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book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 7:04 pm
by Tom
Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power

by Ellis Amdur (2009)

This is a great book. Buy it.

OK, I’ll elaborate. Along with Jesse O’Brien’s book of interviews, Nei Jia Quan, this is the most engaging book on martial arts that I’ve ever read (of several dozen, from martial arts traditions around the world). My own primary interest in martial arts and training, besides strengthening my failing back, is the methods of transmission of training and fighting insights across generations and between cultures. Hidden in Plain Sight is all about that. And Ellis makes a great story of it.

So who is this Ellis dude and why should we listen to anything he has to say? These days Ellis works as a mental health professional in crisis intervention, as well as teaching other mental health and social service professionals. He’s written a number of well-received books dealing with communications and de-escalation of conflict involving seriously mentally ill people.

I mention Ellis’ work in the area of mental health and conflict resolution first, because it informs and adds to the authenticity of his superb martial arts experience and teaching. In a relatively closed Japanese traditional culture where it was and is extremely rare and difficult for a Japanese person to be granted license to teach in an authentic, documented traditional school of martial arts (koryu), Ellis, a gaijin (foreigner), holds a teaching license in two koryu, Araki-ryu and Toda-ha Buko-ryu. In another of his books, Dueling with O’Sensei, Ellis recounts the rough-and-tumble tenacity and aggressiveness of his Araki-ryu training—including one training exchange where Ellis, in a sudden fit of rage and fury, barely stops short of killing a koryu brother. The shock and remorse and reflection opened a window for him onto his own capacity for violence, and surely informed his later professional work with mentally-ill patients in violent situations.

Ellis later trained a little in Chen taijiquan with a student of Feng Zhiqiang (one of Chen Fake’s disciples), and today trains in xingyiquan (in addition to continuing his training and teaching of two Japanese koryu). The internal training of Chinese martial arts is both part of Ellis’ personal practice and a source of understanding in the writing of Hidden in Plain Sight.

The martial art that brought Ellis to Japan in the first place was Aikido, the shamanistic brew of spiritual practice, martial art and calculated business export (under the O’Sensei brand) to North America and Europe beginning in the 1960s. Ellis began training in Aikido in the 1970s, with the late, great Falstaff of Aikido, Terry Dobson, and later in Japan with Yoshio Kuroiwa, Yasunori Kuwamori and a host of more- and less-known aikido teachers, mostly Aikikai. Ellis lived in Japan for thirteen years, starting a family there and pursuing both aikido and koryu training.

Oh, that’s right, this is a book review, not a biography of Ellis Amdur. One of the delights of Hidden in Plain Sight, though, is how much Ellis’ biography puts him in an ideal position to research, and to bring together research of others, concerning the sources of Ueshiba Morihei’s Aikido and, of more interest to this forum, Ueshiba’s undoubted internal skill, connection and power. So let’s get into the fruits of that research—Hidden in Plain Sight.

The fun starts in the Acknowledgments, a testament to the breadth of Ellis’ connections and his diplomatic skill in bridging the points of view of charging alpha male bulls without having his literary testicles ripped off. I’m speaking in particular of two gentlemen of a certain age, Mike Sigman and this forum’s own Dan Harden, who have spent the past twenty years (or more) independently researching and training very real internal skill, connection and power—and the last four years snarling at and past each other on various Internet forums.

I’ve met both men and can attest that in person, each is down-to-earth, pleasant, and, most importantly, can do what they talk and write about; but I have no literary testicles to lose. Ellis has visited with both of them, seen and tried aspects of their training methods, felt their skill hands-on—and then dared them to do something real with that skill. In Mike’s case, he went to help the Itten Dojo in Pennsylvania gain perspective and basic training methods to put internal structure and connection into their aikido movements. In Dan’s case, he organized the knowledge and skills he’d gleaned from hard work in Daito-ryu, MMA, a particular koryu, and other venues over the years (knowledge and skills only talked about in whispers in the bars, construction sites and antique flea markets of central Massachusetts)—and did something he had previously sworn he was not interested in doing, publicly present it to a group of aikido teachers (and a few others) to take back to their dojos and begin reworking their aikido with the new insights about internal training. For the aikido community, this has been an exciting few years of challenge, dialogue and growth as a martial art. Ellis has been a central if largely behind-the-scenes part of this, as facilitator, friend, coach and Raven-totem for the parties involved.

All well and good for the aiki-bunnies, you say, but what relevance is there for the Chinese (and other) martial arts that are the focus of this forum? Well, the book starts by looking at the Chinese martial arts as a primary historical (and continuing) source for the paradigms and many of the particular internal training methods used in aikido, Daito-ryu, and their root arts (both known and speculative). Chapter One is called “The Chinese Connection,” and after briefly looking at the early waves of immigration to Japan from Asia, discusses different religio-spiritual practices that became woven into esoteric martial training in Japan. Then it moves into the 1500s, what was going on in China (Qi Jiguang, Japanese pirates), and descriptions of internal skill and training methods with probable Chinese antecedents, as well as two specific accounts of Chinese immigrants working with founders of Japanese koryu (Kito-ryu and Yoshin-ryu), and a Japanese doctor who went to China to study TCM and eventually founded another branch (of Yoshin-ryu). Kito-ryu and Yoshin-ryu are two source schools of Kodokan Judo. Ellis writes: . . . it seems evident that at the dawn of Japanese jujutsu history, methods of building a unique form of physical skills that we place under the rubric of internal power were incorporated from china and subsumed within Japanese combative systems. For the Japanese, at least, Chinese influence was such a given that it permeated their culture, from court dance to medicine to political organization—to martial arts. The question is not whether Japanese martial arts had an influence on those of Japan, but what Japanese martial arts could have amounted to without them.

The second chapter, “The Birth of Daito-ryu,” is a tour-de-force and in many ways the core of the book. Ellis does nothing less than provide a social and psychological profile of Takeda Sokaku, an often speculative but very credible portrayal which Ellis is eminently well-qualified to write. Takeda Sokaku was Ueshiba Morihei’s primary martial arts teacher, and one of the very best martial artists, unarmed and with weapons, of any culture in the last 150 years. Notwithstanding all the legends and whispers to the contrary, Takeda Sokaku created Daito-ryu. Daito-ryu formed the core of Ueshiba’s martial art. Takeda Sokaku’s brutal upbringing, the martial skill of his maternal grandfather, the fratricidal terror of the civil wars that gave birth to the Meiji Emperor and modern Japan . . . Ellis describes all of these in analyzing known and probable influences on Takeda’s martial development and teaching personality. Sumo plus burning incense on a ten-year-old boy’s fingernails until the seared flesh curled make for one fierce martial artist as an adult.

Chapter Three is “A Unified Field Theory: Aiki and Weapons.” Ellis earlier (Chapter Two) quotes Kono Yoshinori’s description of Takeda Sokaku’s maternal grandfather, Kanenori Dengoru Kurokochi: Likely he (Kanenori) realized through experience that in order to master different arts it is important to train the body in the essence of movements—in other words, to create within the body what might be metaphorically described as a ‘precision ruler, like a carpenter’s square.’ Kanenori seems to have believed, however, that cultivating such a measuring stick through jujutsu training alone is insufficient, and he emphasized the synergism born of training also with a variety of weapons. Takeda Sokaku taught sword (he could wield a sword with either hand), and practiced with both sword and spear. Ellis provides an interesting analysis of the probable importance of weapons work in Takeda’s body forging (tanren). Like his teacher, Ueshiba also made weapons training a core element of his personal practice (both solo and partner). How wielding a weapon trains the internal connections in the body that allow aiki to take place make this chapter perhaps the martial-arts core of Hidden in Plain Sight.

For Chapter Four, I put on my favorite Allman Brothers album, Eat a Peach, and sliced up one of the last frost peaches from my trees to have with a cup of tea. Why? Because I’m that kind of guy. “Aikido Is Three Peaches” is the weakest chapter of the book overall, where Ellis bravely attempts an apologia for the scattered spiritual and metaphysical perambulations of Ueshiba, justifying them as essential to Ueshiba’s continuing progress in skill and power right into the final decade of his life. I was frankly surprised by the detail and extent of argument that Ellis was willing to make in support of this thesis, given his own rejection of aikido as a personal training path and the often-sardonic tone of his past writing about these aspects of aikido. But Ellis seems to find enough tidbits whilst wandering through Shingon, Shinto, Omoto-kyo and the Kuki family heritage, warbling kotodama all the while, to provide a tantalizing proposal that Chinkon-kishin and other ritual practice sets adapted by Ueshiba really did empower him. Ultimately, Ueshiba saw himself as a kind of avatar, instrumental in ushering in a golden age of redemption, the unification of Heaven, Earth, and Man. To a considerable degree, he was unconcerned about whether others became avatars like himself. He regarded aikido practitioners as living out their fate as appointed by their ‘chief guardian deity,’ doing the work of the “spiritual proletariat,’ accumulating merit and energy through aikido practice . . .

The last part of Chapter Four deals with ukemi, and for me was the most valuable part of the book in terms of actual training. Aikido is often justly criticized for the aiki-bunny uke (the partner that attacks and receives the aikido defensive counter/technique, which is performed/delivered by nage), who seems to throw herself under the delusion that blending with the opponent means striving to be as empty and limp as the mink stole in your grandmother’s wardrobe. Ellis notes, however, that (i)t is through real ukemi that real aikido is born. In classical martial arts, the teacher is uke. He templates skill within the student through his mastery of the form . . . demands that the students perform at the limits of their capacity. The student receiving an attack from a skilled and sincere teacher will be forced to feel how their own body responds, either moving the energy of the attack through or getting stuck and collapsing. The skill of the teacher lies in delivering an attack with force and clarity sufficient to challenge the student while not overwhelming her. Aikido practitioners at a truly high level are those created by skillful teachers who mindfully place their students in situations where they must learn freedom through responsiveness—counters and strikes implicit, if not explicit, in their every move.

This should also be true in taiji tuishou, where, unfortunately, the vast majority of encounters are students who don’t really know what they are experiencing being dominated by teachers or more experienced students who only want to show off their relative skill—or students who think they are being dominated and provide vaudevillian slapstick for the world through their Youtube videos where they hop, skip, jump and fall over in worship of their teacher. By contrast, one of the great things about Brazilian jiu jitsu training is this constant feedback for each other while rolling, in an atmosphere where everyone submits sometimes. Working together so that all improve in real skill.

In addition to the importance of real ukemi to partner work, Ellis also goes into some detail on how ukemi can be tanren, if kasutori (softening and increasing the resiliency of the body, making it flexible yet strong like a willow branch) is a conscious tone of the practice. Joints are moved through a full range and connective tissue is stressed and rebounds in taking falls. The body is folded, twisted, and impacted repeatedly, analogous to the folding and pounding and folding of the highly-refined damascene steel in sword blades. But as Ellis writes, to do this and to really learn from falling, you must learn, truly, how to stand. So what did Ueshiba—and Takeda and others—really train on their own, away from the demonstrations and classes where the partnerwork presented the art’s public face?

Chapter Five, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” addresses the question of solo training by surmising that physical laborers (farmers, masons, etc.) learn efficient movement and gain extraordinary strength, resilience and endurance through daily work learning to deal with variable loads, ballistic force, and shifting postures while under a lot of physical stress—quite different from the controlled application of force in weightlifting. . . Internal strength, however, is not farmer’s strength although it may have emerged from the latter. It requires incredibly sophisticated and specialized training. Ellis notes that intensive solo training seems to be a commonality among Daito-ryu practitioners, and involves a) wringing/twisting/coiling of the body to develop the connective tissue; b) methods of breathing to generate ‘pressure,’ which builds power from the inside out; and c) mental imagery and focused attention that causes subtle micro-adjustments of the nervous s ystem that, in essence, ‘rewire’ the body, so that it functions at increasing levels of efficiency, without unnecessary conflict between extensor and flexor muscles, for example.

Ellis further develops the probable/possible importance of Ueshiba’s misogi (purification) practices to his martial power, suggested in Chapter Four, and concludes by asserting that these exercises, and incessant prayers, and evolving bo routines, and a host of other actions and rituals that Ueshiba demonstrated when beginning classes or giving public demonstrations, were in fact essential to his martial skill and power—a fact which was apparently missed by most of Ueshiba’s post-WW2 disciples and derided by later generations of aikidoka as aikido spread through Japan and to North America and Europe.

Chapter 6, “Circle, Square, Triangle: How to be O-Sensei in Sixteen Easy Steps,” provides a wry yet accurate synopsis of how you, too, can be O-Sensei, then concludes with the recommendation and observation: The larger issue is this: live your life. What made Ueshiba so wonderful is that the life he lived was undeniably his own. Ueshiba Morihei is dead—is there really a need for him to be reborn in you?

The Epilogue and two appendices provide notes on key players in the centuries leading up to Aikido, and in its spread, as well as suggest sources and questions for people interested in further research.

Hidden in Plain Sight is a sign of our changing times. Whereas early on in the Internet era, books were written first and then discussed on the Internet, Hidden in Plain Sight started as a blog for Aikido Journal’s online website—and quickly attracted the attention and contributions of a well-placed and enthusiastic coterie of commenters, researchers and translators, many of whom eventually contributed to the book. All of this is reminiscent of the provenance of the current movie, Julie and Julia, which evolved from a blog that Julie Powell wrote about doing all of the recipes from Julia Childs’ cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the course of a year. Eventually the blog became a book, and then a movie. While I doubt there will ever be a movie made from Hidden in Plain Sight (though stranger things have happened), at least Ellis does not have to worry about Ueshiba Morihei still being around to diss him (as Julia Childs did to Julie Powell).

Overall, Hidden in Plain Sight is a wonderful read, full of serious historical research, pithy critiques, solid training insights, and flashes of humor (much of which shows how much of a martial arts nerd the author really is). I laughed to myself because in the end, the book seemed to be an excuse for Ellis to wax poetic about cognac and his grandmother’s crystal collection--a perfectly apt set of metaphors, it turns out, for Ueshiba’s, and our own, training progression. How so, you ask? Read the book.

[edited one time to correct two factual misstatements]

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 7:39 pm
by Finny
I'd advise anyone to read anything Ellis writes

Martial artists and non martial artists alike.

His writing is incredibly engaging, honest and insightful.

great review Tom.

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 9:39 pm
by ashe
i'm always reminded of how similar ILC and daito-ryu seem and how similar Ueshiba seems to be like my Sifu.

i'm not surprised that Amdur would discount akido as a method of personal development, as it takes being close to someone like Ueshiba or my Sifu for that aspect of training to be clear. i certainly have been taught how to live well and learned a lot about myself through my practice of ILC, but whether or not i could have that same effect on my students is questionable, since i don't know if i can achieve the same level of development that my Sifu (or Ueshiba) has attained and be able to serve as a living example..

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 9:56 pm
by Tom
That's a good point, ashe. Regular exposure to and study of the living example of a highly-skilled teacher would make, literally, a world of difference.

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 12:24 am
by eddie mush
great review Tom.. very valid observation Ashe! Thanks.

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 1:13 am
by alexsuffolk
Excellent post Tom, thank you.

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 2:02 am
by Daniel


Sarcasm. Oh yeah, like that´ll work.

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 2:50 am
by mrtoes
Excellent review Tom. I look forward to it coming out this side of the pond.

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 6:12 am
by Bob
Tom, how about submitting this superb book review to the Journal of Asian Martial Arts?

Definitely, on the basis of your recommendation and review, I am to to read it.

Do you know if this is available on amazon? I get a subtitle with ellis at the end but the book doesn't show.

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 8:54 am
by Interloper
Everything Tom said +1. Excellent review and comments across the board, Tom!

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 9:34 am
by ashe
Bob wrote:Tom, how about submitting this superb book review to the Journal of Asian Martial Arts?

Definitely, on the basis of your recommendation and review, I am to to read it.


Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 10:19 am
by Ellis Amdur
Tom - I don't know what the etiquette is regarding a good review - but thank you very much for this one. I'm honored that you read it with such care. A couple small corrections:
1. It was a fellow student that I "barely stopped short of killing . . . " an incident that I wrote about in Dueling with Osensei.
2. I have visited with Zhang Yun on one occasion and was shown a little of the basics of his xingyi. And I hold him in the highest regard as both a man and a martial artist. I cannot claim to be studying from him.

And regarding acquisition of the book "across the pond," the book is only available through my website - the URL listed at the top of this thread. I'm doing a lot of international sales - it's kind of cool to walk into a post office with shipments to Tahiti, Malagasy Republic and Finland in hand.

I did sell several of my other books at Amazon - however, they gave me 30% of the cover price, which they THEN regarded as a wholesale price and jacked up the price another 50%.

Ellis Amdur

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 1:52 pm
by ashe
Ellis Amdur wrote:I did sell several of my other books at Amazon - however, they gave me 30% of the cover price, which they THEN regarded as a wholesale price and jacked up the price another 50%.

Ellis Amdur

hey mr. amdur, welcome to RSF! i noticed you registered about a week back. regarding the selling of your book via amazon, you didn't see enough additional volume of sales that it was worth dealing with them? (i suppose that's a redundant question) but i ask since my Sifu has not as yet tried to sell his own book via amazon, so i'm just sort of picking your brain on the subject. (if you're inclined to answer, feel free to answer via pm if you'd be more comfortable)

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:31 pm
by Ellis Amdur
Ashe - see PM.

If there is any general interest, I will be happy to write something about self-publishing from my perspective. I did it the most bare-bones way that I could.

Ellis Amdur

Re: book review: "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur

PostPosted: Sun Sep 06, 2009 4:53 pm
by mrtoes
Thanks Ellis, just ordered direct from your website!