New Projects

Following the Martial Path: Lessons and Stories from a Lifetime of Training in Budo and Zen, by Walther G. von Krenner, with Ken Jeremiah (foreword by John Stevens) has recently been published. This is the book's introduction:

 

Introduction

Originally, the Japanese language did not have a term for green.  The word ao referred to both blue and green.  The colors were so close that they were just considered different shades.  This might seem strange to speakers of other languages, but lexicon varies between cultures.  In the English language, for example, there is only one word for gray, even though there are many shades of gray.  To an unobservant person, they might all look the same, but to someone who looks carefully, there are countless variations, all of which are distinct colors.  When practitioners begin studying a martial art, they might not even see gray.  They might see everything in black and white.  There are no great mysteries.  Everything is as it appears.
Techniques are nothing more than devices used to control or injure another.  Most students do not progress beyond this point.  They learn how to perform throws and pins, and thinking there is nothing more to them, they stop studying.  Those who continue training might eventually master the techniques, and with that mastery comes a new perception: a new way to see things.  What were once regarded as two separate colors, black and white, blend together.  Practitioners begin to see gray.  The techniques are more than just physical motions.  They contain profound principles.  Once this realization occurs, they are pulled into the wormhole, and what started out as simple becomes incredibly complex.  What began as an awareness that there is more than just black and white, that there is gray, eventually leads to the conclusion that there are countless variations of gray.  The martial arts have multiple shades: different teachings, which can only be perceived through years of hard training.  This is shugyo.  It is interesting that the more one trains, the more he or she realizes how much there is to learn.  There is no end in sight.  What starts out as physical motions alone, martial techniques used to protect oneself and defeat others, becomes something more: devices to forge and polish the spirit. 
A connection exists between Zen and the martial arts.  If practitioners view things in the correct manner, many different paths lead to the same destination.  This is why some Japanese masters not only practice martial arts, but also things like ikebana ( flower-arranging ), shodo ( calligraphy ), bijutsu ( art ), or sado ( the Way of Tea ), learning from the stark simplicity yet whole-minded effort of the cha no yu ( tea ceremony ).  All of these pursuits are Budo, and they reflect the Japanese expression bun bu ryo do: the way of the brush is the same as the way of the sword.  All of these pursuits are manifestations of Zen.
Over the years, I have continued to train in Zen meditation, calligraphy, painting, the tea ceremony, and the martial art Aikido, and I continue to progress on the path.  I began my martial training in Germany more than fifty years ago, learning Judo from Heinreich Steffin, Kondo Mitsuhiro ( 9th dan ) and Nagaoka Hidekaru ( 10th dan ).  After winning in my class at the national championship in 1959, I traveled to France to train in Judo at the Salle Pleyel Dojo, where tenth-dan Anton Geesink taught.  He was a three-time World Judo champion, an Olympic gold medalist, and he won 21 European Judo championships.  Many great martial artists trained at this dojo.
In 1960, I left France and moved to the United States to train at Hal Sharp’s dojo, where ninth-dan Gene LeBell trained.  He has written many books and has been in more than 1,000 movies and television shows.  Training with LeBelle was difficult, and I learned a lot.  At about the same time, I also began learning karate from Nishiyama Hidetaka.  While I was training at Hal Sharp’s dojo, I was also teaching at David Chow’s dojo, who was the Hong Kong Judo champion.  This was located at the Encino Community Center, where I experienced Aikido for the first time.

1. Signed photograph of Ueshiba Kisshomaru Sensei, who first introduced me to Aikido

 

  One day, when I arrived at the dojo, many people were present and chairs were set up.  The Judo class had been canceled because there was going to be a demonstration of a new martial art called Aikido.  I sat down to watch, and people with kendo gear ( i.e. hakama ) were flying through the air, taking what I perceived as unrealistic falls.  The instructor wore glasses, and his hair remained perfectly in place as he repeatedly threw his attackers to the ground.  I knew it had to be fake, and I was a little unhappy that my class was canceled; I really wanted to train.  After the demonstration, the instructor, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, held a question-and-answer session.  I told him that such techniques would probably not work on a Judo practitioner, and he invited me to attack.  I did, and Ueshiba sprained my wrist using kotegaeshi.  Thinking it had to be a fluke, I attacked with the other hand, and he busted that one too.  After this incident, I wanted to learn as much about Aikido as I could. 

2. Signed photograph of Takahashi Isao Sensei.

 

Ueshiba Sensei remained in the United States for about four weeks, during which time I trained with him.  When the time came for him to return to Japan, he introduced me to Takahashi Isao, with whom I practiced for years.  We not only trained in his dojo, but also practiced techniques in his backyard or garage, trying to perfect even the smallest details.  We did a lot of ki training, and we frequently talked about the sword and its connection to Aikido.  I was interested in the Japanese sword, and at the time, I was the Japanese Sword Society president.  He often came to my house, and we spent hours talking about swords, Aikido, and even calligraphy.  Then we trained in my private dojo.  He even taught me how to play the Japanese flute, the shakuhachi.

3. Signed photograph of Tohei Koichi


Takahashi Sensei introduced me to Tohei Koichi, the man who did more than anyone else to disseminate Aikido to the world.  Aikido would not have taken root in the United States without his efforts, and I believe he was the most important person in the development of Aikido as a martial art distinct from Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu.  Tohei even developed the names of the techniques used today.  The founder, O-Sensei, use terms like ude osae, kote mawashi, and kote hineri to describe techniques.  Tohei Sensei simplified these so foreigners could more easily remember them.  He replaced them with words more recognizable today, such as ikkyo, nikkyo, and sankyo: literally, “technique number one, two, and three.”  Tohei Sensei stressed the importance of ki, and he taught me how to use it in my training.  Practitioners today might look at some old pictures of O-Sensei, in which many students pushed on his head or chest while he was either seated on the ground or standing, and wonder how it was done.  Such performances might look like magicians’ tricks to an outside observer, but they are a demonstration of ki power.  Tohei Sensei taught me how to do these techniques so I could teach others about ki, and so I could convince skeptics about this energy source’s existence.
While training under both Tohei Sensei and Takahashi Sensei, I met many interesting people, people who today are considered experts in Japanese martial arts, such as Don Angier and Meik Skoss, ( who was a beginner student in our San Fernando Valley Dojo ), but I had not yet trained with the art’s founder.  In 1967, Takahashi Sensei came to my house and told me that I had to go to Japan while O-Sensei was still alive.  At the time, I was dealing Asian artwork, and I had a business called Art Treasures of Asia.  I thought about it and decided that I did want to go, but the only way I could afford a trip like that was for my wife and me to sell our house.  I spoke to her, and she was supportive.  She has always supported me.  Therefore, that is what we did.  We sold our home and moved to Japan so I could train with O-Sensei.

4. Signed photograph of O-Sensei


Japan at that time was much different than it is today.  I arrived at Haneda airport and hailed a cab.  I did not realize how far from Tokyo this airport was, but the exchange rate at the time was about 360 yen to a dollar, so even this long ride was inexpensive.  I got into the car and asked the driver to take me to the Aikido Hombu Dojo, and he had no idea what I was talking about.  In the West, Aikido was well known, at least in our circles, and I had assumed that everyone in Japan was likewise acquainted with this new art.  Apparently, this was not the case.  I asked him to take me to Shinjuku.  Today, this is a busy area of Tokyo; skyscrapers are everywhere, dwarfing the constant crowds of people who live there, but at the time, it was not as built up.  The highest building was the Odakyu department store, and that was only three floors.  You would be hard-pressed to find a building that only had three floors in Tokyo today.  The taxi driver stopped in Shinjuku and asked a passerby if he knew where the Aikido dojo was located.  His response was, “What is Aikido?”  Suddenly, the name of the specific street where the dojo was located came to mind: wakamatsu-cho.  The driver took me there.  The road itself was only about seven feet wide, so the car could not enter.  I got out, paid the driver, and walked toward the dojo. 
The exterior of the new Hombu Dojo in Tokyo today looks like a department store or an office building, but when I went there to train, it was different.  It was pretty.  Two stone pillars seemingly held the surrounding wall at bay, and a garden path led to the dojo entrance.  It was a Japanese-style garden, with moss, stones, plants, and trees.  On one of the pillars was a sign, which read “Aikido Hombu Dojo.”  The main entrance was a Japanese-style sliding door.  By the time I arrived, it was already evening.  Assuming that classes were about to start soon, I slid open the door and stepped inside into the genkan, or entryway, where I took my shoes off.  The dojo itself had about fifty or sixty ( tatami ) mats.  It was quiet.  No one was there.


5. Hombu Dojo, Shinjuku-ku, 102 Wakamatsu-cho ( 1967 )

 

The sliding doors on the other side of the mats opened and Ueshiba Kisshomaru appeared.  Noticing that someone was in the dojo, he walked quickly toward me, but as he approached, he recognized me.  He shook my hand and explained that there were no classes in the evening, only in the morning.  He pointed the way towards the dormitory across the street, a two-story building with twelve rooms.  My good friend Dr. Robert Frager had a room on the first floor, and he told me I could move in with him.  Bob was a former professor at Harvard University, and he trained in Aikido, Judo, and Karate.  ( He and I later attended the same conference on East Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii after returning from Japan. )  Eventually, someone upstairs moved out and it was a better room, so Bob moved into it, leaving me alone on the first floor.  My room was only six tatami mats in size, and the futon was so small that my feet stuck out.  I had to have another one made, just so my entire body would fit on the bedding.  But upon arriving in Japan, I was at least happy to have a place to stay, and I looked forward to meeting the master in the morning.
At the time, O-Sensei was not at the dojo every day.  Others taught the classes.  However, on this particular day, he was there, and after class, Bob led me to his office.  The door was so low that I had to get onto my knees to enter.  In my hand was a letter of introduction from Takahashi Sensei.  Upon seeing it, O-Sensei began talking.  His high-pitched voice had an ethereal, transcendental quality.  He talked for about a half hour that day, and although I did not understand everything he said, I never forgot it.
I trained in Japan for the last two years of O-Sensei’s life, and I learned a lot.  In this book, I hope to convey some of the lessons I learned to other practitioners.  Some great photographs that I have compiled through the years appear in this text.  Alongside such photographs are examples of calligraphy and paintings that I did.  To me, such art forms are just as much a part of Budo training as Aikido and Judo are.  They are Zen practices, illustrating the core principles found in this way of life.  When I was in Japan, I thought it was important to record as many speeches and sayings of the founder as possible, so that this knowledge could be passed down to future generations.  I kept a three-volume journal in which I recorded his lessons, my interpretation of the message conveyed, and some artwork that I thought best reflected the ideas.  Some of these are included in this text.  I hope students on the path find them beneficial.     
Ueshiba Morihei O-Sensei admonished, “Never consider yourself an all-knowing, perfected master; you must continue to train daily with your friends and students and progress together.”  And he practiced what he preached.  Until his death, he consistently trained.  He never stopped.  I continue to emulate him.  Following his example, I train daily, trying to improve my Aikido and myself.  I do not consider myself an all-knowing master, but having walked the road of traditional Budo for more than fifty years, and having studied under many of the world’s great teachers, I feel entitled to make some observations.  I offer them here, in this text, in the hope that they will assist others who follow the same path.