Dojo: Taikyoku Budo & Kiko - NY, PA, MD
Location: Greater Philadelphia Area
Join Date: Aug 2003
Review of Ellis Amdur's "Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Root of Ueshiba Morihei's Power"
In writing this review, it’s only fair to discuss a little bit my experiences with Ellis (as he was kind enough to mention me in the Acknowledgements of Hidden in Plain Sight - HIPS), whom I first met 15 years ago when he was advising the independent dojo I belonged to then in methods around simplifying their approach to aikido and making it more effective. Ellis was spoken of with awe reserved for mythical heroes - he’d lived in Japan for more than a decade, studying with the masters, one of the very few caucasians to be granted master level licensing in more than one Koryu (samurai battlefield arts).
I’d only recently returned to training in anything resembling traditional martial arts. Growing up, I was first introduced to judo at age 5, then later on wrestling as a teenager. High school saw me train a bit also in aikido and karate, but by college I was getting more interested in this cross-training concept that was to become more modern MMA.
After some time just mixing things up with different training partners, I felt like I was still missing a core martial body framework that tied everything together and allowed me to move as the “same guy” regardless of whether I was grappling, striking, standing, clinching, on the ground, etc. Living in central Pennsylvania in 2003, there were limited options, but there was an independent aikido school a mile from my house.
Certainly the convenience couldn’t be beat. But who was this Ellis guy - never heard of him when I was training in aikido in the early 90s. Apparently he’d published a book called ‘Dueling with O-Sensei’. At the same time as I joined the dojo, I started reading the book and researching more about him. And was blown away. When I got to meet him in the fall of 2003, I found him knowledgeable, engaging and eager to transmit this notion of moving the body along specific vectors regardless of the “technique” being performed.
As Ellis describes in the Forward of HIPS regarding the qualitative difference in certain practitioners, this was a big step in the direction of what I was looking for in a martial art - a consistent framework to measure myself against and which the only benchmark for improvement would be my own progress. As training continued and the discussions of internal strength started getting a lot of attention in various Japanese online forums, a person that Ellis vouched for, Mike Sigman, began speaking about a lot of the synergies regarding the Chinese concepts of qi, jin and dantien and how they were meant to be viewed similarly with Japanese concepts of ki, kokyu, hara, etc. as they described the same core body technology.
Again, similar to the experience Ellis describes meeting Mike in the Acknowledgements of HIPS, I had the opportunity to meet Mike and very much found out firsthand the skills of internal strength are demonstrable, trainable and combined with Ellis’s framework of vector-based movement for martial strategy, radically transformed my personal practice and gave me the scaffolding I’d been seeking.
The genius of Ellis’s work in Hidden in Plain Sight is that it describes countless accounts similar to mine across a variety of cultural settings and historical contexts. From Man’s desire and learned ability to draw on chaotic power to increasing trainable strength as methods evolved from farmland instrumentation to battlefield prowess to dance and sport. Amidst historical references to strongmen and sport fighters are common kernels of specialized training that provided great advantages. Specific attention is given to a number of older Japanese disciplines as the book continues into methods of developing unusual power alongside martial skill (as Ellis rightly mentions, the two aren’t necessarily analogous but very much intended to be complimentary).
Where this gets very interesting from a philosophical perspective is the notion of some of the Asian cosmologies having traceable inherent roots in describing pragmatic internal strength concepts (e.g. breath pressure in the bone/muscle/tissue as the real qi/ki of heaven). As the exploration of older martial arts in Japan funnels to aikido and its parent art of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, we see how the proponents of each, Ueshiba Morihei and his primary teacher Takeda Sokaku were men on their own journey of discovery and development, based on their eyes being opened to the possibilities of developing unusual power in conjunction with their martial expression.
And we get to see from a historical perspective, why core aspects of internal power development were deliberately left out of the core syllabus of aikido as it spread from essentially a Japanese sect to an art practiced all over the world by millions of practitioners. The demands of training internal strength deliberately self-select out a large number of those that do not put in the time, effort and focus on conditioning their bodies to move according to the seemingly unusual demands of the qi/ki paradigm.
Which brings us to the title of the book - Hidden in Plain Sight - a central theme is that the internal strength skills are somewhat embedded into the techniques and warm-ups of aikido and that people didn’t pay enough attention to what Ueshiba was doing in order to develop them with themselves. Ellis makes a great argument that there has always been an expectation in martial arts circles that the students be ready to “steal the learning” as any number of teachers deliberately withhold content - either due to familial secrecy or to determine which students are really worthy of the important pieces.
What I have discovered in my own journey is that there is an inexplicable combination of the right teacher in the right time, along with my own willingness (ne’ obsession) to do the work. I’ve been honored and privileged to call Ellis both teacher and training brother. But even more so, I believe we are all fortunately privileged to have this book available to provide context and stimulate our thinking into this unusual set of skills that are gradually becoming more and more available as information gets tested and spread among martial communities.
Perhaps even more importantly as you, potential readers pick up this book and absorb its teachings, the question may be - what will you do about it? Many will read it from a pure hobby/academic perspective, still others will read it and think (probably incorrectly) “oh we already do that”, and then a few will be energized to go out and find people doing this stuff and put themselves on a path to chasing the dragon of internal strength.
To this latter group, I look forward to meeting you someday as on our mutual paths up the mountain. Settle in for a steep hike, but it’s a rewarding journey with a great view.