Book review: Dueling with O-sensei

I earn a living by writing computer code.  This means that any time I watch a movie  portraying a programmer or “hacker” or “computer expert” I get to wince and bite my tongue  to avoid pointing out the sheer ridiculousness of what is presented.  This is par for the  course.  Hollywood doesn’t care about how things really work – they just want to tell an  entertaining story.  Probably most people who are really knowledgeable about a given field  tend to roll their eyes when they see that field represented on the silver screen.

I’ve found it odd, then that so many martial artists are big fans of martial arts movies  and the actors who star in them.  Let’s face it – as entertaining as these movies can be,  they have just about nothing in common with the reality of martial arts training.  Recently   I’ve developed a theory that we love these movies because they represent a fantasy about  our training that we would like to be true.  The movies tell us that we are just one  training montage away from becoming an invincible superhero or a wise warrior sage who can  kick all sorts of bad guy ass while being totally morally justified in doing so.

These movie fantasies are really just a logical extension of the myths that permeate  martial arts culture.  We have origin stories about the founding of our arts and tales of  the amazing abilities and wisdom of the founders.  We have idealistic expectations about  the role of our teachers that extend beyond the transmission of technical knowledge. We  have clear-cut explanations of the underlying principles that make our arts so effective.

Almost inevitably, the reality is much messier and more complex than the stories we are  told.

I was reminded of this theory while re-reading Ellis Amdur’s Dueling with O-sensei.  The  first edition of this book occupies a favored spot in my library and I was fortunate enough  to be granted an early look at the upcoming second edition for this review.

Dueling With O-sensei is ostensibly largely about aikido, an art that is replete with  myths.  Much of the mythology revolves around the founder, Morihei Ueshiba. “O-sensei”, as  he is known in aikido circles, was widely credited with remarkable or even superhuman  abilities.  The story goes that he was a consummate fighter in his youth, but then achieved  enlightenment and created aikido as a path for achieving harmony with the universe.  Aikido   is sometimes regarded as a “peaceful” martial art and its principles are supposedly as  effective for avoiding confrontations as for ending them.

Amdur deconstructs these myths in a volume that manages to be simultaneously  personal, historical, and philosophical.  He narrates his introduction to aikido in the  1970s, his training in both the U.S. and Japan, the continued influence of aikido in his  life after he moved on to training in the koryu arts, and the application of the principles  of aiki to his profession as a crisis intervention specialist.  He paints vivid portraits  of the teachers, friends and training partners he encountered during his aikido journey.   He examines the incidence of abusive behavior in martial arts instruction and training.  He  points out some less than savory aspects of Ueshiba’s history and character.  He wrestles  with the intersection of violence and morality in the martial arts.

He does all this and more while refusing to whitewash anyone’s flaws and limitations,  including his own.  This is done not in the spirit of “debunking” or cutting anyone down.   Rather, Amdur realizes that we can learn much more from messy, complex reality than from  sanitized, simplified, just-so stories.

Dueling with O-sensei deals primarily with aikido, with some tangents examining Daito-ryu,  hapkido, and Amdur’s current primary art, Araki-Ryu.  Despite this, I would strongly  recommend the book for practitioners of any martial art.  I recognized facets of the  stories he tells from my time in other martial arts, particularly my stint in the Bujinkan.   His thoughts on violence, morality, and conflict avoidance are relevant to any martial  artist.  Even for those who just enjoy good writing, this makes a highly entertaining read.

The first edition of Dueling with O-sensei is out of print.  The second edition (reviewed  here) has been substantially expanded and re-worked.  It will be published by Freelance  Academy Press in mid-2014.  Check www.edgework.info for an announcement of publication, as  well as information on Amdur’s other books.

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