REFLECTIONS ON AIKIDO
Sixty years ago, in Vietnam, a young man of 15 years of age began martial arts study. At first, he studied Judo and Shaolin Kung Fu, and became quite proficient in those arts. As timepassed, he added the art of Taekwondo and then, in 1963, he began the study of Aikido. The years passed and his proficiency in the arts grew. He now holds a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwondo, a fifth Degree Black Belt in Judo, an Eighth Degree Black Belt in Vietnamese Shaolin Kung Fu and a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Aikido. To achieve the honors he has received is a lifetime achievement yet he does not rest on his laurels, rather he is seen at his Dojo teaching almost every class. He is respected and honored by many Masters, not only Aikido Masters, but from other arts as well. He has been inducted twice into the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame. The man I refer to is Dang Thong Phong, who is celebrating 60 years of devotion to the Martial Arts, with the major emphasis on Aikido. I could write a book about his young life, his experiences in the conflict that engulfed his native Vietnam, and the imprisonment and hard labor following the fall of Saigon, but mostly I prefer to reflect on my own personal journey into the life of Aikido and what Aikido means to me. Aikido is truly a way of life, not merely a fighting art or defense method. One morning in 1993, a few days after my Sixtieth birthday, I met Sensei Dang Thong Phong. I had been seeking a Martial Arts School where I could join and practice mainly for the purpose of getting back in some sort of physical shape, because I had let myself get fat and lazy. At the same time, I knew that I was no longer capable of the high kicks and competitive atmosphere of Karate or boxing that I had learned earlier in life.
Over the years, beginning as a young man of fourteen, I had been an Amateur Boxer, then a Professional Boxer for a while. I had also studied several different forms of Karate. Somehow, Karate was not for me because of the attitude of overwhelming your opponent. There was always the attitude of “taking out” your opponent. This, of course, meant injuring and maybe killing your opponent. In warfare, of course, this is necessary, however in civilian life, it is not the thing to do.
I had seen a demonstration of Aikido on Television, by the founder, O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba and I was impressed by the grace and fluidity of the movements and the fact that the master seemed almost gentle in his defense. I looked for a school where I could at least see if Aikido was for me.
One morning on the way to work, I saw a sign, “AIKIDO” in a shopping center in Westminster. I stopped in and the Dojo was open. I stepped inside and was met by Sensei Phong. We talked briefly and he invited me to come by the next evening for a free lesson and, of course, I accepted. This was the beginning of my experience in Aikido.
At my first lesson, Sensei Phong looked a bit different from the aging gentleman who had first greeted me. I was impressed with his appearance in his Hakama and, when he stepped onto the mat I was completely captivated. But, even before Sensei began demonstrating techniques, I was in for a surprise. During the warm up exercises, I floundered around like a beached whale and was completely lost until a young Black Belt came to where I was and showed me the exercises. In Karate, this would not have happened, at least at the schools where I had studied. Until you had earned one or more belt promotions, you just had to learn on your own. I watched Sensei as a Black Belt Student attacked and Sensei threw the attacker to the mat, and the attacker got up and attacked again, only to be thrown to the mat again. Then, more slowly, Sensei showed the students the movements he used to throw his attacker. At this point, I had not yet learned the terms Uke for attacker and Tori for defender.. Another thing that impressed me was way the Black Belt Students seemed to blend into almost invisibility until it came time for them to do a technique, then they blended back into near invisibility.. There was no strutting or posturing as I have seen in Karate and boxing. I began to feel that this just might be something I could practice and, hopefully, learn. First of all, I was impressed by Sensei Phong. From the very first meeting, I respected and honored Sensei Phong and I sensed that he also respected me. I soon learned something about his past, the difficulties he overcame, and his credentials. To me he was, and remains, a hero. Twenty Five Dan degrees is more than a lifetime for many masters, yet Sensei Phong earned them. The Tenshinkai Aikido Federation was named and authorized by the founder of Aikido, O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. Sensei Phong has been the Federation President since it’s inception. To understand my path in Aikido, it is necessary to understand the theory of Aikido. Aikido is also called “the Gentle Art” by some. The theory of Aikido is to defend oneself when necessary causing as little harm to the attacker or the environment as possible. It is better to convince an opponent that he cannot overcome you without killing or maiming him. In this way, it is hoped that the opponent will go his way with a new perspective in life. One does not gain a victory by killing his opponent, rather it is by sparing the opponent that one gains self control and respect for human life. To translate this to my personal philosophy, I had never wanted to injure of kill my opponents or antagonists. As a boxer, I wanted to win the fight but I did not want to injure my opponent. Yes, I tried for a knockout but I always wished for the opponent to get up and shake my hand after the fight as I have done on more than one occasion. For some reason, I had a lot of street fights as a young man and on more than one occasion I was attacked by three or four attackers. I always managed to come through the situations but I felt the need to learn something like Judo or Karate for these situations. So, I began to study the Shotokan style of karate. I kept hearing the phrase “take out.” “You can take out your opponent with this technique,” or “You can take out his eyes (or ribs) with this technique.” Problem is that I did not want to “take out” anyone. I studied a bit of Kempo Karate, Goju Karate, and Kyokushinkai (School of Oyama). All of these stressed “taking out” your opponent, which just did not suit my philosophy.
So, it seemed that Aikido was more suitable to my philosophy. I do not mean to speak badly of Karate, Judo, or Jiu Jitsu, because if properly taught, they give the student a sense of confidence and ability. It is just that these arts are not for me.
So, just after my sixtieth birthday, I began the study of Aikido. Now, I have been associated with the Westminster Dojo for over sixteen years. I find students still practicing here that were already Black Belt when I started practicing. One, for example, gave me my test for promotion from White Belt to Yellow Belt. This is when I first really began to appreciate the thoughts of my fellow students and teachers. This Black Belt was showing the other students a technique and I was his Uke. He gained control and took me to my knees still holding my wrist and arm in a control hold. One of the students asked him what he should do next, and he turned loose of my arm, placed one hand on my chin and the other at the back of my neck and went through the motions of twisting my neck, which would have broken it had the technique been really applied. Then he grasped my arm again, took me down face down on the mat and applied a submission hold. Then he told the class, “what you do is what’s in your heart.” In other words, it is in your heart to kill or to control then release unharmed. How can one better describe the philosophy of Aikido and the honor of those who are dedicated to practicing and spreading this art? My path in Aikido has been one that I will continue to follow for the rest of my life.
As I began to follow the path of Aikido, I noticed several things that I had not found in other arts I had studied. I noticed the children and the way they were nurtured and molded and taught respect. I noticed the patience of the students who assisted in instructing the children (and adult students). I noticed that the students, young and old, seemed to be enjoying what they did. They were always smiling. I have never seen any students getting mad at other students and I have never seen a student deliberately injuring another student. I am sure, of course, that other schools are the same, however, I attribute much of this to the personality of Sensei Dang Thong Phong, our Master. I moved through the ranks from one belt to another until on the 50th Anniversary of Sensei Phong’s involvement in Martial Arts, I was promoted to Shodan. When I could, I also helped with teaching the younger students. Now, one of the things that makes me feel the proudest is when a young Black Belt student will come up to me and ask me, “Do you remember me? You taught me when I was a White Belt.” Of course I remember. Each face is engraved upon my mind.
During the years I have attended numerous Seminars and Demonstrations. I have noticed that the Tenshinkai Style of Aikido seems to have more fluid and smooth movements. The demonstrations put on by our students seem to captivate those who are watching.
Unfortunately, shortly after I received my Black Belt, I began to suffer injuries and health problems which have affected my ability to practice Aikido. First, my Right Knee went bad and I had to have a Total Knee Replacement. I was away from Aikido for a time because of this, but I visited the Dojo as often as I could. Then I had a severe problem with my back which required surgery and took me out of Aikido for a longer time. I still visited the Dojo when I could but it is hard to sit and watch and not be able to be out there on the mat with the rest of my friends.
Then, In February of 2009, I felt that I had recovered sufficiently from my spinal problem to begin trying to get back into physical condition. My ultimate goal was to be able to resume practice in Aikido. So I began seriously working out at a fitness center and, finally, in July I felt that I was in condition to return to Aikido practice. I realized that I could not do the advanced practice with the other Black Belts, but I felt that, maybe, I could train with the lower ranking students, White Belts and Yellow Belts, and help them in learning the techniques and philosophy of Aikido. Because of my knee, I cannot kneel properly but when I sit instead of kneeling, or kneel awkwardly, it is not a lack of respect. As it has been written, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
So, since July of 2009, I have been assisting in training some beginning (but advancing) students. I hope that I will be able to continue for years to come, because when you have learned something from a master, you have a duty to pass it along to others. I see this in other advanced students and I do not worry about the future of Aikido because there will always be some dedicated students to step up and take the place of the masters and continue the philosophy and practice of Aikido in the way it was taught by O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, Sensei Dang Thong Phong and numerous other dedicated Aikido Masters.
So, Sensei Phong, thank you for your 60 years of devotion to the study and teaching of Martial Arts, and thank you for being my Master and my friend.