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JOHN TURNBULL SENSEI
SIXTY YEARS OF MARTIAL ART
John Turnbull Sensei’s forbears were pioneers in
the Hawkesbury and Hunter Valleys during the
early 1800s. They introduced cattle to the upper
Hunter Valley and the first horses to the vast
downs of south-western Queensland.
They pioneered the Putty Road, the vital overland
shortcut between Windsor (then an important
Hawkesbury River port with its own wharves and
shipbuilding industry) and Singleton with its road-
link to Newcastle on the Hunter River. Until then
travel between these regions was via ships sailing along the rivers and then out
along the coast, a slow, lengthy trip, and extremely dangerous in bad weather.
John’s Great-great-Grandmother Sarah Eather proved the value of this new
route (discovered by her husband) by being the first white woman to travel it. With
her infant son, John Eather in her arms, she rode a bullock through the dense
wilderness while the rest of the party walked. Starting from Richmond north-west of
Sydney, they wound their way north through the untracked forests, gorges and
rugged ranges of the Colo, Putty and Howes Valleys, following blaze-marks
made by her husband during his original exploration. That first trip took several
days - it’s a two-hour drive now, and only remnants of those vast forests remain.
Growing up with a myriad exciting stories about ancestors whose strong spirits
and survival skills were essential in those lawless days, John developed a great
love for what’s now called martial art. It was natural for him to grow up riding,
shooting and exploring unmapped country. He was riding at an age when today’s
children are barely into kindergarten, and a superb shooter by his teens. His
family’s fencing and wrestling skills had been lost with the coming of law and order
during earlier generations, but his longing to rediscover them saw him practising
with wooden swords while still a small child, intuitively mastering some of the
sweeping cuts of classic Japanese fencing.
He began boxing in Primary School and continued through Secondary School,
often thinking about how his Great-great-granduncle’s combat ability subdued a
bushranger who shot and killed his Great-Grandmother’s fiancee. It happened this
John’s Great-great-grandmother Susanna Clark was
born in 1838 into a family of pioneers at Bulga in the Hunter
Valley. In 1863 she was engaged to marry Peter Clark (of
another pioneering Clark family) when he and Susanna’s
brothers, James 23 and Aston 19, along with friends
Samuel Partridge and John Conroy, rode westwards
across the ranges to buy horses. On Warland’s Range they
were ambushed by a bushranger who chased and fired at
17-year old Sam Partridge as he fled. Missing him, he
turned back, forcing the rest of the party to dismount so he
could rob them.
Peter was nearest and from him he demanded the valuable pocket watch he
was wearing. Peter leapt at him and grappled with the gun but was shot. This gave
James time to enter the fray, however. He, like all that generation of Clark children
(even the girls!) had been taught boxing by their father, James Clark Senior. He
was also a talented wrestler and “grass” fighter.
The bushranger’s bullet had wounded Peter in the neck, and just as James
reached them he fired again, hitting him in the heart. Despite these terrible wounds
Peter clung to the deadly gun, giving James time to reach the killer and begin
twisting his left arm behind his back.
The murderer hurled Peter’s dying body aside and pointed the revolver over
his shoulder to shoot James. But James instantly shoved the murderer’s left arm
upwards and moved his head out of the way, so the bullet from the big Tranter
revolver smashed through the bushranger’s own hand.
Screaming in agony the killer froze for an instant, giving
James the opportunity he needed. Changing his grip
he swung the much bigger man overhead and
smashed him headfirst into the ground, stunning him,
although he maintained his grip on the deadly gun.
He then pinned him in a groundlock, immobilising the
revolver and making it safe for the others to rush forward
and disarm him before tying him up with saddle straps.
The group was carrying a large sum of money to
purchase horses, and it was thought that the bushranger had learned of this.
Horrified at the sight of their beloved friend lying lifeless on the bloody ground,
they considered hanging the murderer there and then, but decided that justice
would be better served by taking him back to civilisation for the law to handle.
On April 31, 1863, the Irish bushranger (who gave his name as Harry Wilson,
although this was believed to be false) was sentenced to death. He died on the
gallows in Maitland’s jail yard on October 1, 1863. Unrepentant to the last, he
refused to give the authorities any information. There was no record of him arriving
in Australia and it was believed he was a terrorist who had entered Australia with a
false identity while fleeing from “the troubles” in Ireland. Powerfully built and totally
ruthless, it’s likely he would have had a blazing criminal career had the Clarks not
put a stop to it.
During the confrontation he had briefly chased 17-years old Samuel as he
raced his horse away from the ambush, but the youngster made a spectacular leap
across a gorge where the bushranger was afraid to follow. He fired at him as he
leapt. Sam heard the bullet whistle past his head, and galloped on to Murrurundi to
raise the alarm, returning with troopers to find the bushranger captured.
In the meantime it had been discovered that Wilson had robbed several other
travellers and left them tied helplessly to trees, apparently to die, for they were in a
pitiful condition from thirst when the
Clarks rescued them.
Peter’s tragic death devastated
Susanna, who was so heartbroken she
became ill from grief and seemed likely
to die. For many years it seemed that
she would never marry, but fortunately
for her Great-great-grandson John
Turnbull, she eventually did.
A subscription was raised for money to build a memorial for Peter on the
Walden Range where he died. It was so oversubscribed that a memorial was also
built beside his grave at Muswellbrook. People valued courage in those days.
Twenty years later Susanna finally fell in love again with another fine young
Australian, William Thomas Squire, from another pioneering family, and married
She was the first teacher under the Public Service Act at Bulga, then a small
community nestling at the foot of the beautiful Bulga Mountains. Bulga is an old
Aboriginal name for “mountains”. The Clarks lived on a nearby property called
“Gerale” - Aboriginal for “underground water” because of its springs. Descendants
still live nearby at the beautiful “Hillsdale” estate.
The Clark children grew up with a great love of the Aboriginals who were their
playmates and friends, and who taught them a treasure trove of bushcraft skills.
Alas, those wonderful people had no immunity to European illnesses - influenza,
chicken pox, scarlet fever and so on, and are now gone.
That first generation of
Clarks had an intimate
Aboriginal culture and
more so than any other
Tragically, that too has
The bushranger incident was recorded in the newspapers of the day and the
family records, and told to John when he was a child by Susanna’s sister, Elizabeth
Collins (nee Clark), who lived to be 99 years of age. She told him too of glorious
childhood days with Aboriginal friends who taught her to swim and other valuable
things. Her cousin Alex Eather also told him of adventures in those rugged,
untracked mountains with Aboriginal friends during the 1800s.
It’s hardly surprising then that Turnbull Sensei grew up with a great love of the
outdoors and wilderness adventuring. “It is in wilderness places”, he says, “where
the hand of man has rested only lightly, that one truly experiences the mind-
expanding sense of timelessness and total peace that produces the spiritual
stability and inner power essential for genuine martial art.”
The story of Peter Clark’s death gave him a deep insight into the transient nature
of life and finality of death, including the need for total commitment in battle - kill or
be killed. It also gave him a great desire to learn wrestling, but it was to be many
years before he could.
When nine he found a boxing teacher, and in secondary school at All Saints
College at Bathurst, formed a boxing club to continue training. There he also learnt
kickboxing from Thai friends and ju-jitsu under an instructor who visited regularly
from Sydney’s Bjelke-Petersen's Gymnasium to teach Physical Culture. He won
his Blues in football and big-bore rifle shooting.
In 1953 he began training seriously in judo and ju-jitsu at Bjelke-Petersen’s
while studying Bridge and Wharf Engineering at the prestigious old Sydney
Technical College, now the University of NSW.
He practised martial art whenever possible, including at the Sydney YMCA
(which then had a very active Judo Club) the Blacktown Judo Club and the
Sydney Technical College Judo Club and other centres, sometimes cramming in
up to three training sessions daily. He taught at the STC Judo Club, the Blacktown
Judo Club and was one of the first members of the Pancratium Club in Bankstown,
competing successfully in inter-club tournaments.
His training was interrupted for six months during his call-up for National Service
when he won a regimental boxing tournament.
During the years at STC he
had numerous opportunities
to test his combat skills for
real while training at various
inner city centres late at
night. In 1965, following the
urging of his Pancratium
instructor Ray Vercoe, he
began his lifelong study of
Aikido under Seiichi Sugano
Sensei, who had just arrived
in Australia. Sugano had
been a uchi-deshi (inner student or apprentice teacher) to O’Sensei Ueshiba, the
Founder of Aikido, and was one of Hombu Dojo’s young geniuses. John became
his “oldest” Australian student on July 13, 1965 and was probably the first
Australian to study Aikido extensively under the direct tuition of a Master. He has
trained in Aikido every day since.
He founded the Australian National University Aikido Club in 1968 and became
the Australian Capital Territory’s Area Representative for Aiki-Kai when it was
formed years later. He remained in this position for more than 30 years, resigning
when its Australian executive refused to support his stand against declining
standards. He subsequently formed the National Aikido Federation as a non-
political, non-profit organisation for people wanting to learn original Aikido with its
emphasis on genuine self-defence and the high moral standards taught by its
Founder - a very different concept from those current organisations whose first
priority is fees and profit.
In nearly half a century he has introduced thousands to Aikido. Now in his 70s
he’s extremely fit, combining writing, photography, astronomy and meditation with
his love for the outdoors, especially summer flyfishing and winter skiing. Like
O’Sensei he believes that getting close to Nature helps us attune to its essence.
He ran a successful photographic business for many
years, gaining a national reputation as a journalist, TV
presenter, author, newspaper columnist and
conservationist. In his teens he studied hypnosis and
the Maxalding system of muscle control. Later, at the
urging of Sugano Sensei, he studied the Alexander
Technique as well as the Zen meditation taught as part
of O’Sensei’s original Aikido.
Later still he explored the Feldencrais Method and
Traditional Chinese Medicine, along with related subjects such as Transactional
Analysis and hypnotherapy. This lifetime of training and study provided him with a
powerful basis for understanding the complex functioning of the mind-body entity
and how to develop and improve it.
He has had 12 books published. His pictures
and articles have appeared in leading Australian
newspapers and magazines, and more than 100
of his cover photographs have graced national
magazines. He has conducted radio and TV
programs, and began warning about climate
change in the 1960s, long before other writers. His
videos on skitouring introduced many to this
wonderful sport. His book “A Fly on the Stream”
was suggested to him by poet and playwright
Douglas Stewart after seeing his extraordinary
flyfishing skill. It became a classic on trout fishing -
copies now sell for hundreds of dollars each.
Another of his books “The Sportfishermans Bible” started a revolution in Australian
angling, ushering in the catch-and release sportfishing and conservation ethic. He’s
now producing Aikido DVDs.
His greatest conservation victory occurred when, during his fight to save
Australian forests from clearcutting for woodchips, his media campaign resulted in
the resignation of a State Minister accused of corruption over woodchip contracts.
This led to a Senate inquiry into the impact of woodchipping on the environment,
resulting in the banning of further clearcutting contracts and protecting the nation’s
remaining forests from further decimation of this kind. Tragically, vast areas of
mainland Australia’s and Tasmania’s last virgin forests had already been contracted
to overseas companies to be turned into woodchips to make throwaway
cardboard packaging and toilet paper, and could not be saved.
His used his media talents to popularise NSW Fisheries Minister Bob Martin’s
conservation campaign during the 1990s, which generated legislation curtailing
rampant commercial overfishing in saltwater. His campaign to prevent commercial
fishing for trout saved these superb freshwater sportfish from decimation. His book
“Bass” helped protect this endangered species. His ABC “Big Country” TV
program “Barramundi” alerted the nation to the dire threats facing this magnificent
species, leading to protective legislation being introduced in the northern states.
He participated in the campaign to save the Snowy River, which saw
Jindabyne dam modified to let more water down the river. During this he was
asked to stand for Parliament, but refused because he wanted to continue
devoting his life to Aikido.
Besides training and teaching daily, he maintains his aerobic conditioning by
roller-skiing and mountain biking on Canberra’s magnificent cycle paths during
summer, along with backcountry and alpine skiing in winter. He bushwalks and
flyfishes in summer, rides a BMW sports-tourer motorcycle for recreation and uses
a 4WD campervan for long trips into the backcountry where the walking begins.
Aikido absorbs his waking and sleeping hours. He deplores the decline which
began when Sugano Sensei left Australia, for training to degenerate a set of jujitsu-
like exercises, with little attention to the spiritual, aesthetic and moral values which
were the underpinnings of O’Sensei’s original art. As did his teacher Sugano
Sensei before him and his teacher before him, he emphasises meditation and ki-
development as an essential prerequisite for real combat ability.
His son Benjamin has grown up with Aikido and is an instructor with the Federal
Police. He’s of the seventh Australian generation to show amazing skill in shooting
and unarmed combat, in a tradition reaching back to Scotland’s kings.
“Aikido”, Turnbull Sensei says, ”could never have arisen through today’s
teaching methods, where all too often the priority is fees and profits, and gradings
are based on ‘political correctness’ rather than genuine development. It arose from
O’Sensei’s total commitment, using prayer, meditation and extraordinarily hard
training in a ceaseless search to understand absolutes such as Infinity and Eternity.
Eventually he attained “satori” - enlightenment - discovering how evolution is
sustained through harmonious conflict.”
Turnbull Sensei points out that this can be seen even in hydrogen, the first
matter formed at the beginning of space-time some 14 billion years ago.
Hydrogen atoms have one positive proton and one negative electron - total
opposites! - perfectly balanced against each other, and thus in total harmony and
“Hydrogen,” he says, “was the first element formed in what physicists call the
‘Big Bang.’ It is the smallest and lightest element. The heavier elements (and
eventually all the vastly larger and more complex compounds (including those
carrying the genetic code in living tissues) evolved through this same principle of
balanced harmony between opposite but interdependent forces.”
“Underlying this is what O’Sensei called ‘Ai-ki-O-Kami’ - the creativity arising out
of balanced, interactive harmony between opposites. Whenever this is prevented
from developing or gets disrupted, as when human relationships are spoiled by
selfish people creating hatred, jealousy, hostility and divisiveness through the
egocentric, disruptive tactics such people use for empire-building in their
ceaseless, greedy search for status and power, destruction and misery inevitably
follow. When this occurs on a large scale it causes the atrocity called war.”
“Only by learning the Aiki Way of harmony
through practising the resolution of conflict
embodied in O’Sensei’s attack-and-defence
training, can the creative power of the Universe
be deliberately manifested. Only then is it true
Aikido - the “art of peace” in O’Sensei’s words - in
contrast to earlier martial arts designed for war.”
groundbreaking principles such as the Yin-Yang
concept (which describes the harmonious
interdependence of opposites) and To-ko-ta-chi -
“centreing” and “grounding” so the individual’s life-
force harmoniously resonates with the creative
forces of nature. These underlie Aikido’s two most
basic techniques, hanmi and irimi, the special Aikido ways of standing and moving
when dealing with multiple attackers.”
“Dedicated practice leads to the ability to circulate ki around the body’s ‘macro-
cosmic orbit’, the way a house’s electrical circuitry carries power to wherever it’s
needed. The feeling is of pleasant electrical currents tingling around and throughout
the body due to the increased energy expanding the capillaries so more blood is
supplied to the tissues. This provides better nutrition to the cells while also
providing better toxin removal. This in turn increases vitality and aerobic capacity. It
improves the complexion and enhances eye brightness, but first requires
activation of the ‘energy centres’, starting with Aikido’s ‘one-point’ (the ‘tan-tien’ in
Chinese Medicine) at the body’s physical centre of gravity.”
“This wonderful ability to consciously circulate life energy throughout the body is
extremely beneficial to one’s health. It strengthens the immune system,
accelerates healing and increases strength. Activating the tan-tien and the yin
energy centres is called ‘centreing’ because it enables the practitioner to become
‘grounded’ in what Aikido calls the ‘Immovable posture’. This refers to emotional
and spiritual imperturbability as much as to physical stability, for it greatly increases
a practitioner’s ability to remain calm, controlled, balanced and co-ordinated during
even the most frantic activity, a great asset in both combat and ordinary life.”
“Acquiring these abilities opens the way to more advanced training, such as
tempering the body (especially the striking points in the hands, feet, knees, and
elbows), so attacks can be safely absorbed and severe strikes delivered without
damaging one’s self. ‘Tempering’ is different to mere hardening. Hard bodies are
brittle; tempered ones are tough, yet flexible like a high quality sword.“
Here it’s worth mentioning that the crest of
Sensei’s old Alma Mater, All Saints
College, carries the motto “Deo Auctore
Vim Promovemus Insitam”. This means
“With God as our guide, we develop
the inner strength”.
‘Inner strength’ is a feature of life and
living that’s been studied by sages and saints throughout history. Called ‘the life
force’ by Nobel prize winning playwright and author George Bernard Shaw, it’s
known as ‘chi’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it’s considered to be the
cornerstone of all effective health policies. Psychologist Dr John Diamond
described it as ‘the innate healing power’ in his book “Life Energy”. The Hindus
named it ‘prana’; the Hawaiians ‘mana’; the ancient Greeks ‘pneuma’ and the
Arabs ‘ruh’. One of the fathers of modern medicine, Paracelsus, called it
‘archaeus’, claiming it can be focused from a distance to cure disease. It is
known as ‘Ki’ in Japan, and is central to Aikido, providing the incredible speed and
power which makes this such an effective self-defence system.
When asked what Aikido is, its Founder O’Sensei Ueshiba described it as “a
martial art designed for the loving protection of all beings”, adding that he
could only explain it properly “through the the triangle, the circle and the square.”
These are symbols for the trinity of cosmic forces posited in cultures as disparate
as those of Ancient Greece, Christianity, Shintoism and Taoism.
Comprehending their meaning requires insight into the nature of creation, for
Aikido regards life’s purpose as being to act as a conduit for creative energy - that
ineffable combination of natural processes and forces which sustains evolution.
“When one’s personal energy strengthens and harmonises into ki no nagare - a
seamless ‘river of Ki’,” Turnbull Sensei says, “it benefits everything and everyone.
Fostering this benevolent energy through the creative nurturing of all good things
makes the world a better place, and is characteristic of all great leaders and
When asked if Aikido is a religion, he points out that religions are defined by
their rituals, dogmas, prayers and requirements for doctrinal “beliefs”. Aikido has
none of these. It has no theology and is absolutely practical - everything about it
can be rationally tested and proven. This classifies it as science, philosophy or art
(or more accurately a combination of all three) but definitely not as a religion.
Proof of this is that people from many different religions and societies now
practice Aikido as a way to improve themselves and become better people, for it
strengthens the “inner spirit”, enhancing the drive all good people have to see truth
prevail and justice done. It also leads to an understanding of the Biblical statement
that “God is Love”.
When O’Sensei titled his art Ai-ki-do most people translated the Japanese
calligraphy for these three words as “the way of harmony with KI”. But he pointed
out that it can also mean “the way of love”.
Which seems a strange title for a devastating martial art, but he also pointed out
that love has no practical value unless accompanied by the desire and
ability to nurture and protect!
Which is why he designed Aikido as a martial art for - in his own words - “the
loving protection of all beings”.
Genuine love brings with it a powerful drive to protect important things and
values, the way parents protect their children - and the way we are now realising
we must lovingly protect this planet - our one and only home - if it (and we
ourselves) are to survive.
“Perhaps the most important thing about Aikido” Turnbull Sensei muses, “is
that it makes us better human beings - people with stronger minds, bodies and
spirits. Which is essential if we are to develop the unconquerable love and deep
sense of responsibility needed for solving the environmental and moral crisis now
threatening our world.”
“Deo Auctore Vim Promovemus Insitam”