Five Principles of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido

The original discussion of the Five Principles of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido was in during the Zoom online training on June 12, 2022. Subsequently, in September and early October, we had discussions of the individual five principles, for which the transcripts are provided following the links below:
Sep 4: Ki is extending
Sep 11: Know your partner’s mind
Sep 18: Respect your partner’s Ki
Sep 24: Put yourself in the place of your partner
Oct 9: Lead and move.

Five Principles of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido (June 12, 2022)

Hello, Everyone. Onegaishimasu

Today our discussion is on the “Five Principles of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido:” 

  1. Ki is extending.
  2. Know your partner’s mind.
  3. Respect your partner’s Ki.
  4. Put yourself in the place of your partner.
  5. Lead and move.

Many people feel that these five principles are teaching us how to perform techniques only. While it is true, as in all things in Aikido, that these principles act as guides in technique performance, they also importantly function as metaphors for our actions in daily life. If we don’t understand our physical practice as metaphorical, that is fine. I am not saying that is an incorrect application of the principles. I am suggesting that if we see these principles and practices as only describing a set of physical exercises and expressions, then we’re not receiving the full benefit that we otherwise might. 

To illustrate this point, I will tell a quick story: In the year 1996 my son, Joshua, spent his junior year of college studying in Tokyo at Waseda University. When I was visiting Japan that same year, he asked me to stop by and meet one of his professors, who also trained Aikido. Joshua and I came to her office as arranged and visited with her briefly.  I asked where she had trained Aikido. She said she currently trained at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo (Headquarters) in Tokyo, but that her original teacher in the New England area of the United States had been Mitsunari Kanai Sensei, a well-known and influential Aikikai Aikido teacher.  I asked her to share a little about her training.  She enthusiastically told me how much she loved what she called “mixing it up” on the mat. She said that she was in her early 50’s and unfortunately beginning to suffer physically when doing uke and emphasized how discouraging this was for her.  I asked her what she would do when it became too difficult for her to fall for her partners. She said that she would probably quit training at that point.  I asked her if there was no other reason to continue with her practice, and she stated definitively that Aikido did not really offer anything more than that.

This may be a surprise to hear, but in some schools of Aikido, there are many sincere students who give themselves enthusiastically to the training but who are not offered anything by their teachers other than a physical workout with a small amount philosophy of Ki. Or, there are those who, due to their own adjustment to this life and practice, choose to perceive only the physical benefits as a possibility.

“Ki is extending.” This also is the fourth of Tohei Sensei’s “Four Basic Principles.” 

However in these “Five Principles of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido” it comes first. “Ki is extending” is always pointed to as what must be our state of being prior to any action on or off the mat.  Before we speak or act, or even think to speak or act, we must be “extending Ki.” In other words, our awareness must include all possibilities presented in the moment by persons or environment.  To be always ready and effective, instead of blindly focusing on doing something, it is always best to focus on listening and watching. In other words, the key to extending Ki is awareness.

“Know your partner’s mind.” By practicing the techniques in the dojo, we are learning how to turn our attention to being attentive to the intention of our partner. We know that the state of mind of our partner is very important, because we need to use that understanding to join with the momentum of our partner, and ultimately create a resolution. The Aikido techniques are not showing us how to win over our partner. The partner’s intention is important to us because that is what we must respect and embrace if we are to connect with them and ultimately become one.

I have a friend who is a businessman and every time I see him, he tells me stories about his wonderful successes in business, how much money he’s making, how he befuddles his opponents in this deal or that deal. And he says to me, “What I am doing is Aikido, right? I’m doing this Aikido that you do, and I’m always the winner. I am so grateful to you. I always win.” Of course, this is not Aikido, and his is a misunderstanding of the teaching. I don’t tell him to cease this or try to correct him. He is not my student. He is my acquaintance, a businessperson. And he makes these claims only because he is trying to show that he relates well to me. He just wants to be my friend, but is a bit confused in how to go about it.

This is a very common misunderstanding, even in the Aikido world. The most common comment that we, the students of Koichi Tohei Sensei, heard him say to us was, “It looks like you want to throw that person.” He would walk around the dojo watching us do our techniques and he would say again and again, “I think you want to throw them,” meaning “that’s your mistake. You think that Aikido is about learning to win.” That’s like what that businessman was doing, imagining that life is a contest, a survival test. That’s like thinking that when we meet a friend, the most important thing is to know how to conquer them. This is a big mistake.

These principles are showing us how to dissolve adversity between two or more people so that everyone ends up truly winning, because they are connected and together. This is true success. All sides win by awakening to their connection with each other.

“Respect your partner’s Ki.” We could also just say, “Respect your partner.” Of course, this means we truly respect them, not that we show them respect so that they think that we’re doing one thing when we’re doing another. An Aikido technique is never trickery. This is genuinely respecting them, from our heart. 

“Put yourself in the place of your partner.” We’ve heard this so many times and in so many other ways. “Walk a mile in the other’s shoes.” We  put ourself in their place so that we know what they’re feeling, what their point of view is. Of course, we cannot just force our point of view on someone. First, we need to know what their point of view is. We invite them to express it to us and find ways that we can harmonize with that point of view. Yes? The whole point here is unification, coming together. The idea is never to win an argument. We are not trying to overcome someone else. The point is not to throw them, but to learn how to welcome them into our life.

Someone asked me one time, “What is that Aikido thing that you’re doing all about?” And I said, “It’s about how to truly make friends with people.” And they just thought I was kidding them. Or maybe they thought I was misguided. “That’s not a martial art: What about when an enemy comes along? You have to overcome him, don’t you?” That right there is why the world is the way it is. People have a fighting mind. An aggressive mind like this can see no other way forward, except conquering or defending through conflict.

We say in Shinshin Toitsu Aikido that there are 3 basic ways that human beings react to a challenge of any kind. I call them “options.” Option A: We react through power, utilizing the tools of strength, manipulation, money, knowledge, technique, force, etc. to get what we think we need or what we deserve or what we have a right to. This can be in reaction to a person, a country, a community, any form of governing, even anarchy itself, animals, weather, mountains, rivers and forests. (I could go on.) Option B: We react through indolence and ignorance, hoping, often even praying, that someone else will come along and solve whatever the difficulty is for us, or simply not noticing soon enough that there is a problem there at all. And finally, Option C: Instead of reacting, we respond by standing full and tall and connecting without an intention of any kind in our mind. This is standing like a mountain and proceeding with no wish, no need, no requirement, and no expectation whatsoever. In this way, we allow non-separation to exist as it actually is already, allowing it to pervade us with no effort to convince any other person of our need for them to recognize this.

Ok. We all have practiced option A, B and C many times. If you’ve had seminars with Shinichi Tohei Sensei then you know he also does it often, and before him, his father Koichi Tohei Sensei used to do a version of this also. Unfortunately, often in Aikido, performing our techniques, many are performing A or B, or some combination of A and B. This business of connecting directly with no intention whatsoever is difficult to understand, experientially.  We may be able to conceptualize it, which is good, but that is not yet C. We must be able to allow it to happen through the feeling in the body. We don’t want to throw them, we don’t want to win over them, and we don’t want to manipulate them. But can we follow this principle with our actions? This is what is being encouraged in us. 

Number 5 is “Lead and move.” Remember, these principles are descriptions of how we will be if we’re actually practicing Shinshin Toitsu Aikido.  These are not injunctions declaring what we “should do.” If we are practicing mind-body unified Aikido, then we will lead confidently and move freely when we do techniques. It’s not what we should do this. It’s quite a different way of expressing it.  This is a description, not a prescription.

One of Suzuki Sensei’s favorite words was “osaeru,” which he got from Tohei Sensei. You don’t hear that word very much anymore, do you? I use it a lot in the dojo, but most people in Aikido don’t use it much. Osaeru means “to hold” or “to cover” or “to capture,” but I like to think of it as “to embrace.” When someone is standing in front of you with the intention of attacking you in some way, Tohei Sensei says you osaeru them. You embrace them. You include them. You bring them into your field of awareness and encompass them, so that they become a part of your world of experience. 

When it says, “Ki is extending,” that is what’s happening, before anything takes place. And these other 4 principles are included: “Know your partner’s mind. Respect your partner’s Ki. Put yourself in the place of your partner. Lead and move.” These things don’t happen sequentially like that, except maybe right in the beginning, as we are familiarizing ourselves with them. 

In the beginning Aikido movement, we might take our self through these principles, like when you’re doing katatedori kokyunage tenkan. We can easily see how we extend Ki, know our partner’s mind, respect our partner’s Ki, put ourself in the place of our partner and then lead and move. This is kaisho when we do it this way. But by the time we’re we’re moving through gyosho, and into sosho, it is beginning to happen all at once. When we osaeru, basically it means that all five of these principles are operating at once. And yet, osaerumust take place before any movement takes place. Ueshiba Sensei, the founder of Aikido, used to say – “Before you attack me you are finished!” So, if I’m natural, standing empty of intention and therefore full of Ki, then the opponent is finished before there is any movement. That’s what is the meaning of Aikido,  There is no winning over another. This is very humble. 

Consider that, in this way, the five principles of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido are happening in no time. They don’t happen in a time span that we could measure in seconds. It’s just like a recognition. Like, when we see someone we know, we recognize them before we think of recognizing them. Similarly, if someone comes up to us in the grocery store, at the dojo, or at the beach, the minute we become aware of them, we osaeru. The instant we become aware of them, they’re included in our world of experience automatically. So, this is not something that we “do.”  This is so ingrained that it just happens.  That’s sosho. In the beginning yes, we must practice this, consciously. That’s kaisho. But once we understand this principle of relationship and take it into our feeling body, then the minute we recognize someone’s presence that recognition will be all-embracing.  That’s what these principles are pointing to.

Ok so maybe that’s enough, and you’d like to say something.

Student: Hello Sensei. Thank you. Yes, include these principles in our experience. Last class you talked about if we see ourselves as subject and the world as object, we’re through, we’re done, we can’t Keep One Point. So that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. We should be including, we should be embracing, we should be one, not separate. But, you know, that it’s not so easily done, right? We can say that, but my problem is that I don’t experience it as such. You know, I do the practice and yet fighting mind comes up and subject-object thinking comes up all the time. So that’s what I have to say about this. It is that you make it sound so easy and simple and yet here I am, right?

So, thank you. I apologize if I make it sound easy. It is not easy. You’re right, it is very difficult. Listen, the famous Japanese teacher, Dogen, said that the oldest delusion of mankind is that there is self and other. Okay? Tohei Sensei’s teaching is based on transcending this delusion. This is what Tohei Sensei means when he says, “The purpose of our practice is to be one with the universe.” 

The Japanese are very liberal in their religious practice. Buddhism and Shintoism are very different forms of religious practice.  And yet, even in the same home the Japanese family may worship the Buddha and Shinto gods both. In Aikido itself we have a lot of influence from Buddhism, but we also have influence from Shintoism. We have the end of suffering through unification, and at the same time we honor the power of the manifestation of the natural world, much like the Native American religions. In Aikido, these two live together very comfortably. Of course, we’ve been believing in separation since we were born, and every other human being we come across is suffering under that same delusion, putting that same interpretation of sensory data into their subconscious mind again and again and again, over and over. So, no, it’s not going ot be easy to evolve out of that. 

You know, I think as long as we’re alive, this issue of separation somehow remains in our being.  In fact, in many ways, it needs to remain with us, since we need to be able to find our way home at the end of the day, yes?  We must remember that our home is on this street, not that street. Seeing and being in both worlds at the same time is the key.

It is important to understand that there is no “wrong” here. Suffering under a delusion does not make us wrong or bad.  A delusion is just a misunderstanding; We don’t choose one side over another. Reality is not limited like that. We must be able to live in the dualistic relative world (that’s finding our way home at night) and the non-dual absolute world (that’s seeing that there is nowhere to go) both at the same time. So, knowing that there’s another person there that’s trying to kick you or hit you or hold you back in some way, while at the same time recognizing and experiencing unification is the whole of life. It is not denying any aspect of what is happening in this life. 

Dogen said the oldest delusion is subject/object, yes, that is the case. But as long as we’re in a body, we must respect that we are responsible for this body. That’s part of respecting our opponent’s Ki, respecting our self.  We chose to be here in this body and to go through this process of evolution, so we must take responsibility for that choice. 

At the same time, we are each the center of our universe, and that universe is made up of everybody and everything, all of nature, all of mankind. We are each the very center of that. How is that possible? I may tellyou about it. You see me pointing to it all the time. But please don’t take what I say as gospel. Naturally, each of us must come to this in our own time and in our own way.  We will come to terms with this, recognize this, appreciate this, to be grateful for this. 

When you are conditioned to need to win, that’s a natural impulse. And then when you do it enough that you realize it doesn’t work, ultimately, then you can know why and how Aikido works.  Aikido works because it is non-fighting, because there is nothing to fight for. 

Aikido is non-achieving, empty of need, of requirement, of expectation. It’s just being present with oneself and one another. It’s just as natural as being with a friend, sitting there together with no need to say anything. That’s why I said Aikido practice is how to be a friend. Learn how to be a friend! 

When I started Aikido, I didn’t know how to be a friend to anybody. I had no notion of it. I was only just collecting for myself, harvesting what I needed from the teacher and the teaching so that I could move forward and be a winner. How to be a friend means how to support someone else, how to listen to them, to support them in understanding and in their happiness.

Student: Thank you, Sensei. I started doing Aikido to become invincible, Sensei. When I was young, I wanted to become invincible, so I started to do martial arts. That last time you came to Europe, you spoke about how Tohei Sensei once said, “Aikido is not a martial art.” I felt frustrated and lost. But now, I just love these Zoom classes, because these are separate from doing techniques, from training how to be invincible. Here we actually see that the training is something different than I thought. But then, the moment I start doing techniques, the martial art things come to mind: how to throw a partner, how to win over a partner and so on. So, in these Zoom classes, things are very clear. But the moment I start doing technique, then the martial art thing pops up again.

You are a very young man, so please don’t try to be an old man when you’re a young man. Be grateful that you’re a young man and you have these problems. When I hear you talking about this, I don’t feel it as a problem. I don’t think so. I think the universe is having its way with you, just like it is with me and every other person, in the way that you will allow it. Of course, these kinds of classes we are doing on Zoom can be helpful because we approach it very directly, we face it all, and speak of it very clearly. When we’re practicing techniques, we often ignore this part of it. We can be blind to unseen, and only focus on that which is easy, the seen. And that’s why Tohei Sensei always wanted to have Ki class first followed by Aikido class, because he knows this is the natural thing: to be thinking about the technique and body dynamic and how to throw and how to move, how beautiful it is, and how much fun it is. That’s all great, that’s fine. But just don’t forget the fundamental Ki class. That always comes first.

Student:  Sensei, I come from the military background, and in the military, what was so intriguing to me was that we were into “close with, and destroy,” which then translated to me as “subdue and control,” which I really liked. That was super attractive to me in 

Aikido. So, originally, I was like, “No, let’s just kill them.” And then I progressed to, “No, let’s just control them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” This training is something that speaks to me because I was completely deluded, and I didn’t understand. I morphed the principles to how I wanted to see them. And I consistently find myself thinking, “Well, actually I can interpret it this way.” You know, it’s just a constant struggle every day with that. And seeing the principles, just the ones you’re talking about today – the Aikido principles – is so meaningful.  I will say that I still think I can teach Aikido like it is only a technique, a form, and be very good at it. Which means, of course, that this is still a struggle every day for me. 

Ok, so these past three people are telling me basically the same thing. And I want to repeat, that’s not a problem. What they are describing is not a problem, but is the process itself. Everybody – whether you’ve been in the military or not – everybody grows up in this world with a sense of separation between themselves and everyone else, and firmly believes that is exactly how it is. And all the techniques in the world look to somebody who’s separate, as a way to dominate and control those other people so that they don’t dominate and control us. Right? That’s the way everybody grows up seeing it. That’s the way all of the movies and newspapers and television, portray it.  So, you’ve got a lot of company. The whole world is like this. Right? It’s automatic, of course, everyone grows up like this, so we’re all having to deal with it, we’re all involved with this process at one stage or another. 

And again, let’s remember, it’s not a comparison. This is not a contest to see who’s at a higher stage. It’s not so much that there is a higher or a lower, as much as this is just different in each of us. We’ve all had such different backgrounds and such different input into our subconscious minds that what pops up out of us may be exactly the same in principle, but it has a whole different set of circumstances that created it, that went in to cause the kind of reactivity we see.

So, when we practice Aikido, we have to notice those things for ourselves, because as you said, we morph the principles to fit what we believe. We must notice when we’re doing that. Sometimes that’s painful and sometimes it’s just confusing. And when it is painful or confusing, we just osaeru it. We embrace it and we sit with it. We have to learn patience and gratitude. And with that we can all continue in a very strong and useful way. 

Student: Hello, Sensei. Hello, everyone. I remember that Morihei Ueshiba Sensej said that it’s important if somebody challenges us, we must leave that aggression in that other person. In this way, Aikido transforms aggression into a non-aggressive state. So, our techniques must always be strong, but taking care not to hurt anyone. We are very fragile creatures. 

Ok. that’s very nice. Thank you. Yes, Aikido does offer that kind of care, but exactly how? Let me tell you a short little story here. My daughter is married to a Brazilian man from Rio de Janeiro. And when he immigrated to Hawaii, he came with his two best friends. One of them teaches Capoeira and the other one teaches Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The Jiu Jitsu guy is big. He’s several inches taller than me and wider than me and much stronger than me, physically. I am eighth Dan in Aikido, so they were very curious: What’s going on over there?  They wondered why I don’t talk about Aikido when all they talk about is Jiu Jitsu and Capoeira.

We were sitting on my deck one night and the Jiu Jitsu guy stands up and says, “Well, what would you do if I grabbed you? I can easily overpower you, you know … Jiu Jitsu is very powerful.” And clearly, this guy is a very powerful guy. And I asked, “May I stand up?” And he said excitedly, “Yes!” maybe thinking there was going to be some action. As I walked slowly over to him he began to look a little confused. Soon I stood very, very close to him. I put my body right up against him, so his face was just here, very close. I didn’t stare at him but put my head against his huge chest, and gently held his arms with my hands.  We just stayed like that for moment or two. It was very still and very quiet.  I looked up at him and his eyes were tearing up. And then he said, “Oh… Ok, Sensei, I understand. Thank you,” and he moved away and sat down. 

So, I am not so sure that this is really a matter of soft or strong technique.  It doesn’t always need a technique at all, does it?

Everybody says this practice is really difficult. Yes, it’s really difficult, but thankfully we get to practice it.  If it weren’t difficult, it wouldn’t be worth practicing, would it? We give our whole life to this practice, because of the value. And it changes us fundamentally as human beings. And the older you get and the more you practice, the more you recognize how powerful and transformative this kind of practice is. So I’m really glad every time I see you come to this class, every time I recognize you here. So, thank you for coming.

I want to thank you again. Domo arigato gozaimashita.