Contributed by M.L. Root
The guest instructor at the 2003 Boulder Aikikai Summer Camp in the Rockies was Christian Tissier Shihan, from France. Ikeda Sensei was recently invited by Tissier Sensei to give a seminar with him in Paris, on the weekend of May 29, 2004, and in Amsterdam the following weekend with Wilko Vriesman Sensei of the Dutch Aikikai Foundation. It was my fortune to have participated in this trip, and to continue a new friendship with Tissier Sensei that began last summer.
We arrived on Thursday morning at Roissy International Airport. Ikeda Sensei and I were greeted by Patrick Benezi Sensei, and from that moment on we were both cared for and chauffeured about by M. Benezi. He is a very friendly fellow who resembles an iron teddy bear, and who drives deftly at a comfortable (for him) 150 kph in the outlying areas of Paris while singing American hits from the 60's. In town, he was willing to tone it down (the speed).
Tissier Sensei arrived later in the day, from his home in the South of France. During the interim, we had a pleasant breakfast near Tissier Sensei's Vincenne dojo, Cercle d'Aikido. Several students happened by, joining us for coffee and croissants. We later met up with Tissier Sensei, and headed off to meet Natalia Pieranski for a bite of lunch at an internet cafe recently opened by some students, and then were off to visit Versailles in the afternoon. That evening, after a few hours of rest, Tissier Sensei treated us to a very nice French meal at a nearby restaurant. To keep the story short, I will not write about every single meal we ate, although it is tempting! Let us simply recognize the truth: French + Food = Life, as it is meant to be.
On Friday we enjoyed a day of sightseeing in Paris. Benezi Sensei picked us up in the morning and we were off to visit a few of the limitless wonders of Paris: l'Arc de Triumph, la Tour Eiffel, les Champs Elysee. A whirlwind of a day punctuated with a visit to Benezi Sensei's dojo and a sushi lunch.
Benezi Sensei is highly accomplished both in aikido and judo, holding 6th and 3rd dans, respectively. There are few who could give him any sort of difficulty on the mat, as he warmly smiles while people bounce off of him. His dojo is in the center of Paris, off of the Champs Elysee in the second arrondissement (Dojo Bellan). He also speaks Japanese quite well. Thus, as we raced about Paris, conversations switched from English to French to Japanese.
It quickly becomes very clear that martial arts in France, especially Aikido and Judo, are a national pastime. There are dojos everywhere-- in my previous travels I have noticed aikido dojos in the smallest of villages. Many cities maintain dojos, like cities in the U.S. often have recreation centers. Ikeda Sensei's seminar was held at such a facility outlying Paris, in Bretigny. Later in our trip, visiting Tissier Sensei in Roquebrune, I noticed children walking the 600 year old streets wearing their dogis.
The seminar began on Saturday, with around 200 in attendance, and both Senseis sharing the teaching schedule. It was a fascinating, frustrating experience to try and do the sharp, crisply defined movement Tissier Sensei embodies. As I fumbled with my imprecise technique in his classes, I would resort to my familiar practice, recover myself, and then try again to realize a little more of his very tactically oriented practice. Tissier Sensei demonstrates, verbally and physically, exactly why his aikido technique is shaped in one way and not in another subtly different way. He reveals a great deal of martial logic, lacking in my practice, and has created a new interest in my daily practice and thought. With English as my first language, I had to rely on his physical demonstration rather than his explanations, and found that it sharpened my eye considerably. Likewise, as the French students attempted to model Ikeda Sensei's technique, they were confronted with their own translation processes and frustrations, often trying to convert into their language of precision, tactic and martial logic, the contact-based spiraling movements of Ikeda Sensei. After the seminar concluded, I have been told that many commented upon Ikeda Sensei's seemingly effortless power; how helpful were his analogies about using the body well, drawn from daily life (for example how one naturally pushes a car from the hara), and most especially his generosity of spirit. Ikeda Sensei embodies a truly friendly spirit that leaves no crack for conflict to seep inside.
It is clear that Ikeda Sensei's long held desire of seeing the Aikido world become more united was part of the trip. One evening at dinner in Paris, Ikeda Sensei spoke very passionately with Tissier and Benezi Sensei about bringing Aikido together. For a long time Natalia and I sat and listened, understanding only the heart behind the (Japanese) conversation-- yet the message was clear. Aikido is bigger than any school or teacher, and we should not let ourselves stand in the way of learning and growing into the Aikido that will exist in the future, as yet undiscovered. In this, Tissier Sensei and Benezi Sensei were in agreement. The truth of this was found on the mat. Each sensei trained in the other's classes, learning from each other. These shihans are still willing to be students, and this is a very powerful lesson to observe.
In his closing comments for the seminar, Ikeda Sensei put forward the analogy of the blind man and the elephant for people to consider as they study. One must try to experience every part of the elephant to understand it; and even if you have felt the trunk and the behind, don't think you have learned what an elephant is-- have you ever seen the underside? One may easily apply this familiar metaphor to Aikido, but perhaps it is better applied to understanding each other. Somehow, with Ikeda Sensei, I always am motivated to shift these principles to higher levels of human experience and meaning. I am motivated to polish myself more than my martial technique.
On Sunday evening we were treated to dinner and a show at the Paradis Latin, a cabaret with a long and fascinating history, dating back to Bonaparte. Located less than 500 meters from Notre Dame, the original building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt by Gustav Eiffel, concurrent with the erection of the Eiffel Tower for the world's fair of 1889. It is a spectacular building that was restored to Eiffel's original design in the 1970's. It has seating for over 700 people and features, among other extravagances, 70 hand blown Murano glass chandeliers. The owner of the Latin is a student of Tissier Sensei, and under the restaurant floor, below all those popping corks, pate and filets, where 100 years earlier the center of Parisian artistic life met, there is now tatami. Yes. The basement of the Paradis Latin houses a dojo. It is no overstatement that, in France, martial arts are everywhere.
After the seminar we traveled to Tissier Sensei's home in Roquebrune, on the French Riviera, to spend a few days relaxing and sightseeing. On the second evening we were treated to a fabulous meal of roast wild boar, potatoes and vegetables, prepared by Natalia and Tissier Sensei's daughter. Afterwards we enjoyed a most special treat that truly expressed the friendship and deep respect between the senseis. When Tissier Sensei was awarded the title of hihan, in 1996, he received a bottle of cognac as a gift which is now 111 years old. Tissier Sensei brought it out and treated us to an experience that words fail to describe -- but the warm radiance of the cognac was only matched by the spirit in which is was offered. It was an extraordinary moment of honoring friendship.
Spending so much time with Ikeda Sensei and Tissier Sensei on this trip, the line between training and social time blurred. I found myself thinking and living more and more in a spirit of openness and respect for others, and that is one of my personal goals in my Aikido practice. But the moments of greatest demonstration and learning were not in the seminar - they were in daily life. From this perspective, one of the most powerful realizations of the trip for me was a striking vision of how encapsulated a life can become, how closed to expansion.
Training daily here in Boulder, I have little sight of the big picture. I don't travel a lot. I practice with my friends everyday and fall under the spell of thinking I know something. It is easy to fool myself, wading in my familiar, daily practice. Practicing with new people, in new ways, exposes illusion and it comes with a feeling of surprise. "Why didn't I see the obvious?" Likewise, I had to travel 5,000 miles to be far enough away from my daily life to see it, even momentarily, in a real world scale.
Why is it a surprise to get off an airplane on the other side of the world, and discover that there really are people there? I knew it in theory, it was on T.V., but the reality of all those lives is quite another thing. My life seemed big to me, with me perpetually at the center, only hours before. It was all I could see, filling horizon to horizon. But these are different horizons, and they cause a sudden re-scaling and right-sizing. They make room for something new to arrive. I, too, can be a willing student.