Henry Kono died on February 13th, 2016.
The next day, Valentine's Day, was my 37th anniversary in aikido.
I can't technically claim Henry as my teacher (he'd get very irritated if you ever tried to call him "Sensei") as the time we spent together could only be measured in days. And I certainly don't think he would have claimed me as his student -- I'll say a bit more about that later.
Even so, progress on my path made me ripe for a transformation at the time we met, and I think it could only have come about through him. So regardless of any rights to a claim of a formal relationship, he has influenced my aikido and my teachings profoundly, and I still am gaining insights from him.
I first met Henry in Toronto at the 2003 Aikido-L Seminar. I'd noticed some older Japanese gentlemen sitting to the side of the mat during my class, but I couldn't devote too many cycles to who they might be. After my session, I went to the table to get some refreshments, and saw that one of the gentlemen had walked all the way around the mat and came directly up to me.
He stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Henry Kono, and in all the time I've been teaching, you're the only person I've ever seen who does what I do."
I was floored. It turned out, as I later learned, that his student Robert Bergman had noticed the lineup of the seminar instructors, saw that the name of my dojo was "Still Point Aikido Center," and suggested to Henry that they come watch. The concept of the "still point" is central to Henry's teachings, and it is quite conceptually different from the "one-point" or "the center" or the "hara" that is common in other teachings. On that point alone, they decided to come see me. (The name of my dojo comes from T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets.")
That was about it for that encounter. Robert and I exchanged contact information, and he later suggested that I should come to Toronto to train directly with Henry. I had some loose ends to tie up before my formal separation from the Seidokan aikido organization, so despite my eagerness, the timing wasn't right.
I did later find my way up to train, staying with Robert and his lovely wife, and meeting Henry at his house during the day. (Henry had no formal dojo, no organization… just a handful of students from around the area and some devotees around the world.)
Henry was very much the gentleman, making me lunch, lecturing me extensively on his conception of aikido, and drawing diagrams to facilitate my understanding. He explained why he thought that most of the rest of the world of aikido had taken a wrong path. We'd get up in the middle of his kitchen, and go through forms, with him correcting and chiding and encouraging.
It was exhausting training, but more mentally than for any other reason.
These were good times, and Henry was more than happy to also just be a regular guy. He called me up and suggested we go to the movies. "Hero" with Jet Li had just been released locally, so we went to see that (we both loved it). Afterward, we ate barbecue and sat in the sunlit plaza downtown and watched girls.
I came home, my head hurting from so many ideas, the cognitive dissonance from what Henry was able to demonstrate, the framework he used to underpin it, and my own progress along different lines arrived at through devotion to other, also very gifted instructors. I could not reconcile everything I was trying to hold in my brain.
I drew my own diagrams. I acquired children's toy cogs and gears, and pushed them across the tabletop. I experimented on my own students, to their bewilderment. They needed to see it from the source.
I arranged for Henry to travel to Austin, his first visit to Texas. He stayed at our house, and we talked extensively.
We brought him again, another time, and I was determined more than ever to extract from him what made his aikido so different, and so inimitable. That's when things began to go bad between us, but also when I think I got what was, for me, the key.
Five of us were sitting in our living room, on the couch where I now sit and write this. Besides Henry and myself, there was Robert Bergman, Brad Bergeron, and my partner Katie.
Actually, I need to pause for a bit of background. Henry's aikido is based entirely around a conversation he had with O Sensei during the last days of Henry's training with him. At a birthday party arranged for O Sensei by the foreign students, Henry presented their birthday card, and as offhandedly as he could manage, asked "So, why can't we do what you do?"
He reported that O Sensei glared at him for a moment, and then said "Because you don't understand Yin and Yang."
Henry later left Japan after his visa was up, stayed over in Hawaii at a friend's house, and contemplated aikido and Yin and Yang. He'd draw the taiji symbol in the sand at the beach, and suddenly it all became perfectly clear to him. He knew that he now understood aikido, and that he would be able to share this understanding with others easily.
All this is well known lore to anyone who has spent any time at all with Henry, or even watched his videos. What is also known is that following his teachings is every bit as elusive as O Sensei's. It turned out not to be so easy as he'd originally imagined, and he spent many years diligently refining his methods to better communicate the central concepts. To the end, I believe he felt that no one had ever truly grasped it the way he did.
So now, with Henry at ease in our house, in our living room, on this couch, I asked him: "Henry, do you remember exactly what words O Sensei used when you asked him that? Can you say it in Japanese?"
Henry said "Of course!" and then said a phrase in Japanese. I asked him to repeat it. He did. I asked if he'd be willing to write it down, but he brushed the suggestion off.
And here's the thing: my Japanese is nowhere good enough to know what was said, but at no point did I hear the Japanese "in" and "yo" equivalent for "Yin" and "Yang." Instead, I was able to make out something else entirely.
I said "Izanami and Izanagi?" Aren't those the creator deities from the Kojiki?
Henry said "That's right!" So we asked him again about what O Sensei had said, this time back in English:
"Because I know Izanami and Izanagi and you don't."
I thanked him and we let the conversation move on, but inwardly I was thunderstruck. Izanami and Izanagi are not the same as Yin and Yang.
After that, things got bad between us. Not because of that, surely, but other things. I'd written an article <http://www.aikiweb.com/columns/rrobertson/2004_09.html
> about trying to make sense of Henry's teachings, after my first visit. I tried to be respectful, but he said it was garbage. He said we could always approach him at any time with any question, but sometimes he'd belittle us when we tried. He could be mean-spirited on occasion, not just with me, but my students also.
So I stopped training with him, and stopped bringing him to Texas. Others took up where I left off, thankfully, but I had done my part. I think I saw him once or twice after, at other seminars that others had facilitated, but my association with him was ended. Such a shame.
Meanwhile Katie had bought a copy of the Kojiki in translation for the house. I read the relevant parts, and little by little, things began to make sense. Ultimately I emerged with a view of aikido that did indeed reconcile all my previous training with Henry's views, but in a way that was not the same.
I'm not going to go into that here, just now. Read the Kojiki yourself, or at least the cycle pertaining to Izanami and Izanagi. See for yourself if there is anything useful.
Here's what we need to consider: Henry believed that O Sensei had an inner vision from which his aikido emerged, and which he was either unable or unwilling to share with his students. This premise is either right or wrong, in whatever degree. When prompted, O Sensei gave an answer to Henry. That answer may have been a genuine distillation of the core of what O Sensei believed, or it may have been an off-the-cuff rebuff. We'll never know.
We can choose to discard the idea that there really can be one single "true" secret of aikido. If we choose that route, nothing about our present training needs to change. But I think we owe it to ourselves and to our students to at least be open to the possibility that O Sensei had an understanding that others didn't. This is not to denigrate the tremendous accomplishments of his many gifted followers, but even among them there seems to have been a widespread feeling that the old man had something up his sleeve.
Certainly the encounter was transformative for Henry. By his report, he came away with something that four years of training directly with O Sensei had not given him. And I can attest that I'd never felt anything like Henry's aikido. I knew he had something different.
Yet, like O Sensei, none of his students can really reproduce it. Nor can I.
Yet, like Henry, one conversation changed my direction entirely. It remains to be seen if I can pass along what I now know in a cogent, reliable and reproducible way. I believe I can, but I wish I'd started on this path earlier…
I have missed Henry greatly, and it's not too much of a stretch to say I loved him deeply. I wish very much I could have shared my own insights with him, and that we could have had a real dialogue that might have deepened both our understandings. I will continue to miss him.
But this is not a memoriam or a tribute, though he amply deserves them. This is just a vanity piece, mostly about me and my own experiences.
With Henry's passing I believe it's finally time for me to go public with something I've been holding close for around ten years. Make of it what you will.
I believe Henry was asking us to take a small leap of faith. Consider that all of the complexity of aikido arises from a core of simplicity. Consider that O Sensei was being honest when he said whatever it was he said to Henry.
For Henry, it became all about a special interpretation of Yin and Yang.
For me, it's become all about a special interpretation of the relationship between Izanami and Izanagi. Or of course, what they really represent in practical terms. There is, in fact, some definite overlap between the Japanese mythology and the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, but for me they are not interchangeable.
See what you think, but make up your own mind. Or, you can ignore everything else I've just rambled about and commit yourself to loving your teachers and learning from them while you can.
You'll miss them when they're gone, no matter how much they pissed you off.
[This article owes a debt to Robert Bergman, largely for his role as facilitator and host for my visits to Toronto and occasional go-between for Henry and me. Also specifically for his kind attention in vetting this article for accuracy, suggesting corrections, and even lending an editorial eye. But most of all, for his continuing friendship, which I treasure above all teachings.]
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA