There is a Buddhist proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this quote and I also can’t tell you how many times I have heard it explained (in my opinion) incorrectly. The meaning behind this proverb is that when a student approaches their training with the proper attitude and perspective then everyone and everything can become their teacher and thus they can learn anything.
Learning something new is difficult, but certain programs have found a way to teach even the most difficult concepts. One of those programs is Sesame Street. Kids (and adults) have used Sesame Street to learn English, counting, the alphabet, and life lessons to name just a few. But who knew that you could learn how to learn the martial arts from Sesame Street?
Some how the people at Sesame Street have found a way to boil down to exactly what a student would need to do to be a successful in the martial arts.
Learning Aikido is simple if you follow Mr. Mi-cookies teachings.
Please come to class and listen with your whole body – eyes watch, ears listen, voice quiet and body calm.
Furuya Sensei demonstrating at Yaohan Plaza in the mid 1980s
The other day after class someone asked me, “Where did you learn that technique?” To which I answered, “I stole it from Sensei.” With what was probably a huge grin, I elaborated, “He showed it one time and I stole it.”
As a Westerner, I think he was surprised that I would admit to “stealing” something, but in the East this idea of stealing is called nusumi-geiko and thought of as the highest form of learning and that’s why I proudly admitted to stealing it from Furuya Sensei.
In the past, the teachings were supposed to be closely guarded secrets that were passed down from generation to generation. Outsiders were always met with a certain amount of suspicion and even more so if they had any amount of talent. Teachers were always afraid that someone might come in and learn their secrets and abscond off with them which might lead to attack or the closing of the school.
To safeguard these teachings, teachers often left crucial and often subtle things out that only a truly dedicated student could figure out with time and diligence. Sensei even once told us a story about a Chinese martial arts teacher who purposefully taught the form backwards to safeguard it. Only after he fully trusted the student would he then reverse the direction.
Teachers of old believed that anyone could learn their arts up to a certain level, but only a truly gifted student could master them. To determine the wheat from the chaff the teacher needed a method to determine the inner character of the student. Hiding the technique was one of those ways. If a student could pick it up on their own i.e. by stealing it, then they were probably someone of merit. It forced the student to not only be diligent but to be resourceful enough to “purposefully” steal the technique from the teacher.
An average student can learn anything, but only a great student can learn everything.
Sometimes no matter what we do, things don’t go our way. Furuya Sensei’s Zen teacher, Bishop Yamashita once said to him, “Nothing goes the way we think it will.” Profound words indeed.
We often trap ourselves with this idea that if we are happier, skinnier, wealthier or more skillful that our lives will some how better. The truth is as the Bishop stated and that by accepting this hard truth we can some how liberate ourselves from this trap.
The truth behind the Bishop’s admonishment is that today we must celebrate what is and not wait for what will be.
“Even monkeys fall out of trees” was one of my mom’s favorite Japanese proverbs. Things happen, situations change and we grow older. Tomorrow never comes because it is always today.
Mingyur Rinpoche said, “Whatever passes through your mind, don’t focus on it and don’t try to suppress it. Just observe it as it comes and goes.”
Some days feel just like a kick to the face. It happens. Don’t hold on to it and just let it go.
One might think that people engaged in the military arts would not or could not be sensitive by the shear nature of their business.
I would argue that a warrior or martial artist at their highest is and has to be sensitive.
Sensitivity is commonly, and erroneously, thought of as vulnerability and vulnerability is death. At first glance, this is true, but only to warriors of the lowest levels.
To be a great warrior one needs the ability to be able read their opponents in a split second. This “read” has to be done with the sub-conscious mind because it happens so fast that one only realizes that it is happening when they are already moving. This sub-conscious action requires a master’s amount of training. It is so fast and without conscious thought that most begin to call it “intuitive” movement.
To develop this intuitive movement requires that one venture to a place within themselves seldom seen by the outside world but only after the physical art has been mastered. It is the place where we hide all of our secrets and fears which we call our “weaknesses.” To be able to defeat a foe greater than ourselves we must venture deep within ourselves and confront these dark places. The most well-known movie scene illustrating this was in the Empire Strikes Back when Luke ventures into the Dark Cave of Evil where he strikes down Vader only to reveal himself which suggests he is his own worst enemy. When we become aware our weaknesses and deal with them then they become the source of our true inner strength.
We then use this sensitivity, which is rooted in the awareness of our own weaknesses, to find the weaknesses in our own opponents. Looking for the weakness in Japanese it is called “Benki no naki dokoro” which means Benkei’s weak spot (Musashibo Benki was a legendary warrior in 12th century in Japan).
Can we be strong and sensitive? Sure, true strength is found at the juncture of what we can do physically and where we are mentally. To gain true victory is what O Sensei calls MasakatsuAgatsu or the true victory is the one gained over one’s self.
Does a real warrior cry? I would argue that they do, but not for the same reasons that we might think.
Furuya Sensei posted this to his Daily Message on March 4, 2004. I found it inspirational. I hope that others might too. I would like to have a mindset like the hishaku where nothing is special and live my life with the “everyday mind.”
Hei-Jo-Shin: Everyday Mind
Calligraphy by Shibayama Zenkei, Zen priest.
This is a very popular phrase in Zen and the Japanese arts and is what is aspired to as the epitome or ideal mental state. “Everyday mind” implies to our modern minds as “nothing special,” but in Zen, nothing special means “everything is special.” As everything is special, everything becomes equal in value and position and therefore, once again, nothing is special.
In this respect, it is not to pick and choose or take this and that in our lives and make it something what we deem of lesser value or importance, but to take the total whole of our lives, leaving nothing behind, and taking it one more step to a higher level. . . . .
As in the tea ceremony – the ideal is the water ladle called “hishaku” which can be used freely between hot and cold water without discriminating between the two. . . its “universal” state makes it universally important and useful. . . . . this is what is known in Zen as “freedom.”
In Zen, discrimination is not particularly wrong or condemned, it is only in our discriminating mind that we are so restricted and limited as we swing back and forth from one side of the scale to the other. . . . .
Onkochishin – to learn from the past. What does it mean to learn from the past? We read books or attend lectures about famous people and their histories, but sometimes that doesn’t sink in deep enough to create any meaningful change. Onkochishin is to learn from not only from the history of others, but from our own history too. It is said that experience is the best teacher and I agree, but one needs to be “smart” enough to learn from not only the victories but the blunders too. For the most part, there is no such thing as good or bad or right or wrong – the only thing that matter is if one learns something from one’s experiences. Learning by direct experience is the way to become successful. Furuya Sensei once said, “Success is built on many failures” and the Dalai Lama supposedly said, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson” so one can see that the path to victory is in learning from the past.
Choshu Hagi no ju Inoue Michitaka saku 長州萩住井上通高作 from the MFA Boston
The iris plant or shoubu (菖蒲) is a popular motif in Japanese art. The word for iris is shoubu but when the same word is written with different kanji it can mean victory (勝負) or militarism or martial spirit (尚武). The Japanese like this kind of play on words called goro awase.
This tsuba above was created by Choshu Hagi no ju Inoue Michitaka saku 長州萩住井上通高作 in the mid 18th century.
The iris plant known in Japan as kakitsubata is supposed to represent strength and health and is said to ward off evil spirits so it was a often used motif in samurai accouterments like tsubas and armor. Kakitsubata is also a name of a famous Noh play based on a passage from the Tale of Ise. The plant itself is a nice symbol with a lot of hidden meaning other than the clever word-play.
From the photo of an ikebana arrangement, we can see that the leaves stand up and are long, straight and pointed which look like swords. Within one plant it looks like many swords standing up, but with many rows of plants (see painting above) it looks like an army staging before a big battle hence this idea of militarism. Another nice symbolism is that the flower or true inner beauty only comes out once the leaves have grown tall which gives us this idea that growth and experience can bring out one’s true inner beauty.
Want to get better at something? All you need is 20-seconds.
In order to get what we want, we need to create change. Ostensibly we think that change requires willpower. Willpower is necessary, but according to author Shawn Achor, “Willpower is a finite resource and can’t be relied on.” In his book The Happiness Advantage, he discusses the 20-second rule, “I like to refer to this as the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit. In truth, it often takes more than 20 seconds to make a difference-and sometimes it can take much less-but the strategy itself is universally applicable: Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.”
What he is talking about is being deliberate in order to create a habit. Understanding that change is a function of motivation, willpower and action, we can use the 20-second rule to create deliberate action in order to become better martial artists.
Momentum is the mother of change. The 20-second rule is just a way of using this idea of “low activation” to kick start momentum. In order to use it, just add a small deliberate step in the beginning to activate you. Then once you’ve started it is easier to keep going and thus success is easier to achieve.
I use the 20-second rule all the time. When I get off work, the last thing I want to do is go to Yoga class. So I trick myself by saying, “I will just drive by and if there is a parking spot, I will stop.” When I get there, regardless if there is a spot or not, I think, “Well I am here” and end up just going in.