by Ken Jeremiah
Studying the martial arts is a spiritual pursuit, but at the beginning, students rarely understand this. They see everything in black and white. There are no shades of grey. Techniques are nothing more than devise used to control or injure another, and many practitioners do not progress beyond this point. They throw and they pin, and thinking that there is nothing more to learn, they stop studying. Eventually, those who stick with it master the techniques, and with that mastery comes a new perception.
What began as two separate colors, just black and white, blend together, and then, such practitioners begin to see countless variations of grey. An analogy can be found by looking at the standard martial arts ranking system. When students begin, they have a white belt. In time, their blood and sweat turn the white grey. After years of hard training, the grey darkens, until it eventually turns black. The great students, never considering themselves masters, do not stop. They continue to train, always aiming to practice and improve, constantly seeking the truth. After years, the black belt frays, displaying various shades of gray before once again returning to white, the starting point.
This cycle is also demonstrated by the Zen circle, the Enso, which is seen on dojo scrolls all over the world, in which students begin at one end, and as they progress around the circle, learning techniques and stances, they attain greater insights. Eventually, they reach the art’s spiritual dimensions, and if they continue in their pursuit, they will return to where they started. Since the journey is so long and arduous, and the end is nowhere in sight, it is useful for students to read the words of others who are further along the same path, as such information provides direction. Takahashi Sensei used to compare people to ships on undulating ocean waves, and Tohei Sensei used to say that people should set their sights on a star. They will certainly never reach it, but they it will guide them, and they will have direction.
Walther von Krenner has been practicing Aikido, Judo, and other Japanese martial arts for more than 50 years. He is an expert in Japanese and Chinese art in addition to many other disciplines. He has trained with many well-known martial arts teachers, including Gene LeBell, Hal Sharp, Koichi Tohei, Isao Takahashi, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, whom students call O-Sensei. Walther von Krenner travelled to Japan in 1967 and trained there during the last two years of the founder’s life, during which time he recorded lectures and took invaluable photographs.
Some of these are included in von Krenner’s insightful new book, Following the Martial Path: Lessons and Stories from a Lifetime of Training in Budo and Zen. In it, von Krenner Sensei includes rare, previously unpublished photographs of some of the worlds most famous martial artists, along with personal accounts of the lessons he learned while training in arts like Aikido, Judo, Karate, and Japanese swordsmanship. Such stories illuminate the martial path, which transcends techniques of attack and defense. They demonstrate that such a journey is one of self-discovery, and the book stresses the connection between Zen, art, and martial pursuits.
It is hoped that this book helps all practitioners of all disciplines to reach the summit of that very elusive martial path.