Interview with Senseis Philip Greenwood, Michele Benzamin-Miki, and Chikako Bryner
by Derek Snyder
I started my aikido journey more than 20 years ago and by fortunate circumstances studied
under Robert Bryner, one of the leading proponents of Shoji Nishio in the U.S. Sadly, we
have lost both Bryner Sensei and Nishio Sensei in recent years. Before Nishio Sensei
passed, he appointed one of his long term pupils, Koji Yoshida Sensei, as his
representative in the U.S. For the last 13 years Yoshida Sensei has made the long trip from
Toyama, Japan to Los Angeles to guide us on the path established by O Sensei and
expanded by Nishio Sensei.
After the passing of Robert Bryner, his wife Chikako Bryner Sensei has carried on as Dojo
cho. After Bryner Sensei’s passing I began to think about his legacy along with the legacy
of Nishio Sensei, and perhaps selfishly, the future of my own practice. With so many Aikido
luminaries passing on, it seemed time to let people know of some important teachers that
are taking the up the baton. Reminiscing over videos on YouTube or elsewhere is nice, but
practice and growth are essential while you can still do it! Below is an interview with three
important teachers in the Nishio tradition who have also been appointed by Yoshida
Sensei as the directors of Nishikaze Aikido Society of America, the official Nishio
organization in the U.S. Students of Aikido and especially followers of Nishio Sensei
should definitely get to know Philip Greenwood, Michele Benzamin-Miki and Chikako
How did you get introduced to aikido?
PG: It was the 70′s and martial arts were everywhere. I watched the Kung Fu TV series
religiously and like most kids at that time I was inspired by Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.
How could any teenage boy not be! I had a friend who was doing Taekwondo and we’d go
to his house and spar for hours. He had long legs and great kicks and I’d always get my
butt kicked, but I started to develop a natural sense of timing and spacing. We’d go to the
library and check out every martial arts book. We studied all the Bruce Tegner books on Jiu
Jitsu, Judo, Aikido and Karate. Then we’d go home and try them out on each other.
I grew up in Pasadena. One day my friend and I were in a little book store down on Lake
Ave. and we saw a flyer on the bulletin board for aikido. It said something like “NonFighting Martial Art.” We had only seen a few books on aikido but we had never seen it done. My friend said, “I heard that in aikido they can throw you without touching you!” Well
I had to see that. So we made our way over to the Japanese Cultural Center to check it out
the next Sunday morning. I never stopped going.
MBM: I grew up in a family of martial artists, my father was my first Karate teacher, and my mother as a young girl in Japan was trained in the Yari Japanese spear. We moved from Japan to the US when I was just 4 years old landing in East Los Angeles, and when I was 8 years old,off into the Barrios of the San Fernando Valley where I had to use the simple but effective techniques my dad taught me, just to get to and from elementary school. I was a scrappy little fighter then, and when I was seventeen and just out of High School, started looking for a martial art form to reconnect with the Japanese side of my myself.
I began training in the martial arts with Karatedo and Kobayashi Sensei at a junior college I was attending, his style had a strong emphasis on sparring yet he would occasionally demonstrate Aikido movements for examples of flow within the fighting. He was an unusual instructor for the 70’s, which were way before mixed or eclectic styles were popularized.
CB: My first encounter with Aikido was in 1983 when my older sister came to visit me from Hawaii. She started Aikido at University of Hawaii probably less than a year before. She was always weaker than me and could never beat me physically. But she applied Aikido techniques to throw me all over the place at ease. I thought, ”What is this?? How can a weak person like my sister throw me?” I thought I cannot let this happen… I better look into this martial art. Luckily, Cal Poly University, Pomona where I attended college happen to have an Aikido Club under Seidokan Aikido. So I joined the club in 1984.
How old were you when you started?
What about aikido first caught your interest?
PG: The popular appeal of martial arts in the 70′s was somewhat different than it is today. Back then Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu television series showed martial arts way of life and a deep philosophical pursuit. I still have the copy of “Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense” and “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” by Bruce Lee that I bought back then. Another book that I got not long after I started aikido was “Diary of the Way” which has three parts, one on Aikido, one on Chi Kung and one on Tai Chi Chuan. It’s still one of my most treasured books. For me martial art is simply philosophy expressed in action. It’s never been about winning, hurting people, being a tough guy, getting a black belt or competing. I’m sure I didn’t entirely understand why I liked aikido so much back then. There’s an undeniably romantic appeal to the ascetic warrior lifestyle. But I also think in aikido we have the potential to embody a kind of ideal living philosophy of action.
MBM: I loved the strategy of sparring in Karate class and in the tournaments; however I found it increasingly difficult being a woman and slight of build to justify how it would all match up in reality.
Being quick and smart on the mat and getting points in sparring was easy for me, but the attitudes, egos and threats around winning or losing became increasingly difficult to navigate around, and so I found myself backing off and not expressing my full power in this art. The flow and freedom of the Aikido movements in contrast to this was remarkable, and more importantly, I could use my full power effectively in the Aikido movements! I came to realize that I would not kill someone, even in self defense. This became evident when my teacher spoke to the woman in the class and said, when someone is threatening your life, make sure you put them down and they don’t come up… for good! At the time, I understood that he was installing in us a mindset that he felt was necessary for us woman to execute his techniques, yet his follow up statement was the rub for me … He said, if you ask me to testify in court, I will say I never told you that. That was the turning point for me to train in Aikido.
CB: It was totally different philosophy and feeling compared to Karate or any other martial art that I was exposed to. I knew it was a very special martial art that I want to pursue.
How has your perception of aikido changed since that time?
PG: When I was younger I held some mystical notions about aikido because that’s how it was introduced to me and it resonated with my adolescent thinking. I no longer hold to any supernatural explanations regarding any aspect of life or aikido. I see aikido in humanistic terms as the merging of martial practicality with deeply ethical considerations wrapped in a beautiful artistic pursuit.
MBM: When I began Aikido training in 1980 I was able to drop most everything I learned from my Karatedo in order to adopt the principles of non-harming and flow, and to harmonize and redirect the attacks while on the mat, this was my beginners bliss back then… Currently, I realize that Aikido is a deep ocean of training in and out of the dojo, which continually asks the impossible of you!…so I continuously yield to those learning’s and let go of what I thought I knew about Aikido, and simply enjoy the art.
CB: It has stayed pretty much the same, but I feel I have a little better understanding of O-Sensei through Nishio and Yoshida Shihans’ teachings.
How do you feel aikido has affected your life outside the dojo?
PG: I like to think that my involvement in aikido has allowed me to approach life situations with greater calm and a more philosophical outlook. I think a great determining factor of an individual’s progress and happiness in life is the manner in which they engage conflict. I know it’s popular to say that in aikido we avoid conflict, but I don’t believe that merely avoiding conflict is a healthy approach to life. People do and allow all kinds of stupid and horrible things and make all kinds of bad decisions if all they try to do is avoid conflict.
It’s human nature for people to either resist or avoid conflict, but both responses are fearful and reactive. In fact, merely avoiding conflict can be a form of passive aggression. People naturally fear conflict because they either fear the outcome or they fear their own reaction. Through aikido we should strive to overcome these tendencies. Conflict is essential for change. It’s a goal in my own aikido to not simply to avoid conflict, but to engage conflict constructively in the interest of creating positive change.
MBM: It has given richness, detail and direct experience to the principles that I have valued and held high in my life. It has helped me to understand myself and others better, allowing a gratitude and appreciation for the human condition in all its complexities and paradoxes. It has also given me a bigger context and perspective on my actions and for what purpose they serve so that I can keep polishing my character and behaviors, while giving myself the permission and freedom to make a lot of mistakes along the way!… using the Aikido principles like the North Star guided by it, without having to land on it.
CB: Aikido has been integrated into my life for almost 30 years. I am a better person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually because of it. One of my favorite stories of O-Sensei is on Tohei Sensei’s stolen leather jacket. Instead of blaming the person who stole the jacket, O-Sensei reprimanded Tohei Sensei for having it stolen. By showing off a nice jacket around, he had created a thief. I was so impressed with this story, since then I try not to blame the others, but look at myself first. Nishio Sensei taught this through his Aikido. He used to say, put yourself in the position that you cannot be touched. If an opponent hits you, it is your fault for getting hit and also you have created a bad person who hit you. This is true outside of the dojo, too. We are quick to blame on others without looking at ourselves.
Why should someone choose Aikido instead of another Martial Art?
PG: Aikido training may not be for everyone, but there are many different teachers who approach teaching very differently so perhaps there’s a teacher out there for everyone if you looked hard enough. I feel very fortunate that I happened into it and that the circumstances of my friendship as well as the tenor of martial arts at the time was what it was. I don’t think you need to study aikido in order to pursue and achieve a similar end. You can pursue a philosophical life without engaging in martial art practice of any kind. The fact that aikido draws its technical repertoire from Daito Ryu is circumstantial. You could begin with the source material of nearly any martial art and arrive at aikido. Had O-Sensei been born in another country he could have surely utilized most any indigenous martial art to create something equivalent to aikido. Aikido as we practice it today is a very special and unique art and if you resonate with its particular character then you might fall in love with it as many of us have.
MBM: Train in Aikido when it aligns with your character and what you value in life, and most importantly because you get great pleasure from this kind of training, as it will be a lifelong journey. One of my Aikido teachers described Aikido as the palm of the hand, and the other martial arts are the fingers of the hand.
CB: Aikido is not for everyone, just like any other art. If someone is looking for a life long training of his/her mind, body and spirit with self-defense aspect of martial art, then Aikido is a good art to pursue.
In your view, what is the most important philosophical aspect of aikido?
PG: Nishio Sensei described aikido as a 180-degree departure from martial arts of the past. By this he meant that the purpose of older martial arts was specifically to kill whereas aikido was created in order to foster humanity and compassion.
In my view, this doesn’t mean that aikido is soft or that it is weak. I personally don’t hold to any pacifistic notions. Building a house and destroying a house both require the application of force, but the intention is completely the opposite. Martial arts are traditionally about destruction and taking something from others, but aikido is about building, creating and giving. It’s just the opposite of what most people think a martial art is.
Saying that you shouldn’t apply force in doing aikido techniques is somewhat puerile. The flaw in this thinking breaks down quickly in practical application. The real question is the broader purpose and intention of the forces you are applying. If we are practicing the transformation of budo then we have to train in such a way that we are doing proper budo. You can’t transform what you don’t possess. If I were physically attacked for real then my opponent would be facing the full extent of my martial abilities. If my aikido skills were sufficient to save him from significant harm then I’ve done a service to both of us. If not, then I would see it as my own shortcoming and return to my training to remedy the deficiency. By significant harm I don’t mean a wrist sprain, broken arm or a concussion which are a small matter in the face of a lethal assailant. The point is, a fully functional core of budo must be attained before we can approach the ideals of aikido. Practice should not be brutal or injurious, just honest. There’s even a place for soft and meditative practice, but it’s important to not make a charade of aikido.
MBM: The philosophical aspects of Aikido always lead back to an essential teaching of unconditional love, which is a tangible aspect of all human, and spiritual paths. We are hardwired to love… just not always trained to do it in the most loving and intelligent way. The principles of Aikido are tangible and possible, as it is a full and integrated system involving one’s state of mind to align one’s physical, thinking and emotional life in order to have a happy, healthy and integrated life. Many other spiritual paths say that when you walk them, it is only by accident that you arrive at your destination, freedom, liberation, or whatever the ‘goalless goal’ may be. The philosophy of Aikido is that you get there by training and living it.
CB: The philosophy of sword to let live is both philosophical and technical aspect of Nishio Sensei’s Aikido. Nishio Sensei used to tell us that the Japanese sword had done so much damage within and outside of Japan in the past. Through the Aikido sword, we need to correct the past by not using it as a weapon to destroy a person, but to lead and show the way of correct path. Nishio Sensei clearly demonstrated “sword to let live” in his use of sword and jo. Today, Yoshida Shihan continues and leads us in the same philosophy of Aikido.
In your view, what is the most important technical aspect of aikido?
PG: The feudal combat traditions of Japan were designed to kill in a single blow. In aikido, even though our intention is not to kill, it’s essential to control the situation at the first instant. In effect you should be able to strike the opponent down at the first moment of contact. There are only small differences between the underlying structure of the ancient arts and aikido, but the outcome is completely the opposite. Irimi is the way to enter the opponent’s defense by moving to a position from which you can strike the opponent without being struck yourself. The next phase is kuzushi, not merely breaking balance, but controlling and directing the opponent with atemi. Every technique is constructed from an underlying framework of continuous cuts or strikes. When people debate how much of aikido is atemi, we would say it’s 100%. Atemi marks every single step in a technique. These strikes and cuts can be translated into throws and pins which are directly analogous to sword and jo movements. This is where our ken tai ken and ken tai jo comes from. Kake, the final execution of a throw or pin, is the natural result of good tsukuri and kuzushi, which is to say good irimi and good atemi. We shouldn’t attempt kotegaeshi or nikyo as a way to gain control of an opponent. The purpose of a throw or pin is not to gain control, but to prevent the necessity of killing or badly injuring the opponent. Very small differences in execution make the difference between life or death.
MBM: Irimi, the first step and the moment of entry, the movement expression of ”accepting” the energy of the attack; it is the turning point to every technique where the conflict turns to harmony and leading your opponents attack. It is also the decisive moment when you have a choice to harm or not harm your opponent, and by choosing to enter in this way you have made the choice of non-violence.
CB: Nishio Sensei’s philosophy of Aikido matches his technical aspect of Aikido. With the first half-step called irimi, he puts himself in an untouchable position, then draws the person out and leads with the movement of the sword. The sword is used not to cut the person, but to lead and give the uke/attacker the opportunity to reflect. Simply releasing or letting a person go is a throw and holding a person with control is a pin/osae.
Who have been the major influences on your way of training?
PG: My early teachers were Gene Anderson, Francis Takahashi and Hiroshi Ikeda. But meeting Robert Bryner was the key that unlocked my thinking about martial arts. I first met Bryner Sensei at the wedding of a mutual friend back in the mid-80′s. At the reception, we went over to a strip of lawn beside the church and trained in our suits.
He systematically took apart every single technique I tried on him. I towered over him like a giant, but he very calmly dismantled me. Bryner Sensei blew the top of my head off and I really started thinking differently about things after that. I was fortunate to start training privately with Bryner Sensei some years later. We spent many hours talking and I considered him a kindred spirit and a dear friend.
I first saw Nishio Sensei in 1984 when he visited California. I recognized that something very different was happening, but I had no idea what I was seeing. I’m very sure that my teachers at the time didn’t grasp it either. It was unlike any other aikido I’d seen. I had a long standing relationship with Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei, but when Nishio Sensei came to the U.S. in 2000 for the last time I realized I could not continue in the same way. I dropped everything in my practice and committed myself with the zeal of a beginner to learn everything Nishio was teaching. Students at my dojo were thrown for a loop because everything now was Nishio. I changed the whole curriculum overnight. We were incredibly fortunate that Nishio Sensei appointed Yoshida Sensei as his successor here in the U.S. It was in 2000 when I first met Yoshida Sensei. Yoshida Sensei has taken Nishio Sensei’s work forward at an unbelievable pace. He is an extraordinary individual and a visionary martial artist.
MBM: In the order they came into my life; my first Aikido Sensei Megan Riesel and my friendship and training with Sensei Terry Dobson. Meeting and training with O-Sensei’s son and heir Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and the current Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, Saito Sensei, and Masa Tazaki Sensei who introduced me to Shoji Nishio Sensei who above all has profoundly influenced my Aikido and life to this day. My current teacher and inspiration to me is Yoshida Sensei.
CB: I met so many amazing teachers, but teachers whom I truly respected and devoted are definitely Shoji Nishio Sensei and Robert Bryner Sensei. They are not with us anymore, but I think of them often and practice their teachings on and off the mat daily. Today Koji Yoshida Sensei is my teacher and mentor.
What, in your view, was the most important contribution of Shoji Nishio?
PG: Nishio made a number of important contributions to aikido. First, it must be understood that he was deeply dedicated to O-Sensei and had a profound respect for O-Sensei’s philosophical teachings, but he didn’t follow the path of just copying what O Sensei was doing. Instead, Nishio Sensei took the ethical teachings of O-Sensei and applied his own research and experience in other martial arts to the problem of expressing those teachings in a unique and practical martial way.
The single most important contribution of Nishio Sensei are his innovations in the use of the ken and jo to express aikido techniques while carefully adhering to the proper use of these weapons. The Aiki Toho Iai, Nishio Sensei’s iaido, is a monumental contribution to the aikido world. But Nishio Sensei gave us far more than a set of techniques. He unlocked the future of aikido and gave us the keys to create and evolve continuously toward an aikido that is practical, effective, true to the teachings of the founder, true to the tradition of Japanese martial arts and adaptable to the times.
MBM: Shoji Nishio Sensei repurposed the sword from its historical context of use as a weapon of violence to an instrument of non-violence and non-harming inspired me greatly. The precision and skill it takes to translate traditional Iaido katas cutting through the opponent’s body, into cutting a path for them to rest their sword, is a clear example of the heart of Budo – ‘Stopping the of clashing weapons’ or ‘Not clashing weapons.’
When I first met Nishio Sensei it was at the end of 1981 and he was invited to teach in our tiny dojo off of Abbot Kinney in Venice, CA. He introduced us to the sword, and his Aiki Toho Iaido changed everything for me in my training. It was the year after, that we all agreed to join his style of Aikido and train in the Aiki Toho Iaido, and it was then that I was able to bring my other martial arts training into the Aikido in a tangible way. The Iaido forms translation to the bokken and jo work of Aikido without the clashing of weapons made martial sense and I felt a freedom and joy in this!
Nishio Sensei’s sword movements and his translation into no sword and empty-hand techniques came from the breath of his training and understanding of other martial art systems and have continued to be solid ground for me to train in.
CB: Because of Nishio Sensei’s training in Judo and Karate prior to Aikido, and training in Iaido and Jodo in order to better understand O-Sensei’s teaching, his Aikido is always a martial art first with strong principles of sword and jo built into the training. I believe his emphasis on irimi, atemi, and sword to lead (not to cut or kill) are some of important and distinct contribution to Aikido by Nishio Sensei.
Nishio Aikido has a very unique approach compared to most other forms of aikido. What advice do you have to people wanting to evolve their training toward this approach?
PG: There is no easy path. You should never embark on a task thinking that it should be easy. It’s like facing an opponent. Never take any situation lightly. I was play fighting with my 7-year-old daughter recently and she kicked me right in the crotch! You must always go in respecting the difficulty that awaits you. Anything of value requires hard work.
If you are complacent in your aikido then studying Nishio’s aikido is not for you. I had to set my past and even my old teachers respectfully aside in order to learn Nishio Sensei’s methods. Even so, everything you learn in your life is a part of you, so nothing of the past is wasted. If your experience is like mine then once you attain some proficiency with Nishio’s approach the doors will open wide for you. There is enough here to keep you enthralled for the rest of your life and you will never see aikido the same way again.
MBM: Nishio Sensei has always challenged us to stay open to improvement and growth, to use our thinking more effectively and to take the initiative and ask the difficult questions, whether they be in the techniques or physical training, our personality or our character. We could not simply rely on untested high ideals or lofty principles to protect what we love and what we do in the world, any more than we could any well practiced methods or techniques on the mats. I have experienced a growing delight to meet the challenge this style brings and have applied this to other areas of my life. His focus on forgiveness in regards to your opponent, for me is about gratitude for my opponent. I feel we are at another crucial point in the history of our planet and species to move out of our comfort zones, and to extend ourselves, take risks, grow and be of service to others in creative and innovative ways. I am grateful for all my teachers on the mat and off, and especially for Shoji Nishio Sensei for his life and teachings. He continues to challenge me to grow.
CB: To be honest, I struggled with Nishio Sensei’s Aikido. My first experience with Nishio Sensei was in Santa Cruz in 1986. After a two-day seminar, my head was pounding from the overload of information. I had never experienced anything like it in any other aikido or college classes. I thought this was crazy and went back for more for the following weekend of his seminar in L.A. The rest is a history…I was hooked after that. It was very difficult, but fascinating and everything made technical and philosophical sense to me. Most importantly, he was a kind, humble, andmost respectful person whom I wanted to learn from and follow. When I had a difficult time with what he was teaching, his advice was,“Anything of worth takes time and effort.”