Interview with Grigoris A. Miliaresis, Part IΙ

This is the second part of the interview with Mr. Grigoris A. Miliaresis. Mr. Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a friend of mine who currently lives and trains in Japan where he works as a journalist. My contact with him includes many hours of aikido training, many hours of talks etc. His contribution to the development of budo in Greece is already significant. During all these years of knowing each other, we have developed a different view on aikido, concerning certain things, yet his opinion matters to me. In the first part of the interview among other things, I asked Mr. Miliaresis about our fantasies, misconceptions and preconceptions, concerning Japan and Budo. In this, last part, I am asking him about Hombu and Ibaraki Shibu Dojo, his practice in Zen and how the Japanese define the concepts of harmony and ‘ki’ in their everyday lives, If you love Japan, Budo, Aikido, Zen etc. sit back and enjoy....

Would you share with us your experience from your visits to Aikikai Honbu in Tokyo and the Ibaraki Shibu Dojo in Iwama?

Well, the main problem with those places is that if you are an aikidoka it’s very hard to visit them without your mind being filled with preconceptions: the former is the center of the Aikikai world and where the Ueshiba have been teaching for the last 60 years and the latter is the place where Ueshiba Morihei spend a considerable part of his life and, according to some, where he conceptualized aikido as we know it today; it’s difficult to go in there (and even more so to step your foot on their tatami and train) and not be overwhelmed by their history. I mean, the calligraphy on their walls comes from the hand of Morihei himself –it’s not a copy like those we have in our dojo back home!

Still reality is reality so after a while you get used to it: people train like they train in all aikido dojo and in the case of the Honbu there is a lot of them –like a hundred or so in the main dojo (the one you usually see in pictures) with a good 25-30% of them being foreigners, many of them having lived in Japan for ages and having become something like “unofficial officials”: all haughty and authoritative and I-know-how-things-are-done-around-here-y which personally pisses me off immensely. Still, it is their dojo much more than it is mine (we are all there to practice aikido on the same mat and everything but seniority is seniority and you have to respect that) so when I’m there I do as they say but I can’t help thinking that the high-horse-y righteousness of these people is at complete odds with what Morihei had in mind back in the day.

The same is more or less true in Iwama, although the actual setting of the place lends a quite different vibe to the experience: the dojo is in a rural area filled with trees and small factories, most of them abandoned by now, and reeking of neglect (to the extent this can happen in Japan, anyway). And if you manage to find your way through the backyards and the country roads you reach the dojo area, itself also largely neglected, but in it is Ueshiba Morihei's dojo again with his writing on the walls and his bokuto on the kamiza and its sliding doors open so you can see the garden while you train and hear the cicada or the crickets and it feels, you know, different; that or, once again, it's your mind playing tricks because the holier-than-thou attitude of the Honbu is still there and probably worse because in Iwama there are still live-in students (most of them foreigners) who feel they are entitled to some respect *because* they live and train there.

Lest I be misunderstood, these are still great dojo to train. The instructors are probably the best you can find anywhere and the very fact that you are training *in* the Ueshiba family grounds certainly gives you a sense of continuity which I believe is important when learning a traditional art. But, once again, you have to be aware of the difference between your own fantasies and reality: they are not "magical" and they are not going to miraculously "transform" your aikido into something "divine". If anything, and judging from the old-timers' attitude, there is a real danger they will reinforce your preconceptions about you being a special human being, blessed with a rare opportunity to become a vessel for "O-Sensei's spirit". Which of course is absolute nonsense: if you really want to communicate with the old man you just need to train your ass off and try being less of an asshole on and off the tatami (laughs). And while many people you'll meet in these two dojo are absolutely fine human beings, there are quite a few that aren't and I'm not sure aikido itself or the fact that they train there doesn't play a part at this.

One last thing about the Honbu which might be useful for readers of an aikido blog and especially for those who are considering coming to Japan to train in the Honbu dojo: the Aikikai is a big organization and one that has being trying (and very successfully in my opinion) to play host to many individuals with very different approaches to aikido –this is apparent in that there is no “Aikikai style” outside some technique naming conventions (one could argue that the Doshu’s style is the “Aikikai style” but even a casual glance at the styles of the second and the third Doshu clearly shows as many differences as similarities). So, if you come here with the intention of studying aikido for any considerable amount of time, you’ll unavoidably end up being someone’s student –because you chose them, because they chose you (or because others rejected you), because you can train particular hours of the day or particular days of the week etc. So “training at the Honbu” is half the story; who you’re training with at the Honbu is the other half and as you can very well understand this will play a major part in your aikido both technically and “politically”, so to speak (yes there are politics and power plays within the Honbu –big surprise, huh?)

Of course these don’t matter if (a) you’re going to stay here for a few days and you just want the “Honbu experience” and a stamp on your Aikikai passport or (b) you don’t care much about ranks, affiliations and such (which can occur among foreigners but would be unnatural for the Japanese). If you just want to have a place where you can train any day or time of the week you can certainly do that and you’ll get your workout just fine. What you won’t get though is real teaching because, well, you don’t have a teacher –to demand such a commitment from one of the shihan you have to also commit yourself to being their student and if you do, you’ll have to also factor in various other things like, for example, that many of them have their private dojo outside the Honbu where you are also expected to train regularly. And before you ask, no, only attending Doshu’s class doesn’t help (not to mention you’ll have to live next door to the dojo because his regular classes are at 6:30 every morning): you are still nobody’s student and you are certainly not Doshu’s student!

Listening to what you just said got me thinking: is there a chance that one of our misconceptions in the West is that we have over-emphasized aikido’s spiritual side and have started thinking of it more as a spiritual practice than as a martial art? This might explain why we come across phenomena like the ones you mentioned –i.e. people believing that the Aikikai is somehow above ordinary human behavior and therefore having impossible expectations from it?

There’s a good chance you might be right, you know. I understand that especially in the 60s and the 70s there were quite a few people (at least in the US) who thought of aikido this way and who overplayed this aspect in its teaching. And it is funny because once again it was their understanding of spirituality –not Ueshiba’s and certainly not the Japanese’s…

…but don’t touch on that now –I’ve got a couple of questions about that for later!

OK! Anyway, as I was saying a little back, we have to remember that these are real people living real lives. The Aikikai is an international organization and it needs to keep its feet on the ground; it’s not a coincidence that both the second and the third Doshu decided to keep a distance from the Omoto-Kyo even though the organization still exists and even though they knew how much it meant for their ancestor and how much it influenced the creation of aikido. This is also why the Aikikai shihan rarely speak about ki and why they have focused almost exclusively to technique: the need to continue this organization and with it the dissemination of aikido is real and they try to address it in the best possible way; this means that they allow people to come here and play out their fantasies to some extent but they certainly don’t encourage it and they themselves seldom lose track of what is real and what is important.

Ι don’t want to sound “trippy” but since we mentioned the unseen aspects of aikido, how about going fully into that? Take “harmony” for example: it is a universal concept and fundamental for aikido. In their everyday life, do the Japanese understand harmony in the same way as Westerners do?
I'm glad you asked because this is one of the most enduring misunderstandings about Japan; it's not about aikido at all, although it unavoidably spills over in that too. The concept of "harmony" is probably one of the most fundamental in Japanese culture; to the extent that "wa" the character expressing the Japanese perception of "harmony" is used as a synonym for Japan itself: Japanese style clothes (i.e kimono, hakama etc.) are called “wafuku” ("wa-clothes"), Japanese style meals are called “washoku” ("wa-meals"), Japanese style rooms (with tatami and sliding doors) are called “washitsu” ("wa-rooms") etc. These are all fine and… harmonious until we realize that what the Japanese consider "wa", (i.e. "harmony") is completely different from the “universal concept” you mentioned (which goes to show that the concept isn’t universal at all but varies significantly from one culture to the other). The Japanese understanding of “wa” can be best summarized in the phrase "don't make waves", i.e. let go of all your personal feelings and yield to the rules of society.

One good illustration of the Japanese understanding of "wa" is that most emblematic of all "wa-clothes" the kimono: it is a bitch to put on, it must be worn on very specific occasions and following very specific rules, it is one of the most uncomfortable garments devised by man *but* if you somehow manage to learn all there is to learn on how to wear it (there are schools for that, you know) and follow all rules governing its use, it is elegant and stylish and, oh so very Japanese. This is the Japanese idea of harmony: a huge set of rules, or, to put it in terms more familiar to martial artists “kata” that will initially (and occasionally) make you feel like life has been sucked out of you but that will help you exist in the best possible way within the system that created these rules, these kata. Does this fit with what most aikidoka think as harmony? I don’t think so.

Now let’s go to “ki”. For Western aikido enthusiasts, is has only spiritual connotations; how is the word “ki” understood in everyday life in Japan?

I think I’ve said/written it before: There is a book published by Kodansha International titled “Communicating With Ki” which lists 250 different words and expressions from the Japanese language all containing the character “ki”; this book is in their Japanese languages series, *not* in their martial arts or Asian philosophy catalogue. (And mind you it is by no means an exhaustive listing of the instances of “ki” in the language). Still, in all those instances, some of which are used every day and some of which are sort of arcane and very particular I have yet to find one that could be precisely translated as “energy” in the way many (most?) Western aikidoka perceive it. Of course this opens another can of worms, i.e. what *do* Western aikidoka mean when they say “energy” but let’s not get into that now! Suffice to say that, to the best of my knowledge, for the Japanese “ki” can mean “spirit”, “disposition”, “intention”, “mood”, “feeling”, “atmosphere” and various other things but not “energy”.

Another thing that you also mentioned before and which I have seen frequently in various dojo: Some people deal with the spirituality of budo fearing that it will somehow meddle with their religious beliefs. What is the Japanese perspective on religion?

The Japanese have a very unique approach to religion: the scientific term is “syncretism” and it means to combine various beliefs and ideas from various different schools of thought. In their case Shinto, the pagan/animistic native religion coexists with Buddhism which was imported from mainland Asia and most people won’t think twice of having a Shinto wedding for their children and at the same time a Buddhist funeral for their parents (as a rule, Shinto is associated with the joy of life and Buddhism with the somberness of death). Some of the most extreme expressions of this syncretism can be found in the temples themselves: even Buddhist temples have the water ablution pavilion that is used to wash the hands and the mouth before entering a Shinto shrine whereas even in Shinto shrines you can find a small sub-temple of one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune that are Buddhist in origin and occasionally a bigger sub-temple dedicated to, say, Kannon one of the main Buddhist “deities”.

The way I understand it is that for the Japanese religion is (with possibly very few exceptions) cultural, not spiritual: going into a temple or shrine, throwing a few coins in the offering box, buying an amulet or a written divination or participating in a festival is not faith –it is tradition: something they do as part of being Japanese. Being born and raised in Greece, this brings to my mind the Epitaphios procession on Good Friday or the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday: even people who are not at all religious might go to the church on those occasions because it is something they have learned from their parents and their parents’ parents and it is something that defines them as Greeks –not as Christians.

Is Zen a religion? Would you share with us your experience from your Zen practice?

Well, Zen is a school of Buddhism so if we consider Buddhism a religion (and there are many theologians who do) then Zen is indeed a religion; if we don’t (and there are also many theologians who don’t) then Zen isn’t a religion (laughs). Now about my experience: Although I’m not a particularly religious person I’ve always been fascinated by religion as a cultural expression and I believe that learning more about a people’s religion can give you invaluable insights in this people’s culture and its “collective psyche”, if you will. Because of this interest I’ve been reading a lot about religion since my late teens and given my interest in Japan (and my love for Rock ‘n’ Roll!) it was unavoidable to come across Buddhism and Zen in particular and since it made sense, I stuck with it and continued reading and “studying” in a more structured way.

The zazen practice came much later though, after reading the book “Hardcore Zen” by an American Zen teacher called Brad Warner, a student of another Zen teacher I had previously come across, a Japanese called Gudo Nishijima. Because they follow the Soto school, the Zen line of early 13th century teacher Eihei Dogen and because this school emphasizes zazen, i.e. sitting meditation (although zazen isn’t exactly “meditation”) I thought I’d give it a serious try and see if it works for me –I had tried it earlier but never systematically. After trying it and seeing it indeed worked, I made it part of my daily routine and I’ve been doing it for the last eight-nine years now. Incidentally, after coming to Japan I had the opportunity to meet both Brad Warner and Gudo Nishijima and become a “member” of their group –I’d put “member” in quotation marks because this is a very informal group meeting once a week for zazen practice and a talk-analysis of Dogen’s main work, the “Shobogenzo”, one of the most important works of Japanese Buddhism. They also do 2-3 day retreats in Zen temples around the country in which I try to participate; they are a great experience and add considerably to your everyday Zazen practice.

This is the part I can talk about; what is really tough is to talk about the “other” part, the “Zen experience”: it is something you do and at a certain point starting feeling its effect within yourself. One thing I could tell you is that it helps silence the inner voices in your head, particularly the voices that tend to create drama; I have come to the conclusion that this might very well be man’s biggest problem and Zen can help significantly in coping with it. When you sit silently for half an hour, just facing the wall and letting your thoughts come and go without grasping on to them, fuelling them and building on them, you realize that thoughts have no power whatsoever: they become powerful when you empower them by adding to them and what you add to them comes from your insecurities and your fears and your flaws. Seeing this process and realizing how it works can lead to understanding how it affects you in your everyday life and how it can make imaginary situations seem real –which is always a bad thing!

I believe that’s the reason you can see various connections between Zen and swordsmanship: Zen teachers tried to explain to swordsmen that they should just deal with what they had in front of them (i.e. their opponent) and not with their fantasy about what the opponent could or would or should do. You face the present moment with all the awareness you can muster and let all your preconceptions and biases and prejudices drop –they are not real and by mistaking them for real you lose track of what happens right here, right now. And while in our case this might only mean a bout of depression, for people living their life with a sword always at arm’s reach, losing track of reality could easily translate to a permanent cure for headaches (laughs). Of course, I’d be lying if I were to say I’ve gotten rid of all this brain garbage but what I can say with utmost sincerity is that when something happens and I don’t do Zazen for a few days this garbage tends to multiply and exaggerate; this means that Zazen helps keep it in check and if only for that, it’s worth trying it out.

I would like to thank you for this interview. It’s not that common for a journalist to get interviewed by a non-journalist, is it [Laughs]?

No it isn’t. On the other hand, there’s always the Andy Warhol/early “Interview” paradigm so let’s pretend we’re doing that –this might also help justify the length of this interview (laughs). It was great putting down all these things we’ve been discussing for years so actually it is I that should be doing the thanking!

The interview was conducted by Giorgos Sardelis.

Interview with Grigoris A. Miliaresis, Part I