About 2,500 years ago, the great Chinese philosopher Chouang Tzu said that the true man breathes from his heels, whereas ordinary people breathe from their throat. Who breathes from his heels these days? People breathe from their chest, their shoulders, or their throat. The world is full of these invalids unaware of their affliction.
Modern civilized man acts by means of his intelligence and can only act by means of this. Crushed by the weight of innumerable restrictions imposed on him by society, he finds fewer and fewer opportunities for acting spontaneously. Left to himself he still hesitates to act, held back by a vague fear of not knowing enough or of not having enough intelligence. As civilized as he is, modern man is left breathless after even a small physical effort, and confronted by a difficult situation he runs out of breath completely. Yet, he has fought some tough battles to acquire his human rights; he has obtained some liberties and continues to fight to acquire more, but one day he finds that these liberties only cover his exterior, material condition.
Now modern man stands at the beginning of the third Industrial Revolution; what does he plan to do with all the money, possibilities and free time that he has? Food, clothes, housing, travel, entertainment; there is an abundance of things on offer, but the human capacity for consumption is limited. One cannot become a Pantagruel overnight, nor be in several places at once.
There is only a narrow margin available for material satisfaction, yet the drive for it does not cease.
Society wants Man to become a machine capable of both production and consumption, but what is left of human dignity once these human “rights” have been obtained?
By breathing I do not mean the simple bio-chemical reaction to make oxygenated haemoglobin. Breathing is vitality, action, love, a sense of communion or unity, intuition, premonition, and movement, and it is all of these things at the same time. In the East, the words prana or ki still cover all of these meanings. The West too seems to have known this wider sense, witness the words psyche, or anima from which we derive animate, animosity, and animal, or spiro which gives us spirits, inspiration, aspiration, and respiration.
The importance accorded in the West to the philosophy of knowledge is a triumph for the rational mind, yet it also closes the door on the fluid and invisible aspects of pre-rational information. Opposition grows between Man, the subject of knowledge, and the world, object of knowledge. The world exists independently of Man, and Man ceases to see by means of his breath. As for God, He is held at a respectable distance; the separation of Man from God is quite distinct.
I think it unnecessary to invent new words where breathing and breath will do. In any case, with the Western mind’s analytical and intellectual tendencies it is incapable of admitting into its vocabulary a word as flexible as ki: infinitely large, infinitely small, extremely vague yet also extremely precise, very common yet also technical and esoteric, and as old as the earth.
Today the great majority of Westerners are blocked at the hips from the age of puberty. It is out of the question for them to breathe either from their heels or their hips. For such people, Nature is something found at least 50 kilometers from the urban areas; they forget the fact that Man is himself a part of Nature.
“Natural man” acts and acts well, as long as “intelligent man” does not interfere and put him off course. He knows how to grow, from a single cell to an embryo, millions of times larger. What is the intelligence which provides the bone structure, the organs, and the brain with a skull to protect it? All the wise men in the world put together are incapable of producing a single embryo; a woman, however ignorant, can do it easily.
Japan has been able to maintain its cultural autonomy thanks to its distance from the European sphere of influence. Let us call the basis of its traditions a philosophy of action. The essence of action is respiration, breath, ki.
Ikebana, flower arrangement, is not merely a simple decorative arrangement of flowers — it evokes the presence of Nature with the minimum of available elements. The tea ceremony is not just a polite way to drink tea — it establishes a spiritual harmony between the participants by means of its acts and gestures. Japanese archery is not a sport of skill — it teaches us to breathe in harmony with Nature. The drama of Noh does not express itself but strikes straight from intuition to intuition. Without words, Zen would give this response to Descartes: “I think not, therefore I am not.” The problem of Being in this philosophy of action is at a quite different level from the European solution.
The two methods I will introduce to you, Aikido and the regenerative movement, are designed to help you to acquire a peaceful and profound respiration. Our School of Breathing 3 is open to anyone who is interested. It is not a school for violence, brutality or black magic, but a place for spiritual communion. It is open to all the different religions, and is interested in them to the extent that they are concerned with breathing.
a) The regenerative movement
The regenerative movement (hereafter referred to as the movement) was advocated by Master Haruchika Noguchi and can be done by anybody, except for the dead or dying and women immediately after giving birth, the period during which their pelvis slowly closes again.
Let me say a few words about Master Noguchi. He was of a self-reliant nature (fortunately, for he thus avoided being contaminated by many preconceived notions), and he founded the method known as Seitai. His first exploit was at the age of 12 when he cured his neighbors who were suffering from diarrhea at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. He had found his healing vocation and he never looked back. However, after studying all the methods of healing he decided that they were insufficient to save people, and so he came to conceive the notion of Seitai.
The literal translation of Seitai is “correct body” or “physical co-ordination,” and it seems a little complicated at first because it does not tie in with the current idea that health is synonymous with the absence of disease. Let me give an outline of the more important aspects of Seitai.
1) Those who have learned Seitai possess reflexes sufficiently developed to allow them to react to any anomaly without necessarily being conscious of it. They vomit food if it does not agree with them, even if the glutton in them wants to keep it down! In this way many cases of poisoning will be avoided. Their sensitivity is such that sudden diseases do not catch them unawares, but are accepted as physiological fluctuations. They do not attempt to “cure” these diseases because they know how to exploit them profitably. For example, their colds may be frequent but do not last long (about twenty or thirty minutes) and once the cold is over they feel refreshed.
2) Their breathing is deeper than that of most people.
3) Because their sleep is deep they do not need to sleep long, and they recover quickly from fatigue.
4) Their bodies are supple and not stiff or rigid.
5) They can concentrate and relax at will.
6) Their needs are precise; they do not need to consult “experts” about what they should do or eat. Their bodies know.
7) The delay between thought and action disappears, and their clumsiness is replaced by agility without their knowing how this change came about.
8) They have peace of mind.
Seitai has, however, one great disadvantage in that it takes too long to learn the techniques; an apprenticeship can last as long as twenty years, and however perfect the technique may be, it cannot satisfy the needs of an industrial society, let alone the millions that make up the world population. An expert might treat fifty to a hundred and fifty people a day at the most, which is just a drop in the ocean. In addition, few people are willing to devote twenty years of their lives to such a study.
Besides this technique, there is another method which Master Noguchi advocated from the start of his career — the movement. Its great advantage is that it needs no special technique and anyone can do it after a little instruction. Its aim and the physical evolution which it brings are the same as those of the Seitai technique, but whereas Seitai may be classed as an esoteric teaching, the movement is definitely exoteric and open to everyone.
The irony of human nature is such that this method, accessible to everyone, remained the exclusive property of the Seitai Society. A kind of pride prevented people from trying such a simple method. One day in February 1968 I undertook to gather some people together to form a club for the movement. I made a report of it to the Seitai Society which published it in its monthly magazine. The result was quite unexpected; it was like an electric shock which sparked off the formation of clubs all over Japan. Today, there are more than 50,000 registered members and almost twice that many nonregistered.
On my brief trips to Europe, I organized similar clubs in Rome and Paris. Later, I discovered that in spite of European people’s very quick understanding, these clubs soon dissolved due to the absence of a central figure.
The personality of the leader of the group is of vital importance. According to the leader’s personality the participants can finish a session feeling more relaxed, or more exhausted than before. It is a question of atmosphere, of the leader’s invisible influence, and that depends on the openness of his mind, his general background and finally on his breathing.
It is true to say that the movement has therapeutic effects, but that is not its most important aspect. It would be tantamount to saying that the purpose of a statue is to cast a shadow. Thus we do not accept those people whose sole preoccupation is to be cured of this or that disease. Disease is a shadow, and if they wish to pursue their shadow over hill and dale that is their business, not ours. Our business is simply the return to normal.
This raises an important question: what is human movement? Maine de Biran 4 once timidly posed the question. How is it that an abstract thought, for example to raise the arm, is transformed into the real action of raising the arm? While the West remains unable to solve this problem, the East has known the secret for a long time, without being able to express it in conventional language. The Japanese were content to struggle for the acquisition of traditional and esoteric techniques.
The true purpose of the movement should be to teach, through practice, the basic difference between physical force (as in both physics and physique) and breathing, the basis of spontaneous movement.
Aikido, a martial art of love, was founded by the late Master Ueshiba who died in April 1969 and whom I was fortunate enough to know intimately over more than ten years. A martial art of love will sound contradictory to those who understand martial art to be an aggressive fighting technique. Yet this is precisely what Master Ueshiba never ceased to affirm - a doctrine of non-resistance, a martial art of love; not a sport or a fighting technique.
Though small of stature, he was still able at the age of 84 to throw groups of robust young assailants as easily as if they were packets of cigarettes; yet this extraordinary power was not physical strength but breathing. Stroking his little white beard, he would lean over them anxiously and ask if they were hurt. His attackers did not realize what had happened to them; suddenly they were lifted up as if on a cushion of air, and they had a brief glimpse of the ground above them and the sky below before they landed. People trusted him absolutely and knew that he would never harm them. He was the archetypal grandfather playing with his grandchildren.
He expressed his principle this way — the world is one large family. This is not difficult to understand, but it is difficult to put it into practice. He was one of those rare people who did.
It would be as futile to go into the details of his teaching as to teach swimming to someone who never put a foot in the water. However, as soon as one starts to practise, one thing becomes clear — there is a gap between one’s thought and one’s action. I am not talking about acrobatics or feats of strength but of simple gestures such as moving the hand forward to grasp the opponent’s wrist or walking in a circle. One feels blocked at every turn.
There is often a sort of hesitation or confusion in our thoughts which is translated into action as a repetition of ridiculous errors — one moves the wrong hand, the left instead of the right, or one turns one’s wrist the opposite way to the one indicated. This is an embarrassing revelation for we like to think that we are in control of our own bodies at least! But it seems that we are not. It is not surprising that so many involuntary crimes are committed in the world: “I didn’t mean to do it!” or “Something came over me, I couldn’t help it.” Almost 2,000 years ago. Jesus said, “You will deny me three times before the cock crows.”
In Master Ueshiba’s case action sprang from intuition, not from the will nor from rational decision, intuition was linked to action in such a natural, intimate and immediate way that there was no delay between the two. He used to say that whoever attacked him had lost right from the start simply because of his desire to attack. This was not bravado but the enunciation of a truth as objective and impersonal as a mathematical law. With his permission, several practitioners of other martial arts tried to attack him without prior warning at the most unexpected moments. They never succeeded. Some of them struck into empty space, others hit the walls and bruised their hands.
There is an element of premonition in all of this. A rational process has several stages: recognition of the visual data, sounds or other signals from the aggressor; consideration of the significance of these signals; conclusion that an attack seems imminent; consideration of the possible means of defence, parrying the blow or avoiding it; a rational conclusion and a decision to carry out the chosen method; execution of the movement, etc.
By the time you have gone through all these stages, your attacker will have punched you fifty times, taken a shower, changed his shirt and downed a whisky in the nearest bar. Nor is that the end of the story. The collection of the visual data and all the above steps can only happen once your attention is focused on them; what if your attention is elsewhere? Or if you are attacked from behind where you cannot see? Or if you are asleep? Moreover, you must be sure that the attacker’s movements are a sign of real aggression, and not just a joke or a nervous tic. Many different interpretations are possible and only the result can bring confirmation; but if you wait until then, it is too late!
Master Ueshiba said that when someone attacked him he saw a white ball coming towards him before the attack actually happened. All he had to do was avoid the white ball and the blow did not strike him.
Intuition seizes on impulses at their point of origin. Where do those impulses come from? No law of causality can explain this. The law of inertia does not explain the birth of a movement.
One of the most important points of Master Ueshiba’s teaching, it seems to me, is his concept of time and space: he said that neither space nor time exists! The concept of a homogeneous space-time originated in the West; space and time exist a priori, and Man comes to live on the axes provided for him. Who would be such a fool as to deny the existence of a framework which precedes all others? There is a breathing practice in Aikido which consists of joining the hands and shaking them in front of the belly, keeping the eyes closed. At this point Master Ueshiba used to say, “Stand at the origin of Heaven and Earth and simply breathe in.” What does this mean? It means that you are already at the origin of space and time and that you yourself are the creator of a spacetime which flows out from your personality, your soul.
Bergson made a small step in this direction, but did not Jesus say, “Before Abraham was, I am”?
The place where Aikido is practised is sacred, not because of a religious morality but because in that place there reigns a different space-time from the one in our ordinary life. You are on the floating celestial bridge (Ame no Ukihashi). The bow that we make on entering the dojo (practice hall) sanctifies us, and when we leave it de-sanctifies us. Outside we become once again one of the crowd, at odds with the constraints which society imposes on us.
c) The viewpoints of our school
The School of Breathing is a selective school but not a private or exclusive one. Anyone is free to join and to belong to other disciplines and organizations at the same time. We are open to other points of view and are interested in other teachings of respiration, and especially in the relationship between thinking and breathing.
In these opening pages I have offered you a glimpse of possibilities other than those available in Western thinking. It may be that I give the impression that only a very small number of Japanese Masters hold the exclusive rights to the secrets of intuition, but that is not my meaning at all. Examples of intuition exist as much in the West as in the East, and are found as often among ordinary people as among geniuses. These examples, however, have found no place in the main current of Western thinking for they cannot be handled by the theories which lie at the root of this kind of thinking. Either they are admired as extraordinary or they are rejected as impossible.
Magic, Mystery, Miracle — the labels are all ready and waiting and once the event has been classified it is thrown into its pigeonhole and forgotten.
From the point of view of our school, such phenomena as premonition, telepathy, psychometry, and telekinesis are by no means impossibilities. We do not necessarily go deeply into such matters, yet we accept their right to exist as citizens in our society. It is necessary to keep an open mind here. Discussion and the collection of evidence are not, of course, excluded from our activities.
What we have done is admittedly very little compared to all that remains to be done. We are trying modestly to contribute by pointing out the way by which human beings may be able to regain their spiritual freedom.
3The School of Breathing (in French l’Êcole de la Respiration) is the name of Mr. Tsuda's dojo (practice hall) in Paris. It is also the subtitle to all of his books in this series.
4 French philosopher 1766-1824