Monthly Archives: March 2016

Exercise vigilance












Be aware of your surroundings
Be mindful of your thoughts and actions
Because you never know who is watching

There is a saying in warfare, “A talented hawk hides his talons.”  This is because in battle, the element of surprise is the number one asset any warrior has over their opponent.  We were taught that we should always assume that our opponent is of equal or greater skill.  This mindset keeps us ever vigilant in our training and thus enable us to not fall prey to our opponents surprise attack.

I read a recent article on about travel advisories that recommended that people “exercise vigilance” while traveling abroad.

Martial artists are supposed to vigilant people.  Our training teaches us to be ever aware of “what is going on” at all times.  We don’t have to “exercise vigilance” because we are always vigilant.

But, what does it mean to be vigilant?  Furuya Sensei used to say, “Always act as if your teacher is watching.”  With this assertion, we will be aware and to be aware means being diligent in our approach and to act accordingly at all times.  If we are present in the moment then we can be aware of ourselves and our surroundings.  If we “fall asleep” then we lose the ability to monitor our own thoughts and actions and will completely lose track of our surroundings.

One can only be surprised if one didn’t see it coming.  To be vigilant means to be first self-aware then secondly aware of one’s surroundings.  How could we possibly be caught off guard if we are always on guard?  Always “act as if your teacher is watching.”

The simple things sometimes are the hardest things

Blackboard with simple sums in chalkJust do as much as you can.
Not more than you can.
Not less than you can.
Just as much as you can.
But, are you doing as much as you can?

If one wants to get better at Aikido, all they have to do is just do more Aikido.  I can’t tell you how many times I get asked this question, “What else can I do to get better at Aikido?”  My answer is the same answer Furuya Sensei would give which is, “just train more.”  It is a common malaise for people to think that a magic pill exists or that the answer to their questions about Aikido or life are complicated or mysterious.  The truth is never quite that sexy.  If one wants their head to stop hurting then they should stop banging it against the wall.

The answers, if there is such a thing, can usually be found in the most obvious or most simplest ways or Einstein put it, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  Simplicity applies to not only training but to life as well.

Stop doing that thing that causes you pain.
Stop doing that thing that causes others pain.
Trust more and don’t ask so many questions.
Be kinder to yourself and to others.
Let go of control and just go with the flow.
And most of all just train and be patient.

Spring has arrived!



















The bluebird and the cherry blossom are the universal symbols that Spring has arrived.  In Japan, the arrival of Spring brings with it the opportunity for renewal and hope of prosperity.

The two motifs are a favorite among the warrior class.  Both symbols have a certain sense of balance to them in regards to life.

Bluebirds symbolize happiness but their songs also represents perseverance in darker times.  I am sure a samurai in the heat of battle who had the awareness to hear the song of the Bluebird would think that it was a good omen and that their song might give him the strength to carry on.  It is said that the Bluebird carries the sky on its back and with it eternal happiness.

If Japan had a national flower, it could easily be the sakura or cherry blossom.  The Cherry blossoms usually only blooms for one to two weeks from the first blossom called kaika (開花) and full bloom called mankai (満開).  After mankai is reached the blossoms begin to fall off the branches.  There are five petals of the sakura flower and thus it said to represent human beings.  Therefore the falling of the cherry blossoms off the branch are reminiscent of a head being chopped off or life being lost.  The cherry blossom falls off the branch at the peak of its beauty and just as men are cut down on the battlefield in their primes.  The cherry blossom reminds us that there is no tomorrow and that we must live our lives well.

Spring has arrived!  Rejoice, get out, find happiness for there is no tomorrow.  Oh and come to class if you can.

What do you see?


How discriminating is your eye?  The mark of good student is not in what they can do, but what they can see.  What one sees is a function of “how” they see things or their perspective.  To be a good student requires that one’s perspective be open and willing to see things beyond what is being shown.  With the picture above, one can see just how discriminating their eye has become in both good and bad ways.

Take a good long look at the picture before answering the questions below.

  • How many tourists are staying at this camp?
  • When did they arrive: today or a few days ago?
  • How did they get here?
  • How far away is the closest town?
  • Where does the wind blow: from the north or from the south?
  • What time of day is it?
  • Where did Alex go?
  • Who was on duty yesterday? (Give their name)
  • What day is it today?

For the answers, click here.

How far did you get?  How many did you get right?  There is no right or wrong answer to this exercise.  It merely points out how one’s perspective colors how they see things.  How we see enables us to see or not see things.

A martial artist is supposed to be able to “see” things that are not readily apparent to someone who isn’t trained.  The element of surprise is one of the most critical elements in any confrontation.  If one can read the situation properly then they won’t be surprised.  If they read the situation wrong, they might find themselves in a compromising situation.











In the earliest part of Spring in Japan the snow sometimes lingers as the cherry blossoms or sakura begin to blossom.  It is kind of a strange but pleasant paradox when you have the leftover bitter cold and snow of Winter along side the fragrance of the blooming cherry blossoms of Spring.  This occurrence has been a constant theme over time for many artists and poets in Japan.

This same paradox exists among humans.  We are all beautiful despite the coldness and bitterness that we have faced and triumphed over.  The question is, “Can we let our beauty shine despite being covered by snow and surrounded by cold?”

This is the same question that martial artists face too.  When we are surrounded or up against seemingly insurmountable odds, “Can we still maintain our composure?”

Training teaches us to be this paradox of beauty in spite of the circumstance.  Our paradox is actually the opposite whereas we have the ability to do great harm, but instead exercise restraint and show the true beauty of man by acting with kindness, compassion and forgiveness.

In Spring, the seasons start over.  The cold demanding Winter is starting to fade and give way to the possibilities of Spring.  With a peek of light and a hint of warmth, Spring brings us renewal.  I hope that you have a wonderful Spring.




もの は 大切 に使わなければならない                                                                                                             (mono wa taisetsu ni tsukawanakerebanaranai)                                                                                  Everything must be used carefully and not wasted

From the outside looking in, the Japanese are voracious consumers of the latest gadgets and only seem to be into the highest fashion so they must in turn be wasteful people.  On the contrary the Japanese are most likely the most frugal nation in the world.  Per capita the average Japanese household saves 28% of their income compared to the US which is at about 14%.  Also the Japanese are serious if not borderline fanatical recyclers.  When I was in Japan a year or so ago, they gave out a card detailing how to recycle.  The card was so specific that I still got a reprimand by the garbage man because I mixed up the categories.

Japan’s spendthrift ways could stem from the time after WWII when supplies were short or it could because they are an island nation with limited natural resources, but how is to know for sure.

I am not sure but what I do know is that culturally the Japanese have a certain jenesequa about not wasting things.  There is a certain phrase that every Japanese person says when they here about something being wasted – mottainai.  It’s the kind of thing you say when you see food being thrown out or when someone is being wasteful with their time or money.  This phrase is for anything wasteful but it could also be extended one’s efforts or towards people.

To the Japanese culturally everything has value and this may stem from the Shinto belief that everything has a soul.  This reverence for things can clearly be seen in the best selling book in Marie Kondo’s book on tidying up or from the seminal work The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura.  Both books talk about how things have souls and that they should be treated respectfully.  I saw this first hand many times growing up.  I can’t tell you how many times I saw my grandmother wrapping leftovers in an old restaurant to-go container that was then wrapped in an old grocery store shopping bag or how Furuya Sensei would insist on keeping old scraps of wrapping paper or old boxes “just in case” he might need them.

This idea of conservation is something that most of us only think about as the toothpaste nears the end or as the shampoo is about to run out.  Wouldn’t it be nice to not be wasteful and take more than we need in the spirit of conservation when we open the toothpaste or before we order too much food?

It is ok to own things just  as long as we use those things to their fullest with the spirit of mottainai.  Conservation, reusing, re-purposing or recycling is the spirit of mottainai.

In Aikido our uke (partner) gives us their body in order for us to improve.  This is the highest form of compassion in which we sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of the other person.  Their efforts should not be wasted or abused.  Their efforts and sacrifices are some of our greatest possessions.  We shouldn’t waste it so please mottainai.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama

In the video Trail Angel, Pony-tail Paul demonstrates the entire philosophy of O Sensei’s Aikido.

To do Aikido means to have regard for all living beings and nature as well.  The core philosophy of Aikido is this idea of “non-violence.”  Simply put, “non-violence” means not to fight or to hurt others, but more deeply it is a philosophy of harmony.  The ai (合) in Aikido means for two things to join or come together.  Harmony can then be defined with this quote from the Dalai Lama, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

With that being said, Aikido then become this kind of dichotomy.  On one side we have the potentiality for death and destruction and on the other we have this idea of harmony, non-violence and compassion.  This same dichotomy exists within all human beings.

To reconcile this dichotomy takes training and discipline.  We need to learn that harming others only harms us and this is something that is usually only discovered through hours and hours of training.  We then need to develop the discipline and inner strength to manifest this “turn the other cheek” philosophy.

Training in Aikido is the physical manifestation of the balance of these contrasts.  When we are nage or throwing, we have the ability to do great harm, but because we are learned we realize the futility in harming others.  When we are taking ukemi or being thrown, we are sacrificing our bodies for our partners salvation or in a sense physically manifesting compassion.  The nage thinks of the uke and the uke thinks of the nage – both are in harmony.

When we throw someone it is our responsibility to ensure their well-being.  They give us their bodies and because of their sacrifice we must act responsibly.  By thinking of them and taking care of them, “We rise by lifting others.”  As Pony-tail Paul said, “I am helping them, but they are helping me at the same time.”

To understand their suffering is to understand our own.  Then, to help them is to help ourselves in the process.  From this, we can understand the Buddhist understanding of suffering and use it as a way to cultivate compassion.  The Dalai Lama said that we are all the “same” and from this same-ness we can find a common ground and thus find and give compassion.  They suffer just as we do.  Therefore, their destruction is our destruction.  From this place, the harmony within us is manifested and we come to realize this universal concept of oneness and that all things and people are sacred.

Look at the smiles from the people in this video.  Could you feel the kindness, generosity and compassion from not only Pony-tail Paul, but from the people he helped.  He doesn’t have to, but does it anyways.  Of course, he helps them because it helps him but he does it because he understands and cares.   As learned people, Aikidoists understand that too that life is tenuous and that all life is precious.


With the right attitude, we can learn anything























Reading these nine precepts, I can only think that the one thing missing is “Keep the right attitude, always.”  With the right attitude, we can learn anything.

Zig Ziglar said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”  Furuya Sensei used to say,  “I’ll take someone with a good attitude over someone athletically gifted every time.” 

Physical skills can be learned by anyone.  After all, they teach sign language to monkeys so physical things like kicking, punching or joint locks are things that any physically capable person can learn to do.

A good attitude is something that cannot be taught.  It is something that can be learned, but not taught.  A good attitude is something that one has to want to learn.

Numbers one through nine are just techniques.  Having the right attitude enables us to get the most out of these techniques – it is the basis by which all else can be obtained.

How does one get the right attitude?  It is hard to say, but having the right attitude begins by being open and willing.  Openness implies that one is receptive and sincere with respect to the teacher and the art or to what is being taught.  Willingness implies that we are eager and ready to learn.  Now plug in the words open and willing to those nine statements and see just how powerful they become.

1) I am open and willing to value the process.
2) I have the openness and willingness to lose and see what it can teach me.
3) Being open and willing means that I will always have the beginners mind.
4) I have the openness and willingness to meet adversity.
5) I am open and willing to being present and engaged.
6) Staying open and willing allows me to shift from stress to recovery.
7) Being open and willing allows me to walk the middle road.
8) Having the attitude of being open and willing enables me forego fancy for fundamentals.
9) Being open and willing enables me to see the bigger picture.

Mastery is nothing more than become a better person with the right attitude.  Everything else is just monkeying around.

Training is like brushing your teeth

Sensei used to regularly say, “Training has to be as regular as brushing your teeth.”

Training like brushing your teeth has no immediate tangible benefits.  It is one of those things that can’t be truly measured until all your teeth fall out or when the dentist confronts you about your cavities or gum disease.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some aesthetic benefits to brushing like fresh breath and clean teeth but those are fleeting.

Training itself is the culmination of effort, but it too has little tangible benefit.  Aesthetically you may look better, feel better or be in better shape, but those like brushing are fleeting.

So why should we regularly train if there is no immediate benefit?  This is hard to answer but it is just as difficult of an argument to make as when our mothers compelled us to brush our teeth or eat our vegetables.  You should do so because it is good for.  In other words we should stave off pleasure for purpose.  If you are too lazy to brush your teeth before going to bed then you might get cavities.  If your desire is to get good at Aikido then I would advise you to commit to a regular training schedule.  Basketball great Jerry West summed it up best when he commented that, “You can’t get much done in life if you only work on the days when you feel good.”

Training, Sensei commented, builds, “spiritual capital.”  That spiritual capital is what we draw upon when things get tough or we are put into a bad situation.  It can be used when someone attacks you, but it can just as well be used when you have to dig deep and bury your parents or listen to a sad co-workers story.  In other words, it gives you the ability to not only do the right thing but know the right thing as well.

Therefore the benefit that regular training brings is not something that is readily apparent like a large bank account or a fast car.  It is something that is ephemeral like doing a good deed.  You cannot save it up to a bad one because its equity is gone almost as soon as it is done.  But, if you don’t train, you might not be able to do the right thing at the right time, which is the mark of a good student and thus why training regularly is necessary.

Please do your best to maintain a regular practice schedule.  It really does matter.


“Mind Matters Most.” – S.N. Goenka

I believe the key to developing mastery in anything lies within our own minds.

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

People often misattribute this quote to the philosopher Lao Tzu but it is still is apropos regardless of who said it originally.  These words deftly explain how our minds are the key to gaining mastery.

It is said that, “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master” which means, therefore, that we must master the mind before all else.  The best way I know of to master the mind is through meditation.  In meditation, we learn to quiet our minds by mainly focusing on our breathing and by not allowing our minds to hold on to our thoughts.  In Vipassana meditation we learn to not judge our thoughts but to just observe them and let them pass by.  They refer to this observation in Buddhism as equanimity.  In swordsmanship it is called the “immovable mind.”  If we hold on to the thought or judge it, then we are “reacting” and reactions are usually done mindlessly.  When we can observe the thoughts without judgement and allow them to pass then we can act accordingly and thus mindfully.

There are a lot of parallelisms between meditation and daily life.  For me, one way meditation is similar is when an “invisible” wall appears while meditating.  It feels like I can’t go on physically or mentally and the frustration calls me to give up.  Of course, this wall is not real and more of a mental block but it feels as if I cannot or are unable to go forward and get to the other side.  This invisible wall is a creation of my own frustrations, judgements or fears and it usually causes me to end my meditation session early.  In our daily lives it is the same barrier or obstruction that we feel when we think of something that we can’t do, have or achieve.  Intellectually, we might know that it is possible, but some feeling makes us believe that it is not.  We have all felt it as we looked across a room at someone that we’d like to talk to, but felt that somehow we “just couldn’t.”  That feeling is the same feeling that I feel at some point in my meditation.  What I have found is that the best solution is to not to struggle with it, but observe it, accept it and allow it to pass.  I cannot explain what it feels like when the “invisible” wall falls away but it is something like a sense of stillness that is also weightless.

In budo, we are striving to reach the the pinnacle of our training where the mind is “immovable.”  Mastery is nothing more then the ability to mindfully surmount physical or mental obstacles that arise with poise and equanimity.

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

If we understand these words correctly then we realize that the key to mastery lies in how and what we think or as Vipassana meditation teacher S. N. Goenka said, “Mind matters most.”

Here are some good articles on meditation if one is interested in learning more.