Interview with Kyoichi Inoue, Katsuyuki Kondo, and Kenji Ushiro at Aiki Expo 2002

On the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, three of the Japanese teachers invited to instruct at Aiki Expo 2002—Kyoichi Inoue (aikido), Katsuyuki Kondo (Daito-ryu) and Kenji Ushiro (karate-do)—joined Aikido Journal’s Stanley Pranin and Ikuko Kimura for a group discussion. Topics ranged from the question “What is required of instructors today to ensure the correct preservation of Japanese budo?” to the potential for the “fusion energy” generated by interaction among high-level instructors to bring significant change to the future budo world.

Surprisingly High-Level of Budo Outside Japan

Ikuko Kimura: We’d like to thank you very much for getting together with us today, despite undoubtedly being quite tired from teaching so many classes these past few days. I’d like to begin by asking your impressions of this first Aiki Expo.

Kyoichi Inoue: I think it’s been a one hundred percent success! Except for the lack of Japanese food on the menu, of course… (laughter) All the participants trained very seriously, and I know that motivated us to do our best as instructors, too.

Kyoichi Inoue

Katsuyuki Kondo: I found the Americans and others gathered here very easy to work with, and many I thought were very skilled martial artists, too. Also, in Japan there are always vertical or hierarchical relationships, but people here in the U.S. don’t seem to worry so much about that sort of thing. Also unlike Japan, people here necessarily have strong concerns about their personal safety, and consequently they’re very serious about their budo studies. I think that’s probably one thing that contributes to the surprisingly high level of skill I’ve seen here. I was also very impressed to see so many truly skillful demonstrations by the various instructors gathered here at the Expo.

Kenji Ushiro: I’ve had a great time! My daughter and son have both been practicing karate since they were four years old, so I brought them along as my assistants, and I think the experience has helped expand their view of life and the world. I’m here as a karate teacher, of course, so I wondered at first how what I have to offer would be received among aikido practitioners. As it turned out, my classes were well attended, and I’ve been impressed with everyone’s openness to learning something different. That kind of openness, I think, is what helps people grow to a higher level. I’ll be reporting on my experience here as soon as I get back to Japan; there are some things that we, too, may need to rethink.

Stanley Pranin: For my part, I’d like to say that in planning this Aiki Expo, my intention was not simply to offer aikido training by a lot of different organizations; rather, I wanted to go beyond organizations to create an environment suitable for various kinds of people to get together and interact. Many of the teachers gathered here already have some occasional contact, for example, as guests at one another’s demonstrations and organizational functions, but usually it’s limited to attending parties and offering the odd congratulatory address. I don’t think that sort of interaction ever leaves much time for them to actually sit down and talk at leisure or in depth.

With this Aiki Expo I hoped to get a significant number of these teachers together in close proximity for three straight days, to give them an important opportunity to relax and communicate with one another—as far as possible without the burden of organizational affiliations—about technique, about budo in general, or about whatever else they felt like talking about.

Kondo: As I said earlier, I found the Americans here not only very easy to work with, but also straightforward in a good way. In Japan, for example, I have to be somewhat reserved in talking about the relationship between aikido and Daito-ryu, but here people just say to me pointblank, “Sensei, what’s the relationship between aikido and Daito-ryu, and how are they similar? Show us, we want to see!” A lot of people were interested in that particular subject. It’s not for me to make any specific comparisons, so my approach was simply to have people watch my demonstrations of Daito-ryu, think about what they saw, and draw their own conclusions. Back in Japan we don’t often have opportunities to be in this kind of environment. Normally it would be practically inconceivable to bring together so many teachers from the Aikikai and the Yoshinkai, from karate and Daito-ryu and so on; that it’s been so successful is testament to Stanley’s popularity and good relations in so many circles. You’ve done a great job with it, and I, for one, am very appreciative.

Katsuyuki Kondo at Aiki Expo 2002

A “Thawing”

Inoue: I think a lot of people are interested in Daito-ryu as the original source of aikido. There hasn’t been much contact between the two in the past, so this Aiki Expo has been a good chance for that. Being from the Yoshinkan myself, I’m in a position to tell the Aikikai my opinion that I think we should better acknowledge the importance of Daito-ryu, and I have in fact said so.

Actually, the Yoshinkan itself has tended to be viewed by the Aikikai almost as a kind of “heresy,” but I’m happy to say that seems to have been changing a lot. Recently in Japan, for example, Mr. Tsuneo Ando who runs the Ryu Yoshinkan aikido dojo in Urayasu, Chiba, has been holding demonstrations in collaboration with an Aikikai shihan. Every year they take turns being the tori (demonstrator; thrower). I think it’s great that such things are happening.

Another one was this year, when Aikikai teacher of the Toshima-Ku Aikido Federation approached the Yoshinkan to ask if we’d be willing to send someone to participate in one of their demonstrations. Since we don’t have a branch dojo in Toshima-ku, we asked if someone from our Ikebukuro police dojo would be okay. They said that would be fine, and we ended up sending about eight of our members to demonstrate representing the Yoshinkai. It’s great to have this kind of new “mood” coming about gradually.

Pranin: I’ve been researching aikido in one way or another for nearly thirty years now. I still feel pretty young, but of course I don’t know how long I’ll really be able to keep up this pace and level of energy, so I want to do things that are as efficient and effective as possible. In other words, I want to get at the real “essence” of things, at things that are real and good, and leave these for the benefit of future generations. That means keeping a distance from organizational problems, personal criticisms, and anything else that drains energy needlessly. I want to keep moving forward, ever-positively.

Some people may ask why I invited a karate teacher like Ushiro Sensei to participate in the Aiki Expo. I’ll say very clearly why: to get right to the point, I feel the types of attacks typically used in aikido training are, more often than not, largely meaningless. Executing brilliant techniques against such inherently weak attacks makes the training meaningless. To contrast with that, I brought in Ushiro Sensei to help people wake up and understand how truly sharp and fast a real punch can be. I’m hoping people will realize the need to concentrate not just on throwing all the time, but also on improving their ability to do strong attacks.

Kenji Ushiro at the Aiki Expo

In addition to that, besides being a martial artist, both Ushiro Sensei and Kondo Sensei happen to be successful businessmen, and also very knowledgeable about traditional Japanese things. I think this makes them good models for how budo and the spirit of budo can be applied to so many other areas of life as well.

Also, the huge scale of this event has meant overcoming many different obstacles throughout the planning stages, and dealing with these has turned out to be an important experience in my own budo training!

Kondo: As Stanley said, having Ushiro Sensei here has indeed been an important reminder that our understanding about punches and kicks may sometimes be too simplistic or overconfident. I have to agree, and I would add that the same might be said about our attitude toward the sword. After all, swordsmen train for decades refining their thrusting and cutting techniques, entrusting their survival to these alone; yet so many—too many, I think—of our demonstrations feature so-called “sword-taking” techniques done very easily. Such demonstrations might even be considered disrespectful to those in the world of swordsmanship. The same is true regarding karate; people punch and are thrown so easily, and that is disrespectful to the real nature of karate and those practicing it. We should be more aware of these things and study them much more deeply.

Narrow-Mindedness Degrades Culture

Ushiro: This kind of interaction at this Aiki Expo has reminded me of the lesson of the well-known battle between the Beta and VHS videotape formats. The Beta format, which had numerous technical advantages, was developed by Sony first, and VHS was developed by JVC (Victor) and Matsushita a bit later, and before long the two were in a marketing war to set the standard. Sony made the mistake of trying to retain the Beta format patent to itself, for its own in-house use, whereas the VHS group went ahead and made the VHS format open to other electronics companies like Hitachi, Toshiba, Sharp, and Mitsubishi. With that, Sony quickly found itself standing isolated and alone. VHS, being more flexible, soon spread around the world, while Beta, despite its technical superiority, faded away.

The lesson is that in failing to go beyond our individual organization, the problem we’ll face will be not so much the various conflicts within Japan as having the rest of the world take possession of what we’ve created. The sport of soccer, for example, was born in England, but now it’s dominated by countries like France and Brazil.

Having something fade from prominence or even existence in its birthplace means losing a piece of the culture of that place. This sort of thing can easily happen if we’re not careful. The poet Matsuo Basho talked of the principle of “preserving the essence while changing along with the times.” That is, while something’s point of origin may be essentially immutable, you have to be able to spread that thing according to the changing needs of the times. If you don’t, then no matter how you try to preserve the traditional, nobody will follow you and then you’ll have big problems. I think this is one issue facing the budo world today.

In that sense this Aiki Expo has been very good, and we, too, like Stanley, need to continue deepening our own studies and research, to be able to better preserve what is good and of value. This has been a good learning experience for me, and stimulating as well.

The Benefits of Adversity

Pranin: Human beings have a natural urge to make their own environments as comfortable as possible. The downside of this is that a comfortable environment decreases movement and eventually halts growth. In contrast, when placed in adverse conditions, people seek to strengthen and challenge themselves. People need stimulation to grow. Retire to spend the rest of your days just playing gateball (a croquet-like game developed in Japan shortly after World War II and now played mainly by senior citizens) in the park and you’re finished. Ms. Kimura’s father was born in Manchuria, and when he retired from his company he once again took up studying the Chinese language he had used as a child. He studied very hard and has actually put his studies to use as a volunteer working with Japanese orphans left behind in China after the war. A person like that never gets old.

Having a “beginner’s mind” toward everything is important, I think. Rather than letting yourself be constantly coddled in an environment of pure comfort, I think it’s good to occasionally put yourself in the opposite environment, and use the resulting energy to recharge your batteries and keep yourself running strong.

Inoue: I’ve heard that “over-dependency” (amae) is one of the initial causes of senility, and that the more coddling a person’s environment is, the more quickly they’re likely to fall victim to it. In the beginning they may be grateful to the people helping them, but when they stop helping themselves they gradually start seeking peace of mind and stability in others, and from there then the signs of senility begin to grow. It’s for this reason that people who have nobody to help them, and who have to do everything themselves, tend to suffer senility less.

Yukio Utada, Kyoichi Inoue, Stanley Pranin, October 1, 1999, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I think that goes along with what you’re saying about the importance of keeping yourself stimulated by embracing adverse conditions to a certain extent. If we stay just with what we know in Japan, for example, we settle into preconceptions about things; and when we’re confronted by voices from abroad, for example when discussing things with the international federation, we start having trouble understanding where they’re coming from. It may even look like we’re starting to go a bit senile, in fact! (laughter) So, we need to make efforts to keep aikido and karate and all the other Japanese budo from becoming “senile” like this.

Kondo: Umm, “keep budo from going ‘senile’”… I think I see what you’re getting at there; that’s a good way to put it!

Seminar a Battlefield!

Pranin: The terrorist attacks of September 11th caused many cancellations of that autumn’s aikido seminars, so I worried a lot whether this Aiki Expo would be able to go off as planned. In addition to that, the travel agency with which I’d booked the airline tickets for the visiting teachers suddenly went bankrupt, possibly in part because of post-9/11 business difficulties. It was a real blow, financially and otherwise, but I knew at that point there could be no turning back, so we took the loss and moved ahead anyway. Now that we’ve managed to finish the Expo successfully, I feel like I’ve just survived a major battle! (laughter) Still, once I’ve had a chance to rest up a bit, I imagine I’ll want to move on to try to do something even better.

Kondo: I agree about this seminar feeling like a battlefield. A moment ago Inoue Sensei was saying how the Yoshinkai has been viewed almost as a kind of “wayward child,” but Daito-ryu has been viewed as an existence that’s even more “heretical.” Consequently, everybody is very curious to see what it is, to see what we’re doing. Sometimes people even “test” me to see how well my technique really works. And some of these guys, let me tell you, are really huge, with great big strong hands, and they grab on for real, with full power! (laughter) I have to meet and respond to every one of these, and respond well, too, because if I don’t then people will lose interest and nobody will come to the next seminar. For that reason I approached things here very seriously. It was very good training!

Inoue: I agree, we usually don’t get that kind of “high tension” during our everyday training in the dojo—which is a shame, because it really should always be there. I’ve noticed that my mental stance changes when I go to train at a completely different dojo, even if the content of the training is more or less the same. This may be one of the weakest parts of our human nature, so I’m grateful to have such opportunities.

Kondo: The people you’re working with at seminars are usually not your own students, and in fact often have nothing to do with your style or school at all. Tokimune Sensei prohibited us from engaging in cross-style matches, but in a way that’s what seminars like this can be like, given the sheer variety of people attending them.

Inoue: I’ve had similar experiences whenever I’ve gone abroad to demonstrate. When I was in Russia, for example, they definitely tried to test me. And not only aikido people, but people doing taekwondo and all kinds of other things.

Ushiro: I often travel to China on business. Over there I’ve run into people who doubt they can beat me in the light of day and so try to get a few drinks into me before they put me to the test! They get me to drink this stuff that’s got to be about 100-proof and then say, “Okay, let’s go!” (laughter) They come off like they’re joking, but their eyes tell me they’re actually quite serious. So we end up having a match, I give them a good slap or two, and after that I’m suddenly treated like a VIP! (laughter) I feel like they’re always looking for an opening, for a chance to test me. This Expo has been similarly informative for me.

Inoue: I remember one seminar where as I stood there explaining something, someone suddenly came up to grab hold of me from behind. I managed to throw him, but it made me realize that while such a thing would be considered a great offense in Japan, non-Japanese don’t necessarily look at it that way. I was surprised to know that.

Karate & Aikido—Spiritual Commonalities

Ushiro: All kinds of people come to train in my karate dojo—people from other styles of karate, boxers, full-contact guys, various kinds of pro fighters, and so on. I think we can do that because training based on traditional karate, which is one of the original fighting styles, should have many points in common with their own arts. Traditional Okinawan karate includes throws and chokes and so on, so I didn’t feel at all out of place teaching at this Aiki Expo. Further, articles on karate have been appearing in Aiki News and Aikido Journal for about ten years now, and I think that’s because aikido and karate undoubtedly have certain spiritual commonalities.

During the seminar I was asked to talk about Morihei Ueshiba Sensei and Takeda Sensei. People asked me questions like, “What should you do against a very strong attack?” I responded by saying I don’t think Ueshiba Sensei and Takeda Sensei ever trained based on “collusion” of any kind, and that both should therefore provide good examples for study. No video footage of Takeda Sensei remains, but there is plenty of Ueshiba Sensei, and I think people can find some of the answers to such questions by giving these more study.

By the way, I was quite impressed with the bokuto (wooden sword) demonstration Inoue Sensei gave during this seminar. His bokuto never blocked or received, but rather was always advancing and moving in. I think that kind of thing is also very much worth closer study.

Inoue: Thank you for saying so!

Many of the people I met at this seminar seem very involved in studying and researching various things, and I think they’re all very enthusiastic to pursue those studies as far and as deeply as they can.

“Re-Import” Etiquette to Japan?

Kondo: One thing I find different about the Americans I’ve encountered is that even those who are already instructors in their own right have no problem coming to seminars like this learn new things, even going so far as to swap their own black belts for white belts when they step onto the mat.

Ushiro: Yes, the people here are very proper in their etiquette. Even when they’re just passing me in the hallway, they always move respectfully aside to let me pass first and give me a courteous nod. It’s impressive.

Inoue: Yes, and there are people back in Japan who could probably learn a thing or two from watching them, because some of them don’t even know such basic things.

Kondo: As I was walking around during the day I kept noticing some kind of odd movement behind me, and when I looked back I realized there were people trailing behind me. I asked what they were doing back there and they said, “Walk three steps behind your teacher to avoid trodding upon his shadow.” (laughter) It’s amazing that people here even know that kind of old Japanese saying. I wonder how many budo practitioners in Japan even know it!

Inoue: They’d probably walk ahead, thinking of themselves as outrunners clearing the way or something! (laughter)

Pranin: I have to say I’m very happy to have gotten all of you here, all the way from Japan, to have you teach in such an unusual environment and to have this kind of informal discussion. We’ll be publishing this and other articles on your interactions and experiences here, and I think these will have an affirmative impact on the direction of the development of the aikido world.

In contrast to the traditionality of budo, our modern world is being marked by very rapid, almost frenetic, technological development. It will be important from now on to figure out how best to preserve that which is traditional while also absorbing new technologies and adapting to the modern world.

The Yoshinkan was one of the first to incorporate non-Japanese practitioners into its organization, and the thinking there was well ahead of its time. On the other hand, you can also say that organizations typically expend a lot of energy compelling their membership to do this or that, enforcing compliance to rules and regulations, and so on. To have true growth, though, I think you have to be able to get away from that sort of thing.

Inoue: Organizations can be problematic. Budo is a part of Japanese tradition and therefore emphasizes the importance of vertical relationships, for example between seniors and juniors. When taking that tradition outside of Japan, it’s good if there are people abroad who understand the meaning of these vertical relationships; but those who don’t, and who try to teach without that understanding, end up putting everything and everyone on equal footing. In their federations they make decisions by voting, with everyone’s vote given equal weight, regardless of whether they’re a 7th dan or a 3rd dan.

But I think you have to build an adaptable organization that recognizes the importance of strong vertical relationships while also accepting those elements of foreign culture that encourage horizontal growth. If you don’t, then in transmitting traditional Japanese budo you’ll end up passing down something that lacks important essential elements of the original. It is certainly a matter for concern.

One of the most unfortunate things is when people fail to acknowledge lineage, when they forget the real relationships that have existed in the past. It’s true that Morihei Ueshiba was the founder of aikido, and that in and of itself was a great achievement. But he was only able to do it because he always carried within him the essence of the Daito-ryu he had learned; so having to say there’s no relation there, that aikido has nothing to do with Daito-ryu, is rather sad. Shioda Sensei always said that his teacher was Morihei Ueshiba, and Ueshiba Sensei I’m sure acknowledged that Sokaku Takeda had been his. Ueshiba Sensei could not have created his aikido alone, in a vacuum, and I find it “un-aiki-like” to try to assert that he did. As I said, I find it rather sad. It’s important that Aikido Journal communicates these things correctly, by showing the real threads that link them.

Aikido & Daito-Ryu—Unmistakable Links

Kondo: Among the various books written on aikido, some claim that Ueshiba Sensei learned Daito-ryu for just one week, while others say he started back in the Meiji period. The clearly documented facts, though, are that he started his Daito-ryu studies in 1915, and that his involvement with Daito-ryu continued in one way or another until around 1939. That means he associated himself with Daito-ryu for about twenty-four years.

Speaking from the Daito-ryu side, Ueshiba Sensei learned the Goshinyo no Te set from Sokaku Takeda in 1931. He received these techniques, and also received a certificate titled Kaishaku Soden no Koto. From what I can tell, the term “kaishaku soden” in fact probably referred to the entirety of the Daito-ryu curriculum as it existed at that time, which means that Ueshiba Sensei actually received the highest level of teaching in Daito-ryu—what today we would commonly call a “menkyo kaiden” (“license of complete transmission”). Ueshiba Sensei apparently displayed this Kaishaku Soden certificate on the wall of his Kobukan dojo for a time, and in fact there’s even a photo that verifies this.

On the other hand, the great interest Daito-ryu has been receiving lately is of course thanks in part to Ueshiba Sensei and Shioda Sensei. But for their activities, the Daito-ryu we have now might not have even survived as it has, and instead would have continued via a very “thin” lineage based on isshi soden [the practice of transmitting an art from father to a single heir]. It was through their efforts, and thereafter through Stanley’s efforts to bring Daito-ryu to light, that the tradition is currently as well regarded as it is today, and that we have had the privilege of participating in this Aiki Expo.

Vertical & Horizontal Relationships in Organizations

Ushiro: As Kondo Sensei was speaking about Ueshiba Sensei and Shioda Sensei, it occurred to me that if we seek not these individuals themselves, per se, but instead seek that which they were seeking, then we arrive at “principles.” Why did Ueshiba Sensei seek out Sokaku Takeda Sensei? Undoubtedly it was because he saw something compelling in him, saw him as embodying some important principle. We should keep this approach, because I think it’s an important one.

Also, to respond to the discussion about vertical relationships within organizations, I think we are fast entering an age of “horizontal integration.” To give an example from the business world, in Japan, among some companies that are not doing so well, there are often groups of younger employees who recognize that current practices are not working. More and more these younger members, say from Company A, are starting to form horizontal relationships with similarly minded younger employees of Companies B and C, going beyond the usual corporate and organizational boundaries to work together on various kinds of projects. This is an emerging trend in the corporate world, and in many ways an event like this Aiki Expo is the same kind of thing. We’re not throwing away our vertical relationships, we’re strengthening them through the forces of horizontal integration.

If you want to strengthen an ailing company, you can’t do it by simply claiming that the old system is bad and tossing it out wholesale; rather, you have to think about making yourself stronger, and I think the kind of horizontal integration I just described is good for that, and in fact for many other kinds of situations as well.

Kondo: I tend to agree that what you’ve described is important, but I also agree with Inoue Sensei that, for example, running organizations so that people with vastly different experience levels—the 3rd dan and the 7th dan—have equal say in things runs the risk of damaging Japan’s traditionally vertically structured society. Probably there are some people abroad who wouldn’t hesitate to put those with only five or six years of experience together with those having forty or fifty, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing.

Inoue: The recent debate in the judo world over allowing colored uniforms was such a situation, one that really showed the power of deciding things by that kind of equal vote.

Kondo: I’ve even heard that some countries won’t even let the Japanese headquarters issue dan rankings for their own budo. In some cases, the first person from that country to earn any kind of dan ranking gets to register with the government, receives permission to teach, and from then on only they can issue dan rankings. In effect, the first person to register with the government “wins,” but they end up having people with only 1st dans having the authority to issue dan rankings to others.

Inoue: Japanese budo are becoming more popular all over the world, but I think the vertical relationships that are part of these arts are not well understood outside of Japan. People who’ve spent time in Japan as uchideshi (live-in students) generally do understand such things, though, and I think budo will be transmitted more faithfully if we make efforts to see that these one-in-a-hundred individuals—or these one-in-ten: it’s hard to say what the proportions really are—are the ones we rely on to teach our arts abroad.

On the other hand, people who are that serious about their budo sometimes have poor organizational skills, or even none at all, while those who do have the skills don’t appreciate the weight such things should have. So transmitting and promoting these arts as they need to be has difficulties all around!

Deriving Life-Energy from Budo

Pranin: A lot of people from my generation were originally attracted to Japanese budo through images in samurai movies and such. Amidst that there was also Morihei Ueshiba Sensei teaching the philosophy that even if we do have techniques to injure and kill, we should refrain from using these and in fact use our training to affirm life instead. That kind of thinking had a tremendous appeal abroad.

In contrast, I find that in Japan, while people may be aware that Ueshiba Sensei was the founder of aikido, many seem to know little else about him, for example about what kind of person he was or what he tried to do during his life. Many Japanese people also don’t seem to understand why so many of us foreigners have pursued aikido so passionately. The reason, though, is that we’re simply very impressed with Ueshiba Sensei’s ideals and the things he could do in applying those ideals.

Kimura: Working for Aikido Journal over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to talk with different people about aikido, and they all seem to be unanimous in their talk about Ueshiba Sensei. Even people who never met him personally will say that he said such-and-such, or that things should be this or that way according to his thinking. This says to me that Ueshiba Sensei is still very much alive in people’s minds and hearts. I’ve been so surprised by that, by how much energy people are still receiving from him!

One good example, we saw an aikido demonstration by Molly Hale, who has been confined to a wheelchair since being badly injured in a car accident several years ago. She has said it’s largely thanks to aikido that she’s been able to recover as well as she has.

Ushiro: From budo we can derive the energy to live.

Kondo: I wholeheartedly agree.

Inoue: Think about what you need to live and I think you’ll find a lot of it in budo.

Kimura: To finish up, we’d appreciate any comments or suggestions regarding this Aiki Expo.

Inoue: It was a shame that [Hiroshi] Isoyama Sensei was unable to attend. His presence always makes a big difference.

Kondo: I found the whole event a very informative experience, and I was happy to meet so many interesting people. The schedule was very tight, though, and I have to say I’m exhausted! I bet Inoue Sensei will say he’s not tired at all, but I sure am! I’m probably tired enough for the both of us!

Ushiro: I found the evening demonstration sessions very interesting. My only complaint would be that the timing of things could have been handled a little better.

Pranin: We’ve sent out a request by email for feedback from all the participants, and I’m sure the Americans at least will be pretty frank in giving us their opinions!

Kondo: Yes, it’s good to have all the comments we can get. Oh, one other thing—do you suppose next year you could put a bit of Japanese food on the menu…?

Pranin: I think we can manage that! (laughter)

Josh Gold

Executive Editor of Aikido Journal, CEO of Budo Accelerator, and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo.

1 comment

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    For whom the bell tolls a poem by John Donne – Famous Poetry Online

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