Understanding the Great Masters

gouttardFor the past three decades, I have been returning to Tokyo every year in order to train with the masters of the Hombu Dojo, and every time I feel the same joy, even though my expectations are not always fulfilled once I actually step on the tatami. But it is just fine like that. Given this situation, there are questions that I am being asked rather often, particularly during the social moments such as those spent at the cafe nearby the Hombu Dojo, the one where foreign practitioners often meet between classes. These questions are mostly “Why are you coming back to Tokyo every year? What are you coming for? Why do you always go to Saku to train with Endo Sensei even though your practice does not at all correspond to the principles that he is demonstrating?”
gouttardThese are all pertinent questions, but is there an answer that could satisfy those who ask? I do not think so. Most of us comes to Japan to train with one or several particular Sensei, usually based on the recommendations of our home teacher. When I started Aikido, I studied with Mr. Blachon, a formidable judoka who came late to Aikido but who, thanks his open-mindedness and great morality, allowed me to follow early on the teachings of several great Japanese masters such as Noro Masamichi, Asai Katsuaki, and Tada Hiroshi Sensei during numerous seminars taking place all around Europe. These experiences in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany have allowed me to apprehend several Aikido that noenthelss shared common bases: rigor, willpower, and acceptation of the role of uke. Later, when Christian Tissier Sensei returned from Japan, I became mesmerized by his practice and I have never left him since, even though our encounters on the tatami are not a frequent now as they used to be.
Christian Tissier Sensei

Before explaining why I am returning to Tokyo every year, I would like to explain why I am no longer as present on Christian Tissier’s tatami as I used to be. The fact of having been with him for so long, reflected so much about his teachings, and tried so hard to emulate him during my first years as a teacher, has allowed me to understand his approach and to apprehend his research. I realize that such a statement may sound rather presumptuous, but it is an unquestionable fact that each and every one of us has in their mind a clear idea of their own teacher’s path, even if that idea may differ greatly from that of the teacher himself, or from what he is actually trying to demonstrate. When we see a teacher, we build in our mind an interpretation of what we see him do and of the experiences gained during with him. This builds us. A different student, observing the same teacher, during the same classes, but with a different sensibility, might translate these perceptions differently with his own body. the most important aspect for me is that Christian Tissier has provided to my practice an intelligence that has allowed me to go to meet other teachers and to apprehend their teachings, even if those teachers had very different sensitivities. For this I am very grateful to Tissier Sensei. Of course, I have not understood all of these different teachers straight away, and for some, it took me a lot longer than for others, a sort of period of adaptation. Even more importantly, I required a contact with their closer and more advanced students, for I am indeed convinced that in order to truly understand a Sensei (assuming that it is at all possible), one has to train with those who have been exclusively taught by him. I really believe in the notion of emulation, that which allows a student to construct himself in the same way that a child imitates the gestures and words of its parents via his visual and auditive perceptions. Then, little by little, as time passes, the practitioner evolves and changes physically and mentally. He still sees his teacher with pleasure and admiration, but the essential points of his research are no longer exactly the same as those that brought him to follow restlessly that teacher at the begining of his practice.

Philippe Gouttard and Christian Tissier

My interest for Christian Tissier’s Aikido gave me a fantastic precision in the execution of the techniques. Beyond the satisfaction of realizing these techniques, it created a very precise framework from which a try to never to get away. This framework is about always staying mobile, while using the ensemble of the body, and most importantly, to put into practice the essential notion of Aikido that is the Tai sabaki. Tissier Sensei has allowed me to build my leg-work and my hips, which are crucial to make sure that the body stays young and mobile. One becomes old when one day, the body starts doing one less movement then the day before. To avoid that, the practitioner has to relax his body, and to use the ensemble of his muscles and joints through their maximum amplitude. It is obvious that with time, experience and age allow us to reduce the amount of practice. Speed also decreases with age, but the only thing on which we should not compromise is the amplitude of the joints. To me, this is the goal of our art, which is to manage to give the body the same volume of practice, the same openness, even though speed and motion decrease. For this to happen however, the body must be relaxed and freed from all the tensions that training produces.
“Why do you still come back to train at the Hombu Dojo?”
The answer changes every single time I make the decision to purchase a plane ticket to Tokyo. First, there is the desire to go and train for 3 or 4 hours daily, and to keep contact with those teachers who were once training partners. There is also the curiosity as to whether my aging body can still sustain the rhythm and techniques imposed by the Sensei to their students. Each time that we enter the Dojo, there is this slight concern; am I going to make it through the hour with younger and fitter partners? Is my technique going to be pleasant to them, and will they get what they came to train with us for?

Philippe Gouttard

Each time that I am on the Hombu Dojo tatami, I think about Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei, he who gave me so much and made me a free Aikidoka. By free, I do not mean free to do whatever, I mean free to accept anything, from anybody. I often find myself saying to my own students: “One should not be surprised by a surprise attack. One must have an irreproachable technique that allows one to accept any unfamiliar technique from any unfamiliar practitioner”. Yamaguchi Sensei, through his behavior on and off the tatami, gave me this precious gift: to transmit the technique without forcing the student to copy what I do, but instead allowing him to develop his own system, his own sensations, even if they feel wrong to me, as they are right for him. We must accept this.
Endo Seishiro Sensei
When I return to Saku to meet Endo Sensei, I am in that particular state of mind even though my body and my own research have made me take a direction that is somewhat different to that of the master. I remember the first time that I met Endo Sensei on the tatmai, it was during Yamaguchi Sensei’s class. Endo Sensei had been sitting in seiza on the wooden floor for a while when he suddenly got up a came to train with me and my partner. We have never known why he came. This was a wonderful experience, if if I did not manage to complete a single technique on him. He seemed extremely heavy and almost impossible to move. In spite of that, I have never forgotten this moment and it stays in my mind as one of my greatest experiences in my career as an Aikidoka.

Seminar in Paris with Yamaguchi Sensei (Philippe Gouttard is the first uke)

I think that it is this precise moment, carved into my body memory, that acts as a thread that links me to him. Even if it is hard to admit, I must say that since that day, I have tried hard to imitate him. Later on, for a few years, I took a bit of distance because I was not particularly fond of the man, even though the teacher was still as fascinating as ever. About fifteen years ago, I started to return to his classes at the Hombu Dojo and the seminars in Saku in order to feel his techniques, understand his work, and research upon it. He has developed all of that through slackening. Of course, all teachers talk about trying to be relaxed and centered but Endo Sensei is one of the few who are always relaxed and centered, and he effortlessly throws partners that are a lot stronger and heavier than him. I have discussed before about the fact that students are not in the same state of mind whether they are attacking a Sensei while at the center of the tatami, or in their own corner of the dojo. Regardless of the situation, Endo Sensei is always well placed and he throws his uke with power, precision and availability.
During the seminars in Saku, there is always a demonstration taking place. For years, I have been lucky to serve as uke for Endo Sensei, and I fondly remember these throws in all directions. Then, with age and experience, I have myself become Tori, throwing my own partners around. After every one of these demonstrations, Endo Sensei comes to tell me that I have used too much strength and too much shoulders. I always take these remarks with great seriousness, even though they sometimes feel a bit exaggerated to me. Anyhow, the master is always right, and it is up to me to do what is necessary so that his subsequent correction won’t be identical to the previous one. This is one of the reasons that make me return to see him; deep down, I hope to do so well that one day, I can get to hear him say: “This is better, you used less strength and less shoulders”.

Demonstration in Saku (Philippe Gouttard demonstrates at 7:20 min)

Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei
remember when Yamaguchi Sensei passed away, the second Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru gave a touching speech where he said that one of his greatest joys was when he heard Yamaguchi Sensei tell him: “this was a beautiful demonstration”. He was happy, him, the Doshu, the one who is supposed to be the head of his art. I believe that Ueshiba Kisshomaru was conscious of his own skills and of the level and of Yamaguchi Sensei, and that the recognition of one of his peers such as Yamaguchi Sensei must have touched him deep within. Perhaps this is what I am hoping for, that same sort of recognition from Endo Sensei. If does not comes however, I will still return to train with him each year, until my body forces me to stop. I will return without resentment or bitterness towards this Sensei.
seigo-yamaguchi-and-philippe-gouttard-01Understanding a teacher

I believe that in order to progress in Aikido, one needs a connecting thread that leads one to one’s goal. Personally, I cannot content myself with a solely “satisfying” training. It is fundamental for me to train with different Sensei because the difficulty of apprehending what they show forces me to to work on my body in a different manner than usual. This exercise may help me to understand, through difficulty, the beauty of what I am doing. I have reached the conclusion that in order to enjoy myself on the tatami, practice with unfamiliar teachers is essential. I do not want to indulge into ease but instead, I want to put my body into suffering, research, and difficulty in order to help me progress.
Even though Yamaguchi Sensei remains the master that inspire me even beyond his passing, Endo Sensei is for me a sort of Everest of Aikido, one that I am trying to reach. Regularly returning so see him is for me a duty towards the Aikikai, the house that gave me so much, and towards Yamaguchi Sensei, the one who never left the Aikido headquarters in order to create his own dojo. But most importantly, due to the fact that Endo Sensei has extensively studied under Yamaguchi Sensei, I feel that by studying under his driection, I am staying within the path traced by Yamaguchi Sensei.
To finish, I would like to thank Tissier Sensei, for it is him who has allowed me to grow into that particular kind of work, who gave me the means to enjoy it fully, and who inspired in me the taste for trying to pass it on it to the students who trust me on the tatami.

Article by Philippe Gouttard published in English on GuillaumeErard.com

To go further:
Interview to Philippe Gouttard
The liberatory touch (di Philippe Gouttard)
Training at Aikikai with Philippe Gouttard (by Guillaume Erard)