Misogi-no-Kokyu-Ho: A Spiritual Treasure
by John T.
In Japan, near Tokyo, there is a training hall named Ichikukai dojo, where once per month, for four days, senior and intermediate members gather with new initiates to enter the world of misogi-no-kokyu-ho, a form of body-mind-spirit purification. An important practice from the Shinto tradition, misogi-no-kokyu-ho may be translated as "purification through breathing." In the four day "shogaku shugyo" (first-time experience) of misogi, students wear traditional martial arts practice uniforms and formal-wear called gi and hakama. Eating consists of three meals per day of a barley-rice mixture, soybean paste, salted plum, and radish pickles. Students sleep on tatami mats. With strong encouragement and pressure from senior members, new initiates sit in the kneeling posture of seiza, practice deep breathing exercises, and chant eight syllables with all of their might; "To Ho Ka Mi E Mi Ta Me." Training is arduous, emotionally straining, and physically exhausting. Yet it is a unique opportunity to break through self-imposed limitations and egoistic personality defenses. With the intense stimulation of misogi, primal life force deep in the lower abdomen is activated and the potential to directly experience the root of one's being is at hand.
In the following paragraphs, I will describe the nature of misogi-no-kokyu-ho, the importance of this practice for modern man, and the recent introduction of this practice to the west. Since it is true that my practice and understanding of misogi is still immature, it seems essential to rely upon subjective personal experience in order to convey an adequate feeling for the misogi encounter to the reader. I sincerely hope that this article will stimulate curiosity in order to encourage a deeper and more personal investigation of misogi.
I first learned about misogi practice because of an interest in martial arts. In late adolescence I became fascinated with the books of Koichi Tohei, a famous master of the martial art of aikido. Tohei, a sickly young man, believing that his death was near, desperately sought misogi for his own spiritual edification and clarity. Upon obtaining acceptance at Ichikukai dojo, Tohei was first introduced to Rinzai Zen (which is also practiced at Ichikukai on a regular basis) and then allowed to practice misogi. After experiencing both disciplines, Tohei became a devoted student at Ichikukai dojo. I was amazed to learn that as a by-product of his training, Tohei's life-threatening infirmities were cured. I was equally impreseed to learn that he went on to become one of the most skillful martial artists in Japan. Tohei Sensei's story had great appeal to me since I too had been a sickly child who had aspirations in the martial arts. However, after reflecting on Tohei's description of misogi, I became discouraged; the training sounded so severe and archaic that I assumed (incorrectly) that it could not possibly exist in the modern world. In addition, I could scarcely imagine practicing in Japan with no means of introduction to the dojo and no Japanese language ability. Misogi seemed to be an inspiring yet outdated and idealistic practice for spiritual warriors of ages past.
I forsook any idea of doing misogi at Ichikukai dojo, but continued my study of martial arts. Years later, I came to be under the discipleship of T.K. Chiba Sensei in the martial art of aikido. I was surprised to learn that Chiba Sensei himself had been a live-in student at Ichikukai. One afternoon after aikido and zazen practice, he looked deeply into my eyes and said, "You should go to Ichikukai and experience misogi." After getting over my shock of this sudden invitation, I remembered my earlier attraction to misogi training. As life circumstances were arranged, at that time I was planning to live in Japan for two years while teaching English. It seemed that the opportunity of a lifetime was being granted in the form of a personal introduction to Ichikukai dojo from Chiba Sensei. I decided that as soon as possible, I would practice at Ichikukai.
My first experience at Ichikukai was as an initiate at Shogaku shugyo, the 4-day session mentioned previously. As I expected, the training was grueling; all of the initiates sat in seiza all day, chanted with what seemed like all the power that our bodies could muster, and were spurred on by senior members shouting and striking our backs to encourage deeper exhalation. Yet the experience was exhilarating. At the end of shogaku shugyo I experienced a profound feeling of aliveness and I became more deeply intrigued with the potential of the human breath as a means of going beyond one's limits. In addition, the dojo possessed a deeply impressive feeling of sincerity that seemed to pervade every corner of the building and garden. Since I was living near Tokyo, I was able to attend regularly, taking part in Zen sesshin, misogi practices, cleaning, and special seasonal training.
Over the course of time at Ichikukai dojo, it was equally satisfying to train while acting as an assistant to the initiates. Through experience, I became aware that part of the success of the first-timers lies in the commitment of the assistants to help them pass beyond their limits. In order to facilitate this "breakthrough," it was clear that it was necessary for the assistants to exert themselves strongly, if not completely, forming a condition of mutual benefit for both the beginner and experienced person. Through this intense practice, both new and seasoned practitioners seemed to locate a source of inner strength in the midst of what appeared to be (at least on the surface) exhaustion. By the end of the four days, initiates were able to breathe with a more unified body-mind-spirit and their faces were shining and refreshed. Often, during a short mandatory speech at the farewell party, the new members shed tears of joy while expressing their gratitude for the shogaku shugyo experience.
It was also a privilege to be in the company of the hardworking old-time members who seemed to exude inner strength, confidence, sincerity, and kindness. Without complaint, the core members of the dojo exerted tremendous efforts in order to open the dojo to all people interested in misogi and Zen. They appeared to be living examples of the results of consistent and sincere practice.
Overall, I felt that misogi breathing was helpful to developing strength in aikido. As mentioned earlier, this was a great initial attraction to misogi training. However, as practiced progressed, it became clear that there was a much deeper purpose to the practice of misogi than martial prowess. Perhaps this excerpt from a treatise written in 1922 by Ichikukai students can convey the mission and spirit of the dojo and misogi:
"Our practice of misogi shugyo is the desperate, ravenous, fierce and relentless seeking of truth and purity…This training is a way to devote body and soul to that quest."
"Today's world is a mess of mixed-up ideas, and young people feel lost. While misogi shugyo does not necessarily solve the problem completely, we believe it does offer a way out of the confusion."
"Materialistic and emotional concerns have become convoluted and strange, leaving a world populated by masks and empty husks. Many people still huddle behind those masks; alone, afraid, and without hope. Misogi shugyo is about exploding this dualistic life, and distilling from it the true, genuine and natural state…"
Treatise entitled "Toward the Building of a New Training Hall"
This treatise was written in 1922, yet it appears that this kind of practice may be more appropriate and necessary than ever before. Living in a world enmeshed in dualistic thinking, with the threat of obliteration of mankind by massive weaponry ever-present, we are in need of methods to strip away false veneers that may be socially acceptable, yet obscure true human nature and potential. In times past, misogi at Ichikukai dojo was virtually secret; no advertising was done and personal introduction was the standard means of entering the dojo. Fortunately, misogi practice may be more readily accessible than ever before. Of course, shogaku shugyo can still be experienced at Ichikukai dojo in Japan. In addition, interested students now have the opportunity to have a taste of misogi training in America.
Brooklyn Aikikiai is one of few (or perhaps the only) traditional school where aikido, misogi and zazen are practiced under one roof. The chief instructor of the dojo, Robert Savoca Sensei, is a fully certified teacher of aikido under the guidance of T.K. Chiba Sensei, a Zen student of Eido Shimano Roshi, and a misogi student of Kotaro Hiruta Sensei, the current master of Ichikukai dojo in Japan. Savoca Sensei has devoted his life to the exploration, protection, and sharing of this path. At Brooklyn Aikikai, students may practice aikido, zazen and a short form of misogi. Interested and qualified students also have the opportunity to be introduced to the 4-day shogaku shugyo training at Ichikukai dojo in Japan. It is important to note that the first master of Ichikukai, Tetsuju Ogura Sensei, was a life-long student of Rinzai Zen, a martial artist, and a high-ranking disciple of the famous sword master Tesshu Yamaoka. With gratitude to the patriarchs of the ancient disciplines, Brooklyn Aikikai seeks to embody the tradition of sincere and honest training that continuously forges the body and polishes the heart with a vibrant and vigorous spirit.
The future of misogi appears to be bright in other arenas as well. The present master of Ichikukai dojo, Kotaro Hiruta Sensei, a professor of nuclear physics who completed part of his studies at Texas A&M, has taken further steps to expand the practice of misogi outside of Japan. He has recently purchased property in upstate New York, on which will be established the International Keizen Center where misogi and Zen training will be offered in the future. In addition, Hiruta Sensei is helping to sponsor a training hall in Bulgaria where Zen and misogi will be practiced.
Misogi-no-kokyu-ho as a method of purification and spiritual awakening has a long and honorable history and is still rigorously practiced in modern Japan. In the 21st century, this training is perhaps more valuable and relevant to humankind than ever. For those who live in the west and seek with a sincere heart, an introduction to misogi training is now closer than ever.
Let True Dharma continue.
Brooklyn Aikikai offers misogi training several times a week. Those interested should contact Savoca Sensei at mail@brooklynaikikai or 718. 643. 6044. You can find more information about Ichikukai dojo here.
Tohei, K. (1966) Aikido in daily life; Tokyo: Rikugei Publishing House.
Tohei, K. (1976) Book of ki: co-ordinating mind and body in daily life. Tokyo: Japan Publications.
Tohei, K. (2001) Ki in daily life. Tokyo: Japan Publications Trading Company.