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It Had To Be Felt #74: Maruyama Koretoshi: "The Essence of Mind"
It Had To Be Felt #74: Maruyama Koretoshi: "The Essence of Mind"
by It Had To Be Felt
It Had To Be Felt #74: Maruyama Koretoshi: "The Essence of Mind"

I suppose my journey toward Maruyama Koretoshi sensei started in the 1990's. I had been living in Japan for a few years training in aikido. Upon my decision to return home, my instructor told me, "You are technically proficient. What you need next is a teacher who will help you learn to relax." I had no idea where I'd find such a person back home, but I was determined to give it a go. I trained with a variety of teachers over the next decade, and through a stroke of luck, I found myself in northern NSW in 2002, attending a seminar one of Ueshiba Morihei's direct students. Not one to let such an opportunity slip through my fingers (and more importantly, still on my quest to find my ‘relaxation' teacher), I was lucky enough to be called up to receive ukemi. At 6'4" and 115Kg, I am not a small man. A former professional athlete, I could bench press 150 Kg and squat 280 Kg in my prime. Maruyama sensei asked me to grab him morotedori, asking me to clamp down on him as hard as I possibly could. He then got me to let him go to show that his fingers were totally white, having lost all circulation due to the strength of my grab. After he'd set up the joke, he asked me to grab him again. The next thing I knew I was watching as my ass went over my head. I landed on the floor in front of him. I knew I had found what I was searching for.

Maruyama sensei entered the Aikikai Honbu dojo in 1956. He only found two people there on his first day: Yamada Yoshimitsu sensei and Doshu. Having studied judo, boxing and wrestling (the last with the famous professional wrestler and ex-sumotori, Rikidozan, training that also involved weight lifting), he was unconvinced with what he saw. Nonetheless, he returned a second time, and met Tohei Koichi sensei. It was his ability that convinced him to stay, the founder being away in Iwama at this time. Sensei trained daily at the headquarters, and with the founders encouragement in late 1957, he gave up his place in his family company to pursue a life as a professional aikido teacher, eventually being awarded the rank of 6th dan by the founder in 1969.

As is well known, Tohei Koichi split from the Aikikai subsequent to O-sensei's death, and Maruyama sensei followed his first teacher. (Many years later, I asked him why. He told me that he was the best after the founder at aikido, and he simply followed the best). He was crucial in helping the establishment of the Ki no Kenkyukai, and he travelled extensively around the world teaching aikido on Tohei's behalf. He shared many hours on the mat, and in private with Tohei sensei. [One time recently I rather brashly (stupidly?) asked him what happened between Tohei and Doshu. We were in my car, and there was a pause so long I thought the silence that surrounded us might actually kill me. If that didn't do the job, it suddenly struck me that I may be the very first western person to be asked to commit seppuku on the side of a highway. After what seemed like eternity, he slowly and very determined relayed the story, something he had me promise not to tell until after he has passed. I hope, therefore, it will remain a mystery for many decades to come).

Maruyama sensei was eventually promoted by Tohei to lead his organisation, and given the role of president of the Ki society. In 1991, however, he resigned, having become disillusioned by the direction the organisation was taking. He entered a Buddhist temple for a period of ten years to meditate on the essence of mind. In 2001, with the blessing of the head priest, Maruyama sensei left the temple to establish his Aikido Yuishinkai, and bring its philosophy to the world.

At the first international Yuishinkai seminar in 2002, Sensei took his aikido in a different direction from what it had been for the last three decades. Stating that he wanted to rediscover the original aikido of Ueshiba Morihei, he turned his back on Ki Aikido forever. He sought out teachers of Shinkage-ryu, and in early 2003, reconnected with one of his old aikido students from his Ki Society days, Okajima Taiki. Okajima was a man with an impressive and pertinent resume that would benefit sensei in his quest of rediscovery. Among a variety of studies, Okajima sensei began to study Daito-ryu aikijujutsu under Okamoto Seigo sensei within his Roppokai in 1987. He became the head of Roppokai Osaka Dojo that same year, and in 1988, the general manager of Kansai District Branch Office. His input/collaboration with Maruyama sensei helped his general understanding of the O-sensei's prewar martial practice.

Sensei believed that if he wanted to understand the founder, it was necessary for him to gain a deeper understanding of his formative years, in particular, what made Morihei the martial artist he was. Sensei stated he already understood the founder's Aikido in his later years, but wanted a clearer picture of the path taken to get to that later interpretation of aikido. Going back to Daito-ryu was the obvious choice. Although he had great respect for Tohei sensei, and has told me on several occasions he was second only to the old man is skill, there was something ingrained in the founder technically that he didn't think Tohei had internalised.

This resulted in many interesting and challenging ramifications (particularly for those in the organisation with a strong Ki no Kenkyukai background). Sensei believes aikido is not Daito-ryu, but excluding the formative training of the founder had created a gap that he wished to bridge in his and our understanding of the foundational principles of Ueshiba Morihei's martial art. He wanted to pass on these skills to anyone who had the time or inclination to put in the hard work required to bridge this gap with him.

Sensei rewarded Okajima's efforts by naming him as his first successor in Yuishinkai in 2005. This was a post that did not rest easily on his head, as he resigned this position by 2012. Okajima sensei loves his hometown of Osaka, and is not fond of travelling. Beyond that, he is a severe, uncompromising man, and holds everyone to the same standards he requires of himself. It is one thing to do this in one's own dojo, but difficult when traveling to teach seminars because, in a large organization, a teacher doesn't have the ‘luxury' of selecting his or her students in the Darwinian manner of old school teaching. One of the most remarkable things about Maruyama sensei is his capacity for that same kind of severity for those who meet him on that level, as well as a spacious understanding that many people have entered martial arts for a variety of other reasons and they, too, will benefit from his teaching.

I took ukemi for Okajima on more than one occasion, as Maruyama sensei ‘lent' his uke to him to teach seminars. Despite his Spartan mindset, if one approaches him with equal intensity, he is forthcoming in his teaching. His skill is excellent, and I learnt a lot just touching him. Despite relinquishing his role as Maruyama sensei's successor, Okajima sensei remains very active within the Yuishinkai community as a touchstone of both technical excellence and spiritual rigor.

Through his ten years of austere Buddhist practice, and what he has subsequently created through his own introspection and his collaboration with Okajima sensei, Maruyama sensei truly transformed his aikido. Sensei highlights the importance of aiki-age/aiki-sage, as well as related body mechanics that he teaches are a product of the interplay of in-yo (yin-yang). He places a strong emphasis on building an immovable body, which he calls iwa-no-mi (‘body of stone'). He achieves this through:

· Standing exercises, (focusing on tanden ball movements, three dimensional body imagery and awareness (called six direction expansion by others).

· Moving the intent around the small orbit of the body, with extremely slow walking and other motions.

· He expresses gravity in his hands through creating what he terms ‘earth reactive' force.

· He has specific solo exercises to strengthen and link the relationship between the crotch arch and the sole of foot.

· Central axis body movement, which involves opening and closing the structure to create ascending/descending spirals, with focus on control of the perineum, shoulder-blades, sternum and chin.

· He also does solo exercises related to aiki age/sage that involve bowing/unbowing the body, accompanying other movements.

· He daily practices the ‘sumo stomp,' and reverse/circular breath exercises, as well as a variation of baguazhang circle walking.

· His weapons training involves suburi with a bokken and thrusting exercises with a jo, focusing on opening and closing the structure.(There is video footage of sensei teaching all these concepts way back to 2003).

All these exercises include aspects related to both breath and mental exercises (intent). Sensei's belief is that through training one's body in this manner, one can achieve aiki-o-kakaeru, where adherence to the attackers body/centre is achieved. Sensei has stated that repeated and constant practice of these basic solo principles will lead a practitioner to an awakened state he calls ai-nuke, what he believes is/was the ultimate level of understanding the founder achieved.

I have been lucky enough to have been Sensei's uke from the inception of his transformation of his aikido. The essence of what he does and teaches is that, through mind, that humans can make what is impossible possible. He believes that the message of the founder was that through aikido, we can ‘self-purify,' and become better human beings. There are many things that I have come to admire about Maruyama sensei, but none more so than his constant need to train himself, constantly developing and elaborating both the way he does technique and the way he looks at aikido as a whole.

Sensei has a pleasant and approachable demeanour, humble and gentle, though I have been told by those that knew him in his younger days that he was as ferocious in his expectations as he was formidable in his technique. Seen as uncompromising, he was product of a different time, telling me that Tohei demanded that nothing was left on the mat. During instructors' training at the Aikikai Honbu, sensei said it was not unusual that those who were being taught by Tohei were so physically depleted that they were unable to walk up the stairs to get changed after the class. Like teacher, like student, Maruyama sensei demanded this of everyone in his early teaching career, and even later on, of those who were his preferred uke, where in 40 degree heat, he would drag you to the very edge of exhaustion, and sometimes drop you off that edge, to see if you would either stand up again, or run outside and hide in the shade. This was tanren, test and transmission all in one: brutally hard, and brutally honest in equal measure.

One could rightly say that the one constant in being his uke is that there is no constant. I remember the early days: seven-day, six-hour-a-day seminars in forty degree heat in stifling conditions in Queensland and Northern New South Wales. I also recall sensei being as upbeat and jovial at the beginning of those seminars as he was at the end, even though he was already advancing in age. I recollect even at my size being thrown around the mat like a ragdoll for hours on end, and sitting there looking at him, wondering how a man so small in stature could be so great in effortless, seemingly boundless power.

I have travelled all around the world with sensei over the last ten years, acting as his otomo: staying with him in the houses that he has lived in, cooking for him, doing his washing/housework, and simply being around him, day to day, for weeks on end.

Maruyama sensei keeps a very strict schedule. He often wakes up before 4 AM (of course, I am up at the same time to tend to his needs). He has his shower, and then goes through his exercise routine, his own set of tandoku-dosa that takes about an hour and a half. I've never seen him miss doing these exercises in all the time that I've been with him. Many of these are internal exercises, and others are for body strengthening.

His other morning habit is to go outside and to greet the rising sun, praying to Ametarasu-omikami. Regardless of where he eats or when he eats, he stops and gives thanks for the food that is in front of him: a crowded airport, a crowded restaurant, regardless, everybody at his table stops, puts their hands together and offers prayer of thanks for the food that is put before them.

Sensei is reserved in most situations, but I have always found him very approachable. His thinking, to many western minds, may seem old-fashioned, and very Japanese. He teaches the same way that O-sensei did, that if one is to understand the essence of any technique, one has to ‘steal' it. And despite Tohei sensei's more apparently open, Westernised attitude, he told me that, in fact, Tohei also followed the same mindset, that the essence of his teaching had to be perceived and absorbed, because it was not something that could be explicitly taught. Therefore, if people want to learn the essence of what Maruyama sensei has to teach, they, too, have to steal the technique from him. He believes that true-heart transmission between a student and teacher can only happen through selfless sacrifice and constant connection in this physical realm: the action of ukemi and the over-arching role of uke being the medium. Old school perhaps, but with a millennium of such a method of transmission, who am I to argue against the weight of history.

We have discussed this many times, us being western people and this being the modern world, but Maruyama sensei says the study of true budo has always been this way, and as far as his mind is concerned always should be. He believes a set of ‘perfect' conditions need to be present for a person to ‘steal technique;' the one's I recall are right attitude, fortitude, sacrifice, a willingness to understand Japanese tradition, history and culture, endurance/perseverance/tenacity, curiosity and luck/talent/stupidity. (???)

It has been fascinating to watch him over the years, as he literally teaches two different things to two different people who are doing the same technique. I have seen him demonstrate on some uke, using a different movement matrix to execute the throw, as though purposefully withholding information, technique devoid of the essence, that, in his mind the person receiving was not yet able to understand. He does this regardless of the rank or perceived seniority of the person. In a way, he teaches on a very personal level to everyone, but not everybody gets the same essence.

When I asked him about this later, he looked at me and said "People only understand from the level of their intuition, and unfortunately that level of realisation is different in everyone." This can make it difficult in situations for those who have yet to release the ego side of their personalities, but to him it is the essence of how he should be teaching. Transmission is earned, not given. He also said that he could only truly do aikido on uke that had let go and surrendered every ounce of intention: those, who, in the moment, understood intuitively the concept of "here, now and nowhere."

Sensei has often given me what I can only describe as Zen koan, in regards to the internal ‘matrix' of what he's doing. It's not so much what he says, but rather, one needs have the ability to discover the essence of what is said within what is hidden. This requires honest self-reflection and earnest study. Sensei has always told us that aikido has nothing to do with technique; this deeper essence is where he is directing our attention.

Maruyama sensei says that anyone can be a mimic; anybody can regurgitate what is told to them. He insists someone's true level of understanding is manifested when they can elucidate the wisdom of the teacher in their own words, with their own actions. This why he sticks to this ‘old school' way of learning; whether we agree with it or not, he believes that this way to transmit true budo is still valid in this day and age.

I've heard many stories of living with O-sensei: what it was like to be his otomo, what it was like to travel with him, what he was like as a person. These stories are told through one or another person's recollection—they are not, therefore, universal, and are, rather, only indicative of this moment in time with O-sensei. There are stories of being able to receive ukemi from the founder, and the great privilege it was to have this opportunity. There are stories of how very particular the founder was about his ukes, about the intuitive connection that he demanded of those he called forward, and the importance that he put on this aspect of training. Maruyama sensei told me the founder gave him his 6th dan due to his ability as uke, and even offered him a 7th dan after a session of intense ukemi.

Maruyama sensei has told me of the times that he has had to sit in seiza outside O-sensei's bedroom when he came to Tokyo, especially as he got older—sitting all night, wide awake just outside the door. Of course, he wasn't the only one that did that; the deshi did it on a rotational basis. This still occurred even when the founder was in his last days, so each one of them had an opportunity to sit at the foot of the master while he was dying. Favour wasn't shown to any one of them; they just continue to do their duty out of respect to their teacher. Sensei also made a promise to O-sensei concerning the continuing dissemination of the art to the world, but I've never really quizzed him on this, because that promise between him and his teacher. I think that each of the deshi made a similar promise to their revered master, something that each of them kept private.

There is a story I would like to share, though it's from the time when O-sensei was getting on in age. Maruyama sensei said one of his duties was to accompany O-sensei on Thursdays to go and teach a morning class at an Omoto Shrine situated somewhere in Tokyo. It had a small dojo behind it, to which was attached a noodle shop. After class, they would come out and O-sensei would have a bowl of noodles. Sensei said that the founder was already well into his eighties, and had a peculiar characteristic—he constantly had a runny nose.

This ramen shop was famous for their spicy noodles. Imagine this: he is sitting there slurping away while his nose is dripping snot into the broth, with Maruyama sensei sitting nearby in attendance. The problem is that O-sensei never finishes his bowl of noodles and at some point, he always pushes the bowl over in front of Maruyama sensei, saying "Please. You finish . . . " Anybody who has lived or spent any time in Japan will understand that what the master has given you, you are obligated to finish. Maruyama sensei said every Thursday, he would eat "O-sensei leftovers." It's a running joke between me and the other seniors that, no matter how much we have to endure in lost sleep when we're running around as sensei's otomo, we don't have to eat his snot.

This has made me reflect on the fact that most westerners don't really understand what their teachers endured to be able to bring aikido to the west. It's been a privilege to have been able to interact with my teacher and others such as him, to be amazed by their ability, at times stunned by their humility and also warmed by their humanity. The one thing that I will say is that we are all humans, and thus have the ability to do great good as well as great evil. The moment that we raise any human being onto a pedestal, we set them up for failure. The stories that Maruyama sensei has told me about O-sensei have done nothing to diminish my respect for the man, but they've done a lot to humanize somebody that I idolised to the point of dehumanization at the beginning of my aikido journey. I'm very grateful to the people who have been around me and around my teacher who have been able to share such experiences and moreover, to be able to continue to attempt to deliver the message of O-sensei to the world.
Peter Kelly (International Chief Instructor, Aikido Yuishinkai) met Maruyama Sensei at the very first international Yuishinkai seminar in 2002. A strong bond formed between the pair, and Peter became Sensei's preferred uke at seminars. Peter has lived and travelled with sensei on many occasions, where he acts as his otomo, caring for Sensei in any capacity necessary. Peter has received many hours off personal off-mat training over these years, and considers these times as invaluable

In 2019 Maruyama sensei appointed him to the position of International Chief Instructor, at the time saying of Peter - "Peter is the man I trust most in the world. His aikido techniques are of an equivalent level to mine, and even more than that, you could even say that he is me -- Koretoshi Maruyama. That is not to say that he imitates me, but rather, he understands me at the deepest spiritual level. When I first met Peter at a seminar in 2002, we instantly understood each other, and now we have reached the point where we don't even need words. I think this is the connection inherent in true aikido. I am forever grateful for the blessing from heaven that brought us together."

Peter has taught seminars and classes in Europe, Australasia, and Japan. After visiting Sensei in Tokyo in 2016, Peter made a pact with him to promote and teach true aikido as well as the philosophy of Ueshiba Morihei. Peter teaches aikido from a small base dojo at the bottom of the world when not travelling, where he lives with his wife and three kids in southern Tasmania.
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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