I was over forty years old when I had a revelatory experience concerning ki, breathing, and ever since then I have had a growing desire to express the ineffable, to communicate what cannot be communicated.
In 1970, at the age of fifty-six, I abandoned my job and launched myself into an adventure which showed no promise or guarantee of reward. After travelling in the United States, I came to Paris and there I decided not only to stay but also to undertake something new, which astonished my French friends.
“It is not easy to start something new in France,” they argued. “There are so many restrictions that even for French people it is already almost impossible to do anything; even more difficult for a foreigner like you, and for someone of your age, too.” They were certainly right, but to all such responses I said, “Well, we shall see.”
I could just as well have started in Italy or England or anywhere else, where I would not have met the same kinds of obstacles; but sometimes obstacles intrigue me and stimulate me to go on rather than discouraging me.
The first obstacle which I encountered was that I had to obtain the necessary official documents before I could even start a sign of the juridical nature of the French way of life. Such an obstacle does not exist in Japan1 or in Italy. It requires a lot of patience, wasted visits to people who might possibly be interested, and postponed appointments followed by polite refusals.
Meanwhile I began to write. In order to write or paint I do not need any permission from the authorities, and it was the only freedom which I could then lawfully enjoy.
The work was not easy. The first difficulty was of course the language, as I did not learn French until I was a grown man. The second difficulty was in the nature of the subject itself which has never been dealt with in any language, not even Japanese, and certainly not from the angle I intended to use in the development of my theme. In spite of these difficulties, I have been writing more and more. In any case, it will be the first time that such an ungraspable subject has been dealt with in a Western language.
Instead of allowing my manuscripts to gather dust in a drawer, I began to distribute them as best I could. Strangely enough, people’s interest grew little by little. Today, the number of pamphlets has reached twenty and I have accepted the editor’s offer to publish them.
Each article presents a noticeable difference in tone and style. As a newcomer to the art of writing I can only ask for the reader’s indulgence. I have been told that my manner of expression has improved slightly the more I write; this may be so, but nevertheless I do not claim to explain everything about this complex matter. If the explanation is complete then it is probably a false one. All in all, I only wish to point out a few things, rather like a dumb man trying to communicate something.
A few months after I had written my first articles, I received an unexpected proposition. During my brief visit to Paris early in 1969, some people had organized a demonstration evening which I conducted. Immediately after my departure, they had formed a society called the KatsugenKai, and they now approached me to suggest that I make use of it. Thus, I was able to obtain the neces sary administrative approval.
Two years have now passed since I undertook to bring to life this society which from the day of its birth had only a nominal existence. It began with just a handful of participants and it is now becoming a viable concern. Thanks to this experience I have come to know better the “climate” of Europe.
The predominant attitude is Aristotelian and manifests itself as a need to define and classify. Once a thing has been classified it ceases to develop into an action and is instead restricted to a category. These categories are often dualistic: good and bad, body and soul, thought and action, mental and physical, sickness and health. The theoretical attitude which derives from this is to reject out of hand everything which does not conform to a predetermined viewpoint.
Here, I want to present a different way of looking at things. I want to profit from my freedom of expression to show that there is another way of thinking. Classical science is a discipline, the fundamentals of which were laid down in the 17th century; but this discipline derives from one philosophy, and it would be false to believe that this is the one and only, universal philosophy. Thus certain branches of science, such as modern physics, are now escaping from the old disciplines in search of new philosophies. Philosophy is the taking of a position which is by nature not fixed.
Then I come up against classical dualism which declares that a philosophy cannot be associated with a practice. However, this opposition is only one of theory and does not pose any major obstacle. The fusion of theory and practice occurs in the mind. If we were to try to convince someone verbally that, for example, a good thing can also be bad and vice versa, the discussion would quickly become a futile argument; only experience can allow us to feel the truth of this.
In order to prevent itself from dissolving into anarchy, the West had adopted the method of restrictions. When we look at the other side of this coin, however, we see, not freedom, but prohibitions of a more subtle nature: Miracle, Magic and Mystery. To become free, it is not enough to simply remove the restrictions, for they are merely replaced by another set of restrictions.
Only a breathing which is deep and profound can change the situation.
Many people, motivated by a mind which demands proofs, may be tempted to try and find in me qualities which I do not possess: extraordinary power, invulnerability, superhuman ability, and the whole gamut of seductive attributes. Yet what am I in comparison with the greatness of the Universal Love of Master Ueshiba, or with the technique of not-doing of Master Noguchi, or the unfathomable refinement of Master Kanze Kasetsu, actor of Noh theatre? I knew them all, and now only Master Noguchi is still alive.2 I can still feel their influence working in me. They were natural masters, whereas I am only a being who is beginning to wake up, who is seeking and growing.
The lives of these masters were marked by an extraordinary continuity of sustained effort. I feel like a man in a desert who has found some wells of exceptional depth. Where most work of categorization ends, that was their starting point, and they went far beyond it; they found rich streams of water, the source of life.
However, these wells are not interconnected, although the water found in them is the same. My task is to draw up a map of the territory, as it were, to find a common language. I could not have undertaken this search without the education I received from my two late teachers; Marcel Granet, a sinologist, and Marcel Mauss, a sociologist, with whom I worked before the war. They taught me to dig out a relevant fact from a mass of complex information, and to question well established values.
Europeans can only act if they know the reason why beforehand. Thus it is necessary to develop this field of thinking, which could have interesting results, because once Europeans understand, other people will follow.
At this point, I would like once more to underline the fact that my subject matter can never be perfectly understood on an intellectual level. There is a world of difference between having a map with wells marked on it and actually getting there and drinking the water. Language can mislead us as well as help us to understand. In my work I am naturally trying constantly to improve my use of language, but however precise I make it, it will never be definitive.
It is contradictory to try to translate ki into the English vocabulary where every word must be defined and limited, for ki is by nature suggestive and unlimited. Thus it was difficult to choose the word “breathing”. Some people who understood that the word’s connotations are too vast suggested that I coin a new word; but that would have led to the creation of an inaccessible doctrine. Others preferred the word “breath”, but this has a slightly occult suggestion that I prefer to avoid. I therefore opted for the simple and common word “breathing”, well aware of its imprecision.
At a time when Europeans are beginning to reflect on their traditional abuse of their bodies, I hope that my small contribution can help humanity to resolve the crisis of civilization.
Paris, June 7th, 1973