an excerpt from an interview with Sensei Joe Thambu that was featured in our annual magazine.
The following is an abridged Aiki Insightsinterview with Joe Thambu Shihan by Marvin Oka. Aiki Insightsis a subscription-based student support service and audio resource library for learning how to learnAikido. This initiative will be launched in late January 2016
You can download the full emagazine here! Many thanks to Malcolm Dow for his editing skills.
M: Sensei, from your viewpoint what is the value of students learning off the mats as well as learning on the mats? Is there a value for them to keep learning when they go home after class?
JS: When initially starting, I would say no, but in actual fact if you do study Aikido [overtime] then you keep learning it ‘off the mats’ as well. But the initial thing has to come from ‘on the mats’. Once you start learning the techniques and what lies behindthe techniques, then you can apply it to any situation outside, and you can also apply it to the learning process outside. And then your learning outside can then lend itself back to learning Aikido.
M: Is there a way to learn Aikido that works better than other ways? How should a student think about how to learn Aikido?
JS: Everyone is different and everyone has different learning processes. There is no one rule that fits all. I believe we should learn from what suits us. I mean we should be pushed because you can only build character and build spirit when you push the envelope. Having said that, there’s different ways to push the envelope, and the way to push the envelope is the way that you will keep doing it repeatedly. So if it’s something you don’t like, you won’t repeat it. But if it’s something you derive some enjoyment from then you’re willing to push the envelope. The only way that pushing the envelope can be beneficial is if you do it repeatedly. If you do it once off, then really you will not learn much, but if you keep constantly pushing then you will learn a lot ... not just about what you are learning but about yourself as well. And that’s what Aiki truly is.
M: From your view, is there any value to developing a personal ‘Aiki philosophy’?
JS: I think in the absence of philosophy we have nothing, we may as well just be vegetables. It’s our philosophy that makes us who we are and helps us strive to become better people. It’s our philosophy that is what we have when we have nothing left. There was a Roman emperor and he was going to be executed the next day, and he said to his executioners, ‘I want to die like a general, I want to die from the front’, and they said, “We’ll do that”. And when they walked out, his lieutenant said, “What does it matter? We die tomorrow, what does it matter how we die?’ And the emperor said, “When it’s all you’ve got left, it matters.” And I think, when you die or when you live, it is by your philosophy. Because if you don’t, you haven’t lived your life, you’ve lived someone else’s life. I think philosophy is very important, but the philosophy has to be from within. A lot of us live other people’s philosophies, other people’s lives, and we struggle because we are living to other people’s rules and other people’s expectations. Aikido is meant to bring you out. The technique is meant to imbue you with a way to bring the philosophy out. The philosophy has to come from within, not from without.
I think its like kamae. Kancho Sensei (Shioda Gozo) said, “Your teacher cannot tell you when your kamae is correct, but he can tell you when it’s wrong. When it is right you will know.” I think it’s the same with philosophy. But when you are confronted with a situation and you’re under pressure and you have to ‘think’ then that’s not you. But if you ‘do’, then that’s you. I think this is what martial arts tries to get us to do -to act, not to think. When we act we are acting out of instinct and that’s instinct that’s honed, so I think instinct is an educated response. Instinct is not blind reaction, instinct is an educated response. That’s my philosophy.
M: It sounds like practicing Aikido combined with developing a personal philosophy naturally leads to personal improvement. Do you have any recommendations for how students can practice in ways to consciously develop themselves, so that they’re not just improving their physical technique but are also developing themselves as a person?
JS: I got told this story of this Karate teacher. A group of people went overseas to Japan to train with him. In the group there was this really good practitioner, probably the best of that whole group. And when it came time to test, the Japanese teacher -who was an eight or ninth dan -refused to test him. And everyone asked, “Sensei, why? Why wont you test him?” And he says, “I don’t know him. I see his karate but he doesn’t come and socialise with us, he doesn’t laugh with us, he doesn’t talk to us, so I don’t know him. I know his karate but I don’t know him so I don’t test him.” I think there’s learning on and off the mats. On the mats with serious practitioners we talk about technique, that is what the mat is for, we don’t talk about philosophy. So with Aiki Insights, I think it’s a good way to then get into the mind of the teacher because we can’t go socialising [with the Sensei] every time. We’re all not uchideshi, they do it all the time. So Aiki Insights is a way to get into the mind of the teacher and to have the teacher talk to you like I am speaking now. And I think your idea of Aiki Insights will fill that gap that’s missing for students. Aiki Insights and the way it will develop, I think, is a perfect way to fill that gap that we have in martial arts today.
M: Thank you. I’m very excited about Aiki Insights and the value it can provide to Aikido students. Sensei, can you please share any thoughts regarding how a student can make sure they’re cultivating the best mindset for training, so that when they do get on the mats they are practicing with their whole mind-body-spirit?
JS: I’m very old school and I believe in just getting in there and doing it, whatever it is –just do it. You get good at a certain thing by doing that certain thing. If you want to get good at Aikido, you do Aikido. Not only is it a different fitness but the more you do, the more you relax when you do it. The more you do it, the more confident you get and the more you learn. So it’s not just a physical fitness, it’s a mental fitness. It’s a confidence building thing, too. When you start to train Aikido you don’t try so hard anymore. When you’re good you don’t try so hard. Essentially, that is what an art form is. It’s not about how much energy you expend, it’s about how much energy you don’t use. So I think if you want to be good at something, do it. Many people talk about Aikido, they talk about what they’ve read, what they’ve seen, what they aspire to do. It’s really interesting that one of the very few people who never talks about Aikido philosophy or concepts is my uncle, but yet he is the epitome of what we talk about. He lives what people talk about and therefore he doesn’t need to talk about it. It’s been said that ‘we talk about what we want, we are what we do’. I think that is a very good analogy. So if you are talking about ‘I want to do this’ and ‘I want to do that’, that’s what you aspire to do. What you are doing right now is who you are.
M: Excellent! Sensei, I really appreciate your time. Thank you. Do you have any other last minute thoughts you’d like to share?
JS: Yes. Many people say I live the dream, and yes I do. I do live the dream. And I live the dream because of the people around me who help me to live the dream. This dojo [Heidelberg] and Springvale would never have been possible without the wider Aikido community. And not just the people who train but also their family, their friends, that wider community. Everyone has put in to make these two places possible. And what I aspire for the dojo to be is to be the ‘wood’ in this ‘concrete jungle’. I aspire for the dojo to be somewhere where kids might pass three streets away and they point in our direction and say, “that’s the dojo!”, or when someone’s driving in a certain direction and they think, ‘the dojo’s over there!’, that’s what I aspire the dojo to be -to be a point of reference and a point of stability. And everyone has helped make that possible. Not helped me make it possible, but helped make it possible. And for that I am eternally grateful. This art that we do is a difficult art, but it’s not my art, it belongs to everyone who trains it. This dojo does not belong to me, it belongs to everyone who trains here, everyone from the past, now, and in the future. You have a stake in this dojo, you have a stake in the culture that is the Shudokan, you have a stake in the art that is Aikido and it’s yours, not mine, I’m just the custodian.
M: That was excellent, beautiful! Thank you, Sensei! Osu! Aiki Insights will be launched in late January 2016. Stay tuned and become a subscriber!