The Phenomenologist – Interview with Ellis Amdur

Ellis Amdur is a renowned martial arts researcher and a teacher in two different surviving Koryu. His books on Aikido and Budo are considered unique in that he uses his personal, often shocking or outrageous, experiences as illustrations of the principles he writes about, but he is also backed by solid research and experience in the field. “The Phenomenologist” is no exception: it is a distillation of Ellis Amdur’s thoughts, insights and opinions on Aikido and Budo. “The Phenomenologist” has achieved considerable success in its Italian version, also published by Aikido Italia Network Publishing. Here you can read an excerpt of the book, which can be ordered in its full version on amazon.com in both paper and Kindle format

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

The Phenomenologist
Interview with Ellis Amdur
The Aiki Dialogues #1
by Simone Chierchini, Ellis Amdur

Chapter 1

Discovering Aikido

“How did you first discover aikidō?”

“I first saw aikidō in 1973, when I walked into Yamada Yoshimitsu’s dōjō in New York City, more or less on a whim. For a period of five years, aikidō was the most important thing in my life. I lived in Terry Dobson’s Bond Street Dōjō for about a year, sleeping on the mat, and then went to Tokyo where I practiced six-to-eight hours a day for several years. For a number of reasons, I became disillusioned with aikidō, and moved on to other arts. I trained in muay Thai, judō, and a variety of Chinese martial arts. Most importantly, I eventually became a licensed instructor in two classical martial traditions, the Araki-ryū and the Toda-ha Bukō-ryū.

“Nonetheless, aikidō always remained this puzzle to me—and I am speaking specifically of the iteration created post-war, under the direction of Ueshiba Kisshomaru. One way I put it is aikidō is the martial art of the grey areas, truly suited for civilized people. What I mean by this is one does not, for the most part, practice finishing techniques—rendering someone helpless and then cutting their throat, disemboweling them or gouging out their eyes. Similarly, there is not a focus in using bladed weapons to slash someone from shoulder to hip, to trace a line down the spine of a person pinned facedown, and to find the right point and thrust a blade at an angle so it penetrates the heart. These are all the kind of techniques practiced in koryū, the pre-modern martial traditions that I have spent over four decades training and teaching. Modern aikidō strives to use the appropriate level of force to neutralize an attacker’s power, and to establish control over them so that you have the best opportunity to resolve the conflict with the minimal level of harm. In other words, it is framed as a moral martial art.

The Phenomenologist
Interview with Ellis Amdur
The Aiki Dialogues #1
by Simone Chierchini, Ellis Amdur

“However, shouldn’t a ‘moral martial art’ produce moral people, at least in greater proportion than other martial arts? It’s a puzzle that the allegedly most moral martial art has so many less than moral people in it, many of them in leadership roles. This is something I discuss in detail in Dueling With O-sensei. Many of them are complex, big figures, some with giant charismatic personalities, but they were not unambiguously moral. Beyond that, some of them have been deified. In a sense, aikidō became a microcosm of a lot of issues that I was considering concerning the acquisition of power.
“This dilemma became more than philosophical for me. I was borrowing a friend’s dōjō in Seattle, teaching small classes of Araki-ryū and Toda-ha Bukō-ryū. He had a dōjō with three other aikidō teachers and himself. He said: ‘I’m going on a six-week trip. Would you take my aikidō classes?’ I replied, ‘I don’t do aikidō’. He expressed some concern that one of the other teachers, who was quite charismatic, would steal all his students while he was gone. I said ‘I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t do aikidō anymore,’ and he said, ‘Well, you owe me,’ because he’d lent me the dōjō. Now I had to; I always pay my debts. So I started teaching aikidō.

“I had not done any aikidō in twelve years. I had been practicing martial arts many hours every day, but not aikidō. My initial intent was simply to maintain my friend’s classes until he got back. I started with an idea which I call, ‘Respect the house.’ If I’m a visitor in your house and you say ‘No shoes, please’, I’m not going to insist on wearing shoes. If you say ‘We don’t smoke here’, I’m not going to smoke a cigar. If you have a gutter falling down, and you ask me for my help, I’ll certainly make a suggestion on the best way I know how to attach it, but I’m not going to remodel your house. That’s common courtesy. Similarly, if I’m teaching aikidō, I’ll not criticize the art itself, essentially saying, ‘This is wrong, that is wrong, this is wrong too. If you were doing muay Thai, grappling, koryū, you’d do it this way.’ That’s not only disrespectful; it takes a very complex art form and reduces it to a very narrow perspective.

“What seemed more interesting to me was to take aikidō unquestioningly as it is, and see what I could offer from my then forty, now fifty-five years of training, to contribute towards enhancing that aikidō form without violating it. Once I started doing this, that further provoked the questions I had concerning what I felt was a fascinating but very eccentric interpretation of violent encounters between human beings. Since then, I’ve taught at a variety of dōjōs through much of the world; in a sense, I can offer a kind of cross-training while still remaining within the structure of aikidō. It was from this re-encounter with aikidō that I was prompted to begin writing, and then I ended up with Dueling With O-sensei, the first of my three books on martial arts.”

Copyright Ellis Amdur and Simone Chierchini ©2021
All rights reserved. Any reproduction not expressly authorised is strictly prohibited.

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