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Ichi-go ichi-e

Ichi-go ichi-e

The white oak tip of a jo was shooting toward my throat and I was doing my best to curl under it before it hit me. My body was horizontal, roughly four feet above the mat. In my hands was a bokken. And all around me was a gasp from the seated students who were watching. The tsuki to my neck was as unexpected to them as it was to me.

A few minutes earlier I had been called by Seichi Sugano Sensei to get a bokken and attack him with a kirioroshi. He stood on the mat holding a jo as the students all sat to watch his next demonstration. I lined up in front of him with a bokken and attacked. As my bokken descended toward his head, I expected him to get off line. But he wasn’t moving. My brain went into rapid alarm mode: “He-is-not-moving-he-is-not-moving-I’m-going-to-hit-Sensei!” I did not want to be the student who hit Sugano Sensei.

I knew what he intended to do. He had been talking about getting off the line and I had done enough demonstrations with him to know that’s what he planned: step off the line as I attacked and counter my strike with his jo.

But he wasn’t moving off the line and I stopped my cut before hitting him. Actually, I wouldn’t have hit him, not then or ever. And he wasn’t happy about my aborted strike. For such a generally soft-spoken man, Sugano Sensei’s voice could shake the entire dojo when he wanted to. That’s what he did then. He glared and shouted, “Strike me!” He was definitely annoyed.

I moved back into position. This time I would finish my cut and if I hit him, so be it. I had failed to give him a proper attack and this time I was going to make up for it.

I raised the bokken and before I could strike or even think, he suddenly did a jodan tsuki. I was being taught a lesson.

That’s how I found myself airborne, doing a kick-out so I could curl myself under the tip of his oncoming jo. I landed with the bokken frozen in mid-strike. My heart was hammering, adrenaline spiking, and I got up to attack him again as fast as I could.

This time as my bokken went for his head, he vanished from the line and countered with the jo, threading it between my wrists and throwing me. It was the technique I had expected the first time. We did this a few more times and then the class practiced the technique.

As went back to my partner, I was dazed. And I felt rotten. I’ve always felt it’s an honor to take ukemi for an instructor, especially Sugano Sensei and Yamada Sensei. I had let him down. And I had learned some important lessons.

First, it’s not the ukemi, it’s the attack AND the ukemi. I had failed to give Sugano Sensei a real attack. He knew what my abilities in ukemi were. Doing an unexpected jodan tsuki, he knew I could take the ukemi. But that’s just half of it. A good attack is equally important. And it wouldn’t have required an emergency kick-out.

More importantly, I had completely failed to understand how good his aikido was (sadly, Sugano Sensei passed away in 2010). He would have moved and I wouldn’t have hit him. I underestimated his skill. By extension I underestimated aikido. It’s at the top of my list of things to never do again. Ever.

I pondered this experience for a long time after that class. I guess I’m still pondering it years later. At the time it really hurt and I wondered if he would call me for a demonstration ever again. He did, of course. Training always goes on.

Ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会) is a saying that gets passed around martial arts dojos. In Japanese tea ceremony it’s typically translated “one lifetime, one meeting.” In this sense, each experience is unique, even if it’s something we experience every day, such as a cup of tea or the morning sun. In Japanese martial arts traditions it’s more often translated as “one encounter, one opportunity.” In this sense, when an attack occurs, especially with a lethal weapon, we may only have one opportunity to neutralize the attack.

Both interpretations apply to what I learned that day. Every time we practice it is a unique experience, whether we’d done a given technique once or ten thousand times. And each technique—each encounter—should have a life or death intensity. Sugano Sensei demonstrated the razor’s edge of budo, not only that day but every time he did aikido. It’s an encounter I will always remember.

Paul Alexander

New York Aikikai

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