the mid 1980's. He was accompanied by a former student of that dojo, Diane Zingale, who translated for him. She had gone to Japan and started training at Shiseikan Dojo, later to convince him to come and teach.

He was not what I expected. Before me was a shorter, thin, older man. He was reserved but accessible, easily engaging in conversation. My home dojo, Shodokan, encouraged us to train in judo and aikido simultaneously. It was closely affiliated with New England Aikikai, the dojo of Kanai Mitsunari sensei, where we were expected to train regularly—at minimum on a weekly basis. I had begun aikido there in 1977, and was glad of the connection. I was able to train between the two dojos seven days a week. In addition, the New England Aikikai, hosted Chiba Kazuo sensei at frequent weekend seminars that were taught by both he and Kanai sensei. The training was always intense and rigorous, with instruction done by demonstration rather than explanation. Correction was done by instructors moving your body into position, with curt short instruction, an additional demonstration right in front of you, or you taking ukemi and feeling the application of technique.

Sekiya sensei was Chiba sensei's father-in-law, so if anything, I was expecting more of the same training I was used to. It was not so! Sekiya sensei was a slight man with impeccable posture, whose movements were economically graceful, so much so that he appeared to be moving slowly, almost like a cloud. This was the beginning of an awakening but at that moment I was simply surprised—and skeptical.

It's good to be skeptical; the way you deal with it is to jump up for ukemi. Everywhere I had received instruction, the teacher rarely called someone up. Rather ambitious yudansha were the first concentric circle around the teacher—as a rule, they would quickly bow, and leap at the chance to take ukemi. It was no different at this seminar and I took a strategic position in seiza, and seized the chance to jump right in. It was a tsuki attack, and I tried as fast as I could to strike his stomach. I actually felt the front of my fist lightly touch his hakama knot, but only for the briefest instant. As my forearm flew past, his hands brushed the top of my sleeve, and then my elbow felt as if it hit a padded iron bar, stopping it dead. There was no give, but no pain either—simply no further movement, as my own balance shifted to my front foot as my rear foot lost contact with the mat. At that precise moment, both of his hands turned into lead weights that immediately dropped straight, as if on a plumb line, directly toward the ground, taking me with them. The fall was hard but I had only felt a brush of cloth on my fist and two soft palms on my arm. He dropped into seiza, looking at me. He seemed to be smiling, though he wasn't, and then, he gave me a soft, almost playful punch in the nose.

Now I was really intrigued. I attended every class he gave. He mingled with students, and actually accepted any question. His focus was on ‘sticky hands,' the importance of relaxation, softness, flexibility, and ‘suppleness.' He had exercises to develop an awareness of the ‘one point,' when one was in various positions. There was atemi practice: learning how to anchor strikes with solid footwork. He had us do incredibly slow walking on a straight line with a narrow hanmi, admonishing us to concentrate on our center, while feeling the slightest change in the distribution of weight and balance as we so very gradually lifted our feet to take a step. "This is not a flashy practice," he would say.

After completing that seminar, he came over to us, the students of Shodokan who attended, and asked where we practiced. He said that he liked our focus, that we were the only ones there who seemed to be trying to learn what he was doing. The others were just dropping back to old habits. He said he would come next year, but he wanted to go to our dojo. And for the next ten years, he did, for one month every summer.

This is when ukemi really started, but not the kind you might think. Yes, of course there was what we usually think of as ukemi, both during informal classes outside on a lawn, and much more during formal classes on the mat, but there was the ukemi required during daily living with a sensei. Through this, we focused on the truths underneath aikido technique, and the ukemi required to change consciousness to accommodate those truths.

It was during this time that I learned that Sekiya sensei had been a friend of O-sensei for a period of five years before he personally began the practice of aikido. He was introduced to Ueshiba Morihei by Sakurazawa Nyoichi, the founder of macrobiotics, who separately told both of them, "I know somebody you should meet!" Sekiya sensei was already a nidan in judo, studied Katori Shinto-ryu as well as Kashima Shin-ryu. When he finally started aikido, he studied under O-sensei for nine years, receiving his first five dans from him. After O-sensei died, he studied under Yamaguchi Seigo sensei before joining the Shiseikan Dojo to study under Inaba Minoru. Of his most recent understanding of aikido he said, ‘When I got to my late sixties, I lost all my strength. Then I realized I had been climbing up the wrong mountain. I needed to not use strength. So I had to climb back down the mountain, and then up a new correct one.' At sixty-nine years of age, he decided he had to start over.

During our decade with him, there were thousands of ukemi. The focus then was continued into ‘heavy hands' and timing, using relaxed shoulders and attacking the center line. There were exercises aimed at giving full commitment when entering. He would hold a shinai, and line people up to enter narrowly, requiring them to give an atemi to his ribs with their forward fist as he completed a shomenuchi cut. One time, upset with the practice of this exercise by students at a particular seminar, he suddenly stopped and said ‘No, no, no!' He then called me up to take ukemi. However, this time, the ‘ukemi' was to demonstrate the practice he wanted. I was immediately up and ready, only to see him put down the shinai, and pick up and draw a live blade.

In that moment, thoughts rapidly passed through my mind in a nanosecond; surprise, realization of the sharpness of the blade, hesitance—followed by my awareness of how much I trusted this man in both his spirit and his skill, reminding myself to enter narrowly and to insure that my trailing arm was well tucked in-line with the tight angle of entry. We demonstrated—once was enough. The point was made—stop flinching, maintain your posture and commit. The practice was with a shinai, which was very low risk. But we should treat it as if it was a real sword.

When he visited our dojo for the tenth and last time, he called ahead. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Knowing how rapidly that cancer progresses, I asked him if he was sure he wanted to come. He was adamant. Nonetheless, I was still hesitant, wondering if he would be able to return home.

He arrived, looking somewhat gaunt rather than slim, but nonetheless, teaching with energy. He gave an unexpected lecture during a full seminar on how to go about selecting a teacher. Halfway through his visit, he asked me, "Bob-san, when I stand up from seiza, do I wobble?"

"No! What do you mean, sensei?" I responded.

"Good," he said. "I haven't been able to feel my legs for a week." He finished the two weeks remaining of his month-long visit without further comment, never making a complaint.

Within a few days of his departure, I was in Ireland visiting John Rogers, the chief instructor of the Aikikai in Ireland. He had also trained with Sekiya sensei, who had been very active in the early development of aikido in England and Ireland. When I went to Shiseikan to study with Inaba sensei at Sekiya sensei's recommendation, John was supposed to be there, but was unable to attend. Sekiya sensei insisted that I travel to Ireland to meet him, something I had done some years before. I have always felt so grateful that he connected us. At this visit, I told John of Sekiya sensei's condition, and he immediately called him on the phone to wish him well and get a status report.

His daughter answered the phone, and told us he had been bedridden for the last few days. He was unable to get up the stairs to his home ,and had to be carried. He apparently overheard the conversation, and came to the phone. He told us that Inaba sensei had visited him the day before, with his most senior student Endo-san. They had brought with them copies of Jisei, Japanese death poems. They asked if he would please read and comment on them as, due to his current situation, he may have important insights that he could share that might otherwise be missed. I thought, how incredible. Something like that would never be done in contemporary American culture, yet here he was immersed in the fullness of the challenge of his existence without avoiding or flinching. I asked him how he was and he said, "Bob-san, don't worry, there is no pain." Again, I thought, how incredible; he was dying but was expending energy to comfort me.

The next day we received a call from his daughter saying he had peacefully passed away in his sleep. As John and I were reminiscing about his teaching, he said, "He taught me more than aikido. He taught me what it was to be a man." That comment echoes so vividly for me now, because it resonated so deeply with me. I can add to that, though. Sekiya sensei taught me not only how to live, but he also taught me how to die.
Robert Whelan is a 6th dan aikikai shidoin who began studying Aikido in 1977 under Kanai Mitsunari sensei. In addition to Sekiya Masatake sensei, he has trained in Japan at Aikikai Hombu and Shiseikan Dojo under Inaba Minoru sensei. During the forty plus years of his aikido career he has attended many extended seminars with several uchideshi including: Saito Morihiro sensei, Yamada Yoshimitsu sensei, Chiba Kazuo sensei, Saotome Mitsugi sensei, and Tamura Nobuyoshi sensei. In addition he has studied kyudo under Kanjuro Shibata XX, of the Heki-ryu Bishu Chikurin-ha. He currently teaches at Shodokan Dojo in Beverly, Massachusetts and New England Aikikai in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
  • Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
  • Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
  • Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
  • If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
  • Follow-up posts should be substantive, striving to equal the depth of the original essay. Simply agreeing with the writer, or a brief comment that, yes, the teacher in question was really powerful or had a wonderful shihonage or the like, are not congruent with the purpose of this archive.
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