by Walther G. von Krenner with Ken Jeremiah
Originally, the Japanese language did not have a term for green. The word ao referred to both blue and green. The colors were so close that they were just considered different shades. This might seem strange to speakers of other languages, but lexicon varies between cultures. In the English language, for example, there is only one word for gray, even though there are many shades of gray. To an unobservant person, they might all look the same, but to someone who looks carefully, there are countless variations, all of which are distinct colors. When practitioners begin studying a martial art, they might not even see gray. They might see everything in black and white. There are no great mysteries. Everything is as it appears.
Techniques are nothing more than devices used to control or injure another. Most students do not progress beyond this point. They perform throws and pins, and thinking there is nothing more to learn, they stop studying. Those who continue training might eventually master the techniques, and with that mastery comes a new perception: a new way to see things. What were once regarded as two separate colors, black and white, blend together. Practitioners begin to see gray. The techniques are more than just physical motions. They contain profound principles. Once this realization occurs, they are pulled into the wormhole, and what started out as simple becomes incredibly complex. What began as an awareness that there is more than just black and white, that there is gray, eventually leads to the conclusion that there are countless variations of gray. The martial arts have multiple shades: different teachings, which can only be perceived through years of hard training. This is shugyo. It is interesting that the more one trains, the more he or she realizes how much there is to learn. There is no end in sight. What starts out as physical techniques used to protect oneself and defeat others, becomes something more: devices to forge and polish the spirit.
A connection exists between Zen and the martial arts. If practitioners view things in the correct manner, many different paths lead to the same destination. This is why some Japanese masters not only practice martial arts, but also practice skills like ikebana (flower-arranging), shodo (calligraphy), bijutsu (art), or sado (the Way of Tea), learning from the stark simplicity yet whole-minded effort of the cha no yu (tea ceremony). All of these pursuits are Budo, and they reflect the Japanese expression bun bu ryo do: the way of the brush is the same as the way of the sword. All of these pursuits are manifestations of Zen.
Over the years, I have continued to train in Zen meditation, calligraphy, painting, the tea ceremony, and the martial art Aikido, and I continue to progress on the path. I began my martial training in Germany more than fifty years ago, learning Judo from Heinreich Steffin, Kondo Mitsuhiro (ninth dan) and Nagaoka Hidekaru (tenth dan). After winning in my class at the national championship in 1959, I traveled to France to train in Judo at the Salle Pleyel Dojo, where tenth-dan Anton Geesink taught. He was a three-time World Judo champion, an Olympic gold medalist, and he won twenty-one European Judo championships. Many great martial artists trained at this dojo.
In 1960, I left France and moved to the United States to train at Hal Sharp’s dojo, where ninth-dan Gene LeBell trained. He has written many books and has been in more than one thousand movies and television shows. Training with LeBelle was difficult, and I learned a lot. At about the same time, I also began learning karate from Nishiyama Hidetaka. While training at Hal Sharp’s dojo, I was also teaching at David Chow’s dojo, who was the Hong Kong Judo champion. David Chow’s dojo was located at the Encino Community Center, where I experienced Aikido for the first time.
One day, when I arrived at the dojo, many people were present and chairs were set up. The Judo class had been canceled because there was going to be a demonstration of a new martial art called Aikido. I sat down to watch, and people with kendo gear (i.e., hakama) were flying through the air, taking what I perceived as unrealistic falls. The instructor wore glasses, and his hair remained perfectly in place as he repeatedly threw his attackers to the ground. I knew it had to be fake, and I was a little unhappy that my class was canceled; I really wanted to train. After the demonstration, the instructor, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, held a question-and-answer session. I told him that such techniques would probably not work on a Judo practitioner, and he invited me to attack. I did, and Ueshiba sprained my wrist using kotegaeshi. Thinking it had to be a fluke, I attacked with the other hand, and he busted that one too. After this incident, I wanted to learn as much about Aikido as I could.
Ueshiba Sensei remained in the United States for about four weeks, during which time I trained with him. When the time came for him to return to Japan, he introduced me to Takahashi Isao, with whom I practiced for years. We not only trained in his dojo, but also practiced techniques in his backyard or garage, trying to perfect even the smallest details. We did a lot of ki training, and we frequently talked about the sword and its connection to Aikido. I was interested in the Japanese sword, and at the time, I was president of the Japanese Sword Society, a group whose members share a passion for historical scholarship and research. He often came to my house and we spent hours talking about swords, Aikido and even calligraphy. Then we trained in my private dojo. He even taught me how to play the Japanese flute, the shakuhachi.
Takahashi Sensei introduced me to Tohei Koichi, the man who did more than anyone else to disseminate Aikido to the world. Aikido would not have taken root in the United States without his efforts, and I believe he was the most important person in the development of Aikido as a martial art distinct from Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. Tohei even developed the names of the techniques used today. The founder, O-Sensei, use terms like ude osae, kote mawashi, and kote hineri to describe techniques. Tohei Sensei simplified these so foreigners could more easily remember them. He replaced them with words more recognizable today, such as ikkyo, nikkyo, and sankyo: literally, “technique number one, two, and three.” Tohei Sensei stressed the importance of ki, and he taught me how to use it in my training. Practitioners today might look at some old pictures of O-Sensei, in which many students pushed on his head or chest while he was either seated on the ground or standing, and wonder how it was done. Such performances might look like magicians’ tricks to an outside observer, but they are a demonstration of ki power. Tohei Sensei taught me how to do these techniques so I could teach others about ki and convince skeptics about this energy source’s existence.
While training with both Tohei Sensei and Takahashi Sensei, I met many interesting people who today are considered experts in Japanese martial arts. These include Don Angier and Meik Skoss, who was a beginner student in our San Fernando Valley Dojo. However, I had not yet trained with the art’s founder. In 1967, Takahashi Sensei came to my house and told me to go to Japan to train while O-Sensei was still alive. At the time, I was dealing Asian artwork, and I had a business called Art Treasures of Asia. I thought about it and decided that I did want to go, but the only way I could afford a trip like that was for my wife and me to sell our house. She was supportive, and that is what we did; we sold our home and moved to Japan so I could train with O-Sensei.
Editor’s Note: Read more about von Krenner sensei’s life-long journey in Budo and Zen in his new book, Following the Martial Path. This insightful book illuminates the lessons learned in the martial arts, which transcend techniques of attack and defense. It is a journey of self-discovery, originating in physical training and leading to the spiritual dimensions. Over the past 50 years Walther G. von Krenner trained with numerous talented and famous martial arts practitioners, including Gene LaBelle, Hal Sharpe, Tohei Koichi, Takahashi Isao, and Aikido founder Ueshiba Morihei O-Sensei. Explaining good times and lessons in humility, Following the Martial Path is von Krenner’s account of his martial art journey.Besides conveying the important lessons learned throughout decades, Following the Martial Path contains calligraphy, artwork, and invaluable photographs (of Aikido founder Ueshiba Morihei and others) that have never before been published. In addition, it contains lectures given by the founder of Aikido that have not previously been published. Grab Your Copy Today!