RIP (1940-2015)… Kazuo Chiba — Ruthless Awareness by Tom Collings

“The emotional intensity, and range of emotions in that class was amazing — terror, fearlessness, vulnerability, and invincibility.”

The following text recalling special training with Kazuo Chiba Sensei at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo is excerpted from Tom Collings’ book “Searching For O’Sensei”. – Editor

The grand finale of each week for me in Tokyo was Chiba Sensei’s Friday afternoon class. The term “battleground” comes to mind, a battleground of emotion. The emotional intensity, and range of emotions in that class was amazing — terror, fearlessness, vulnerability, and invincibility. He was known for his ferocity, and the extraordinary intensity of those classes; an atmosphere of life and death. In contrast to attendance at most classes at the Hombu, attendance at his was sparse. I felt this group of students to be very special, a small elite group in the sea of martial artists in Tokyo. To most students at Hombu Dojo we were just crazy.

Chiba would approach the training hall slowly and deliberately. He paused at the teacher’s entrance to carefully peruse the battlefield before entering. He sometimes arrived with a bloody rag wrapped around his hand. Not a bandage, just a blood stained rag. I assumed it was from his live blade sword work. That bloody rag set the tone for his class. I think that was intentional. It symbolized the atmosphere of danger, and the acute awareness required. Seeing it was like a molotov cocktail thrown on dry timbers, it ignited something very hot in us. It attracted only those with some deep need to burn hot. Were we moths drawn to a flame?

Sitting seiza in the nervous silence before class, in a huge training hall filled with only a few students. I watched to see if anyone else would show up. No one else ever did. There were about a dozen of us, in a school with an average class of fifty or sixty. But when I looked at who was there I was never disappointed. Chiba’s private students, a few other foreigners and Japanese black belts, Shibata Sensei and Moriteru Ueshiba. Shibata had been the senior uchi deshi of the school, and Moriteru, or “Waka Sensei,” was the grandson of O’Sensei, the next headmaster of the art. I felt so honored to be there.

Real and immediate danger was felt by everyone in that room. We trained together in a state of hyper-alertness. It was frightening and exciting at the same time. I have felt it when searching dark apartments for fugitives, and backpacking in southern Alaska’s grizzly country. The slightest sound is magnified. The slightest movement nearby is detected. The most subtle smell perceived and instantly identified. Clarity, instant response.

Danger is very uncomfortable, but it heightens our senses. If we channel fear into acute awareness the present moment expands. “Now” becomes immense. Fully alive. I have learned that powerful energy usually feels uncomfortable. A small price to pay.

This feeling of danger created a strange kind of purity, an equality — regardless of size, rank, or level of skill. Everyone felt fear, no one tried to hide it. That shared experience created an amazing level of cohesion. A communion of fear. A level of intimacy difficult to describe.

The group adrenaline burned away pain, weakness, timidity, and all self-consciousness. All that remained was bold action. The battlefield is too hot for ego. There were bumps, bruises, scrapes, and sprains — but no complaining, explaining, or apologizing. None of that was necessary. Incredibly, there were no serious injuries. The intensity of awareness prevented that.

Impressive looking technique held no value here. Success and failure had no meaning. Decisive action was all that mattered. Results were irrelevant. It was pure Zen. Overpowering group energy. Self was swallowed up and lost. At that place — during that hour there was no other way to be. It was wonderful, and exhausting. Once a week was all I could handle. All my other martial arts classes were like a vacation.

I am deeply grateful for being part of something so special. It was not only Chiba Sensei, it was the particular mix of individuals who came together each Friday afternoon. An extraordinary group chemistry was generated. Any intermediate or advanced student was free to attend; you just had to show up. Amazingly, in a student body of perhaps five hundred, only twelve ever came.

Get Tom Collings great new book on Amazon: Searching for O’Sensei: Learning and Living the Wisdom of the Warrior

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5s Comments

  1. I took one class from Chiba Sensei. At the outset he made everybody swear to attend any class he sponsored, whether he taught or sent a senior student. Swear or leave. I swore. The class was just as intense as described. BUT I realized that what he was teaching, iaido, wasn’t the direction I wanted to go with my martial arts. That meant, to me, that I had better stay clear of him. I did, with some regret.

  2. I don’t think one can appreciate Chiba Sensei’s teaching in such a short time of exposure so I will give a little more input. I trained with Sensei during the mid 80’s in San Diego towards the end of his day to day training. As Tom Collings mentioned fear was a constant companion in class this coupled with a small number of students (five to ten) gave us all a tasted for actual combat. This training was clearly not for most Aikido students but the ones who were willing to stay learned more in three years (like myself) than I did in the previous ten years. The question one asks oneself is how much are you willing to pay for this type of understanding of martial arts?

    Glenn S Webber
    Rhode Island Aikikai

  3. Elizabeth Tunwell

    I have the fondest memories of Chiba Sensei, I can never remember being afraid at his classes. I, like most others were in awe of his practice and I felt his solidness in his technique. He moved with the uchi capabilities. I have rock and rolled with him and laughed with him. The only time I was afraid was when he wisked my 8 month baby son off for walk in the summer school grounds and I didn’t know until the sitter came and told me, but no fear he returned him and told me that my son would be strong in mind and body and principled. Indeed that baby is now a 25 year old man and as become exactly what Chiba Sensei said he would be. What a great man and Aikidoka he was.

  4. This was one of the chapters out of Tom’s book. I think the name of it is “Searching for O’Sensei” and a subtitle. I don’t have it with me at the moment. I still have not finished it, but I think it’s a terrific book. He has led a very interesting life and has been able to travel and practice with some really great teachers. I think some practices with Rinjiro Shirata would have been fantastic. 15 years ago I had never heard of Hikitsuchi Sensei. I think practice with him would have been spectacular as well.

    I did get to practice with a sensei in Sasebo, Japan who was probably a student of Kanshu Sunadomari Sensei. The Proteus (submarine tender, repair ship) pulled in to Sasebo to repair an old diesel submarine that was stationed there. So one of the doctors on board, who practiced with me, and I went searching for an Aikido dojo. It met on the grounds of the local Buddhist temple. A girl from one of the coffee shops lead us there. It was spring and the Azaleas were blooming everywhere. We were taken up this long stairway up a huge hill to the temple and my friend said he felt like we walking into a movie scene. We were introduced to the wife of the priest or a nun (I can’t be sure which). We were treated royally to tea and cakes and told to come back in the evening to another building where the Aikido class met. It was a fantastic experience for me and my doctor friend as well. I think the chaplain came with us as also. My doctor friend was a godan in Judo at the time.

    I’m not sure I would classify Chiba Sensei as so great. I have heard and read too many unsavory stories about him over the years. I don’t regret passing up any practices with him. He doesn’t sound like he got much loving spirit or life giving spirit from O’Sensei.

  5. Is all energy good energy or does it depend on what we do with it and how we perceive it? What controls perception?
    I watched one class at the Berkeley dojo and felt engulfed by what I perceived at the time as dark energy. I was appalled by how he abused his ukes.
    Roland.

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