When Morihei Ueshiba founded aikido, he included joint locks, throws, pins, ki energy, breath control and principles for using an opponent’s power against him. The art also encompassed spiritual and artistic aspects that many modern masters have discontinued practicing.
Yet those neglected aspects are the very thing practitioners need to keep themselves in harmony with nature. They include shodo (calligraphy), kojiki (records of ancient matters) and misogi (purification rituals). Practicing them helps balance the spiritual and technical aspects of aikido, which is important if one is to achieve bun bu ryo do, or the “balance between pen and sword.”
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Seiseki Abe, one of Morihei Ueshiba’s top disciples, practiced and taught the unification of body, mind and spirit in Japan until his death in 2011. In this interview, Seiseki Abe, a 10th dan in aikido and a master of calligraphy, shared his ideas on the state of the art in the modern world.
What is your family background?
Seiseki Abe: I was born in Osaka, Japan. My father’s name was Yukichi. He was a calligraphy teacher. My mother’s name was Fude, which means “brush,” and she was a farmer. I began practicing shodo as a child with my father teaching me, but I made a serious commitment to make it an important part of my life at age 20.
What is the relationship between aikido and shodo?
Seiseki Abe: The first element of their relationship is that each art takes a tremendous amount of concentration. An example would be that in calligraphy you have a brush, and the brush can be spread out. When you put ink on the brush and place it on the paper, the brush makes a tip or point and you must place your concentration on that point. All calligraphy starts from this point. If the point is smaller, it demands more concentration than [if it is] bigger. After you make a point on the paper, you begin to form lines.
In aikido, if someone grasps your hand, it is like the brush touching the surface to form a point. When you move your hand, you are now forming a line. The difference between shodo and aikido is that in shodo, when you form lines, they are visible on paper. The aikido lines are invisible and disappear from moment to moment.
Why did Morihei Ueshiba — or O-Sensei, as he was called — want to study calligraphy?
Seiseki Abe: O-Sensei had a tremendous amount of ki. But in his aikido, the ki would disappear on a moment-to-moment basis. The ki of O-Sensei could not even be captured by a movie camera. It was so fast and invisible. O-Sensei wanted to capture his ki and wanted to learn calligraphy. He wanted to put his ki on paper.
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How did you become involved with aikido and Morihei Ueshiba?
Seiseki Abe: When I was 25 years old, I saw a master named Futake sensei demonstrate aikido. He was a professor at the university, and I was very impressed with his demonstration, so I became his disciple. I asked Futake sensei who his master was. He said, “Morihei Ueshiba.” I wanted to meet O-Sensei but was unable to meet him for a long time.
In 1952 I finally met O-Sensei in Osaka. I introduced myself as an aikido student of Futake sensei. I had also learned kojiki and misogi. O-Sensei immediately responded and told me to come tomorrow and train. At that time, it was very difficult to become a student of O-Sensei. A person could not go up to O-Sensei and introduce himself and become a student. My teacher was very close to O-Sensei, and because of his good reputation, O-Sensei accepted me as a disciple.
Did you teach calligraphy to Morihei Ueshiba?
Seiseki Abe: I taught him shodo differently from the way I taught other students. Our relationship was different from the traditional master/disciple relationship. I was very humble when I taught him. He would ask specific questions about how to do certain things, and I would make suggestions. O-Sensei learned shodo by having an open mind and by my helping him through the process of his own training.
Have you taught calligraphy to other aikido masters?
Seiseki Abe: I taught some of the other masters at the Aiki-Kai Honbu Dojo. Steven Seagal sensei was also a student; his calligraphy is very good.
What is your relationship with Steven Seagal?
Seiseki Abe: The relationship has been that I am his senior and he is my junior. We are both affiliated with Aiki-Kai Honbu Dojo. Seagal sensei has also received guidance from me in calligraphy. He is the founder of Ten Shin Dojo, and his dojo have developed an ongoing interaction with the teachings of O-Sensei. I have met many friends in Los Angeles through Seagal sensei and Haruo Matsuoka sensei.
(To be continued.)