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About the ANU Aikido Club - John Tunbull Sensei

The History and Foundations of the ANU Aikido Club

The ANU Aikido Club was founded by John Turnbull in 1968 when he was asked to begin teaching Aikido in the ANU Drill Hall at the Australian National University Sports Union, where the art gallery now is.

For the first several years numbers were small, with rarely more than six to 10 members. Early club members were students and staff from the ANU who were interested in Zen, and had become captivated by Aikido after seeing a demonstration by Turnbull Sensei and learning that Aikido is "moving Zen" in contrast to the more traditional "seated Zen" of the monasteries.

The Place of Zen in the ANUAC

Zen appears to have originated in ancient India as a method of developing he hidden powers of the mind to increase insight, perceptiveness and intuition. Eventually it spread to China, where it was adopted by intellectuals, administrators, artists and warriors as an invaluable way of personal development. From thence it went to Japan, where it was quickly accepted by the Samurai, who found it so valuable that they made it an integral part of upper class education.

During Japan's feudal era, the Samurai set the standards in manners, ideals of character, esthetics and moral codes of faithfulness and obligation. Zen proved especially valuable for statesmen-warriors engaged in the demanding disciplines of bushido and national administration.

Bushido is "the way of chivalry". It embodies "the precepts of knighthood" and is an intrinsic part of traditional Japanese culture. In recent decades its value for personal or "inner"development, and for the maintenance of social harmony, has become widely recognised around the world because of the role it has played in Japans economic and political success during the past century.

In "the Spiritual Foundations of Aikido", William Gleeson says that bushido (budo) is "the traditional philosophy and way of life underlying the conduct and training of the Japanese Samurai warrior. Budo encompasses both the martial arts and the fine arts; it nurtures both aesthetic appreciation and practical ability. The code of bushido had defined the standard for traditional education in Japan for many centuries, instilling in the Japanese people a sense of justice, courage, morality and benevolence. I believe that this makes it particularly valuable for our modern times. It is, in fact, already having a large influence in Western society, and it is important that we understand its true nature.

Regardless of the purity or depth of the ancient martial arts, as long as modern adaptions emphasise formal competition as their raison d⥴re, they are sports not budo.

Zen training opens the way for the practitioner to enter a condition of "calm and true seeing", in which the superficial verbal mind becomes stilled so that the vast resources of the subconscious can be activated. This frees the individual from the distortions of mental perception which arise whenever there are expectations, biases, prejudices, ideologies, opinions, conceits and egotism. Zen provides an inner stability which enhances ki - the life-force which activates all living things.

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Aikido's Founder

In 1965 John Turnbull became one of the first students of Aikido teacher Seiichi Sugano soon after he arrived in Australia. Sugano Sensei had been a uchi deshi (inner student or personal disciple) to O-Sensei (Great Teacher) Morehei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido (1883-1969). In the Aikido which Seiichi had received from O'Sensei Ueshiba via the traditional method of "direct transmission without words", John discovered the underlying principle of budo for which he had been searching, and which O'Sensei had made available to the world. It was to change his life.

To understand the ANUAC'S place in the history of Australian budo, it's necessary to understand who O'Sensei Ueshiba was, and the nature of the extraordinary discipline which he founded, and the application of this art in Canberra by Sensei Turnbull.

Born into a Samurai family, Morehei Ueshiba experienced a terrible event as a small child when he saw his beloved father attacked by a gang of political thugs. His father managed to beat them off, but his son was terribly distraught because he couldn't help. Little Morehei vowed then that one day he would be so great a martial artist that never again would he be unable protect someone needing help.

Had he been an ordinary child he probably would have forgotten this. But he was a member of an ancient culture with a profound tradition of a budo which emphasises "inner" development as well as physical training. So began an impassioned and lifelong pursuit of the inner secrets of budo. It included the spiritual and philosophical bases of Shinto, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity as Morehei trained unceasingly at anything which might help him become a truly invincible warrior-knight in the ancient "budo" tradition.

By his thirties he had become an unbeatable martial artist, yet his thirst for the ultimate secret of budo was still unsatisfied. For he had come to believe that from the Universe's view-point, the beating of an opponent is merely animal behavior, and does not represent true victory. His reasoning was that whenever one person's victory is offset by another's defeat, there has been no real progress from the Universe's perspective.

He was also plagued by the thought that even his enormous skill and strength would be of little use when he grew old and lost his physical powers, or if he was weakened by illness. Therefore he continued his search for that ancient and elusive goal of absolute victory - victory which does not involve loss or defeat for anyone.

Eventually he realised that to succeed he would have to break through what the Zen masters call "the barriers of the mind". This meant freeing himself from those cloying bonds of conceit and egotism which prevent an individual from achieving a true, clear, spontaneous perception of and interaction with reality. Consequently he continued to throw himself into a regime of unceasing training, prayer and meditation, attempting to enter the Zen state of enlightenment or true seeing, wherein he could comprehend the nature of Creation and of true victory.

He had already become a great fencing master in a nation where outstanding swordsmanship is revered. One day, while training alone in the mountains, he was visited by another fencing master. A disagreement arose which they agreed to settle by the traditional method of dueling, for only this could clearly show the truth of their conflicting opinions. To his opponent's amazement, Morehei placed his sword aside and faced him unarmed.

Think about that for a moment - the strike of a master swordsman is so fast that an ordinary person cannot even see the sword move, yet Morehei was so convinced that he was on the correct path that he willingly risked his life to test his views. And to his attacker's astonishment, he successfully avoided blow after lethal blow, until eventually his opponent became so discouraged and exhausted that he gave up.

The contest had been at a furious pace, and in focusing the enormous energy required to stay alive, Ueshiba finally attained the goal he had been seeking - Satori. This is a condition of "harmony with the creative essence of the Universe". It had been known since ancient times, and has also been called "the state of no-enemy". In risking his life to prove that his insight was accurate and real, Morehei became spiritually unified , entering the world of non-resistance where he could blend harmoniously with everything that happened.

Describing this event later, he said that when he walked away from his exhausted challenger, the earth seemed to be glowing with a golden light which permeated his entire being. Suddenly he could understand the songs of the birds, and felt that he was a part of the sun, the moon, the stars and all of creation. Finally the inner nature of budo became clear to him, and tears of joy ran down his cheeks.

From that time on he began teaching a new art which he eventually named Aikido - the Way of Harmony with the Life-force of the Universe. Many experts came to "test" him the way that first master had, but all left convinced that he had somehow tapped into powers which are far beyond the ken of ordinary people. Yet he always insisted that everything he did was completely in accord with the laws of Nature. Fortunately for those of us who seek to follow the path he blazed, some of his budo feats were recorded on film, and they are remarkable.

In one demonstration he allowed a group of swordsmen to surround him and strike at him simultaneously. As the forest of swords flash down upon him, he disappears from their midst and reappears beyond them as they stumble into what appears to be a vacuum caused by his departure. From this and other such incidents it has been theorised that his attunement of the ultimate power of creation (which he described as "loving protection for all beings") had brought him to a stage where he could move outside the normal limitations of time and space.

In another incident he was traveling with a group in China when they were ambushed by brigands and caught in a cross-fire. He survived because he could sense whenever a gun was aimed at him, and move out of the line of fire at that instant so that the bullets whistled past and left him unscathed, just as he had been able dodge the strikes of the sword master. On another occasion he was held up by a bandit with an automatic pistol, and leapt on him from six metres away, disarming him before he could fire.

His extraordinary ability brought him to the attention of the Japanese Government. He was awarded honours by the Emperor and appointed to various government positions. As a great master who had attained satori his advice was sought by the Government when Japan was deciding whether or not to enter World War II. He warned against this move, but was unheeded, with tragic consequences for his nation.

During the war he moved to a small farm in the mountains, despairing of the egotism, hatred and politics which were tearing his nation apart and dragging it into the greatest disaster in its history. He prayed and meditated deeply during the war, and upon seeing the dreadful hardship, humiliation and horror which it brought to his people, decided to open Aikido to the public. Until then it had only been taught to a few people of of high moral character and social standing who were already proven experts in other arts, and so could be trusted to use its powers wisely. His prayers and meditation had revealed that humans desperately need a better way of living, free of the jealousy, envy and paranoid antagonism - what Freud called the "emotional disease" - which has caused so much misery and held back human progress so much throughout all of the history of civilization. His insight told him that, properly practiced, Aikido provides such a way. It can be used to protect oneself and others without any need for the destructive hostility caused by the paranoia which is the basis of so much human misery. He believed that opening his new budo to the world would be of great benefit to all of humanity.

Here it must be noted that Aikido cannot be explained from the viewpoint of other fighting systems, religions or philosophies, or from the usual human perspective of advancing by "beating" others. It is not a way of fighting. It has no competitions or tournaments. It awards no medals or trophies to inflate its followers' egos and create envy and rivalry. Instead of using its powers to "teach" or "beat" other people, it seeks to avoid and to resolve conflicts. Most importantly, it provides a way of avoiding the spiritual trap of labeling other human beings as competitors and "enemies" over whom one has to achieve dominance for one's own protection and survival, yet its techniques are superb for self-defence.

Morehei Ueshiba became known as "O'Sensei" - the Great Teacher. He taught that the only true victory is "victory over one's self" - action where genuine personal progress is made without harming others. As the fame of his art spread, martial artists from all over the world flocked to his dojo to test the truth of his insight and the phenomenal claims being made about him. Boxing and wrestling champions from Europe, knife fighters from South America, stick fighters from India, spear fighters from China - dedicated martial artists seeking to improve themselves through the practice of true budo - arrived at his dojo. The Tokyo taxi drivers knew the way to "the Ueshiba dojo", and whenever they delivered challengers there they stopped to watch the fun. All his challengers went away amazed after trying the Aikido master out. A few, in whom he saw something special, were allowed to stay as inner students.

As things settled down after the war, a few of his younger student-teachers were sent around the world to begin teaching Aikido in foreign lands. One of these was Seiichi Sugano, who came to live in Sydney in 1965. John Turnbull, then studying other martial arts, was one of his first students and began training with him soon after he began teaching at Ryde in Sydney. Later he moved to Canberra and founded the ANU Aikido Club, making this the oldest continuously operating Aikido centre in Australia.

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The Club's Founder

Since its small beginning in 1968, the club has grown to be one of the largest martial art groups in Canberra and the largest Aikido group at any Australian university. The art Turnbull Sensei teaches is not easy for Westerners to learn, for it reflects the ancient sciences of life-energy or "ki" on which Traditional Chinese Medicine is founded. And although most Westerners associate martial art with sports, Aikido is not in any way a sport. It is for genuine self-defence in life-threatening situations, and consequently many of its techniques are lethal, and its methods of training are very different from Western sports. Thus there is, for many beginners, a sense of culture shock when they begin to struggle with new ways of learning.

O'Sensei said: "The Aiki mind is the mind that makes all the various intellectual activities useless. It is by no means a mere passive orconceptual endeavor. The way of the Japanese warrior is the way of the kami. " (That is, the way of perceiving the true inner essence of things at gut-level.)

On this aspect William Gleeson wrote: "There is no room in Aikido for conceptualisation or opinion: no right or wrong, only the reality of experience. We cannot claim to understand anything unless we can actually do it. This attitude underlies much that is traditional in Japanese society."

It is not possible to understand Aikido by learning about it, and in this way it is totally different from the usual Western processes of intellectualising and philosophising about things. In the sport of racing for instance, enthusiasts learn all about the performances and records of each horse and jockey, but few ever learn to actually ride a horse!. You must actually do Aikido to even begin to understand it, and even then you won't be able to say much about it, because its underlying principles go beyond the power of words. This is why the techniques of Aikido are so rewarding, yet seem so unfathomably mysterious to outsiders.

Aikido has profoundly important social, moral and spiritual aspects, and this is at first difficult for anyone who regards budo as sport to understand . But during the 30 years of the ANUAC's history this has gradually changed as the nation's culture has absorbed some of the East's philosophical concepts.

Looking back on more than half a century of martial art training, Turnbull Sensei says that the only way to begin to achieve the enlightenment which O'Sensei experienced is to devote oneself to daily training in meditation, as well as physical training in the actual armed and armed techniques. The way to success in this art is not easy, but fortunately for those who begin to experience it, it is so extraordinarily self-rewarding that it is difficult to discard.

Turnbull sensei was a young and relatively inexperienced person when he founded the ANUAC But he was already a truly dedicated martial artist. He had started boxing at nine years of age, had earned his blues in big-bore rifle shooting at college, and was skilled at archery as well as at at throwing knives, tomahawks and axes. At 18 years of age he had began training at Bjelke-Petersen's Gymnasium in Sydney under Australia's leading jujitsu expert, Les Byers. Les had been a long-time student of Shima Sensei, the Japanese aiki-jitsu master who lived in Australia during the 1920s, and was the first Japanese budo master to teach in Australia.

It was only after 13 years of judo and jujitsu that Turnbull Sensei dropped all other interests to concentrate on studying Aikido with Sugano Sensei in 1965. The club he founded still maintains its original connection between Zen and Aikido, and emphasises the importance of the moral and spiritual aspects which underlie Aikido. It still holds sunrise meditation sessions and mountain training weekends which feature za-zen, along with the "moving Zen" of technical Aikido training.

Senior students particularly love the mountain training weekends which are held in the Snowy Mountains. There they arise in pre-dawn darkness to sit on a mountainside in meditation, facing east as the dawn gradually lightens the sky. The traditional fune-kogi exercise is conducted as the glowing orb which energises all life on earth slides above the horizon, and this is followed by a training period and then breakfast. After breakfast there is more training until lunch time, and then the group walks out of the ranges for the drive home, sometimes with a stop to picnic and swim along the way.

The peace and intensity of these weekends makes them a high water mark of the club's activities each summer. During winter, when the mountains are snow-covered, there are occasional "ai-ski" weekends, and training weekends are also held at a centre with delightful scenery on the nearby NSW South Coast. Although these do not involve backpacking or outdoor camping, they are none-the-less uplifting because of the peacefulness of the surroundings and the beauty of the sun rising over the ocean as the day awakens during morning meditation.

Other pleasant events include barbecues, dinners and video nights. During the early years of the club, when Sugano Sensei was resident in Australia, the club often hosted the interstate and national Aikido events which he conducted. Due to Canberra's position in the most heavily populated corner of the continent, and as the nation's capital city and the centre of the Federal government and its Parliament, the club often receives visitors from interstate and overseas. These have included Kissomaru Ueshiba Doshu and his son, the current Doshu, while he was Hombu Dojo-cho. Other major overseas visits in recent years have been from the Japanese Defence Academy's Aikido Club and the Chuo University Aikido Club in Tokyo.

In 1995 John Turnbull Sensei was graded Fifth Dan, and in 1998 the original ANU Aikido Club was reconstituted as the ANU Aikido Club - John Turnbull Sensei. This move was designed to clearly establish its autonomy and independence from the petty politics which tarnish so much Australian martial art. The new club continues training exactly as before, emphasising genuine self-defence and combat ability allied with spiritual-mental-emotional development . Its Founder continues as its chief instructor, assisted by his wife Monica and son Benjamin, who is currently studying Japanese at the Australian National University.

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Looking to the Future

What of the future? Despite its lack of media coverage because it holds no competitions due to its lethal techniques, Aikido has become nearly as popular as judo and karate. As it has grown it has fragmented into a myriad "styles", as each teacher to the best of his or her ability strives towards the great summit of understanding which O'Sensei reached. In Australia there are now dozens of Aikido schools, some associated with Japanese centres, many existing independently, some still teaching the original street-effective techniques, some not. This trend towards dilution and fragmentation will undoubtedly continue, and just as undoubtedly, all who sincerely grapple with the Aikido concept will have their lives improved to at least some degree, regardless of which school they follow.

But it must be remembered that Aikido is a "spiritual martial art". It requires an intense focusing of the human mind and spirit, even more than physical development, vital though that also is to genuine progress. The teachers who ignore this, and the people who forget it, are doing Aikido a great disservice by allowing this wonderful discipline to degenerate into a merely physical and therefore superficial activity, far removed from that which the Founder created.

For Aikido is truly a Tao (Japanese "do") - a Way of Life. It is a path through life which leads to a flowering of the personality through wholeness and harmony. It is "moving Zen" and thus a path towards the satori which is revealed step by step as in the original schools of Soto Zen which Dogen founded. Embedded within it is the discovery that the only real heaven is on earth in this life - if we can but discard the blinkers which fetter our eyes with egotism and bias and conceits, and so prevent us seeing clearly. For here, and only here, in this one-and-only here-and-now, is that which seekers seek.

It is a rugged and demanding path, but the ANUAC's continuing dedication is to training which develops the entire person as a mind-body-spiritunity in powerful harmony with the creative energies of the universe. Only thus can the state of no-enemy - within or without - be achieved. Can anything else in life be so worthwhile?

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