Recently, MSIA ministers in Southern California had the great good fortune to attend a lecture, demonstration and class taught by Maeda Hiramasa-sensei in the Brentwood Ballroom of the 2101 Wilshire building in Santa Monica, California. This unique opportunity was made possible by Steve Beimel of Esprit Travel and the Kyoto Diary. Maeda-sensei teaches Waraku, a remarkable system of movement based on ancient forms of Japanese martial arts and texts, but with important applications for modern people. The precepts of Waraku are: not to hurt others, not to be hurt by others; good for self, good for others.
When practiced just a few minutes daily, the simple, easy to learn basic movements of Waraku provide great benefit to body and mind. More than just a good form of exercise, Waraku movements promote grounded physical, mental and emotional unity, centering and inner calm and peace. Most surprising, although the practice is also a complete martial art system leading up to black belt level and beyond, these results are available even to beginners. Plus, Waraku is beneficial for all age groups, body types and physical conditions, including people with physical limitations. The simple basic movements can even be done while sitting down.
In recent years, Maeda Hiramasa-sensei (sensei is an honorific in Japanese and means “teacher”) began earnestly researching ancient forms of Japanese martial arts. As a Shinto Priest and former Karate champion from Kameoka, Japan, he proved to be uniquely qualified for this endeavor. While the origins of what he discovered derive from very ancient traditions of Japan, the teachings first emerge in writing in the earliest Shinto texts passed down through history. These Shinto Kobunken still exist in Japan today, but had been hidden for centuries in shrines belonging to the Emperor. Maeda-sensei observed that these ancient teachings, although the source of true martial arts, did not involve fighting or harm to others. The martial arts taught in the present day around the world are generally quite aggressive. In Japan, Maeda-sensei now teaches Waraku, a revised and systematized version of the historic forms.
In the wake of Maeda-sensei’s recent visit to Los Angeles, Waraku practice groups spontaneously formed in several locations, with participants ranging in age from 13 years to post retirement. Some members of the practice groups, including this writer, had been privileged to meet Maeda-sensei in Japan last October while on a Peace Theological Seminary “Zen of Spirit” Retreat in Southern Japan organized by Esprit Travel.
On one of the last evenings of the “Zen of Spirit” retreat, Maeda-sensei joined us for dinner at our hotel (our dinners were always sumptuous banquets, and this was no exception). Even though Maeda-sensei spoke no English, he seemed to fit right in with our group, but we had no idea why he was with us other than he is a friend of Steve Beimel, our tour leader. Early next morning, with the sun glistening delicately on the rain-freshened Japanese garden beyond the glass wall of our meeting room, Steve introduced Maeda-sensei to us once again. Through Steve’s skillful translation, Maeda-sensei commented that while watching us he had observed that we moved like Japanese people and that perhaps we had been Japanese in another life. At the same time, because of the warm camaraderie he was experiencing, he must have been an American. Whether he was joking or not, we all experienced that warmth and camaraderie as he spoke.
During the brief introduction that followed, Maeda-sensei remarked that he was quite intrigued by the symbol of a spiral used by the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness as its logo, since the spiral is also a symbol of Waraku. Then, suddenly, we were all standing and preparing to follow him through the sequence of basic movements. We paused first for an invocation. Maeda-sensei said that as each of us may worship God with a different name, and he suggested that we each dedicate our session to the God of our heart. Time and place seemed suspended as the group moved in slow motion through the strangely familiar spiraling movements of Waraku. We learned some of the sounds that go with the movements and then worked with one another while sitting and standing, and then with wooden swords. A few people who briefly left the room commented later on the powerful atmosphere of loving, peace and joy they perceived in the room when they returned. At the end, fresh faces around me glowed with new energy.
Maeda-sensei explained that in Waraku, when two people are engaged in a process, they move in the flow of a spiral movement. This has the effect of discarding negative energy as each person moves into their own center. They begin to energize one another by passing the energy back and forth, giving to one another and the energy grows. It is a constructive process. While other martial arts may teach a process of opposition or destruction, in Waraku, even if a partner comes forward with negative energy, the partner who is moving within the spiral will return only positive, loving energy, and the negativity gets dispersed. So, unlike martial arts that teach turning a partner’s negative energy back on them, Waraku returns them only love. In other martial arts, the physical practice of working in pairs can cause physical pain, which naturally can lead to some negative feeling towards one’s partner. In Waraku, the use of wooden swords eliminates this tendency. It also allows adults and children to work together, since success does not depend on physical strength or prowess.
For a number of our group in Japan, the Waraku class had been one of the most memorable events on the “Zen of Spirit” journey. So when Maeda-sensei came to Los Angeles to do demonstrations and classes, many from the “Zen of Spirit” trip attended the session in Santa Monica given for MSIA ministers. Maeda-sensei brought one of his students with him from Japan, so that wherever we were in the practice room there was a model to follow within easy view. Master and student looked impeccable and exotic dressed in their traditional garments of men’s wide Hakama trousers of indigo cloth girdled low over simple, white, martial arts uniforms. Maeda-sensei showed us later how the feel of the Hakama supported and strengthened the sense of centeredness in the physical body. The novelty of their exotic appearance quickly abated, however, as the group focused on allowing our bodies to memorize (or was it re-member?) the basic Waraku movements. After only one session, I had the very surprising experience of using my body in an entirely new, balanced way. Previously, I was not aware that I did not fully inhabit one side of my physical self. It was a phenomenal experience in the full sense of the word, for which I am very grateful.
At the end of the day, Maeda-sensei remarked on how he had been enjoying working in the physical environment of our meeting room at the 2101 Wilshire building, especially the soaring cone shape of the ceiling around the skylight in the Brentwood Room. While he spoke, someone silently pushed a button and the skylight majestically slid open, revealing the unbelievably brilliant, deep sapphire blue of a clear evening sky. Someone else spoke a quiet question, or perhaps it was a request, and Maeda-sensei responded by grasping his sword and stepping to the center of the floor directly under the skylight. He began to demonstrate Waraku as we had all been learning it, but at the same time it felt as if we were all doing it with him. Watching him also reminded me of many things, including the inspiration gained from listening to music or watching an inspired dance or ice skating performance, and of the reverence and loving expressed by the whirling dervishes. It seemed as though everyone in the room was breathing in and out in unison with the same breath, such was the sense of oneness. What a spectacular conclusion to our workshop.
While Waraku is a physical and not a spiritual exercise per se, I find it helps my body feel more of a participant in my own movement of spiritual inner awareness. It can be practiced anywhere and at any time of day, alone or with others, with or without swords and inevitably leaves me feeling more centered, balanced, relaxed, energized and alert and focused. I enjoy it before or after my own spiritual exercises. I’ve gone to my health club workout after practicing Waraku with positive benefits. I especially like to practice the movements outside in the morning. It feels like my body’s celebration of gratitude for the day to come. When I practice the movements, my body itself seems to enjoy a sense that it is participating more directly in my spiritual awareness and that it is gaining in awareness of spiritual energy in its own body way. The Japanese culture values the development of technologies that first and foremost work, but that are also workable and user friendly. I’d give Waraku a very high score on all three criteria!