True study of martial arts

Jardin japonais Albert KahnPhotography by Antonin Borgeaud © 2007

One always complains of what one has received. Did the master teach the true art, the true technique, the true spirit? Did he keep the essential for himself? Did he understand his own master? I read and hear these complaints since the beginning of my study of martial arts in 1970.

I have never joined this choral.

One hears that the students are of lower quality and are not able to grasp the secrets of their master. I hear that the mould of ancient masters has been broken. I read that our time weakens the heart and bones of today’s beginners.

I have never joined this choral.

True study is my aim. I have to take up practise, choose the best teacher available and keep making efforts. This opening of trail is the access to mastery. Complaint is no such road.

I hear that Ueshiba Morihei sensei was the only one to be able to realize Aikido. By realizing, I mean understanding, and doing. I read that Musashi was the only one to realize his teaching. This path leads to despair.

I do not join this choral neither.

Once Noro Masamichi sensei asked me how I saw the coming year. I answered: “Full of great expectations.” He considered my answer and said then: “Hope is a great treasure for men.”

I join his choral.

Once when an old age illness caught Noro Masamichi sensei, he was on the phone listening to a suffering old friend and Aiki companion. He told his mate: “You cannot despair, you are the student of Ueshiba Morihei sensei.”

I join his choral.

Aikido is about technique led by spirit. Technique is the cobblestone on which we walk; spirit is the sight which urges us to move on, one cobble after the other, from one horizon to the next and beyond.

I join this companionship.


Why do masters tell stories?

2017.03.15.007.WebThis picture tells me of Irimi Nage. We are earthly bound, yet we are promised to higher dwellings. Though it is rooted on one island, Notre-Dame shifts its light to the darkest corners of the human heart. Photography by Nguyen Thanh Thien © 2016

Noro Masamichi sensei’s relation to his master’s technique was quite unique. Many tried to stick to the model or on the opposite quit the model as quickly as they can. Noro sensei did this differently. In appearance his movements are distinctively Noro sensei’s. They have this way of shifting the weight to the back leg or emphasizing on the stance. Yet more deeply, Noro sensei was moving forward, ever, towards his counterpart. In the form, I see difference. In depth, I see a meeting with his master at each move. He would stop a movement, saying: “This I do not understand but my master did it this way, so I do it this way.” His techniques were a means of meeting Ueshiba Morihei sensei. For my master, they were a step “through the looking glass”, a step beyond, in French an “outrepas”.

They had to be in time and in space. In time, I mean in the rhythm of the counterpart. In space, I mean gathering the space from one horizon to the other, the finger pointing at the far horizon, not as a limit of one’s arm’s reach.

I remember meeting with Eliane Boulongne sensei, who brought Sogetsu Ikebana to France. She said many were feeding on Ikebana to do sculpture or painting or else but what she really wanted to stick to was balance, equilibrium. In Noro sensei’s art, there is a constant return to this equilibrium, this unique quality which is the sign of long lasting construction.

I remember Noro sensei one day came to me and did Irimi Nage. The way he did it, slowly and gently lifting me, pointing at the horizon, through my spine, catching my heels, this way was his teaching, his memory of his master’s Irimi nage, his study of it. Ever flowing and never leaving the spring.

I now understand Orpheus as his beloved was walking out of darkness. He did not have to turn back, to turn his back to light. It is darkness which is to ride the way to light. Noro sensei’s art was centred on his master’s art, calling it to light, not stepping back to darkness.

This is what went through my mind as I was sitting in the dojo when Noro sensei was teaching. This is what I do in the dojo. I hear Noro sensei talking again and again of Ueshiba Morihei’s Irimi Nage. I listen to him as I practise.

The questions are “Why do masters tell stories?” and “Why do we listen to them?”

Through the gate of despair

CANON-FT-QL029.WebProgress is to be found among tremendous hardship. Photography by Nguyen Thanh Thien © 2016

When Noro san entered Ueshiba Morihei sensei’s dojo, Tamura Nobuyoshi san acted as his sempai, elder student. They soon became best friends. This I have written earlier.

Tamura san was the son of a sword master, maybe a kendo master, I do not recall. When Tamura san and Noro san had a friendly bout, Tamura san with a bokken and Noro san with a jo, Tamura san would win.

As Noro san had turned to the wooden staff at the recommendation of Ueshiba Morohei sensei, he worked hard and harder at perfecting his technique. One day, the unexpected happened. Tamura san took his favorite stance with his bokken while Noro san took a Chudan stance with the jo. The two friends were facing one another, motionless. Noro san remembers: “The jo in my hands just moved forward as I entered the distance between the two of us. It struck Tamura sensei to the eyebrow. This brought the bout to an end. From time to time, Tamura sensei would have a headache starting at this eyebrow. I wonder if he remembers my strike that day.” This brought their bouts to an end.

At one time, Noro sensei would come to a feeling of self-dissatisfaction. He had the feeling of not being able to improve his Aikido. In the evening, he discussed the matter with his master. He thought it was useless for him to go on practising, he felt at a dead end. Ueshiba sensei looked onto to his student with no surprise as he knew him well and had seen the discontent grow, day after day. He told him to do from now on Ikkyo. It lasted at least one year. Noro sensei was doing only Ikkyo when others studied all the other movements. He even earned Ikkyo as a nickname. He would tell us how he appreciated the help of Kobayashi Hirokasu sensei who acted as Uke for him during that entire year. Morning, Ikkyo. Afternoon, Ikkyo. Evening, Ikkyo. This unabled Noro sensei to get through the gate of despair which awaits all serious martial artists at one time.

Later while in Paris, he would study Shiho Nage for one year. His students were to become known for their Shiho Nage. He did loose many students that year, through boredom. He also studied Irimi Nage for a long period of time, questioning the Irimi Nage he had felt in the hands of Ueshiba Morihei sensei. He would recall that one day as he was greatly injured by a car accident, he brought together all his energy to step on the tatami and do Irimi Nage. Amidst terrible weakness, he awoke to Irimi Nage as he had felt it when he was Uke to Ueshiba Morihei sensei. “It was the movement of a lifetime”, said he.”It was it.” I guess his Uke was Asai Katsuaki sensei but I am not sure.

Noro sensei has always kept open the flow of teaching coming down from Ueshiba Morihei sensei. It is studied by my students and I within Ringenkai Aikido. It is also studied by Asai Katsuaki sensei and his students and, of course, by Noro Masamichi sensei’s successor and son, Noro Takeharu sensei. Some of us keep open the path of our master. Please feel free to join the dojos close to your home.

Young deshi

pierresThe will of a beginner is not second to the strength of rocks. Photography by Nguyen Thanh Thien © 2016

Noro Masamichi was Otomo to Ueshiba Morihei sensei, Otomo meaning serving disciple, the closest one. It was not an easy task. He had to care at all time, night and day. In the beginning, he lacked sleep as Ueshiba sensei would burst into his room in the middle of the night yelling. It was his way to train young Noro to react and even foresee his attack. One night, he opened quietly the sliding panel to find Noro ready for his master. From then on, he stopped this training, being sure Noro Masamichi was ready to care for his safety at any time.

He also asked Noro Masamichi to massage his back. There was no explanation nor theory prior to this request. Noro san was to move up and down his back tirelesly. The morning following this first experience, Noro san had swollen thumbs. Yet, in the evening, Ueshiba sensei call onto him to massage him. Little by little, Noro san was able to massage his master correctly, understanding the needs of his master without explanation.

He also had to accompany his master along trips throughout Japan, carrying his luggage and caring for his safety. He did not really appreciate the experiment as Ueshiba sensei was all the time talking to other travellers, lecturing them on Aikido. Young Noro felt embarrassed. Later when he was to promote Aikido in Europe and Africa, he would reconsider his master’s attitude.

Sometimes, Noro san was unhappy with his master. Those days, he would add garlic to the food. His master had a dislike for garlic. Ueshiba sensei would enter the room, smell the food and with a frown of discontent, leave and get back to his room. Yet, Noro san learnt much from him as he did not let the situation in a poor state. One day, Noro san was very unhappy and to mark his position, lit a cigarette in front of a distinguished visitor. The visitor then asked the master who was this person in the room. Ueshiba sensei replied: “He is my son.” Noro san was abashed at such an honour, such recognition in the words of his master that he stopped smoking and changed his attitude in gratitude for the public acknowledgement his master had bestowed upon him.

One day, Ueshiba sensei called Noro san to his room and told him to come with a bokken. Noro san rushed to fetch a bokken and run back hoping to learn the sword directly from Ueshiba Morihei sensei. Ueshiba sensei told him to take a stance. In a split of a second, he hit the wooden sword of his student, thrusting it out of his grip. With a frown of surprise at the weakness of his student, he left the room without a word. This did leave a wound in the heart of Noro san. Later, he would tell us to beware of our words and our attitude for, with a little frown, we can deeply hurt our students.

Since this event, Noro san concentrated on the wooden staff, the jo. He would train and train. One day, he had travelled to Iwama with his master. Ueshiba sensei, sitting by the keiko area, told him to do some exercise with the jo. Noro san took up the exercise. Some time after, he was sweating and in pain but there was no sign from his master to tell him to stop. So he went on. He could now barely lift his arms. Still no sign. When he could no longer move his arms, in great pain, he crawled to him only to discover he had fallen asleep. At that moment, Ueshiba sensei woke up and, a bit embarrassed at having fallen asleep, said: “Good, good, now you may stop.” Noro sensei would later tell us that the master says when to begin an exercise and only the master says when to stop.

These lessons have lead me to this day. I have since become the student of two soke, in the school of Miyamoto Musashi. These lessons among many others have guided my path through great trials. They are our guidelines in Ringenkai Aikido.

The hand and the glov

feuille.Web.001One of them. Photography by Nguyen Thanh Thiên © 2017

When Noro Masamichi entered the dojo of Ueshiba Morihei sensei, he was a medical student. His first encounter with his master redirected his life to a new horizon which would be the study of Aikido. He became Uchideshi, live-in student. They were few of them in the dojo of Ueshiba Morihei sensei. Noro sensei used to say: “The 5 of us were to spread Aikido throughout the world.” Tamura Nobuyoshi who had entered the dojo a year or two before him, was to become his brother in the dojo. Tamura san was then the assistant of Ueshiba Morihei sensei, receiving his techniques and caring for the master. The goal of the student Noro was to do his best and eventually become the number one student, the assistant of his master. After only a few months, Ueshiba turned to him in the morning class and from that morning, Noro Masamichi became his assistant. His heart filled with joy, it took him some time to notice a change in the attitude of his best friend, Tamura Nobuyoshi who had grown more silent, who kept to himself when before he was soo happy to encourage his kohai, Noro Masamichi. Wondering about such change in the spirit of Tamura san, Noro san came to understand his friend felt much sorrow at loosing his privileged position close to his master. So, one day while on an exhibition trip in the Tokyo area, he made a fool of himself, on purpose. When he acted strangely as his uke, Ueshiba Morihei sensei looked at him with great surprise and discomfort, dismissed him and turned to Tamura san to display his techniques before the public. Noro san immediatley saw the change in Tamura san’s spirit as he jumped up and rushed to his master, bursting with joy as he recovered his lost position. This was most important to Noro san who did not wish to be “Ichiban”, number one, at the cost of losing his best friend. Ueshiba sensei understood the attitude of his close disciple. This is why from that day onward, Tamura san was to be assistant in the Tokyo area while Noro san was his assistant in the other parts of Japan.

Noro san talked about this story very often. I constantly wondered at why he came again and again back to this part of his relation with Tamura sensei.

I believe the position of Ichiban brings joy and despair to people, wether they are the chosen one or not. There is a cost to this position. There is also a teaching.

To be the assistant to a master implies one has to become the glove to the hand of the master. There is always a glove which fits one’s hand better than another. There is an art of the glove as there is an art of the hand. Noro sensei was the glove to the hand of his master. This fact recognised by Ueshiba sensei pushed him ahead of his friends and his comrades.

As the student becomes closer to the master, close to the point he shares his views and his insights, he journeys to a land unknown to his companions who are working their way far behind. If the master is less lonely when he finds a close student, this student looses in return the brotherhood of his former companions. This is the price one has to pay to become the close disciple.

This is one explanation of what happened later to Noro sensei when he was rejected from the world of Aikido, some 20 years later.

There is a price one has to pay for the treasures of understanding one’s master. Such is the price Noro sensei paid to become the Otomo, the serving disciple of Ueshiba Morihei sensei.

Studying to the bone and the marrow

DSCF0985Old beech tree in April. Photography by Nguyen Thanh Thiên © 2017

It has been 1 year since I created Ringenkai Aikido. As I said before, this was not my prime intention. I have to study, this is my urge. Still, this kept me with a feeling of an unfulfilled duty. I was sensing a slow, unavoidable, sure coming loss. The teaching of my master as I had witnessed it was fading away, in the eyes of my student, in those of the public and day by day in my own eyes. I have worked on these lessons tirelessly yet each tide was nibbling some sand, some stones, some chunk of black earth. I had sensed the direction my master was working at, his eyes set upon his master’s achievement, Ueshiba Morihei sensei’s Aikido. So I had to pull out of darkness this teaching, this path, this way of doing Aikido. I understood this direction had to be given a name so it would live in the dojo, in the class I give, in the lesson my students study. I  found a name to guide me: it would be Ringenkai Aikido, Aikido of the school of the eye of the wheel.

Since then, I have bound together the 30 years I spent studying Noro sensei’s art. I have also dug deep into his lessons. I have found surprising aspects that I had been walking by not noticing such treasures. Now I am in the time of sharing. In the next years, starting now, I will unroll the entire technical curriculum of Noro sensei as they are understood in my school. I will also share the insights it has brought to my mind and body. The inner and outer aspects of the art stand within these manners, one of the meaning of do or tao in Chinese.

At the beginning of my teaching period, I started on the project of teaching the whole curriculum I had received. It took me 15 years to go through. All that was given to me I share it with my students. I expect it will take me the next 10 years to go through a second round. To those who wish to share such moments with my students and me, you are most welcome to join us and unfold these lessons, from start to end.

For me, this means acknowledging a debt one owes one’s masters. Noro Masamichi sensei once said of Tohei Koichi sensei: “He is a genius among geniuses.” I feel that I have in turn to acknowledge the genius of Noro sensei and I will do it by unfolding his lessons.



sakura001.Web.sqHanami is 花見 flower viewing. Photography by Nguyen Thanh Thien © 2017

I live in an area where many cherry trees bloom. It has even given a name to a cherry good for alcohol and cakes, the Montmorency Cherry Tree. As a martial artist, I walk among these trees and think about Japanese taste for these flowers. Much has been said about them as the symbol of the samurai.

The samurais I know of are my masters. I have had the chance to witness their last blossom. I saw their first too, for some of them. There has been adventure between both and I have learnt much.

Yet I recall the last blossom and readily, reach out to my training gear and start practising, under the cherry blossom.