On August 29th, 2010 Sensei Seiichi Sugano passed into another existence. Though I was Yoshimitsu Yamada's uchideshi, we were fortunate to have Sugano Sensei, as renowned as Yamada Sensei, teaching as well. He was and remains the living embodiment of Aikido to me and many who encountered him during his life. He was my mentor, almost a second father to me, from the time I was uchideshi at NY Aikikai in 1993 till his passing.
Since his death I have struggled to define Sensei to students, why he was so amazing but have always come up short. There was so much there, where does one begin? When I try it usually just comes out as, “He was great”. I have heard the same from others who studied with him when they try. Its like there is too much to say. Here is my attempt to explain the truth of Sensei’s greatness, what was so special about the man.
His Aikido had some ineffable quality to it. Enormously powerful and a large man, for some reason it very difficult to see what he was doing with his movement. Something one had trouble putting a finger on. One reason was that when you attacked him he had the quality that many people ascribed to O’Sensei- he seemed to disappear. When he reappeared it… wow. Sensei Donovan Waite described it once as, “You attack and suddenly there’s nothing, like you fell in a hole and as you are climbing out… a tank drives over you.” Jim Soviero was sent by his teacher the late great Sensei Rick Stickles specifically to study from Sugano Sensei. “I don’t get that stuff Sugano’s doing over there.” Very, very hard to see, even after much training.
His classes filled a person with energy, made people happy, joyful for being there, for being alive. He was always laughing. He had a joy to him most of the time, even when he would stand over someone on iriminage and holding their head, imitate bringing it to the mat and say, “Now Crush Head!!!” He would say these words with such a humor and incongruous joy that the entire class would burst out laughing.
His Aikido, his understanding, was always changing, always new and progressing. He might do something in a class that might never be repeated. He was supposed to write a book for many years and when I asked him he shrugged. “How to write something? Day to day understanding changing.” In an art that is said to be traditional Sensei would always stress the revolutionary nature of Aikido was in its not being fixed but an evolution on the past and something that while remembering the past, is about change and innovation. He talked about learning things outside of Aikido so that one would have additional points to understand the art, that sometimes the best way to see Aikido is to step outside of it at times. He took up western fencing in his 40’s, becoming an Olympic level competitor late in his life. These understandings contributed to his Aikido understandings. At times I and others would ask him about something he had said, particularly important points at times, and he would deny he had ever said such a thing. In reflecting on the strangeness of this recently I realized that this was perhaps his way of not being pinned to ideas he had moved past. He said to be always learning, always seeking. Sensei Jim Soviero, another who was close to him, taught at my school last Memorial said, Sensei would say one should “continue, continue” in their progress.
In a driving snow blizzard, using his bare hands on brick, Sensei somehow climbed through the second story window of New York Aikikai. Once uchideshi’s like myself would climb the wall when we were locked out but to prevent the danger of break ins the building front was professionally machined to remove all hand holds. I tried climbing it after and almost fell, having to be rescued. That was during the day, in the summer and I was in my 20’s, highly athletic and had some experience mountain climbing. Sensei did this at night, in a snow storm so thick a person could not see their hand in front of them and Sensei was almost 60. Had I not seen him I would not have believed it was possible. I was writing at the front desk, heard something at the window and was surprised to see Sensei’s bear like paw coming through the window. I helped pull him in and amazed I asked him what he was doing. He said it was Sunday and night and he didn’t want to bother anyone for something he left at the dojo. This also speaks to the man’s humility as well. He did not want to disturb we who were there to serve him on our small time off. So he climbed a sheer wall in a blizzard with his bare hands. These years later I can only shake my head in wonder at the quality of the man.
Once I was in a rush to do something in the dojo and I ran to be back as fast as I could. I however missed seeing that Sensei had come into the dojo early to work out on his own and was getting changed. I sprinted through the flimsy curtain in the back and hit Sensei at a dead run. The next thing I was laying on the ground with the wind knocked out of me. An antique safe was left in the dojo weighing several hundred pounds and I thought for a second that someone had moved it in back of the curtain, till my head cleared and I saw Sensei standing over me laughing. It was really like I ran into something immovable, a brick wall or something.
Sensei always had an ability to surprise. In class and with everything. One New York Aikikai students, a professional artist told me an story of bringing a picture into the dojo he showed to several people. It was a sophisticated version of the old pictures that are done with things or people hidden in them. David is a trained artist, a professional photographer who makes his living by observation. Despite this he was only able to pick out 10 or so of the 15 things hidden in the picture. Most people were only able to get less than that. David showed the picture to Sensei. He immediately picked out all 15 or so of the hidden figures. Startled, David asked him how he did that. Sensei said that it was simple. One merely had to “soften” the focus eyes like one does when in multiple attack. Then one can see everything, even what is hidden. David said it changed the way he critically observed things. He had surprising ways of explaining the art. The answer given was almost never the one expected. An example was how he described holding a person in a technique. He said it was like catching a fish with bare hands in a stream. One had to be sudden and direct to catch the fish, but soft yet firm or too much strength and the fish would jump from ones hand.
A Better World
O’Sensei talked about Aikido making the world a better place. Sugano Sensei explained how to do that. He talked about the contradiction of the practice and the ideals of Aikido and the remedy. “The idea of Aikido is about harmony and working with others. The practice makes people stronger than others who don’t. The ego becomes larger as they can do things to others with less practice cannot do. This is not real skill though. The practice is by established rules. This is false ego.”
I asked, “How does someone go beyond the practice, past the ego and get to the philosophy?” “It must be by making the practice real. It must be by action which has a connection to the words the philosophy. If Aikido is about love, one must be loving- in actions and not words. If Aikido is about giving, one must give. This is why at some of my schools I have asked them to raise money for children who don’t have. This is real action and its helps to make the practice real. It makes the words more than just talking.” One must act on the ideals of Aikido in order to make one kind, generous, loving through the practice. As we improve our practice, we improve ourselves and a better world is made.
Sensei had his leg amputated in 2003. I was in Kuwait about to go into the Iraq war when I heard. I was told that he was dying. One of the uchideshi’s gave me Sensei’s private room number at the hospital. I called, desperate to leave a message for him, as we were preparing to go north into the war. To my surprise he picked up the phone, only recently come from surgery.
I said to him I was so sorry that he had lost his leg. To my amazement he laughed in his great bear laugh and said, “Something good! New challenge!"
I sat there stunned. He had just had his leg cut off. In my mind he had lost his life's vocation because how could he do Aikido missing a leg? I could only say, "I'm so sorry, Sensei." And he laughed again, highly amused. "Life is change and change is good! If things not change then how one know one is alive? Change is good!!" I could not wrap my head around it then but with his embracing change, Sensei made something that might have otherwise been terrible, into be something good.
Several years before I had suffered a life threatening injury and I had not been so sanguine. I had a wound through my left leg, hips and deep into my torso, a piece of steel 17 inches long that pierced me to the center. It was a miracle I was alive. Lying in my bed I could not move and was told I might never walk or move properly again as there was nerve damage to my leg. My left leg was numb and I could not move it. High on morphine I called Sensei and said I would never do Aikido again. He told me a number of things and then said, “Never do Aikido again?” “No Sensei. That is what the doctor says."
He was silent for a long time and then said, “Then you must do impossible. Do impossible.” So I did what he told me. With everything I had I straightened myself, then got up, unplugged myself and walked from that hospital. 12 days later was back practicing on the mat. Now here my teacher was living his own words. He was doing the impossible. In the face of never being able to do Aikido again… he was laughing. He was positive. Just a challenge. That change, no matter how bad it might seem, was good.
Sensei was my hero and inspiration, will always be my hero and inspiration, for that unvarnished moment of greatness I heard there. He lived Aikido and did not let his amputation hold him back, continuing to teach and inspire till the end of his days. He will always remain my hero for what I heard in that call. "Change is good!"
When Sensei made the decision to die said, “One final point. You must release your energy.” We all must. And you Sensei released your energy to so many people all over the world who today continue to pass on that special energy, that love you gave. When Jim Soviero taught last year in my dojo, he brought a joy of practice that felt like a homecoming with Sensei. So many people around the world today who share the love of Aikido that you passed on to us. After last years memorial at the end of a class I turned off all the lights and told everyone to attack each other, as he used to do, and everyone was laughing. I would like to think your spirit was with us Sensei. Change is good. I believe that.