Otomo Practice

Hello, everyone. Onegai shimasu. I hope everyone is good.

I will read Shokushu number 21, “Setsudo.”

“There is no selfish person who fulfills the way of the universe. If you awaken to the principles and way of the universe, you are given the responsibility, from the universe to share them throughout the world. 

Do not say that you don’t have the strength to help people. If you have this experience one day, you are already a teacher for that experience. The world is full of people who are lost and are suffering from an unhealthy mind. Let us share this awakening with others with all our heart.”

So I want to ask you: What is this responsibility that it speaks of? It says, “You’re given the responsibility to share the principles that you have learned, (that you have awakened to), with the world.” How do we share the principles with the world? Most of us think about it as teaching. Right? It says even here: ”If you learn something today you are a teacher for that thing tomorrow.” So, we think, oh I know something now, I am  a teacher. Maybe for this one thing, but I am still a teacher. 

I think that’s a big mistake. I think that’s not what Tohei Sensei means. We all know how difficult it is to tell someone else what it is we feel they should know. We all like to share and, of course, we attempt to share constantly. But it is not always received the way we think it should be. That’s because we’re not actually teaching the principle. We might be saying the right thing. But the fact that we’re saying it may be the wrong thing. It may not actually be incorrect, but it may be the wrong time, it may be the wrong place. It may be just inappropriate altogether with that particular person.

The way that we share the principles with the world, once we have learned the meaning of them, is that they become a part of our life. They’re then what we are. And then when we’re with somebody, even saying nothing at all, we’re sharing the principles.

The principles are a way of being. They’re not a way of talking.

Ok, that’s the introduction.

We’ll begin. Sit up straight. We’ll do some Ki breathing, and then I’ll come back to the subject of Otomo.

(17 Min. Ki Breathing)

All right. Otomo. We have been discussing otomo lately.  Let’s call this the second part of our otomo discussion.  When we think of otomo, we usually think of the person assigned by the teacher to take care of the teacher, usually during a seminar or when traveling for a seminar. Right? This is what we think of as otomo: the support guy that is going to take care of the Sensei. And usually we describe many duties and and aspects of awareness training that we have to work on to be otomo. It’s not just carrying a bag. It’s not just organizing travel, it’s not just making appointments at various restaurants and museums and so forth, interesting things to do. And it’s not just making sure the seminar tools for teaching are in place, but also that everything is right with the hosts. 

That’s what it looks like otomo is. But I have to say that that’s the very least of it. It includes those things, yes. Sometimes some other things. I often have a student that comes to me and says, “Sensei, I would like to train otomo.” It’s usually a male, but sometimes a female asks me, “I would like to train otomo,” because females usually are not assigned the formal otomo duties, since they normally would involve helping the Sensei to change clothes and, of course, that is not appropriate. Although we have had many occasions when females practice otomo but just didn’t do that part. But whenever a person, male or female, comes to me and ask me, “Sensei, I would really like an opportunity to practice otomo,” then I know they don’t understand anything about otomo. That is understandable because they never did it before.

I think I told you that little story about when Tracy Reasoner Sensei said that he felt his students were ready to start otomo training. I think I said, “Yes, please let them start training now.”  So, what does that mean? We’re brought up to spend our whole lives, every moment of our lives, feeding our own needs, feeding our own desires, escaping from our own fears and anxieties. The practice of otomo, the whole idea of otomo, is service to others. So everybody can practice it at every moment, whether you’re male or female, old or young, wise or not, doesn’t matter. What if you decide today, “All right, I’m going to start practicing otomo now”? And then whenever you’re around another person, you’re their otomo. If you’re in a room at the dojo, for instance, full of 20 people or 30 people, or at a party with 20 or 30 people, you’re the otomo.

See, people think, “We just have to be otomo for one person, the Sensei.” No! Well yes, you do serve everyone in the room, not only the person that’s assigned to be otomo, but everyone in the room is otomo. But guess what? You, each one of you, are also responsible to serve, or be otomo for, everyone else in the room. If you’re not doing that then you don’t understand otomo. And you really have no business asking to be Suzuki Sensei’s otomo when you’re not practicing already and you’re surrounded by the opportunity to do so. 

I have told you before, when I asked Suzuki Sensei, “Why I do I have to do otomo so much,Sensei? It’s very difficult.” He said, “Yes, it’s very difficult because you don’t understand it. And as long as you don’t understand you can never be a teacher of others.” When we are not serving others, we are not doing what I read in the Ki Sayings this morning. That’s not Setsudo! Telling people, teaching people form, and telling them what they should be doing is not otomo, is not service, is not support. Before you can become an instructor, you have to understand what an instructor is doing. He is supporting everyone, he is otomo for everyone, he is following everyone, listening to everyone, being aware of everyone’s requirements. It doesn’t mean he is feeding every requirement, but he’s well aware of them. And this you can only learn to do by listening.

If you look around next time you come to a dojo party, look around the dojo at the quiet people that are just observing. Likely those are the people that are serving. The ones that are doing all the talking may be not serving so much. When you are in the dojo and you’re training with people, do you notice that you’re always talking to them when you’re training with them? Or do you notice that they’re always talking to you and you’re very quiet? I’m not saying you “should” be quiet or talking; that’s not what I’m saying. But I want you to notice what service is, what support is, what taking care of the rest of the world is. That’s the point of all of our Aikido training. That’s what we’re practicing: how to care for others instead of for our self. That’s why the teachers – Tohei Sensei, Suzuki Sensei, Shaner Sensei, myself – that’s why we emphasize otomo so strongly, because it’s the very point of the practice. Not that you should always be assigned to be otomo. No. If you are, good for you. But what you what to be doing is practicing all the time, practicing taking care of others, all the time. 

I have a really short story told to me by Ken McLeod, who is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher on the West Coast. He said he had a good friend who was a Buddhist nun, and she was in fact the abbot of a monastery. And she had a husband and a small son. One time, she became enamored of some other man and had an affair with this man. And she got caught, and because she got caught, she lost her husband, she lost her son, and she lost her position as abbot of the monastery. She was demoted to just another monk or nun. She was good friends with my friend, Ken McLeod, so she called him. She was really down. She felt destroyed. And he came to visit her and he said, “Why don’t we take a walk?” And they took a walk together. He said, “So tell me, what’s the problem.” And she blurted out the whole story of what had happened to her. And she said, “I’m bereft! I’m destroyed! My life is completely over! What can I do?” And he said, “This is very good.  Would you like to take a drive with me in the car?”  So, they drove down to the Santa Monica Pier and parked the car. He said, “Come with me,” and they walked out on the pier. As you may know, sometimes the fishermen fish with live bait. So there are these pots where you can buy these little minnows to use for bait. They’re alive and they’re swimming around. He told her, “Go buy some of those live bait.” So she bought a little plastic bag full of water and little minnows swimming around in the bag. And he said, “Ok, come with me.” And they walked back from the pier and down onto the beach. And he said, “I want you to take the fish over to the ocean and release them back into the ocean.” And she did. And she came back to him and she said, “Thank you. I understand.”

Sometimes it’s just something really simple when we’re feeling really down. We’ve made some kind of bad mistake and we’re feeling selfishly sorry for ourselves. The best thing to do is always to try to find someone we can help, someone else we can do a kindness for. This is a principle, if you can see into what I’m telling you, this is the principle of non-dissension, this is non-fighting mind, this is a plus mind, this is Tohei Sensei’s principles of mind and body unified. This is living, serving, practicing otomo and serving through otomo. This is Tohei Sensei’s teaching.  

I know that right now we don’t have the opportunity, perhaps, to see a lot of people, particularly in your dojo, because probably you’re not training in your dojo yet. But soon, soon we will be training again. We’re talking about opening some classes soon. We’ll have to be very careful so that we’re serving everyone and their concerns and their needs. We’re not just saying, “Ok, come to the dojo, we’re going to start training.” No, we have to follow certain procedures. So the world is going to be a little bit different, at least for a while, than the way we’re used to. And what we want to do as this is unfolding is care for each other. Of course, you’ve had the chance if you live with someone over last 2 months to be unselfish and caring with each of them. Sometimes it’s difficult after you see somebody for 2 months every day and night, but perhaps you had a little awakening and realized that as long as you’re serving that other person, you’re getting along with them very well. It’s when you stop serving them that they become a pain in the ass. 

Ok. Thank you for listening. Now that’s my introduction, my contribution to getting this started. So I’d like to ask you to comment from your own experience in regard to what I’m talking about. Please feel free. Of course, ask a question if you feel you’d like to ask a question. 

Student:  I think otomo is very broad and goes much deeper than the duties as prescribed. And I think that’s the gift of what otomo is. Experiencing that and being able to live it. You know, walk that talk with everybody in and out of the dojo. That’s what I think.

I’m glad to hear you say that. 

Student:  In my time in Aikido, the times when I’ve been assigned otomo have been to some very difficult individuals who were very challenging to me. And yes, it humbled me in such a way to set aside my judgment and really see what it was that I had to learn from serving someone who I perceived as, you know, not a very pleasant person.

Well, I must have assigned you, so, I am sorry. Yes, sometimes that happens. That’s usually a blessing as you know. That’s good to remember because there isn’t any guarantee. Even with a great man, like Tohei Sensei or Suzuki Sensei, even with a great teacher, take it from me, you can still get pissed off at them because we are so selfish-minded. When I say selfish,  I mean we’re self-obsessed, we’re self-oriented. We’re not oriented to serve others. We’re oriented to serve ourselves. So the process sometimes brings us up against a teacher that simply doesn’t listen to our needs at that moment. 

You know, it brings to mind when I was otomo for Suzuki Sensei. I was in Los Angeles at a big seminar with Chinn Sensei’s dojo. I was so happy to see everyone. I was training with all of my friends, and pretty much Suzuki Sensei was out of my mind at the time we were nearing the end of the class. So as the class finishes, I give my hakama to somebody with the idea that I’ve got to help Suzuki Sensei change. But instead, someone comes up and says something to me, and my mind completely goes away. My awareness of serving Sensei is gone, and I’m talking. Pretty soon there are 3 or 4 people and we’re having some nice conversation and laughing. And I turn around and look and Suzuki Sensei is standing on the side of the mat, staring at me. “Are you coming, Mr. Curtis?” he says. This just crushed my ego. And then flash forward 20 years and I have an otomo that was with me. This was a beginning otomo; this wasn’t any of the people you know. And he was in Oregon with me, and Lynn and I are out waiting at the car. We’ve changed, we got out of the dojo, we put our shoes on, we got to the car and still we don’t know where my otomo is. I wait and watch, and I go look in the dojo and he’s standing in the middle of the dojo still talking to all these people, having a great time, laughing, you know. And then I remembered: that was me! So it was very difficult to be really upset with him although he did hear from me about it.

We all learn these lessons.

Student:  Thank you, Sensei. I’m quiet because words are hard for me, Sensei. I just noticed that when I’m assigned otomo to somebody, it’s definitely a lesson in awareness and being concerned with the whole picture, but it’s very easy to slip into, “What do I need, what’s going on with me?” It becomes “stressful”, and when that happens, if I can, luckily I’ve had friends kind of wake me up, and I realize, “Oh yeah, this is about giving.” And if I can relax and just be present with the person, then I can feel that circle where giving and receiving is the same. But you have to allow it to flow, you mentioned that sometimes. If you refuse help, you’re stopping the flow. And you can’t give the help if the flow is stopped from somebody else. I have noticed that.

Right, ok. Thank you. That’s another aspect of this, this very important ability to allow yourself to receive. It sounds like, “well that must be easy because we’re all selfish,” but we’re also neurotic in such a way that we are not always able to be served by another. We’re so bound up with the idea of service that we can that’s possible we can become in a way so it’s very difficult to be served.

I told you I was writing one of the stories in the book that I’ve written about Otomo. Susuki Sensei – I was always traveling with him, often traveling with him. We were often in these Japanese train stations, and this was many many years ago when there weren’t wheels on suitcases and there was no writing except kanji in the entire train station, not where you buy the tickets, not where you buy food, and certainly no directions to go to what platform. It was all kanji. Now there are little signs that look like an airplane that tell you where to go to get to the airport. And there is also romanji, written so you can read the name with English letters. 

In those days, it wasn’t like that. Suzuki Sensei could read kanji, but he would often pretend that he couldn’t. We would be in the train stations, and he would stride away from me saying, “Just read the signs and away we go.” And I was always very frustrated by him. But I realized later that he was really preparing me to learn to prepare so that next time we were there – although it took a few times before this happened – I would know how to prepare, how to know exactly what platform to go to, what it costs, where to get the tickets, what to do, ahead of time. Because I would have done the research so that I knew what was going on. 

So sometimes there are practical form things that you have to do, you don’t want to forget that.  But that is still not the point. The point is not just the practical form, the point is feeling to do it. The point is noticing. The point is awareness. All of this training we’re talking about serving other people. It’s not like they need to be served even. That’s not what you’re doing. You’re not “helping” other people. You’re not saving anyone. You are being true to your nature when you serve others. So if you serve others truly, you’ll never expect a reward, you will never expect appreciation for that.  If the Sensei is often showering appreciation on you, that is because he knows your ego needs it. So he’s always giving a lot to you. If the sensei is doing that to you, you better look out! Ok?

As Lynn said, it’s a very deep subject. I use that word a lot – deep – I realize that, and what I mean by “deep” is that there’s so much behind it. We’re never doing what we think we’re doing on the surface or what others think we’re doing. We may be assigned to do something, but there’s something much deeper that we’re fulfilling if we’re being true. There’s something much deeper that we’re serving when we serve another person. Are we just serving a person? Or is there something else happening? And if there’s something else happening what is that something else? See, you want to understand the teaching of Aikido.

Normally we don’t have these kind of classes. We’ve had 2 months now where we’ve all had an opportunity to study the meaning behind what we’re doing in Aikido in a way that we often don’t get much opportunity to do. There’s a lot to do in an Aikido class, and there’s a lot of different Aikido classes to practice, and they’re all fun so let’s do them. But, if you don’t have an opportunity like this to discover what your training really means to you, then you have to take the time on your own to discover.

Ok? Could someone else please say something?

Student:  Good evening, Sensei. While you’re talking – I certainly have had a lot of experiences over the years – while you’re talking I’m thinking, “Ok, what can I discover here right now about serving?” So, what comes up for me is – ok, so I want to share experiences but this is all past history and so forth. So what I want to discover, what I’m contemplating as you’re speaking about this is my relationship with my wife and with my family, and how can I be more present and more serving in that sense, because I’m here, I’m spending all this time with Celine. And she has no trouble serving me. I sometimes catch myself just taking that for granted.  

Yeah, that’s so interesting. I remember being otomo for Suzuki Sensei at a seminar in San Francisco. There were likely a hundred and fifty people. It was a huge seminar. This was 35 years ago when there used to be that many people training Aikido. I remember, when he came out to lead the first class, sitting down and feeling that I was temorarily done with being otomo. “Ahh, ok!” I was so relieved that he was going to handle it and I didn’t have to do anything. This is very ignorant. So I’m amazed that Suzuki Sensei – with me pulling stunts like that – still he asked me again and again to serve as otomo. He had such faith in me so I’m very grateful that he did. This kind of trouble I don’t have with you. You’re very good at this.

Student:  Are you lavishing praise on my, Sensei? Are you feeding my ego now, Sensei?

Only if you need it. It’s true that I’m very grateful.

Student:  Yes, Sensei. Good evening. It’s been very humbling, very revealing with this otomo sense of giving when you’re with family and friends. It’s very revealing and very humbling because what I noticed more acutely is that I’m not really serving. There are a lot of things in the way and that’s me; things that I expect or things that I believe the other person should know already. I notice I’m not giving. Often, I’ve noticed, I’m not even facing the person. I already have my own agenda. And so these little things have humbled me. So I believe there’s something very juicy in the practice there that if I’m aware of those things then they’re teaching me something – they are teaching me something – about me and about how much I color things. And now, in light of all of this in your teachings, I’m grateful for those practices and the practice is even deeper and there’s more to do, a lot more to do. 

That’s wonderful! That’s a great bit of noticing there. And since you have this awareness and you do notice, change will take place automatically. You don’t really have to change. You don’t have to do something to get rid of your selfishness. Selfishness is like darkness –just turn the light on. You don’t have to chase darkness away. It doesn’t do any good to try to do that. This is exactly the same as that. To criticize ourselves for being selfish to begin with, is selfish. That’s a selfish thought, from the selfish part of ourself criticizing the selfish part of ourself. It’s crazy! So no, instead of feeding that feeling sorry for yourself kind of thing, self-pity … no instead of that, we just notice and automatically you’ll be facing that person next time. Automatically you’ll be listening in a way you didn’t listen before. This is just great! It means your training is bubbling. Ok? I’m very happy about that.

Ok, someone else, please.

Student:  Hi, Sensei. When I think about otomo – despite that I had no situation like Carlos Sensei had, for example, being otomo for you – I think for me in this pandemic situation we have now that you have to support the sensei or others, that you are present in the online training or whatever training you have now in this situation, so that you are present and help that the group and the training can go on. This is an aspect that I see for me in this situation.

Ok, and what about your family?

Student:  Yes, I have the same thing because, as mentioned before, it seems for me that somehow men have more difficulties than women do, for some reason. Yeah, it’s the same problem that I often feel selfish, more selfish than my wife or some person. So what does this mean in a family context or in a business context? What does that mean? Often I feel also humble that I didn’t see it.

I would like to refer to what you mentioned. I think we all know that women generally seem to be closer to this idea of service than men do. They bear the children. They may not be the only child-rearer in the family – men and women raise children at different times, different ages, they have different functions. But women are much better at it, in terms of serving the children’s needs, I think, than the men are. I think that’s just a way that females are. Women seem to be serving, sort of automatically understanding this. Now of course that’s not all women, some can be quite selfish, and I don’t mean to exclude men from this because there’s a lot of men that understand this and can be true to their original condition. And when you’re serving, you’re always true. There are a lot of men that know that, so I don’t mean to say women have a corner on it.  However,  in my life, and I think most would agree, – correct me if I’m wrong – that women seem to have a natural affinity for this. And I think it has to do with their empathy. For men, empathy is a difficult part of themselves to open up to. Men don’t like to be vulnerable. They don’t like to be wrong. And when you have empathy you are vulnerable, you make yourself vulnerable, by allowing yourself to feel empathy. I think that’s much easier for women that for men.

But this whole business of otomo is a way for all of us, not just the formal otomo but for all of us, to become aware of and more sensitive to our feelings about each other. Do you understand what I mean by feelings? Like when we begin a seminar with Shinichi Tohei Sensei and we shake hands with our partner, there is a feeling of connection And when I see a person standing over there who is going to attack me, there is also a feeling of connection. I didn’t used to have this feeling. In the old days, when I saw somebody ready to attack, I was ready to take him down. I was excited and looking forward to moving, but it was almost a competitive feeling. But when we become more empathetic, we become more sensitive – yes, more empathy, somehow that’s more connected. So it’s a very important part of our being together. You can say of course loving each other is the key, and that’s what matters to all of us all the time. That’s what everything is all about. But understanding on a very personal and deep level what loving someone means, that can be a conundrum, that can be a challenge.  

I think I mentioned one time that I was on an airplane one time with Suzuki Sensei and me and Lynn. And I was watching his drink going down so I would remember to get him a new drink and be the good otomo that I wanted to be. I suddenly looked over and he had a new drink! I said, “Sensei, how did you get your drink?” He said, “Oh, Lynn gave it to me.” I think I blurted out something like, “But I’m your otomo.” He said, “Yeah, you’re just trying to be a good otomo. But she loves me! Ok? So she’s just taking care of me.” 

This was a big awakening for me. We have to care. It’s not about functioning properly. It’s not about doing the right thing. That’s not otomo at all. You have to care deeply. Otherwise, why are you doing it? That’s what I ask.

Ok. Thank you very much. Our time is up and I’ll see you on Sunday. Aloha. Domo arigato gazaimashita.

(Online Training with Christopher Curtis Sensei, 29. May 2020)