What is the teaching of Ueshiba’s San Go Ichi? 植芝の参合一の教えとは？
Brush drawing by a zen monk, Sengai Gibon 仙厓和尚 (1750 – 1837)
The title: 「宇宙」 （the universe）
In the past articles I have covered the explanations of Funakoshi’s Niju Kun (Twenty precepts), Wing Chun’s Doctrine of Conduct and Goju-ryu’s Kenpo Hakku. Today I want to bring up another martial art concept that was uniquely used by Morihei Ueshiba 植芝盛平 (photo right), the founder of Aikido. The concept he used to describe Aikido technique is called San Go Ichi 参合一. San 参 or 三 means three and Ichi 一 means one. Since these two words are 3 and 1, and the pronunciation of Go is same as a number five 五 thus the middle word of Go can be easily mistaken for five (5). However, the kanji for this Go is 合 which means to combine, become or unify. Though it is pronounced differently it is the first kanji, Ai 合 of Aikido 合気道 which means ‘the way of unifying Ki’. Therefore, 参合一 literally means “Three combined into one” or “Three unified into one”. So what are those three? Ueshiba used three figures; circle, triangle and square (see the brush painting above) to illustrate those three. What did he mean by them? And what is the ‘one’ that will come out from the combination of those three figures? The answers to these question are exactly what I wish to investigate and see if we can find them.
Before we jump into the subject, I believe we should have some basic idea of what Aikido is and who Ueshiba was. As I mentioned earlier Aikido 合気道 was created by Morihei Ueshiba 植芝 盛平 (December 14, 1883 – April 26, 1969) in the early 20th century. Ueshiba was often referred to Osensei 大先生, Great Teacher. Aikido is a style of one of the Japanese martial arts, Jujutsu. However, I consider Aikido very unique. It is because Ueshiba made his Budo 武道 more than a standard martial art method. According to Wikipedia, “It is considered as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit.” Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.” The uniqueness of Aikido definitely comes from the combination of the martial art with a type of shinto religion called Oomoto or Oomotokyo 大本教.
More about Aikido: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aikido
Morihei Ueshiba: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morihei_Ueshiba
Aikido came from Jujutsu but what kind of Jujutsu did it originate from? Now we have to touch on Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu大東流合気柔術, one of the jujutsu styles that has a controversial history. This martial art first became known in Japan in the late 19th century by Takeda Sokaku 武田 惣角 (October 10, 1859 – April 25, 1943). Takeda had extensive training in several martial arts including Jujutsu, Kenjutsu(sword), Sojutsu (spear), Naginata (halberd), Kyujutsu (archery), horse riding and sumo. What is interesting about his style, Daito-ryu 大東流 is that there are no known documented records regarding this style before Takeda despite it is supposed to have a long historical lineage. In addition to the interesting background of his style, I wish to share some interesting facts about Takeda as he was a unique martial artist himself. He was well known in Japan as a great Jujutsu master in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the unique things about him was that he never owned a dojo where he could train or teach his art. He also did not live in his own residence until he was 51 when he got married. It was not because he was poor (his teaching fees were extra- ordinarily high) but he chose to do so. What he did was to stay at various students’ houses as he taught the art at their houses. So, if a student wants to learn from Takeda he had to not only pay the high tuition but he also had to provide a room in his house for Takeda to stay during a teaching period of a few months as long as a half a year. Another interesting story about him is that he was quite short (barely 5 foot or 150 cm) but he was very strongly built. He was physically quite strong and some students reported that his arms were as thick as his legs. There are many other interesting stories about Takeda but I will not go into them in this article.
Daito ryu Aiki Jujutsu: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dait%C5%8D-ry%C5%AB_Aiki-j%C5%ABjutsu
Sokaku Takeda: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takeda_Sokaku
It is well known that Takeda created two famous masters in the 20th century. One is, of course, Morihei Ueshiba 植芝 盛平 and the other is Yukiyoshi Sagawa 佐川 幸義 (1902–1998, photo right). After studying their arts I found it very interesting that these two masters were both super excellent in their jujutsu skills but yet their approaches were quite different. This article is not about comparing these two masters so I will limit my analysis to a minimum. I must say that Sagawa was totally physical in his approach. He emphasized the physical training and the importance of the hips and leg strength. Here is his well known quote, “Building the legs and hips is the way to progress. This is a conclusion that I have reached through more than 50 years of training.” Sagawa’s skill level was considered by many martial artists to be better than that of Ueshiba. He lived until he was 96 years old. He trained and taught Aiki jutsu even in his 90s and, in fact, till the very last week of his life. He is not a well known Jujutsu master in the western world as he did not advertise about his dojo or his art as Ueshiba did. He also did not allow any video recordings (as far as I know) so we can only suspect how skillful he was from the photos and the experiences written by his students.
I was thoroughly impressed with Sagawa that he kept his super human skill till the last days of his life. I do not expect that you would believe that anyone could throw a strong young man as soon as the opponent touched (not grabbed but only touched) his sleeve or his foot (Sagawa demonstrated; see the photos above). Here is an article that appeared in the Aikido Journal about Sagawa and this article is an excellent one to show how capable Sagawa was:
If you are interested in learning more about his life and his training you can find it in a translated book, “Transparent Power” written by Tatsuo Kimura 木村達雄 (one of Sagawa’s senior students). This book is available from Amazon and here is the link if you wish to purchase a copy: http://www.amazon.com/Transparent-Power-Tatsuo-Kimura/dp/1893447103/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409619899&sr=1-1&keywords=Transparent+Power
I must emphasize that Sagawa believed in the physical strength which he said was the necessary foundation for the Jujutsu techniques. Here is his quote: “People who think they can ignore training their bodies and only work on techniques are amateurs. You cannot do a technique if your body is not developed. Actually, if you don’t prepare your body properly, you have no hope of ever perfecting your technique.” I believe his statement clearly describes the main principle of his teaching.On the other hand, Ueshiba’s approach was quite different. I am sure he also encouraged the practitioners to train their body but he made an unique approach by adding the religious concepts. Thus, I agree with those who claim that Ueshiba’s art was half Budo and half Shinto religion.
To understand how Aikido came about we must touch on an unusual experience Ueshiba had. When he was 42 years old, it was reported that Ueshiba had a mystical experience. I have a copy of “Take Musu Aiki 武産合気” written by Takahashi Hideo 高橋英雄 (photo below). This book is a collection of the quotes of Ueshiba. I am not sure if there is a translated book so I will translate some of the quotes in Japanese about this incident of 1925. It will be rather long and the context is incredible so I am not sure if the readers will believe what he wrote. Despite that, I think it is important to share his experience in his words so that you may be able to understand where Ueshiba is coming from and what concept or philosophy Aikido is built on. Here is my own translation of the Ueshiba quotes so I take all the responsibility for the accuracy of the translation. “I believe it was the spring of 1925. It happened when I was taking a walk alone in the backyard. All of a sudden the earth and heaven shook and I saw the golden air (Ki) spewing out of the ground. This air wrapped around me around and I felt I also became a golden body. As soon as it happened my body and my mind became very light and I understood everything around me including what the birds were saying. At that moment, I realized that I had a clear understanding of the will of the God who created the universe. At the same time, I received the enlightenment that the foundation of Budo is God’s love and the spirit of universal love. When I realized the message was from heaven it moved me so greatly that I could not stop the tears falling from my eyes. Ever since that moment, I consider the entire earth as my home and all the stars in the universe are my family. As a result, I totally lost my interest and the desire not only for the monetary materials but also the status, honor and even the desire to win in a fight.” Ueshiba also explained about the human being and what we are. “Human beings do not exist separately as we see with our eyes. Instead we are all connected in the Ki or spirit world as all of us are created with Ki that fills the universe.” I do not know if the readers will believe what he wrote and there is no way to prove or disprove his experience. I can only say that his experience was a similar experience of opening or connecting of a Chakra that has been reported by the Yoga experts or an experience of an enlightenment by religious persons.
The above information may help in giving the readers some understanding of Ueshiba’s philosophy and beliefs behind his art. With this understanding, now let us look at the term of San Go Ichi 参合一. I need to mention first that I had great difficulty in understanding the full meanings of his explanation of these figures, though I read the book many times. Of course the reason is not the language as I am a native Japanese. His explanation and description are deeply tied to the concepts and beliefs of his religion that are unfamiliar to me. I will do my best to decipher the messages that are filled with the religious terms and hidden meanings. I hope the readers, especially the non Aikido practitioners, can understand what Ueshiba tried to teach by this term.
I have already mentioned that the first word, San 参 means three. I must mention here that the number three has a religious and mystic meaning in Japan. The number three is considered as a lucky number in the Japanese culture and religion. In the western world the number 7 is commonly considered as a lucky number. If you are interested in the concept of the belief in divine or mystical nature of figures, there is an independent school on this concept, ‘Numerology’. You may find some interesting points though you may not believe any of them.
Here is the link to ‘Numerology’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numerology
I will not go into the subject of Numerology any deeper in this article except that this number, three, is believed to have the creation and production character according to the Japanese religion, Shinto. Interestingly, a triangle is commonly used to describe this number three as the figure represents that one point splits (or grows) to two points.
The first figure in his concept of Aikido techniques is △ Triangle (Sankaku) then followed by O Circle (Maru), and □ Square (Shikaku). It is known that Ueshiba used these figures to represent three principles and to illustrate the techniques of Aikido so that the practitioners could understand better. However, without further explanation about these figures and by just looking at the figures, they will remain as a puzzle or a mystery. To understand those principles I will use the quotes from the book, “Take Musu Aiki” instead of describing only by guessing. I will translate the Ueshiba’s messages and I will add my comments.
“These three figures illustrate the concepts or the movements of Aikido techniques.”
[三角 (△) に 入 り 身 し 、 丸 (O) く 捌 い て 、四 角 (□） に 納 め る]
“By triangle or Sankaku one gets into the opponent with Irimi. Circle or Maru means the circular technique to block or avoid the opponent’s attacks. By square or Shikaku, you complete the defense by throwing the opponent. “
I need to comment on the irimi 入り身 (entering) technique as some of the readers may not have heard of this term. It is not typically used in shotokan karate but it is in Aikido and Kendo. Irimi is the act of entering straight into a technique, as opposed to the more indirect entrance into technique such as Tai sabaki. The direct responses to an attack are often very effective and excellent as they can unbalance your opponent easily.
To learn more about Irimi 入り身: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irimi
体を△に象りOを 中 心 に、
気により△ □ の 変 化 と気 結 び、
生み出しつつ気 魂 力を養成し、
“Aikido is based on the absolute love of the universe. Make your body in the shape of the Triangle. Make the shape of the Circle as your center. Connect (or link) the changes of Triangle and Square using your Ki. Your body must show the connection at the same time so you will develop the power of Ki. As a result, Aikido is a precise way to build the spirit and the body of total Ku (emptiness).“
I am not sure what the readers think but I am afraid the explanation sounds like a riddle to me. As this statement does not quite make sense, we need to continue with the further explanation in the book and hopefully we will have a better understanding of the teaching as we move on.
[相 手 と ム ス ビ を 作るまでの半身（三角体）の構えが△で、造化三神を 象ったものです]
My translation: “Before connecting to the opponent, you will take a Hanmi (triangular posture) this is Triangle. This kamae is the representation of Zoka Sanshin (a god of number 3).
I understand the posture of Hanmi, half face. So I understand that the triangle shape is a half face kamae. Unfortunately, I just do not understand why it is a representation of a god. I guess we just have to take it as his belief and consider it simply as naming of this kamae.
[ 宇 宙 を 和 と 統 一 に 結 ぶ の 『和 』がO, 『 統 一 』 が □ で 表されてい ます]
“Wa (harmony) and Toitsu (unification) must be linked in the universe. Wa is shown with a Circle and Toitsu is shown with a Square. ”
I can understand the symbolism for the circle which is “harmony”, however I do not understand at this time why the square can be unification. We need to read on and see if we can find the answer to this question.
[△O □ が 一体 化 とな り、そ れ が 気 の 流 れ とともに 円 転 し て ス ミ キ ル の が 合 気 道 ]
“All three shapes (△O □) become one body. Then this body rotates along with the flow of Ki and you must be able to clear (Sumikiru) which is the secret of Aikido.”
I could conceptually understand that those three shapes could combine into one form. I can also understand that one rotates his body with the flow of Ki. The most challenging word is Sumikiri. Sumi means clear and Kiru means complete, thus those two words put together mean complete clear or serene. Ueshiba says that this serene mental and physical condition can be compared to the state of a fast spinning top. When it spins very quickly the axis is very steady and the whole top looks as though it is still. So, as the body rotates the practitioner’s mind must be spinning at a high speed. By having this established, his body will look steady but at the same time it has a lot of energy inside it. Ueshiba says this state of mind and body, Sumikiri is a Gokui, essential point or a secret technique of Aikido.
[△O □ が（一体） と な っ て 、こ れ が ま た 丸 く 円 に な る こ と が 、合 気 道 の 実 行 で あ る ]
“The technique of Aikido is illustrated by those three figures, first, combined into one then it returns to a circle.“
Here is the religious symbolism of Sangen no hosoku 三元の法則 shown with the figures of △O□. This could lead to more mysticism and confusion but hopefully it will give us some idea of the complexity that is associated with these three figures. I will not translate all the characters or personalities of these three. I will put some important ones that may be related to what we are discussing here.
Triangle △ 三角、流: Heaven and fire; It is a flowing material such as liquid and gas. It flows with and by Ki which is the nature of the animals. It is also a symbol for the future, stars, sword and salt. Its color is blue or green.
Circle 〇 丸、柔: Water and flexible material, the nature of the plants. It is also a symbol for the present, jade, moon and water. Its color is red.
Square □四角、剛: Earth, solid and hard material, the nature of the minerals. It is also a symbol for the past, Sun, mirror and rice. Its color is yellow.
After reviewing these characters now I understand why the Square is unification. I believe it is the symbol for the final movement such as the throw and arm lock. It is the result of the unification of the body and mind or Ki with the opponent and the universe. You start with the Triangle then it will be linked and covered by the Circle and finally they will be unified and all positioned in the Square. The symbolism of this is shown in the illustration here.
Let me share some interesting (?) information about the one body format after the three figures are all combined within the Square, as shown in the illustration above. Where do you think this design came from? Believe it or not, this design is widely used as a part of an amulet of a very famous and highly prestigious Shinto shrine, Tsubaki Ohkami Yashiro 椿大社:
This amulet (photo left) is supposed to protect your car from the traffic accidents (this why the colors are red, green and yellow to signify the colors of a traffic signal). Most likely you do not believe in the effect of this amulet but this is not a joke. Many thousands of Japanese people who visit this shrine every month buy this amulet and hang one in their cars. When you visit Japan next time, check and see if you find this in a taxi or a bus as many taxi and bus companies buy these amulets to ‘protect’ their vehicles and their passengers. In fact, the passengers appreciate this very ‘responsible’ act by the taxi and the bus companies when they see an amulet in a vehicle they ride. Interesting thing is that if you would ask those Japanese if they really believe in the effect of the amulet, I am pretty sure 99% of them would say “no”. They say they do not believe in the superstition but they also say it is better to have one in a taxi or a bus just in case.
Let me explain further about these three figures. The idea of the three figures was, in fact, not originated by Ueshiba or Aikido. Of course, this statement does not mean to belittle Aikido’s concept or its originality. The concept of Triangle, Circle and Square has been around for hundreds of years in Japan and it has been handed down to the present day. The first photo at the very beginning of this article is a brush painting of those 3 figures written in the 18th century by a famous zen monk, Sengai Gibon 仙厓和尚 (1750 – 1837). The title was named as “The Universe 宇宙” by Daisetsu Suzuki 鈴木 大拙 (1870 – 1966), a famous author of books and essays on Buddhism and Zen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._T._Suzuki
Also, when you visit Kyoto, Japan next time, you may want to visit a famous zen temple, Kenninji 建仁寺: http://www.kenninji.jp/english/index.html
In fact this is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto and it is worthwhile to visit such a historic site. In addition, you can also visit its special garden called “O△□ Garden” (photo right). So, it is interesting to know that the idea of these three figures is used not only in the Shinto teaching but can be found also in the Buddhism or at least in the Zen sect.
Let me continue with the translation of a few more quotes of Ueshiba so we may have a better understanding of his philosophy and his understanding of martial art.
[こ の 私 の 中 に 宇 宙 が あ る の で あ り ま す。
すべてがあるのであります。宇 宙 が 自 分 なのであります。
また 自 分 が 宇 宙 で あ る か ら 自 分 一 人 の み が あ る の で あ り ま す]
This one is a little riddle but also very interesting. Here is my translation; “The universe exists within my body. All the matter exists within me. In other words, the universe is myself. As I am the universe my individual existence does not exist. At the same time, I am the universe thus I exist alone.”
より大いなる 真 理 をもかちえたのである。
すなわち武 道 を通じはじめて宇 宙の 真 髄 をつかんだ時、
人間は <心> と <肉体> と、それをむすぶ <気> の三つが完全に一致し、
しかも 宇 宙 万 有 の 活 動 と 調 和 しなければいけないと 悟 ったのである]
“Through the physical training of Budo I gained its Gokui 極意 (ultimate understanding) as well as the bigger ultimate Truth. As a conclusion, I first grasped the ultimate truth of the universe through the training of Budo, then I came to understand that the three elements of the spirit, the body and the Ki must completely unify and it simultaneously must harmonize with the activities (actions) of the universe.”
“In other words, by using the ‘application of Ki’ we can harmonize the spirit and the body and more that an individual and the whole universe can be harmonized. Therefore, Aikido is the way of the Truth. The training of Aikido means the training of the Truth. By training hard, applying the techniques and perfecting the harmonization, only then you will be able to attain the ‘god’s techniques’.”
“Upon training in the following three disciplines, one can attain the ultimate power of the Truth and Immovable within his body and spirit.
* Train to harmonize one’s heart (spirit) with the activities of the universe.
* Train to harmonize one’s body with the activities of the universe.
* Train to harmonize one’s Ki that combines his body and spirit with the activities of the universe.
[こ の 三 つ を 同 時 に、理 屈 で な く、道 場 に お い て、また 平 常 の 時 々 刻 々 の 場 に お い て
“Only those who could complete those three harmonization trainings not only in the dojo but also all through in their daily life can be the true Aikido practitioners. “
[かくのごとく 熱 心 に 稽 古 の 徳 を重 ねるに至らば、相手と相 対した時にいまだ手を出さぬうちに、
すでに 相 手の 倒 れた 姿が見える。 そこでその方 向に 技をかけると、面白く投げられる]
“If one continues to train until one achieves the ultimate excellence, one can see the fallen opponent as soon as one simply stands in front of you before the fight. Once that happens you can throw the opponent without any effort whatsoever.”
I conclude that these three figures represent the three stages of a typical Aikido technique as shown below;
Stage 1 (Triangle △): Irimi 入身
Stage 2 (Circle 〇): Tenkan 転換 or Enten 円 転 (rotation)
Stage 3 (Square□): Katame 固め or Nage 投げ (throw)
Ueshiba concluded with the following statement which I found interesting.
[三 合 一 の真理 や 呼 吸 、 合 気 の 理 解 な く し て 合 気 道 を 稽 古 し て も
合 気 道 の 本 当 の 力 は 出 て こ な い だ ろ う]
“I (Ueshiba) suspect that unless you understand the true concept of San Go Ichi, breath (呼吸 kokyu) and Aiki 合気, you will not be able to achieve the true power of Aikido even if you continue to practice Aikido.”
As a conclusion he is saying that without the understanding of the religious concepts, breathing and ‘Aiki’, we cannot achieve the true Aikido. I can see and understand that with the correct breathing methods and the throwing techniques you produce the Aikido techniques. On the other hand, I also know that one can achieve such power or develop the excellent Jujutsu techniques without Aiki and the religious understanding. Take a look at Ueshiba’s teacher, Sokaku Takeda and other Jujutsu experts such as Sagawa. They have achieved the similar ability, if not better, without getting into the religious beliefs and concepts. At the same time, I am not disputing the legitimacy of his claim.
In the western world, martial arts such as fencing and sword fighting have developed but they did not come with the religious concepts. On the other hand, in Japan, it was very common in the feudal period (the 16th and 17th centuries) the swords experts such as Yagyu Sekishusai, Kami-izumi Nobutsuna, Tsukahara Bokuden, Ito Ittosai and many others tied their swordsmanship to the religious concepts and beliefs. This is a very unique part of Kenjutsu, Japanese swordsmanship. We say [殺人剣を活人剣に昇華した] which means these sword experts turned the killing skill into a higher and a morale concept that would save the people rather than just kill the people. In other words, they say that once one achieves the highest level of swordsmanship one can easily avoid the unnecessary fights to kill their opponents as he wins before the fight starts. This is exactly what Ueshiba was saying that he could see that his opponents were already fallen on the floor before they even touched him.
Interestingly, Sagawa also achieved the similar power which the students called ‘transparent power’ (it became the title of the book which I mentioned earlier). The students could not figure out or detect how the power was generated and they were thrown by Sagawa like a piece of cloth. For instance, an opponent would be thrown backward as soon as he touched Sagawa’s foot or his sleeve while Sagawa was comfortably sitting and totally relaxed in an easy chair (see the photos of this situation earlier, in them you can see that he was carrying on a casual conversation with someone who was watching the incident).
I have never practiced Aikido nor received any lessons on its philosophy in the past. Therefore, I may not be qualified to make any judgment on the religious concept part. On the other hand, I can say that I can make some judgment on the technical part of Aikido as a karate-ka or a martial artist. The concept of three stages; Irimi 入り身, Enten 円転 and Nage 投げ makes sense and it can work. In other words, by stepping in close to the opponent you can unbalance the opponent. Then by using the body circulation you can position the opponent to the point where he will have to fall on his own. The last move of Nage is the final but small move to help the opponent in his falling which will look like, to the outsiders, a throw though the throwing person hardly put any strength in his technique at all. I can picture the karate version of these stages. Irimi is the same so you step in as your opponent comes in an oizuki jodan 追突き上段. You will do jodan nagashi uke 上段流し受け with one hand to block the oizuki and with the other hand you will give a counter. In this counter punch you do not need to put any strength at all. In fact, all you have to do is to stick your fist out in front of the opponent face, then literally the opponent’s face will run into your fist. This uke 受け and kaeshi waza 返し技 combination will work even more effectively if you can add a Tenshin 転身 (body rotation) move. As this is not a “how to” article I will not explain the details but a Tenshin foot steps work simultaneously with the uke and kaeshi waza. With a Tenshin move you will be facing to the opponent in 45 to 90 degrees angle which is much more advantageous position than directly in front of the opponent. Once you become proficient with a Tenshin move, you can position yourself behind the opponent with one step and a turn.
As I end this article, I wish to add that that I consider karate as my religion and my dojo or where-ever I train my shrine or temple so I do not feel uncomfortable with the Ueshiba approach. There two main differences. One is I do not have ties or connections with any of the shinto or Buddhism sect. The other may be a bigger difference. Ueshiba had a mystical experience that took him to an ultimate level of martial art. So far I have not had any mystical experience to enlighten me. This must mean I am still far away from the ultimate level thus I will simply continue my daily training until I may have such an experience in the future.