O Sensei’s Calligraphy


2013-06-01 12.28.45On June 1st I caught the Saturday morning classes of a weekend seminar at Sophia University led by Robert Frager Shihan, a direct student of O Sensei.  The two hours that I spent there was very lucrative.  Sensei Frager is an energetic, joyful and very knowledgeable Aikido teacher and it was a sincere honor to have been instructed by him.

The university houses Morehei Ueshiba O Sensei’s calligraphy of “AI KI DO” (pictured on the left) at the head of the dojo.  The first time I saw it was almost a year ago when I took my shodan (1st degree black belt) test. I was very moved having seen it and wanted to spend a little time writing about what the characters say to me, personally, as an Aikido practitioner.

I  became interested in studying more about the movement of brush on paper since I had the opportunity of training under Sensei Neil Segal several times while out in the midwest, and more recently, having having taken a seminar under Sensei Ryoichi Kinoshita, who is a direct student of Seiseki Abe.  Abe Sensei, who passed in 2011, was O Sensei’s calligraphy teacher, and passed on a wealth of knowledge to both Sensei’s Kinoshita and Segal.  It was Sensei Segal who told me that when we watch O Sensei perform waza (technique) we can see his ki energy flow through him as he moves, but when he is done, there is no evidence of ki.  It was only able to be seen in the moment.  However, what O Sensei left us in the form of his calligraphy shows his ki movement and it stays on the page, it is there for us to study, enjoy and experience O Sensei’s energy as we see the black ink on white paper.  We can see the movement on the page and picture O Sensei using his brush as sure as he would use a ken, jo or empty hand techniques.

So I wanted to take a little time to look at the characters from O Sensei’s calligraphy and reflect.  Some of my thoughts are from anecdotal conversations, some are from how I process what I’ve learned from a vast array of teachers as applied to the characters.  With the utmost respect to my Sensei and all the teachers that I’ve learned from, I’m willing to put aside my understanding of technique in a conventional sense so that I can speak my thoughts.  With that:

2013-06-01 12.28.52“AI” – What I first notice about this character are the two diagonal strokes at the top of the character.  There is almost perfect symmetry in both these strokes.  They are painted so solidly and at almost perfect 45 degree angles.  You can see the application of the diagonal sword strike known as “yokoman uchi”.

The strokes are different.  You can see that there is a slight tapering off at the right side that the left side does not have.  The stroke on the left is much straighter than the one on the right.  Yet they are both complimentary to each other, forming the shape of the top two sides of a triangle that look in perfect harmony with the other strokes underneath.

In Aikido, we practice techniques from attacks on both our left and right sides.  We can expect a natural difference to our techniques done from attacks on our left vs the attacks that come from our right.  O Sensei’s first two strokes show this very clearly.  Two strokes, both perfect, yet different.  If we are lucky, our right side can teach our left side about movement and vice verse.   This is the single most important thing that I believe I can learn from this character.

2013-06-01 12.29.00“KI” – My old teacher Sensei Steve Gengo once talked about this character.  He said that the bottom portion of this character is fire that heats up a pot.  The top of this character is the swirling steam rising from the pot as it boils.  If you were to take a 3D view of this character and look directly down from the top, you would see the spiraling of the steam up from the boiling pot.

O Sensei performed a practice we now come to call “circle and center”.  He would do this every morning, with a jo or a fan and hold it pointing straight up, then move the item up in a circular motion, spiraling up and then down.  This movement forms the basis and the fundamental movement of Aikido:  Circular spiraling energy.

You can see the spiral at the top of the character and you can see it below.  If you look at the bottom part of the character, you can actually see the spiraling stroke (circle) that wraps around the straight stroke (center).  O Sensei started every class with these movements.  He gave great importance to these movements and we can see this clearly in this character.

2013-06-01 12.29.11“DO” – Again we see the spiral in the middle stroke.  I’ve heard that this portion of the character represents a ladder, and as “DO” translates loosely to “the way”, a ladder is significant of the upward climb as you integrate “do” into your life.

If this is the case, then I find it interesting and not a coincidence that this stroke, normally portrayed as a ladder, shows something that is much harder to climb.  This portrays our upward climb and integration of “The way of harmonizing energy” or “Aikido” as a much more difficult practice.  Or maybe not more difficult, but perhaps not so straight forward.   In our dojo we practice aspects of Aikido as a vehicle to become less entangled.  We can see that this spiraling stroke can be demonstrative of the entanglement we have in our lives, and the life long pursuit of removing entanglement from our lives.

The last thing I notice about this character is the horizontal stroke at the bottom of this character.  We see a stroke going from left to right in a horizontal yet curving stroke.  We see this in much of our practice.  We see this movement as we practice sumi otoshi, we see this movement in the earth hand of tenshi nage, we see this movement in iai as we draw and strike in one decisive move.  O Sensei gives us  a clear demonstration that as we practice the ascetic qualities of Aikido, ascending the ladder of “the way”, we must marry the spiritual aspects of our art with the physical aspects of technique.  We cannot have one without the other.  This stroke, with concise and precise movement, is a clear reminder of the physical aspect of our art and that the spiritual aspect is married to the physical.

At the seminar this weekend Sensei Frager talked about this.  He likened the physical world with the horizontal and the spiritual world with the vertical.  He talked about the need to balance the push and pull of the physical with the rise and fall of the spiritual.  It was very helpful to hear this, and after review of these three characters, it moves me to start working on my Aikido practice from this perspective.  O Sensei’s gift of his calligraphy serves as an excellent source of study to help me with this.


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