The problem with that magic… – Taken from the book – Playing with Ornette by Gadi Shorr

In my early twenties, and to the protest of my parents, I flew to Japan with the dream of learning the martial art of Aikido from the Masters. Aikido was established in 1924, and although the founder passed away in 1968, there were still a few highly skilful teachers in Japan who had trained with him in the early days of Aikido. Those teachers, or sensei in Japanese, were knowledgeable disciples, some of whom very famous and even heading their own Aikido styles. One of those teachers was Master Gozo Shioda, the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido

Master Shioda was a living legend in Japan and a cultural treasure. Besides being the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido he also headed the main governing body of Japanese martial arts. Master Shioda was known to have a magical touch, a man who could cause the largest of opponents to collapse by the mere touch of his fingers
That for itself was not unique in Aikido and yet the way he presented his abilities was more than uncommon. Master Gozo Shioda, unlike the founder of Aikido, was not a religious man and never attributed his abilities to the presence of the gods. He was a methodical man who insisted, and proved beyond doubt, that careful analytical and surgical study of the art was the real key to seemingly unnatural capabilities. He could explain the finest details of his performances, giving thought to every muscle fibre in his body and each and every nerve ending

His style presented a non spiritual-spiritual angle to the art. Yoshinkan Aikido – the divine art of the sceptic, a down to earth scientific system to create the super human. It was a new and innovative way to explore the art

My descriptions of the Master might seem to contradict my earlier statement concerning the coincidental nature of genuine ideas. It does not.  According to the biography of Master Shioda, there was one incident which inspired in him the deep understanding of the art, the root from which his future creation emerged. That incident was a fight to the life and death against multiple opponents. The fight took place in a remote bar in China and was unexpected and unprovoked by Master Shioda. It was as coincidental as the apple dropping on the head and it inspired him, for whatever reason, to seek and find his special way

Like Newton with gravity, Shioda was famous for his magic tricks, and exactly like Newton with math, his true contribution was in the system he created

But I didn’t know anything about him or indeed much about Aikido. I was disciplined in boxing and Karate but had never trained Aikido.  I had read something about it; seen a short clip on TV and watched one Steven Seagal movie – that was it. Thinking back, it is of no wonder why my parents were anxious when I first informed them that I would fly to study Aikido in Japan. They were not the only ones who showed bewilderment when I informed them of my intentions
I must have looked extremely zealous when I finally arrived in Narita airport after a twenty four hour trip. One Japanese passenger on the train to Tokyo smiled at me and enquired as to the reasons of my trip. When I said Aikido he first gaped at me then burst out laughing. He couldn’t see the sense of it

But nothing would deter me from my cause and two days after my arrival I went to the Yoshinkan Aikido Headquarters and watched Master Shioda perform his miracles. I was ushered to the training hall, dojo, by one of the instructors. He led me to a chair at the back of the hall and there I sat within a group of other spectators. It was a special class held for high ranking students and the mat was crawling with them. Five minutes before the scheduled lesson began, the black belt students formed a line and sat on their knees facing the front. Their backs were rigid and their eyes fixed on the small model of a shrine that sat on a shelf in front of them. The atmosphere was tense with expectation and it took me with it. My heart was thumping in my ears although I had no idea what to expect

The clock on the wall struck twelve, and as the last chime still echoed in the hall, we heard the sound of footsteps advancing to the doorway. The black belts straightened their backs further and all spectators stood to attention. I saw from the corner of my eye a little old man dressed in training gear kneeling by the mats. He bowed to the front and crossed the hall to sit with his back to the black belts in the centre of the mats. They bowed to the shrine and he swiftly turned on his knees and faced the students. He spoke a few words, which I couldn’t comprehend, and then stood up. He motioned to the front with his hand and one of the black belts ran towards him. To the Master’s gesture he held his wrist
Compared to the Master, the student looked like a giant bear. The Master pointed to his wrist and then a surge of energy flowed through his body. The large student groaned and suddenly seemed like a marionette hanging from the Master’s wrist. The Master smiled and moved slightly to the left, the large man twisting to the side, the joints of his body locking beneath the wrist. He seemed pinned to the spot by the weight of a large boulder. Master Shioda smiled and released his control, the black belt screaming and flying in the air. He fell to the ground with a large thump but eagerly jumped to his feel and ran back to kneel in front of the Master, his expression revealing enthusiasm, thirst and devotion

But the Master picked another black belt and now the trick changed. He asked the man to outstretch his arm, palm facing upward. Again he explained briefly before poking the palm with his finger. The student’s body rocked and he nearly lost his footing. The Master laughed and hit it again, this time the man lifted into the air, to collapse in a heap at the Master’s feet. Feat after feat of magical movements appeared before my eyes and I was most disappointed when the lesson was over

The Master left but most students stayed and practiced, high ranking black belts chuckling like children as they tried to mimic the acts of Master Shioda. The place was buzzing with passion and the drive to learn and excel. I was buzzing as well. I, just like those in front of me, wanted nothing but to be able to perform as he did. I remained attached to my seat even as the dojo emptied

I signed up for training that day and for the next few years was completely devoted to the study of Aikido. It is hard to explain how inspiring it was to be in the company of Master Shioda and how it drove me to excel. The more time I spent there, the more I learned to appreciate his brilliance. He was a visionary, a man who showed the world of Japanese martial arts how one can perform magical feats without the religious devotion that marked all his predecessors. He was analytical, methodical, almost a scientist in his approach to techniques. I thirstily drank the knowledge manifested through him and his students. A year after I began my studies I became an apprentice, and the following year I became one of the head foreign instructors at the dojo

Gradually, however, the glow of the place began to lose its lustre and I was left with the dim grey of reality. There were different reasons for that feeling yet they all related to the Master and the system surrounding him. I realised that in order to become a Master one must have a unique style and vision. Being a follower, no matter how devoted and no matter how inspiring the Master was, would only lead to mediocrity rather than mastery. The way of the Master is the way of the Master. It’s personal, individual, and therefore applies mainly to only one. And I was gagging for that coincidental moment of genius to appear. If being a Master was my goal, an individual goal, then it was the wrong place to fulfil it. The teachers in the dojo made sure of it. They would bark at anyone who would try and do anything innovative
I remember one particular lesson where a high ranking Japanese instructor stopped the class and began shouting at me in front of all the students – there were at least 100 people on the mat that day. I couldn’t understand half the words he was uttering but his gestures were more than sufficient to convey exactly what he meant. Do as the others do – mimic and that’s all! Even as my responsibilities increased in the dojo and the highly ranked teachers stopped showing their disapproval of me, they would still scorn the students I taught. “Don’t do it like this,” they would order. “This is Gadi’s Aikido, not Yoshinkan Aikido

I had also begun to develop serious reservations concerning the concept of a Master and the way he was treated

The head teachers formed a barrier around the Master. They would serve him with dedication but at the same time blocked him from the direct and honest experience of the world. He couldn’t move freely, even in the toilets there would always be a student serving and breathing down his neck. Some would even go as far as taking fake falls while he performed unsuccessful Aikido moves. All of them, without exception, exaggerated their reaction to his acts. It created misconception and the doubt in my mind that perhaps the Master would never have been considered such a magician if they didn’t react the way they did
It now brings to mind the true story of a famous musician; I think he played the violin. Anyway, he was a man who filled concert halls and was known as one of the best musicians in the world. Yet when he once stood at one of the tunnels of New York’s subway and busked for the pleasure of the passers-by, he hardly received any attention and the money he collected was barely enough to buy a descent meal for his efforts. Fame and glory, so it seems, needs a healthy dose of PR in order to exist. It has to, since the masses, the ones who ultimately maintain that halo of fame, know little to distinguish their heads from their asses

Take Albert Einstein for example, who was one of the first celebrities of the twentieth century. Mr Einstein’s rise to glory came soon after he published his work on relativity. Newspapers were filled with his image and he received a hero’s welcome in Britain and America. Thousands flocked the streets to get a glimpse of the visionary man. Thousands of supporters, despite the fact there was less than a handful of scientists who could actually understand his complex theory.  Even nowadays there are very few who can truly understand the concept of relativity and yet Einstein was still elected the most influential figure of the twentieth century by the readers of Times Magazine. Poor old Albert, he must have felt baffled throughout his life by the crowd’s reaction
And so I felt sorry for the Aikido Master at first – he looked as lonely as a rare bird locked inside the golden bars of its cage. The bird is pampered, well fed and treated kindly, and yet caged just the same. Then I remembered it was the Master who had formed that cage and some of the compassionate feelings left me. All his life as a master he demanded full control over the lives and wellbeing of his students. They would dress him, bathe him and wait for him awake in the dojo at night, sometimes until the early hours of the morning, when he went out for a drink – just to bow to him when he returned. His students were only reacting in accordance to the regime of terror and control he demanded. It was his choice

I decided that I should leave as soon as I was able to teach myself and that I would never allow myself to become a rare bird even if it meant no followers to recognise my mastery – if mastery would indeed occur. Three years after I arrived at the dojo the Master fell ill and for weeks there were nasty rumours of cancer but the official version was – “The Master suffers from a bit of a cold”. It might have been the version they told the Master himself – as even his poor health was treated as an unpleasant fact they should conceal from the man… From the book Playing with Ornette

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