For you, o spirits!
“Have you ever studied Onmyodo?” RO non sequitured in the middle of a Google chat last November. “What’s that?” I replied innocently, then quickly Googled it.
My jaw dropped when I saw: medieval Japanese sorcery. Intuitive bastard! How did he know I’d just, the day before, been thinking of researching what kind of magic they practice/practiced in Japan?
He gave me a couple of links to help me get started, and then…
…well I haven’t gotten much farther since.
I won’t bore you with stuff you can go look up yourself in a few minutes of web searching. But most of what you could learn about onmyodo on the internet can be read within less than an hour. Like many things Japanese, you probably need a decent institute library dedicated to Asian studies and a knowledge of Japanese and Chinese to penetrate it to any significant degree.
RO said he planned “to be studying the techniques of onmyodo“, but with the scanty resources available, I don’t see how. I’ll be pumping him for information to see if he’s made any headway.
Nonetheless, my desire to bring more magic into my aikido practice (or to get more magic out of my aikido practice) is still there, and although I can’t say I’ve found much about onmyodo beyond the superficial academic history book level, the search itself has given me some ideas.
As I’ve indicated in recent posts, I currently see devotional practices as the key to spiritualizing aikido: sincerely evoking O Sensei every time I get on the mat, attuning myself to the collective egregore of the art through aiki no kami as a tutelary spirit.
It is an interesting experience to come back later in life to something you were heavily involved in earlier in your life. As I wrote about many times in the early days of this blog and in a previous blog, returning to Western/Hermetic occultism/mysticism after years of dedicating myself to other pursuits (higher education, martial arts, writing/journalism/editing career, raising a second family), I was amazed how the intervening years had given me a very different perspective on occultism, and how many things were much clearer to me since I had gained a lot of life experience in the meantime.
When I practiced aikido in the eighties and early nineties, my focus was on the Zen side of the Japanese martial arts. I have no idea why, but the Shinto aspect didn’t make as much of an impression on me back then.
As hard as it is to do Internet research on Japanese subjects when confined to European languages, I have occasionally been exploring mystical/metaphysical/religious/magical topics that might have relevance to Japanese martial arts.*
A few months back I became aware of the central role the kami Sarutahiko plays in budo.** He is an important figure in Japanese mythology: the highest of the “earthly” kami; guardian of the bridge between the earthly and heavenly realms. He carries a jeweled spear he got from his father Izanagi. It turns out that O Sensei prayed regularly to Sarutahiko, and he claimed Sarutahiko taught him some techniques that were eventually incorporated into aikido.
Taking this as just the clue I needed to further spiritualize my aikido practice, I printed out a good image of the god, put it in a frame, and placed it in our dojo. Now, first, you need to understand what I mean when I say “our dojo”. This is a fairly unique post-communist Hungarian situation. You see, in the days of state socialism, martial arts had a very limited presence in this society. Either you got training as a member of the military/police, or you belonged to a judo team, which the state sponsored. The state had a vested interest in judo, since it was an international Olympic sport, and excelling in sports was good propaganda for communist countries. To this day, there are judo facilities maintained by the state, because this policy of promoting the national image through the country’s athletes was never discontinued (along with many other policies and institutions that have been maintained uninterruptedly since the cold war).
Where I train is a huge, state-owned, barn of a facility, with enough mat space to hold three judo matches at once. That’s huge. A regulation competition area is 14m X 14m. So altogether that’s 588 square meters. I’ve been at a workshop where we had over 100 people training on that mat at one time.
Something I’ve learned about large facilities in Hungary is that nobody questions something you do if it has the appearance of plausibly being official. So I just took the framed image of Sarutahiko and superglued the back of the frame to the wall next to the area where we train. Next to the image there’s a convenient gap between two boards that holds a stick of incense at a good angle. Not one question was asked.
Now, every time I emerge from the dressing room, I perform the following ritual. First I put on my hakama (as a sign of respect for the art and for Sarutahiko). Then I walk over to Sarutahiko and insert a piece of incense into the “holder” (I always use a high-quality Japanese brand called “Herb and Earth”, which has bamboo sticks. It produces lots of scent with minimum smoke. Frankincense.). Then I perform the Shinto gestures of offering: two bows, two claps, and one more bow. At that point I close my eyes and visualize his living image, and pray to him, either silently or sotto voce.
I also have a small shrine to him in my house, and I light a candle and some incense every time I do my morning exercises.
The Home Altar
Results? I have to confess this is all “subjective”. I don’t really have anyone to compare myself to. I don’t know anyone else who returned to the practice of aikido after seventeen years off the mats. And success at working to get my aikido “mojo” back at the age of 54 is also hard to judge, because I was 34 when I quit. It was amazingly easier to achieve physical fitness and agility at that age.
Nonetheless, Sarutahiko does seem to be helping me. After one year back on the mats, I am very happy with what I have gained back. In the above recently made video, you can see me performing up to black-belt form, even if it’s still not quite the stuff I could do in my thirties. In the video I am my teacher’s partner while he is demonstrating a technique, but in the last twenty seconds of the video he has me perform the technique twice (right side, left side) When I reviewed this video, I found my second execution to be smooth and subtle. I was pleased.
I was also pleased, when I saw the above video, to observe that my sword work has also picked up some power and precision lately. This exercise is called happo undo, which means “eight directions practice”. Chaotes should take note that the exercise is about projecting energy outward from the center in eight directions (It teaches one to turn rapidly and maintain balance, so as to be ready for an attack from any direction. There is also a spiritual metaphor that one is cutting the fetters that bind one’s spirit.). The first four cuts describe a cross. The fourth cut is a 45-degree turn (as opposed to 180 and 90 for the rest of the cuts), which then begins a second cross whose arms fall between the arms of the first cross.
This exercise should be performed like a meditation, working to maintain absolute concentration from the moment one draws the sword until one has sheathed it again. And it teaches a lot about integrating breathing with movement.
But perhaps the evidence that the spiritualization of my practice has born some results is best illustrate by the following anecdote.
As I’ve mentioned before, my teachers acknowledged my rank and skills by allowing me to teach the last class of every month. I contemplate what I will teach in my next class during the weeks in between.
This last weekend I was in the hills of Northern Hungary, near the Slovakian border, attending the annual kindergarten camp held by our Waldorf kindergarten. In the morning, before everyone else was up, I would slip into the forest and do my morning exercises in the fresh, conifer-scented air. As has become my habit, I visualized Sarutahiko and bowed to him before I began training. At some point I began doing a slow “mime” of one of the techniques I plan to teach this month. Suddenly, in a flash, it came to me how to explain the essence of the technique in terms of yin/yang, drawing and projecting. It struck me as the perfect way to show why, at the beginning of the technique, one hand turns upward while the other turns downward, and why they reverse for the throw. I knew I could get the idea across very easily this way. I’d never seen the technique explained this way before. I kept spinning and turning my hands, and I felt the smooth energy flow this enabled.
Then it struck me where this idea had come from. Immediately, I bowed deeply and said, “Thank you very much, Sarutahiko.”
To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
*Strictly speaking, Japanese martial arts don’t really include karate, which is Okinawan, and came to the Japanese Islands by way of China. The form of karate that Elvis Presley made famous by becoming the student of Ed Parker is called kenpo, because kenpo is a Japanese adjective meaning “Chinese”; ergo it is Chinese empty-handed technique.
**bu=martial, do=tao=way or path; ergo, the martial path, the way of the warrior