By: Koichi Tohei
Book of Ki
Co-ordinating Mind and Body in Daily Life
By Koichi Tohei
(Japan Publications, 1976, 102 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Koichi Tohei, the author of Book of Ki, was quite famous in his day, not only in Japan, but in the United States and elsewhere around the world, and before his death in 2011 at age 91, he led a remarkable life.
He was born in Tokyo in 1920, and his childhood was fraught with weakness and illness stemming from a case of pneumonia his mother suffered while he was in the womb. To strengthen his son, Tohei’s father, a Judo 4th Dan, began teaching the boy Judo at age nine. Judo seemed to do the trick, and Tohei took to it well enough that he was one of the champions of a Judo match held at college just prior to the beginning of his first semester there. Unfortunately, that same year, he came down with a case of pleurisy that nearly killed him. His year-long recovery was punctuated by a serious relapse, and he grew weaker and weaker.
After rest, his condition improved and so did his spirits. His readings of Confucius and Mencius renewed his interest in metaphysical subjects. As soon as he was well enough, he tried to get back into the Judo dojo but was refused due to his still-frail health. He was sent, instead, to study Zazen at a nearby Buddhist temple. “The master,” he writes, “was well-built physically and looking at us with big eyes, said, ‘You will not be able to understand.’ He was right. I never understood one of his lectures.”
But Tohei did learn meditation and, as he puts, it, “restored my Ki.” His experiences with Zazen led him to the beginnings of his understanding of ki and what he calls “One Point Concentration,” which means placing the seat of one’s awareness in as small a point as possible in the center of the tantien. This, he says, calms and deepens the breath and centers and stabilizes the emotions and spirit as well as the body and mind.
After this, he gained an introduction to Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, who accepted him as a student. It was 1940, and Tohei was just nineteen years old. Tohei trained with Ueshiba for six months, upon which the master sent him to teach at the police academy and several private schools. At the beginning of World War II, while Tohei was undergoing military training, Ueshiba ranked him 5th Dan.
Tohei fought in occupied China, learning under the duress of combat the value of focused one-point concentration and a calm mind, both gained through his practice of Zazen.
"When I was in an enemy area, I felt uneasy when I put strength in the lower abdomen, and got very tired. On the other hand, if I forgot the lower abdomen, I would become paralyzed with fear. The lower abdomen, I realized, is necessary but is no place to put strength. I finally discovered that you should concentrate your mind on the lower abdomen instead. Concentration had to be on a single point. I came to realize that truly the effective method was to keep my mind at the one point below the navel. After that, I felt at ease and relaxed whenever and wherever the enemy attacked and could handle the situation."
In fact, he believed that his own personal ability to relax and stay calm and focused extended to the soldiers under his command.
"I told my men before going into a dangerous area, “Don’t worry. Weak bullets like those won’t hit us. No one in my company was hurt or killed before we returned to Japan after the end of the war. I vaguely understood that when you surrender yourself to the universe and relax completely, you are filled with Ki and even bullets will avoid you."
After the war, infused with his newly discovered understanding of ki, Tohei returned to studying and teaching Aikido, eventually reaching 10th Dan. Widely considered the foremost of Ueshiba’s protégés, he was chief instructor at the Hombu Dojo, the headquarters of Ueshiba’s aikido association, the Aikikai. There, he taught a great number of now-famous Aikido practitioners, and he served in this position until 1974—five years after Ueshiba’s death. At that time, he split off to practice his own style.
The split was a long time coming, having its genesis in Tohei’s belief that Aikido had become too focused on the physical, too technique oriented, and in the process had lost touch with the generation and utilization of ki, which he felt was the real power behind the art. Members of the Aikikai were divided on the subject. Some who had felt his expertise and finesse often sided with him, but there were many who did not and resented his insistence that ki was the key. Sadly, it seems it was simply that old debate between transmitted knowledge and innovation. Often those entrenched in the old ways fear being displaced and rendered irrelevant by new ways and resist any and all change. Not all change produces positive results, but because reality exists within time, change is inevitable and the only absolute. And sometimes change is very productive, as in the case of Tohei, who’s reintroduction of ki to Aikido provably made the art superior as evidenced by his own obviously superior skills and abilities.
The split shocked the Aikido world, especially since a number of other Aikido dojos broke away from the Aikikai to join his new organization—the Ki Society—to practice his amplified Aikido style, which he named, appropriately enough, Ki-Aikido. After that, he expanded his range, teaching the power of ki the world over. He was the author of nineteen books on Aikido, ki, and health-related subjects, most of which are now out of print. The book under consideration in this review is the second of these.
Tohei opens the book with a chapter that defines ki—at least as far as he understands it—in various terms, mostly in metaphor since ki—or chi—is notoriously difficult to define. I like the metaphors he chooses, most of which are simple and apt, such as likening the ki system to a car battery that must be recharged, either constantly or periodically, to be able to discharge energy. It is the mind, he insists, that controls ki, and in order to fully utilize ki, the mind must be centered, relaxed, open, and above all, connected to the universal mind.
"Ki is the basic unit of the universe. It is the infinite gathering of infinitely small particles. Everything is ultimately composed of Ki. If you pursue this concept to the depth of human consciousness, you will understand the universal mind which governs all creation, loving and protecting all life. Understanding the universal mind is fundamental to grasping the spirit of peace and union with nature."
Unifying the body and mind are crucial, and to help the reader do that, Tohei lists four major principles:
1. Keep One Point—Keep conscious awareness centered on a single point in the tantien.
2. Relax Completely—Relax downward without slumping.
3. Keep Weight Underside—Keep your sensation weight on the underside of your torso, legs, and arms and centered in the tantien.
4. Extend Ki—Essentially, this is letting the ki flow from your body to merge with the universal ki.
The author goes more deeply into each of these points—deeply enough that readers can follow his methodology, which isn’t difficult to comprehend but is probably hard to accomplish. By that, I mean that the techniques aren’t terribly difficult to do physically for someone who is reasonably fit, but following the methodology is most likely a long-term challenge. Each section contains exercises to help the reader achieve results, and success leads to remarkable abilities, such as the ability to resist a push, whether standing or sitting, with total relaxation. Tohei was famous for his ability to extend ki through his arm to such an extent that it couldn’t be bent, and there are photos in the book of several of his young students practicing that and other similar feats.
Training the body for strength and flexibility is the subject of the next chapter, and more exercises are here, complete with photos. The text isn’t simply instructions to do this or that but contains the philosophy and reasoning behind the exercises. Since the mind—or at least the brain—is part of the body and plays such a critical role in the development and manipulation of ki, methods to strengthen and unify the mind are included. These take in the importance of understanding, judgment, and memory. Finally, there are sections on how to cure whiplash, how to stay calm in front of a crowd, how to sleep soundly, how to overcome disease, and even how to improve your luck at gambling and your handicap in golf. These are followed by sections on how to raise a strong child and how to gain sexual strength.
The next chapter is Tohei’s autobiography, which takes him from birth to the writing of this book. Thus, it covers nearly the totality of his training, which was extensive and rigorous, even as he struggled with illness. He has a gentle, straightforward, and personable writing style that helps the reader experience his life with him, and there are many excellent clues here about the development of his superb abilities and his ideas about ki.
Notable in this chapter is his account of an Aikido demonstration he gave at the first All American Judo Tournament in San Jose, California, in May 1953. On that occasion, after he threw several high-ranking judoka around the mat, fifteen lined up against him and attacked simultaneously. When it was all over, guess who was still standing? Unscathed. What makes it notable is that this demonstration was witnessed by Robert W. Smith, who wrote about it in highly laudatory terms in his Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century. “He seemed to do things,” Smith writes, “like te-waza tomoenage and wrist twists with such elán that murmurs of ‘ki’ spread through the awed audience. Everything dissolved in front of his gently rapid applications.” (p. 47)
The final chapter is on the development of the Ki Society outside of Japan. The book closes with a very short index.
This is an excellent book about the internal energy known as ki/chi and how to develop it. There isn’t really much specific, linear instruction, but there is enough—along with many hint and tips—that a diligent person could benefit and gain some measure of Tohei’s ability. But maybe not all. Robert Smith, who considered Aikido to have too many moves with too much movement, says that Tohei was the only person aside from Ueshiba who really embodied the martial aspect of Aikido. So perhaps Tohei was right in saying that Aikido had become too focused on the physical, too technique oriented. But Smith also considered Tohei, like Ueshiba, to be a prodigy and outlier whose extraordinary abilities were as much inherent as learned. But don't let that keep you from trying.