Aikido Daiwa will be hosting Roo Heins sensei for an aikido seminar on October 26 - 28, 2018. The seminar is a fundraiser for Aria Cheyenne Ramirez, daughter of Lee Lavi Sensei of North Valley Aikikai, who has has been diagnosed with bone cancer. Those unable to attend are encouraged to make a donation on Aria's Go Fund Me Page.
Heins sensei kindly agreed to do a short interview for our blog. Heins sensei has practiced aikido for more than twenty years, holds the rank of 6th dan, and is a teacher at Kyoseikan Dojo in Grand Rapids.
How did you start aikido and come to train with Chiba sensei?
I started Aikido in 1995. I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the dojo was a few blocks from my house. I went in and watched a class, and wanted to sign up, but the monthly fee seemed too high. Later on, for just one semester, the dojo offered an Aikido class through the University of New Mexico, and I think for a resident it was like 80 bucks for a whole semester, so I did that. After that I was hooked, so I just figured out a way to scrape together the dues every month. My first teacher was a guy named Dennis Abbott, he studied with Chiba Sensei I think in the Fourth Avenue days. He’s not with Birankai anymore but he did right by me as a teacher, got me on the right path. He took me on as a serious student, even though I didn’t know that’s what I wanted to be initially. In 1999 I tested for shodan at Summer Camp, which was in San Diego, and spent a week there afterward finding a place to live so I could study with Chiba Sensei. I became a student at San Diego Aikikai in August of 1999, and I stayed there until April 2004, when I moved to Japan. I wasn’t a live-in student, but I was at the dojo pretty much every day, five or six days a week, for those five years. It always felt like too much and not enough at the same time.
You practiced aikido in Japan for a long time. Can you talk about your experiences there?
Training at Hombu was great for me, especially what I was able to take from Miyamoto Sensei—he changed my ukemi enormously for the better, helped me understand how to relax. I think maybe it’s hard to be a beginner there because you don’t get a consistent foundation. I feel so fortunate to have had the early training that I did with Abbott Sensei and then with Chiba Sensei because I had a good basic framework underlying my Aikido that I could build on. So at Hombu I could go to Miyamoto Sensei’s class, Osawa Sensei’s class, Kanazawa Sensei, Yokota Sensei, all those guys, and steal whatever I could to start covering up that framework. Now that I think about it, Masuda Sensei actually was a huge influence on me, even though he retired a couple of years after I arrived and I only went to his class once a week. And of course there were Doshu’s classes, which I have really come to appreciate more and more with hindsight.
But I underwent a period of real frustration there, to be honest, because of the very narrow recognition of who is allowed to teach and be an authority in Aikido. Basically only college-educated Japanese men are accepted as teacher trainees and allowed to become official instructors at Hombu. That really pissed me off for a while, and I would take that frustration out on the mat if I happened to be training with a college-aged Japanese guy. And that…wasn’t great for anybody. Eventually a friend suggested that I might want to try Shotokan karate since I seemed so fond of punching things, and introduced me to the Shotokan Hombu dojo in Iidabashi. So I trained there for five years about three times a week and loved it. I passed my first-dan test, and then my hip gave out and I had to quit. But it really helped me deal with my anger at Hombu—just being able to go somewhere and train hard and be taken on my own terms, accepted for what I was. That gave me a different kind of confidence.
I also was doing iaido twice a week at a dojo in the Yotsuya sanchome police station, Mitsuzuka Sensei’s old dojo. My teacher was a guy named Kikkawa Hisashi—he was 8th dan kyoshi, a deshi of Mitsuzuka Sensei. The thing there was that you had to compete, or else he wouldn’t give you any attention. So the practice was very detail-oriented, and kata had to be performed in a very specific way. I competed maybe three or four times a year. I won third place once, and got a couple of honorable mentions or something. I wasn’t great, but I didn’t disgrace myself. Anyway, Kikkawa Sensei was a really good teacher and kind of a badass, he had this roguish air about him that I liked a lot. He died I think in 2013 of some kind of cancer. He smoked like a chimney. I miss him, too.
The first class at the seminar will be a tea ceremony. Briefly, what is tea ceremony and your background in it?
Briefly? I mean, tea is deep. On the surface, the tea ceremony—this is the less formal usucha (thin tea) ceremony—involves a guest (or two) and a host. If you’re the host, you bring the guests a confection, and then bring in the tea implements, and then bring in the hot water. You sit down and purify the implements in front of the guest, and then make them a bowl of tea to drink after they’ve eaten their sweet. The tea is made from matcha, which is very finely powdered tea leaves, whisked up with hot water to make a frothy drink. The confection is usually either a sugar thing or a sweet bean-jam thing. After the guest finishes the tea, the host cleans everything up and puts it back the way it was at the beginning, and the ceremony is done.
But all of that is just, you know, another kind of framework for expression. For me, the tea ceremony is an opportunity for mutual recognition of our humanity, an opportunity to be fully present, an offering of the heart. It’s also a rich aesthetic experience involving all six senses. There’s a lot to it. If you want to know more about how I think about tea, I’ve written some essays about it, they’re in back issues of the Brooklyn Aikikai journal, and I have them on my computer somewhere.
Actually I didn’t care so much about studying Aikido in Japan (even though it turned out to be enormously important for me)—I really went there to study tea. Murashige Sensei, who was the assistant instructor at San Diego Aikikai, told me I should learn tea ceremony from the guy his son Teru was studying with—a teacher named Yamada. That got in my head, so when the chance arose to move to Japan, I took it. But I didn’t really know how to connect with this Yamada Sensei. At the beginning I just wandered around Tokyo and tried to find a tea school. I didn’t speak much Japanese then, so I ended up at this Urasenke school that combined tea practice with English practice. They taught me the basics but it was very superficial, not what I was looking for. I knew Yamada Sensei was connected with Ichikukai, a misogi dojo where Chiba Sensei had trained, as well as several of my sempai. This woman Luciana at Hombu Dojo agreed to take me to Ichikukai to do a zazen sesshin, since I wasn’t interested in the misogi practice. So I went once, and then again, and then again, over like a six-month period. Finally Hiruta Sensei, the dojo-cho, asked me why the hell I was there, since zazen obviously made me miserable and I didn’t want to do misogi. I kind of hemmed and hawed and then told him I was looking for Yamada Sensei so I could study tea. “Well, why didn’t you say so?” he said. He called Yamada Sensei on the phone right then and there and arranged for me to go to tea the following Saturday.
So I went, and I watched practice, and Yamada Sensei watched me make a bowl of tea, and at the end of the time he said, basically, “Well, I like you, so if you like me, you can study tea with me. But you have to come to class every week, rain or shine, even if you’re tired, or if you feel sick, or if you’re busy. OK?” I said OK, and we were off. That was the deal for the next six years—I showed up every Saturday, rain or shine, and he taught me tea.
Yamada Sensei–his full name is Yamada Kazuharu, he turned 90 this year–he is amazing. He makes most of the implements himself—the bowls (he’s a master ceramicist), the tea scoops, the tea containers, all that. He buys the whisks and the tea, that’s it. Everything else he makes. And he uses everything, he’s a real “mottai-nai” (waste not, want not) type. That’s kind of tea philosophy, though. If he sees a cool piece of wood, he picks it up and uses it. One time he had us making tea bowls, and we were using these pieces of metal to scrape the outside of the bowl, and he told me they were spokes from an old umbrella. Another time he made this cool shelf out of a wooden box that someone had gotten frozen seafood in. But everything he makes is beautiful. He’s strict, but compassionate. I think he sees my heart. Good and bad. It’s really hard to be away from him. Every time I leave Japan I know I might not see him again, and it kills me.
Sorry, that wasn’t very brief, was it.
Aikido, karate, iaido, and tea ceremony are all traditional Japanese arts. What draws you to traditional arts? Are there any unifying principles between them?
Well, I could take this question in a lot of directions, but to be honest I’m just a dojo rat. I’m always trying to find balance between my body and my brain. Aikido happens to be the thing I have a passion for, I guess. The other arts I study in order to inform my Aikido. I love them all, of course, but it’s all about being better at Aikido. I’m actually not big on the tradition part—it can so often lead to mechanicality, so I am always fighting it, while still knowing the importance of form and reigi and shugyo and all that.
You are on the Birankai testing committee. What advice do you have for students taking tests?
The value of testing is in the preparation, not the result. If you’re not actively preparing for a test, just practice without thinking of promotion. Test when your teacher tells you to test and accept the result, whatever it is. Also, sometimes—or maybe often—passing is harder to accept than failing.
Many aikido dojos have falling numbers of young practitioners. What are your thoughts on this? Should and how can aikido be promoted to the next generation?
Aikido either hooks people or it doesn't. We get a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who come in for a couple months and drift away because it's just not something they can prioritize.
I’m probably not one to talk, seeing as how there is no kids’ class at Grand Rapids Aikikai right now, but I feel that kids’ classes are really important. These days especially, I think kids really stand to benefit from Aikido—from the movement, the discipline, the give-and-take nature of the practice. Kids bring a lot of ki into the dojo, and that spreads to the general membership. Most of the really successful dojos I’ve seen have a solid kids’ program, and they’re able to reach young adults as well. That’s a place to start, anyway. I think teaching classes at a university or club is another way to broaden younger people's exposure to Aikido.
Obviously, I love the art and believe deeply in its value. I’m interested in not just bridging generational divisions, but social and economic divisions as well. This is a big challenge, and most aikido dojos are failing at it. That’s where I’d really like us to do better.