In Balance: A Series of Thoughts (Part One)
2004 by Sensei Gene Martinelli

Irimi – Tenkan

rocksinbalanceBalance is defined as a force counteracting the effect of another force. Harmony is defined as an internal calm or a pleasing arrangement of parts. Uke attacks and nage blends with the force in a pleasing arrangement of parts and then through balance nage’s force upon uke is counteracted by the effect of the earth on uke’s body in nage’s technique. Through good ukemi uke brings balance or counteracts the effect of the earth. If uke’s fall is bad or incorrect ukemi, he or she will discover harmony or cause a pleasing arrangement of uke’s parts (pleasing that is to nage) through the impact with the earth.

I understand that this does not seem the usual way we understand or interpret the words’ balance and harmony. Similarly the way we interpret or understand irimi-tenkan is to shorten the term, just like we do when my first name Eugene becomes Gene, irimi- tenkan becomes tenkan. However, I see this habit we all have has become more than just shortening the spoken technique name. The very power and meaning of the technique’s name is out of balance and the full concept of irimi-tenkan seems lost.

I only recently came to understand the effects of our technique name shortening habit while attending a Saotome seminar. During that seminar, Saotome Sensei had mentioned watching a well known Hong Kong martial artist in a martial art film. And even though Saotome knew the fighting was for entertainment, Sensei said he kept wondering why the actor did not do irimi-tenkan. Irimi-tenkan! I never remembered Saotome calling it tenkan! The term was always irimi-tenkan. But it seems like all the students, including me, shortened the term. Back at the Dojo, Messores Sensei always described tenkan as irimi-tenkan, in other words entering or meeting then blending with the attack. In order to have balance one has to meet the uke’s force in order to counteract the effect. Let us take a moment to look at or think about balance and in doing think about irimi-tenkan.

Enter East, Turn WestThe Asian symbol for yin and yang is well known as the two opposite colors and equal shapes. Balance. This seems true in every aspect of Aikido this “constant of opposites” this harmony. Irimi is often referred to as choosing to enter and face death. The moment of Now becomes the moment of creativity or life, or the moment becomes death. Life or death in that moment it is in balance. That moment is occurring on several levels all at once in the body, mind, and spirit. In regards to the spirit I suppose we might find references in Buddhism regarding that moment, instead let’s take an intellectual irimi-tenkan, step forward east and turn west. In Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist the Eastern and Western Way by D.T. Suzuki, (Macmillan 1957) Suzuki Sensei writes about Meister Eckhart’s (a western Christian thinker/teacher/minister) sermons where Eckhart talks about God’s day and soul’s day in which in God’s day all time is contained in the Now-moment. The balance of God in that Now is isticheit -western or tathata -eastern, God’s is-ness (forever is) and enlightenment in understanding God’s being – non being. Balance. What, you may be asking, does this have to do with irimi-tenkan and Aikido? It is irimi-tenkan. In regards to the mind within that moment when uke’s attack begins and nage’s response occurs, the first paragraph’s explanation of balance and the resulting harmony help explain how to see the moment. The harmony or internal calm of your spirit entering and becoming life and death. Your life, his death. In The Principles of Aikido by Mitsugi Saotome, (Shambhala 1989) Sensei asked who would know more of the true value of life than the one facing death. In entering free of the entanglement of possessive thoughts (i.e.” I have this to lose if I do not do this right!” or ” I will not look good if I do not do this right!”) Instead one steps forward past their fear, steps forward past the hate of the enemy, into and past even the realm of control the enemy’s spirit and into that moment of is-ness that is the Way of Aiki!

Wait! What about the tenkan part of irimi-tenkan? That has not changed. You have counteracted the effect of the force attacking using irimi and gained balance. Tenkan directs the force to its harmonious conclusion. Harmony and balance occurs from beginning to end in the technique called irimi-tenkan.

Gene Martinelli. Copyright © 2004 Jihonjuku Academy of Warrior Spirit.