Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Round Trip that only took 53 years

I got an email and a snail mail from Bernie Lau the other day. He’s retired back to Hawaii to work on his book and to find some sanity and peace after spending a lot of energy on family matters. Now, at 67 years old, he’s gone full circle to home. Like a homing pigeon that got swept away by a storm, it took him a while to get there.

Bernie started aikido in 1955 by getting thrown by Koichi Tohei on Hapuna Beach. And yes, we are referring to the Koichi Tohei who first spread aikido as the Aikikai’s chief instructor and whom later founded the Ki Society.

As an aside, if you ever get to the West Side of the big island north of Kona, stop and visit Hapuna Beach. It’s one of Bernie’s favorites and one of mine as well. Here are Bernie’s words about what happened that day:

It was a beautiful hot summer day at Hapuna, one of the best beaches on the Big Island. I was walking along the beach when I saw a group of Japanese folks doing what seemed to be Martial Arts. What they were doing seemed interesting so I stopped to watch.

The man at the center of attention noticed me and invited me to come up and throw a punch at him. "Come, you try hit me please. " were his very words. So I stepped up, stood right in front of him and threw a punch towards his face. Next thing I knew I was flipped onto my butt and ended up on the warm sand looking up at this individual who still had a smile on his face. This guy was totally at ease, totally relaxed, totally confident. And like I said, had this most pleasant smile on his face.

Helping me up, this individual said, " You try one more time please. " So, OK - this time I focused on his chest and threw a faster punch. However, when my right fist arrived to where his chest had been, there was absolutely nothing there and I again ended up on my butt.

"Darn" I thought, "How the heck does he do that?" The half dozen or so Japanese folks there were all laughing at me. Not however in a disrespectful manner, the group’s energy was totally non-threatening. Everyone seemed relaxed, happy, and friendly.

Standing up, I brushed the warm sand off my butt. The man with a smile then came up to me and introduced himself. " My name Koichi Tohei. I from Japan. What I do is Aikido." He continued, "Aikido non fighting art, is good for defend but good also for develop mind and body. Where you live?"

"Hilo", I responded, "I live in Hilo Town on the other side of the Island."

Tohei then said "Ahhh, very good, next week I teach Hilo Town. You come my class. I teach you Aikido. Will be very good for you. You come please? OK, you come my class?"

I answered that I would, and was given the date, time and location of Mr. Tohei's Aikido class - scheduled for the following week in Hilo Town. Turns out Mr. Tohei was teaching at a Japanese Teahouse located on the grounds of Queen Liliuokalani Gardens near Hilo Bay.

I shook hands with Mr. Tohei, made a slight bow of respect, said " Thank you very much. " I then continued my walk along Hapuna Beach.
I won’t give away any more of Bernie’s story here, you will have to buy his book when it’s published, hopefully sometime early next year. I knew most of the stories already, but to see it all in one place is cool. Not just aikido and the acrimony behind the outward harmony, but the dark black lurking behind the cop in blue, Bernie’s time undercover as a Narc, and the effect that job can have on a person.

For anyone who is interested in the WahMee incident, Bernie has some good material on that too. Then there is living down the block from Aaron and Elmer Dixon, the Seattle Black Panther leaders, and I should shut up now.

A bit of pimping for Bernie here, if you are interested in being informed as to the book release, please email me or send an email to John@johnspiers.com and we will make sure you are notified. So, for anyone interested, here’s a few "then and now" pictures of Bernie.

Then - In his early days in the navy, and as a teenager getting a taste of sankyo applied by Tohei in his first class referred to above.

Now-On a visit to the TNBBC, showing his shodan certificate presented to him by Uyeshiba and contemplating the idea of having another beer.

But this blog is about how he has now gone full circle. He’s gone from Hilo and his early days in aikido, to developing his own methodology to teach martial arts / tactical defense developed from his martial arts and practical experiences on the streets as a Seattle cop. And now, to being back living in Kona, just down the road from his first encounter with Tohei at Hapuna beach. Bernie is an occasional guest teacher at Meyer Goo’s dojo as well and manages to give those "young kids" studying with Meyer a good hard run for their money still.

Meyer Goo, for those who don't know of him, was a student of Bucksam Kong in Hung Gar kung fu and an early yudansha in the Hawaii Aikikai. Meyer also taught in the early days of the NY Aikikai while working at the Brooklyn Navy yard. Back in 1960’s Honolulu, Meyer was Bernie’s mentor and looked out for the "haole" kid

Recently, on a visit back to Hilo to visit friends and students, he went back to see the Reed’s Bay, Coconut Grove area, and the tea house at Queen Liliuokalani Gardens where he started in his first formal classes in Aikido, and it all came back together.

As Bernie told me in his email:
"Here in Hilo, walking around it all, it seems that I am in fact coming full circle from where I first grew up. Reed’s bay area still looks as it did some sixty years ago, not much has changed. It’s where I first went into the ocean, and hung out with my friends as I grew up. This was my place to go when home life was too much to deal with for me. It's still an exotic but funky place. I feel very much at home and at peace there, the energy is all good.

The Tea House at the Liliuokalani Gardens is where I met Tohei for class that night back in 1955 - and where I started my Aikido journey. Coconut Island back then had no bridge - the Tsunami of 1946 had taken the bridge out. I remember an old Japanese man in a row boat who would row us out to Coconut Island for a total of five cents. Around 1957, I worked as a bus boy after school and on weekends at the Naniloa Hotel, right there next to Coconut Island. So, I’m back to where I enjoyed myself and found happiness as a child and as a teenager some sixty years ago - to now - as a senior citizen - looking for inner peace and happiness - and a place to call home, which is back where it all started."

The point of this blog is sometimes what we seek in budo is really back where we started. Not just in techniques and what we miss in learning those physical techniques the first time around, but also in the human elements and what we let get in the way on that journey, be it relationships with people or our preconceived notions of what we wish things to be.

Bernie, despite being someplace far away, shares something of himself with me- and now vicariously, you - and jars my thoughts to something important to the study of martial arts, be they koryu or gendai, or goshin budo, and our personal growth via that study.

We seek to gain knowledge with study, but most of us lack the wisdom to use that knowledge in our lives. Wisdom is a sharp edged and pointy object, it’s very seldom comforting since it reveals our own weaknesses when applied to ourselves and cuts painfully to our cores as we so often seek comfort rather than the pain of growth.

So, go back to your roots of training, and think about what you missed the first, second, third, forth, fifth, etc. time through on different levels of interaction. Not just in the physical technique, but in how you interact with that supposed knowledge beyond technical performance. If it doesn’t cause you to pause and think, or face something about yourself, you ain’t doing it right.
Mad at your sensei? Or maybe you can’t figure out something you are being taught?

OK, maybe sensei is a jerk sometimes. Maybe sensei can’t frame what he’s teaching you any clearer. Did you ever stop to consider what you might be missing may be due to your lack of applying it to yourself and working at it more? And could it be that because you are mad or frustrated you are letting what you want to believe interfere with what is really happening?

Of course, if you are like the majority of people I’ve met in martial arts, none of the last three paragraphs above this matter. Reality is, none of us can do this all the time, but we should be trying to if you talk about spiritual practice or personal growth via budo at all.

As a final note, here is an image of the Cow Palace (where the Hilo Aiki-Kai had it’s dojo space in those early years) following the 1960 tsunami which destroyed much of downtown Hilo. Sadly, despite the best efforts of the local researchers back in Hilo, there were no pictures to be found in their files of the Cow Palace before the tsunami. If any of you know any of the old aikidoka from those days who might have any photos of the cow palace interior or exterior, contact the Lyman Museum and pass on a copy to them: http://www.lymanmuseum.org/