I have finally got around to reading Ellis Amdur's revised and expanded edition of Hidden In Plain Sight: Esoteric Power Training Within Japanese Martial Traditions. After all the hype this book has received in certain martial arts circles, my overall impression was less enthusiastic than I expected.
Now, that is not to say there are sections of this book I enjoyed immensely and I will write about those. It just felt at times that Amdur was reaching in places to thicken this book about a topic that has a lot of hearsay and 'what ifs' surrounding it.
As with my other reviews I will work through chapter by chapter and please remember these are just my opinions - those of an amateur martial artist with a very limited exposure to Japanese culture. The act of writing this review lets me look at the book a second time with a different lens. Sometimes I discover or rediscover gems in the writing this way.
The book contains 16 chapters split into four sections.
Section 1 - The Cultivation of Power.
Chapter 1: Physical Culture.
A dancer's skill, the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer, herder's strength, wrestler's skill, farmer's strength. What links these ideas together are that they are all within the human capacity to produce. People create bodies designed to help them survive in whatever conditions society (or nature) place them. People get very good at these specialised endeavours, what then of warrior's strength and skill? If your survival depends on fighting or killing other humans then this requires another kind of body. Amdur digs into these ideas finishing with flow states and ascetic power.
Chapter 2: The Development of Specialized Martial Skill and Power.
Amdur lays down the idea in chapter one that older cultures have bodies already primed for fighting. What then is the type of power generated in the martial arts? The author looks into ambiguous terms such as qi and internal strength. I myself have to admit that I have been intrigued and excited about what these terms could mean for my martial practice. I think it very brave of Amdur to try and define these terms. Other skills in a warrior's toolbox are bracing strength, whipping strength, axle strength, and coiling strength. Read the book to find out how Amdur breaks down some important physical skills found in internal power traditions. What interested me the most in this chapter were his definitions of grasping smoke and listening skill. I have experienced first hand training with someone with these two skills and I thought the author explained them well. Finally he talks about gravity and the ground as two forces the martial artist has at his disposal to help amplify the power of techniques. I enjoyed the systematic approach to these skills and found this chapter very enjoyable to read and ponder.
Chapter 3: Six Connections - Comprehensive Power Development.
Known also as the six harmonies in English speaking martial arts, What a topic to try and tackle! Amdur admits that were he to really do it justice he would write a whole book, rather than one chapter on the six connections. We now come to an idea where the body is used as a coordinated, connected unit. The six connections are broken down into three external connections (feet and hands, knees and elbows, hips and shoulders) and three internal connections (intent, breath and waist/dantien/tanden). Amdur equates the internal connections to essential power components of a car. Intent is the skilled driver, breath is the engine and waist is the gearing system that allows power and intent to get to the wheels, even help amplify it.
Section 2 - Heaven And Earth Within Man.
Chapter 4: The Chinese Connection.
It is commonly known amongst historians that Chinese culture influenced early Japanese history. Amdur explores this from a martial artist's point of view by speculating that some sophisticated practices found in Japanese martial traditions may have been brought over from China at some point in history. Amdur reminds the reader that ryuha or bugei were codified combative practices studied primarily by the warrior-elite from the 14th century onwards. Therefore, they concentrate predominantly on individual combat and leadership. Over centuries of warfare most of the esoteric training methods such as Mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism), Taoism and Shinto were incorporated into the martial traditions. These esoteric practices have links to Chinese religious rituals that were then, in turn applied to combative purposes. Amdur states southern China as the main source of these practices.
Chapter 5: Kito-ryu: Rising and Falling.
Amdur gives us more history lessons. The influence of Chinese martial arts became significant during the Edo period and the martial tradition of Kito-ryu features heavily. According to one record, three wandering samurai were taught grappling techniques from a Chinese scholar living in Japan. One of these men was the founder of Kito-ryu. Considering the founders of Kito-ryu were already capable grapplers and sumo existed, Amdur suspects that what these men learnt from the Chinese scholar were in fact internal power skills.
Chapter 6: Yoshin-ryu: A Garden of Willows.
Amdur looks into another martial tradition with strong Chinese roots. Throughout this chapter Amdur looks at the stories and evidence that links Chinese internal martial arts to Yoshin-ryu and its off-shoots. Amdur references Tobin Threadgill Sensei in this chapter as he writes about Shindo Yoshin Ryu. As a student of TSYR I was interested to see what Amdur found useful or important to relation to this chapter. It was a good read.
Chapter 7: Tenjin Shinyo-ryu: Heaven and Man.
This chapter takes a look at a martial tradition that is an off shoot of the earlier Yoshin-ryu. Along with Kito-ryu, Tenjin Shinyo-ryu was studied by the founder of Judo. Ki development is discussed and Amdur states that the three principles of will, ki and power were common in many Japanese ryuha and links back to Chinese ideas.
Chapter 8: What Happened To Jujutsu?
So the logical question to ask now is if the skills and methods of internal training were so common in the Edo period, why do they appear lost in today's modern budo? Amdur places the blame squarely on Judo, or more correctly on its founder, Kano Jigoro. I won't go into the details here, Amdur puts a good argument forward as to why the popularity of Judo in Japan saw a decline in the internal skills that were documented in earlier times.
Section 3 - Daito-ryu: The Past is Future.
Chapter 9: Aizu Bujutsu: Takeda Sokaku's Birthright.
After speaking of the loss of training methods that develop internal power, Amdur now turns to Takeda Sokaku's skill and how this man in the 20th Century reintroduced a level of power in martial arts circles that people thought was lost. Where did Takeda get his Daito-ryu from? What made so many martial artists of the time go and train with him? This is an interesting chapter about martial arts in the Aizu domain and how they could have influenced what we now call Daito-ryu.
Chapter 10: Takeda Sokaku: Opening Our Eyes To True Budo.
Amdur dives into this chapter exploring Takeda's character, his relationship with his father and his early training in martial arts.
Chapter 11: The Heart of Aiki Is The Sword: Takeda Sokaku's Legacy.
Amdur discusses a period of Takeda's life that is largely unknown, about seventeen years where he must have travelled about. This was a time of the gekiken kogyo (free-style competitions) and Amdur assumes Takeda had the opportunity to learn a variety of styles or techniques as he wandered about. Dojo breaking was common so it is safe to assume Takeda may have done this. While 'collecting' techniques and principles, Amdur states that Takeda would still have had a base martial art from which he had a reference with the sword. This he names as Ono-ha Itto-ryu.
Chapter 12: Aiki Nito Hiden.
Amdur discusses and speculates reasons behind Takeda adopting a one-handed sword style. I found this chapter tiresome and sometimes fruitless, I can see what Amdur was trying to do by linking some ideas back to internal power but this is one area where I think it is stretched a bit thin. Read it and decide for yourself.
Section 4 -Aikido and Ueshiba Morihei: More Than A Martial Art & More Than A Martial Artist.
Chapter 13: Is The Heart Of Aikido The Sword?
OK, I have a background in Aikido training, I have also read many books on Aikido and the founder. I have also read Amdur's book, Duelling with O'Sensei so I was interested to see where this section would go. There is no doubt that Ueshiba was one of Takeda's best students and most of the world will now agree (despite what the Aikikai was saying back in the day) that Ueshiba's Aikido had roots in Daito-ryu. Takeda had the goods as far as internal power goes and its very likely Ueshiba did as well, however, Ueshiba was not formally taught weapons by Takeda as far as we know. Where did Ueshiba learn to use the spear, sword and staff? Amdur attempts to answer this question here.
Chapter 14: Aikido is Three Peaches.
Amdur looks more into Ueshiba Morihei's thinking by breaking down a book of Morihei's private lectures between 1958 and 1961. Things get quite esoteric and vague in this chapter. Amdur attempts to interpret Ueshiba's quasi-religious jargon and mysticism as it relates to Aikido. This is a big challenge and even the author admits that he is not very fluent in modern written Japanese, let alone the classical forms. He does mention those who helped get through this information but notes that the opinions are all his own. It becomes apparent that Amdur believes part of Ueshiba's power was in his strict, almost spartan approach to his beliefs. Prayer and the gods played a vital role in Ueshiba's psyche and Amdur insists this was one part of the puzzle that gave Ueshiba his internal strength.
Chapter 15: Hidden in Plain Sight.
Ah, here we are! At the very crux of it! Or are we? Amdur tries to get to the heart of Takeda's and Ueshiba's power by looking at eye-witness accounts of their abilities and what similarities their performance of their martial arts share. He talks about aiki and that it seems to have two aspects - a shocking electric force to one's opponent and the ability to cause the opponent to fall down without knowing how. Is Ueshiba's aiki the same as Takeda's? Where did Takeda's teaching stop and Ueshiba's creative genius continue? This is a long chapter with many twists and turns. Good luck!
Chapter 16: Triangle, Circle, Square: How To Be O'Sensei In Sixteen Easy Steps.
This chapter starts by discussing the impact Ueshiba Kisshomaru had on modern aikido. Then the author talks about lost moments that students should have paid attention to to get the 'gold' on internal training. The rest of the chapter is a tongue-in-cheek approach on how to actually be O'Sensei.
The book has a huge glossary so you can check up on Japanese terms used throughout the book. If you include this then the book sits at around 470 pages.
If you have read down this far then, good on you. Maybe you are ready for Amdur's book!
Happy training and/or reading.