Interview with Oisin Burke, 4th dan of Daito Aikijujutsu Muden Juku

Where are you from, Oisin? And where do you live?

I am from a town in Ireland called Kilkenny. I currently live in a small town near there with my family. It’s a very old and picturesque place to live.
When did you meet for the first time Daito Ryu? It was at Iida’s sensei dojo, right?

Hiroo Iida shihan demonstrating the daito ryu signature technique shumoku in front of the shrine built by Morihei Ueshiba in Shirataki village, Hokkaido, Japan. Shirataki was where Ueshiba learned Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu from Sokaku Takeda.

Yes. Previous to meeting Iida Sensei, I had started to practice Aikido. This was in about 2000, before Youtube or the internet had really taken off. Back then, the only public info about Daito Ryu was mainly through Stanley Pranin’s “Aiki News” magazine, books and a couple of videos. Our aikido dojo had an extensive library of Stanley’s work, so I had read his interviews with Daito ryu masters book before I met Iida sensei, so I was familiar with the art. However, I had no idea what it looked like or how it was practiced. But I remember being intrigued by the book for some reason, especially the section on Kodo Horikawa!

What was your first impression of the art? Did you get to touch Iida sensei from the first time?

I was visiting Sapporo in Japan in about 2002 with my wife. It’s her hometown. I actually wanted to find a place to practice aikido while I was there, seeing as I was in Japan, but one of her family members discovered a nearby group practicing this thing called ‘aikijujutsu’. My wife rang the teacher (who turned out to be Iida Sensei) and he invited us to observe a class. To be honest, I was expecting something like a group of formidable old school Japanese guys practicing really hard locks and throws on each other. That was my image of Daito Ryu back then: really severe and hard. That kind of practice didn’t interest me at all. I figured I’d go, watch the class, thank them for the experience and leave.  Anyway, we arrived and we proceeded to watch this diminutive man, about five feet tall throw and lock up a bunch of his students with scarcely any movement. I couldn’t work out what was happening. I suppose that’s a typical reaction when you see high level Daito Ryu for the first time.

At the end of class, Iida sensei invited me to grab him, so grasped his wrists as hard as I could. He turned his wrists and I felt this bizarre sensation. It was like something flowed into my hands and arms and something beneath my skin expanded and stretched. I just dropped to the floor, but I couldn’t let go of my grip. It was like I was stuck to sensei’s wrists. Even though I could think to myself “you can release your grip”, by body wouldn’t listen! It was a crazy sensation. I had taken ukemi from a lot of aikido instructors at that point, but I had never felt that kind of thing before.

Later I found out that it was very unusual for Sensei to let people touch him like that. Usually, you had to become a member and train, and you’d get to grab him in the process of training. But maybe he had  a feeling about me. In any event, I got to grab him on our first encounter. Just once, but I couldn’t shake that extraordinary feeling. It haunted me afterwards.

After that, you trained directly under Iida sensei for several years? Why did you choose to do that?

Iida sensei practicing a Daito Ryu sitting technique on Oisin Bourke

That feeling of aiki just stuck with me. Aiki is like that I think. When you first feel it, it’s so peculiar, if you looking for it, it just gets into you. Myself and my wife wanted to travel and live abroad for a while. She hadn’t been back home for years, so after we returned to Ireland, we discussed it and we decided we’d go to Japan. I knew you didn’t get many opportunities like that to experience aiki, so I figured it my be something like “En;  that’s the Japanese concept for fate. Iida sensei had just retired from his day job, and he was practicing practically every day, sometimes teaching two classes a day. I got a part time job teaching in the afternoon, so I could practice in the mornings and evenings. I could also serve as his uke for his personal practice time. Taking ukemi from sensei was really tiring at first. It looks like nothing is happening from the outside but inside the aiki burns through your muscles and weak or tense parts of your body. Bit by bit, sensei would send more aiki through my body and gradually I was able to take more of his technique. But for the first couple of years it was exhausting. I just took ukemi without understanding what was happening.

We moved to Sapporo about a year after first meeting Iida Sensei. I figured I’d stay for a year, learn the language master aiki and come back to Ireland, but I ended up staying for nine years!

Did you have previous martial art experience?

I practiced Aikido for about four years before daito ryu, as well as a little ju jutsu and kung fu. I wasn’t very good at aikido, but I was ok at ukemi, so I had felt a fair few aikido people. That gave me a reference for what Iida sensei was doing, plus the ukemi skills helped me at first. But I had to change even my ukemi. Daito ryu ukemi is intense. It goes into your body and moves you internally.

Have you trained with other Daito Ryu masters?

Hiroo Iida sensei, Ole Kingston Sensei and Oisin Bourke at a daito Ryu Seminar in Kilkenny Ireland in 2018.

I have trained with Ole Kingston Sensei a couple of times. Ole was a long term student of the late Seigo Okamoto. He and iida Sensei conducted a seminar together at my dojo in Ireland in 2018. That was a very good experience for me and helped me compare the approaches of two daito ryu lines stemming from Horikawa Kodo. But I have just trained with Iida sensei really. Training in Japan was intense. For the first four years I trained under Iida sensei almost every day. I was one of his two uke. I accompanied him to classes and demonstrations he would give all around Sapporo and Hokkaido. We trained in Shirataki, the village where Sokaku taught Ueshiba Morihei a few times. I was basically his deshi. After four years of that lifestyle, My daughter was born so I had to get a full time job! I curtailed my practice to three days a week  plus special training camps and sessions. I guess altoghther I trained directly under Iida Sensei for about 5,500 hours. I didn’t have much time for any other training! Luckily, my wife, Megumi also trains in daito ryu, so we could keep up training regularly outside the dojo.

Let’s talk about the aiki thing. How would you define aiki?

Suwari nage waza at a zen dojo in Hokkaido

I think it has to be understood within a context. If you read the two characters that make the term, one means a ‘matching’ and the other means ‘an effect’. The term ‘ki’ in Japanese isn’t really used as a standalone concept. This is hinted by the etemology of the kanji for ki. It’s a compound made from the steam given off by cooking rice: i.e. no action of the rice, water and heat = no steam. However ‘ki’is an integral component of many Japanese words. For example, the Japanese word of “weather” is “ten ki” which means the Ki of heaven. When you look at the atmosphere, or heaven, you can’t really see anything. You can only see the symptoms of the movement within the atmosphere, such as clouds, rain, rainbows  and so on. So these are signs or expressions of the ‘ki’ of the atmosphere under certain conditions. This is also applied to human biology and psychology. The word for “short tempered” in Japanese means “tan ki”, which means short ki. If someone has red face and is angry, their “ki” has become short. So you don’t see the ki of someone, but you can see its symptom.

I think that this is a characteristically Japanese way of looking at things. It’s very empirical and contextual. In terms of aiki, it means that two phenomena match and stimulate each other, but that can have all sorts of levels of meaning,  whether that’s dealing with the effects of subtle processes such as breathing within in your body or the physical input of force into your body by someone pushing or grabbing you or even on a level of interacting with people non verbally or psychologically. But in all these cases, there has to be some sort of a stimulus in order for one to manifest aiki. Using your mind to receive this stimulus and integrate it with the processes in your body is the training of aiki.
The main thing though is that aiki can’t be grasped conceptually. Even if you think the above is a good description of aiki, it doesn’t matter because it has to be understood in the body. Gradually as you train, aiki starts to regulate the processes in your body and you start to change on a very deep level.

In the Daito Ryu there are several groups of techniques, such as jujutsu, aikijujutsu and aiki no jutsu. How do they relate to each other, and to the training of aiki? Do you need to go through the whole sequence (jutsu, aikijujutsu, aiki no jutsu) to really develop aiki?

This is ok for people who want to get powerful techniques fairly quickly, but the problem is that your body gets used to gross movement and then it’s harder to develop the subtle connections needed to develop aiki no jutsu later. Also, daito ryu jujutsu is pretty brutal, so there’s a real risk of injury. Iida sensei’s philosophy is that times have changed and that the benefits of learning aiki no jutsu from the beginning (great health and mental stability, interesting and sublte techniques that are quite applicable plus appreciation of Japanese tradition) outweighs the challenges (it’s time consuming and not immediately applicable).

I look at the levels of jujutsu, aikijujutsu and aiki no jutsu as parts of a spectrum as opposed to distinct points. So some styles or practicioners of daito ryu are more towards the jujutsu end, with larger, powerful movements and throws etc, and others are more towards the aiki no jutsu end, with smaller, more subtle and internal movements. People also develop over their training life, but I think most people never develop aiki no jutsu because it’s so subtle. What most people think is aiki no jutsu is actually a form of aiki jujutsu: it’s a little bit of subtle movement that momentarily attacks the joints. In aiki no jutsu, your whole body must change.

If somebody wants to train aiki, what would you recommend him, or her?

Shumoku demonstrated in Kotoni Shrine, Sapporo, Japan

You have to feel it first, otherwise you can’t develop it as your body doesn’t know what it’s doing. So you have to get aiki directly from someone who has it in their bones, like Iida sensei. Then you have to cultivate it slowly and steadily over time. It can’t be rushed.

Many Daito Ryu masters stated that in order to develop aiki one must prepare the body via solo practice. How is solo practice important to Daito Ryu?

Solo practice is important but I think you have to get aiki from someone first. Ideally, you should be able to cultivate aiki in your body all the time, but you need to get the feeling in your body first. Otherwise any exercises you do are just external. Personally, I think the Japanese approach solo practice often involved the practice of fine arts such as shodo calligaraphy, japanese dance, shakuhachi, zazen etc. Even solo martial prectices like kyudo can help in this regard.

Yoshimura Soshin, the late headmaster of the Myoan Ryu school of shakuhachi.

People like Ueshiba and Horikawa practiced dance and shodo for a reason! These practices modify the ‘martial mind’. If you are training all the time, whether with others or by yourself, thinking about beating someone, you can’t integrate aiki into your body as you are thinking about resistance at some level. I practice myoan ryu shakuhachi, which is a type of Japanese flute with historical associations with the fuke sect of zen plus with shugyo in various Japanese han which regions dominated by various clans up to the Meiji period. It’s very good for cultivating the body and mind. If you have received aiki, you can develop it further through these practices. We have various training that one can cultivate on one’s own, but these develop from training in aiki. That’s always the base.

Let’s talk about the Muden Juku, the school were you train. It’s an offshoot of Daito Ryu Kodokai, but when was it created? And why?

Iida Sensei using aiki.

Iida Sensei created it in 2000. He received the rank of Shihan in Kodokai and he wanted to teach aiki as he felt it was the core of Daito Ryu. He set up Muden Juku for this reason.

What does Muden Juku mean?

In modern Japanese Juku refers to a cram school, but it originally referred to a private training group. It’s a very old Japanese concept. In old Jaoan masters of calligraphy or literature would have public classes, but they would teach selected students in classrooms close to their homes. This type of class was known as juku. So the idea of juku is a small, focussed training group. This is the way I like to train: a small, dedicated group of practitioners. It’s the only way aiki can be transmitted to be honest. There is also another very similar Kanji that is read as ‘juku’that means to cultivate or mature. I like this meaning too. Aiki is like a seed that you nave to cultivate until it matures and develops. This is I try to teach and train with this in mind.

“Muden” is made of two characters: “Den” means transmission. Mu is a zen term for “emptiness” or “void”. So muden means the “the transmission of emptiness.” It’s difficult to make that sound attractive in English! When people hear phrases like that, they either dismiss it as being pretentious or they think it’s some sort of supernatural thing, but actually it’s a real effect of correct training. Gozo Shioda was a pretty no-nonsense practitioner of Aikido, yet he talked about becoming empty and his entire self disappearing in practice. You hear something similar from high level practices of many Japanese desciplines such as calligraphy, noh theatre, zen and so on. So I think this idea of ‘mu’ is what we strive to achieve in our practice. There are layers to this concept of emptiness that apply to the body and the mind. Fundamentally, you have to learn to allow thought and body become more integrated. It’s something we in West are in desperate need of developing, to be honest.

Oisin Bourke practicing under Iida Sensei.

I assume that, like the Kodokai, the focus in the school is the development of aiki (as well as other Daito Ryu schools focus mainly in jujutsu). But is there any difference compared to the main Kodokai branch?

I don’t really know as I never trained in Kodokai. I think it depends on one’s body type, temperament and ability. Iida sensei g is the same size as Horikawa so he strives to develop Horikawa sensei’s aiki.

Muden Juku is an small school, how many official dojos are there?

Currently there is the hombu Dojo plus a branch dojo in Sapporo Japan. There is a branch dojo based in the US in New Jersey. There is a European branch dojo in Ireland and a couple of study groups in Portugal and Spain.

Are you keeping it small in purpose?

Cultivating aiki is a very rewarding pursuit n many levels, but can be intense and time consuming to learn, especially at the beginning. I learned directly from my sensei over many years, and I want to make sure that people who train with me develop aiki and train correctly. It’s more akin to transmitting a traditional Japanese craft or trade than being a big commercial organisation. I think there’s a natural limit to how many people you can train with. I am open about training and sharing, but to be honest, people should be prepared to commit to training for a while in order to develop aiki.

At the same time, you are quite active in social media through your Ireland Daito Ryu Muden Juku page. Do you think that is there a place for social media in the promotion of such sophisticated and complex arts as Daito Ryu?

Iida Sensei and Horikawa Kodo Sensei.           

I think we have to be realistic. It’s the world we live in and social media is a good way of reaching others. At the end of the day though, daito ryu can only be transmitted person to person. I think there is a tendency for people to assume they can learn aiki from watching clips or discussing it on line, but it simply isn’t possible.

Finally, as you might know Aikido en Línea is an Aikido focused magazine, although with a wide scope (so we also cover aiki arts such as Daito Ryu). As a seasoned Daito Ryu practitioner, what’s your take on Aikido?

I think Aikido is a really broad term. It’s become a floating signifier that means lots of different things. I think it’s better to refer to the aikido of a particular teacher, as there are so many approaches.

In my view, Aikido is actually part of the traditional development of Japanese budo. Budo has developed for centuries in Japan in response to changes in social environment. That’s why you still have so many varieties in swords schools, jujutsu schools and other koryu bujutsu (classical schools). Aikido developed in response to the radical changes in Japan after the second world war. They needed a budo that emphasised working together on a national scale and rebuilding their country and building good relations with other people. Aikido was a perfect type of budo to help with this. In ways though, that showa period of Japan is gone. Japan has changed an awful lot since the fifties sixties and seventies. I think a lot of the current debates in aikido stem from this change. It’s actually becoming an art whose spirit reflects an older time. Personally, I think aikido schools that codified techniques and attempt to transmit them according to traditional Japanese principles will probably last longer than the more free flowing gymnastic styles.

And what about Ueshiba? I know it’s a somehow controversial figure among some of the Daito Ryu schools. What’s your opinion about him, as well as his legacy for all the aiki practitioners.

Iida Sensei with Oisin Bourke and Ray Gacita, shibucho outside Ray’s dojo in New Jersey, USA.

Well, he was a genius, and a visionary. I think he understood that post war, Japan and the world had changed more acutely than many Japanese of his generation. The openness with which he taught foreigners, men, women, poor people, rich people or whoever was remarkable. Even nowadays, Japan and the budo world in particular can be insular. I think what he learned from Takeda was always filtered through his religious worldview and that was reflected in his movements and stance, so he didn’t develop aiki of the type that someone like Horikawa did. To be more accurate, he developed what he learned from Takeda in line with his own concerns and needs and he was very up front about this. This proved to be in concert with the needs of hundreds of thousands of Japanese and others after the war, so it’s not a bad thing. Personally, I think he achieved the closest to what Daito ryu would recognise as aiki when he got old and after he started to learn shodo. To be honest, don’t see much of Daito Ryu aiki in most video clips of him, but some of the reports of how Ueshiba felt from some of his deshi, such as Okumura Shigenobu, sound similar to the experience of aiki to me, so who really knows? Of his students, the closest I see Daito ryu aiki are Gozo Shioda, Seiseki Abe, Nobuyoshi Tamura and maybe Kanshu Sunadomari, but all of them only developed something when they reached their seventies, I think.

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