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Createspace Independent Publishing Platform -- Searching for O'Sensei:Learning & Living the Wisdom of the Warrior
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Description: Since the early Eighties, a surprisingly extensive literature has grown up around the Japanese martial art of Aikido, and the man regarded as the Founder of Aikido by the art's practitioners, Ueshiba Morihei. Most of those works fall into one of a few, by now predictable, categories: breathless quasi-official hagiographic accounts of Ueshiba's life and exploits; sectarian manuals of technical instruction intended as reference works for students associated with a particular teacher; rather woolier and yet more thinly sourced works purporting to reveal the spiritual roots, trunk, branches, and fruit of the thought of the Avatar Ueshiba; and a subgenre of memoirs of Ueshiba and his teachings primarily intended to advertise the critical respects in which the memoirist was closer to Ueshiba than any of his fellow students, and thus, the most appropriate vessel for conveying his teaching to the broken and imbalanced world which hungrily and desperately awaits this revelation. In some of these works, whether because of a lack of material on any particular of these topics, or a perceived need to cover all the bases, the author has decided to shoehorn all of these elements into his manuscript or, to paraphrase Norman Mailer, these "Advertisements for Himself."

What Tom Collings has done in the work at hand is quite different and quite welcome: he has written a comparatively straightforward testimonial that explains how he came to be interested in the art of Aikido, provides the reader with compelling thumbnail sketches of a number of figures -- both Japanese and American -- who played key roles in the transmission of the art from Japan to the West, as well as individuals in Chinese martial and Buddhist traditions with whom he was involved, and recounts his subsequent experience as a parole officer in New York City, attempting to walk a path with a heart while attempting to keep tab on some of the roughest characters in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the City. The author is not attempting to portray himself as any kind of exemplar -- early on, he identifies himself as "a C student anywhere" -- and similarly, though he isn't trying to dazzle anyone with his prose, his voice is clear and sure throughout.

Like the author, the book manages to be consistently straightforward without devolving into cliche, pragmatic without being thoughtless or merely utilitarian, and tough-minded without rigidity or any evidence of mental ossification. Simple metaphors Ueshiba drew (however indirectly) from Chinese Five Element Theory (the solidity of earth, the fluidity of water, the rapidity of fire) are presented not as the basis for an abstruse oration about the macrocosm and our place in it or an OCD gym rat's esoteric map to the microcosm of internal energy that will enable him to stand alongside Ueshiba on the Bridge of the High Plain of Heaven, but rather, as clear and immediate images that encode rules of thumb useful in almost any circumstance. That Collings is able to do this in the context of entertaining and revelatory anecdotes about on-the-job incidents in which these qualities manifested themselves (more than once, in ways that surprised him as much as those around him) gives his account a credibility and a weight that is lacking in many "more authoritative" presentations.

Collings also writes compellingly about the effects (and after-effects) of the kind of adrenaline-dump that often occurs in extreme situations and its effects on the body and the mind -- all critical information for anyone who may experience this personally or have to deal with someone in its grip, which can be quite extreme, as his own personal experience makes clear. The sections of the book under the heading "Takemusu Aiki" explicitly distill much of his experience in the dojo and in the street to show how key principles -- as distinct from techniques -- drawn from the corpus of historical aikido instruction -- can be effectively applied in real situations. In all of these cases, whether he's making a point and then telling a story to illustrate the point, or simply telling a story and allowing the point to make itself, Collings is a solid storyteller whose pacing and concision make the book as a whole an easy read. The work is episodic enough that it can be put down at almost any point, but compelling enough that you may not put it down until you're done.

Having actively practiced aikido for over twenty-five years, I am quite familiar with more than a few of the individuals about whom Collings is writing. His brief sketches of those I do know give me great confidence regarding the accuracy of his depictions in other cases. In each instance, without falling into sycophancy or hagiography, he has captured and conveyed much of what was unique, compelling, and valuable about each of his subjects without pretending that they are more than human in any regard. Given the Orientalist tendency of many Westenrers to deify their Asian instructors and the attendant hyper-Japanese adherence to tatemae -- literally, "standing before," figuratively, that which can be said in public, as distinct from "honne" or the truth one holds in one's heart -- that is all too common and too deeply rooted in the collective social norms of aikido practitioners, even this gentle candor is no small feat on his part.

Indeed, Collings' work, like two very different earlier works, Robert Twygger's "Angry White Pyjamas," and Ellis Amdur's "Dueling with O-Sensei," distinguishes itself from most works on this subject by being readable, entertaining, and unbeholden to any particular party line. If what you're looking for is technical instruction for your next kyu exam, a biography of the art's founder, or an extended overview of the philosophical and spiritual roots of the art, this is not the work for you. But if you're interested in how one serious practitioner attempted to walk the talk, and what he learned along the way, you're in for a good read.
ISBN: 149744490X



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