Long ago when Sensei became a priest, the Bishop held up a piece of white paper and said, “The sky is the color of this paper.” Then he asked Sensei, “What color is the sky?” Basically what the Bishop was asking Sensei was, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be good.” If Sensei would have answered, “Blue” he would have been asked to leave because, to the Bishop, Sensei was only interested in being “right.” In order to be good a student must have faith that what and how the teacher is teaching them will somehow work out in the end for their benefit. Students who are interested in getting good only focus on what is being taught. In order to get good the student must only copy and not try to interpret. It is when they interpret that they become hung up on “knowing” and to that end who is right. Right isn’t always correct because sometimes we don’t have the logic for what is being taught to us and only after years of training realize how it factors in. Therefore the student needs to trust the teacher and strive to be good rather than right.
The Enso is circle made using a calligraphy brush that is supposed to be emblematic of one’s inner state or enlightenment. To make the circle perfect is extremely difficult. As you can see by this beautiful example brushed by Torei Enji, who was a disciple of the famous monk Hakuin, you cannot tell if the circle was brushed clockwise or counter clockwise. It looks so perfect it is almost fake. Like all Japanese arts there is a subtleness where its power or greatness can only be revealed after years of study. In Shodo, anyone can make a circle after a few lessons, but the circle will have something missing. Only a true master can put ki into the brush stroke which is called bokki. Bokki expresses the calligraphers inner state and conveys a state of grace, calmness and power that can only attained after many years of training.
Aikido is a true Japanese art because its power is hidden in its subtlety and is lost on the uninitiated. From the outside looking in most think, “Oh it looks so easy” or “It’s fake” only to find it to be extremely difficult and only after years of experience and exploration can one come to see the true power of Aikido. One’s inner state is conveyed in the way one does Aikido.
Aikido’s power, like in all Japanese arts, takes years to master and even more to understand. Its power lies in subtleness and its subtleness is part of its power. Think of it like gravity. Gravity is subtly acting on us at every moment, but we can’t feel it despite the fact that we intellectually know it works. The moment when we get to feel it is too late as we succumb to power and hit our heads. Aikido’s power is that subtle. In order to understand its subtlety one has to practice for many many years. That is why Miyamoto Musashi said, “It takes 1000 days to forge the spirit and 10,000 to polish it.” I guess we better get back to training.
The hardest thing about training has to be mastering one’s mind. For me, its the thing that I struggle with the most. Here is a video of Eastern philosopher Alan Watts who eloquently describes the need to develop one’s mind.
It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about change and what we can do or learn about it. Everything that happens to us has a hidden gem that can help guide us to our greater selves. Our job is to find out what that lesson might be. If you roll and hurt yourself, think, “What can I do better?” instead of, “Why didn’t the teacher teach me better?”. When the teacher reprimands you, ask yourself, “What learn from my mistake” rather than, “What a jerk!”. The moment when we start to play the blame game is the moment we give away our power to change. We cannot change others, we can only change ourselves. A true martial artist has the ability to enact change at the very deepest of levels and with a nominal amount of effort. To adjust something without thinking is what it means to be a true martial artist. At the highest levels the master isn’t the most rigid but the most pliable. In order to reach that level, we must first begin to take ownership of everything in our lives including the things we want to blame on others. When we can do this, we give ourselves the power to change. Change – isn’t that what studying the martial arts is all about?
2015 is the year of the green wood sheep in Chinese astrology.
What does that exactly mean? The year of the sheep is supposed to be a gentler and more calmer year that is better suited for creative pursuits since the sheep loves art and beauty. This year is supposed to be even more prosperous because the sheep is the eighth sign of the zodiac and the number eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture. This year is also a wood year which finds itself between fire and metal and thus should be a year of turning points as fire changes into metal.
Interestingly enough the sheep or hitsuji in Japanese as a symbol doesn’t pop up much in Japanese culture. Last night I did a lot of research looking for the motif in art or referenced in literature. There wasn’t anything terribly specific. Generally the reason the motif doesn’t come up is that sheep aren’t prevalent in Japan because of the climate tends to be more on the damp side and not conducive for raising sheep because they get some type of foot problem. The symbol of the sheep is sometimes interchanged with the goat or yagi. The yagi on the other hand is sometimes seen in woodblock prints as a sort of spiritual warrior and their horns can also be seen sometimes on helmets.
The year of the sheep calls us to be pursue more creative projects and look for ways to ground ourselves in the face of change. In order to do this I would like our dojo to focus on ukemi in our training and teaching and for our administrative side to be better organized. This should allow us to meet any turning points with calmness and confidence. Seneca summed up this year up best when he said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Please prepare yourselves well and let luck take care of the rest. Happy New Year!
じんせい はなにが おこるか わからない
Nobody knows what will happen. – Japanese proverb
It would be nice if we could plan our lives and know the outcomes. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. We cannot guarantee the outcome so the only thing we can do is master the process (this is why studying is called following the Way). In Aikido the first thing students are to master is the form of the technique. By mastering the form, they hopefully master their bodies. When this happens it is referred to as mastering the sword in swordsmanship. After that happens the student comes to master their minds and hopefully reconcile their hearts. When this happens, we refer to it as the moment when the student puts down the sword. One cannot know the outcome but hopefully they can change themselves enough so that the outcome doesn’t matter anymore. What happens to us on the outside is of little matter when compared to what happens within.
I thought since today is Friday the 13th, I might post something from the past.
Sensei posted this to the Daily Message September 2, 2004:
This happened many years ago when I was very young. There was a teacher I knew who was pushed out of his dojo and he was forced to run a very small place after all those years of teaching and sacrifice. It wasn’t very fair but his students managed to push him out – he was a very gentle person so I think it was not too hard to fool him and trick him. I remember that no one would help him in the tiny dojo where he taught so I used to go every Saturday and assist him with his class. I think I was the only one he could turn to for help in those days. It was a terrible place – actually, it wasn’t so bad but it was in a very bad neighborhood. Local kids used to break in at night and trash the place. There was a kitchen next to the large community room where we held classes. Every week, someone would break in and take the food from the refrigerator and throw all over the walls and floors. The Aikido classes were on Saturdays from noon, and for some reason, these kids would break in on every Friday evening when there was not much going on in this community center. I never wanted him to see this, so I always went to the dojo about three hours early to make sure that the dojo was clean and in order before he arrived to teach. Sometimes, I remember cleaning broken eggs off the walls, wiping up ketchup and milk off the floor, picking up broken dishes and glass – it was so bad. . . . and only for a few students who would come to learn from him. Later, he was invited to teach in another dojo way across the country. It was a long 5 hour trip by airplane but he decided to go anyways once a month despite his age. The long trip once a month was too much for him and everyone could see how tired he became. Eventually, he became very exhausted – somehow this turned into cancer and he died long before he should of. I remember how I cried at his funeral – I was very young then and just couldn’t understand how such a thing could happen. Maybe if I was older with more experience, I would have told him not to go and just relax and take it easy even though he was in such a tiny dojo. I would do everything to make it easy for him. He is gone and I never hear his name spoken any more. I don’t mention his name but old timers will know who I am talking about. In his own way, I think he was a great teacher who sacrificed his life for Aikido – I wish he didn’t go that far. . . . I wish he could have taken it easy and be around to teach many years longer. . . . .
This story is apropo as to how I feel about Sensei.
Question: How close should we be to our opponent?
Answer: The amount of space between you and your opponent (ma-ai) depends on one’s ability level.
In Japanese traditional martial arts, the distance at which you can successfully strike your opponent and thus be struck by them is called issoku itto no ma-ai. Issoku itto no ma-ai means one step, one cut spacing.
Generally speaking in swordsmanship the safest distance between you and your opponent is supposed to be six feet. This distance is called toi ma-ai or far spacing. They cannot strike you and you cannot strike them. Once you move in and are within striking distance the spacing is called chikai ma-ai or close spacing. When one reaches a distance where they are able to strike this distance is called uchi ma-ai or inside spacing.
Controlling the spacing and timing are the keys to victory in not only swordsmanship but in Aikido as well. If we can control the spacing then we will be able to control the timing and therefore if you are controlling the timing then you are already in command of the spacing.
Beginners tend to stand too close (unaware of the attack) or too far (too afraid of the attack) but as they become more experienced they will come to understand what the proper distances are for each attack and technique. An experienced practitioner has learned how to control the spacing to their advantage and uses it to fend off attacks or create openings to inspires attacks.
It is said that in swordsmanship the margin of death is roughly an inch. If you can pass the tip of your opponents blade then you can kill them. Knowing this, the tiniest of movement can be the difference between life and death. One can only control the spacing after they have gained technical mastery of the techniques. So students should take the time to learn the proper spacing for all the techniques That is why the proper ma-ai depends on one’s ability.