On Ki

On Ki – History of the Term (first in a series of two

Ki (or Chi – Chinese) are central to many martial arts.  In fact, two martial arts use the term in their name: Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan.  The notion of ki will be explored in two articles below, detailing the historical development and usage in martial arts training.

Before embarking on these two topics I first wish to tell a story.  I took a number of classes in Tai Chi where chi became a central topic of conversation.  On one occasion, the master said that people should not think about chi as if it is something special…it is like air…all around us.  Then, he replied to questions about the location of chi in the body, in the center of gravity normally assumed to be 2 inches below the naval.  He explained that the real center of gravity is in a central point on the left foot when one’s weight is on the left foot, and in the same location on the right foot when their weight is on the right foot. Some time afterwards, he updated these comments and said the real center of gravity is in thenose.  Being Jewish, I naturally had to ask whether that particular instruction would apply equally to Jewish people as to say Chinese.  For example, in my case I was concerned about becoming top heavy…

On Ki: History

“The original idea of ki developed as a metaphysical principle in a number of Chinese schools of thought.  Ki was, for example, the essential principle of harmony, and it was the source of creativity expressed in the form of yin and yang (Lao-tzu), the vital fullness of life (Huai-nan-tzu), the courage arising from moral rectitude (Mencius), the divine force that penetrates all things (Kuan-tzu).

As a term, it was never clearly defined.  Sometimes it was equated to empty space (the void) or nothingness (Lao-tzu), at other times to the formative energy emerging out of chaos (Chuang-tzu).  It was regarded by some philosophers as the dualistic principle that structures the universe…this dualism evolved into the ki operating as yin and yang, darkness and lightness, from which arose the Five Elements Theory and the divinations of the Book of Changes.” In point of fact, I have heard ki equated to prana and even the Holy Ghost.

“The primary metaphysical principle of ki was introduced into Japan in the Nara (710-94) and Heian (794-1185) periods and generally upheld, but the introduction of Buddhist thought from India to China affected its meaning, due particularly to the idea of karmic retribution.

More significantly, the idea of ki combined with indigenous views of nature responsible for the cyclic process of growth, budding, flowering and the withering of plants and trees…

The most dramatic changes in the interpretation and application of ki began to take place with the rise of the samurai class from the late Heian period…reaching its apex in the early Tokugawa (1603-1868). The samurai who faced constant threats of death in an age of warfare understood ki in terms of courage, shi-ki; will power, i-ki; vigor, gen-ki; and bravery, yu-ki.  They were also concerned with equanimity, hei-ki; and conserving energy, shu-ki; which attempted to prolong breathing, ki-soku, as a matter of life and death…”

Ultimately, O’Sensei discussed his ideas of ki: “…I saw clearly that human beings must unite mind and body and the ki that connects the two and then achieve harmony with the activity of all things in the universe.”  Later, “When one unifies mind and body by virtue of ki and manifests ai-ki [harmony of ki], delicate changes in breath-power occur spontaneously and waza [proper technique] flows freely.”

According to Kisshomaru Ueshiba, “[the unity of individual-universe] inherits the idea of ki held by the ancient Chinese masters… [the free, spontaneous expression of breath power] teaches that a person’s breath controls his thoughts and bodily movements…The reason for Master Ueshiba’s emphasis on the dual functioning of unity and spontaneous expression is that he saw the essence of ki as being the essence of his budo.”

[Quotations above from Spirit of Aikido by Kisshomaru Ueshiba pg 21-25 – [bold brackets my own]]

As Aikido continued to develop, unfortunately, the term ki became a political football.  Koichi Tohei, a top student of the founder, separated from the founder’s organization (Aikikai) a few years after his death and formed his own style of Aikido, called sometimes ki-Aikido or Aikido with mind and body coordinated. During his years under the founder, he was known for giving detailed and clear explanations of ki. While O’Sensei gave primarily mystical explanations, Koichi Tohei explained ki almost as a mathematical formula, easily understandable by contrast.  The Aikikai responded by virtually writing Koichi Tohei out of the history of the organization and cleansing the term ki out of the records of instruction.  Meanwhile, Koichi Tohei’s trademark became the ki of his Ki-Society, and while many aikido masters left the Aikikai for his organization in the early 1970’s, they all left in droves beginning in the 1980’s.  Fumio Toyoda Sensei was one who followed this path, later to rejoin the Aikikai.  We now have the relics of this political strife in our midst.  For years training under Sugano Sensei, the term ki was never to be heard.  It simply developed naturally with practice and there was no need to discuss it.  Under Toyoda Sensei the training left from Koichi Tohei, considered to be a valid method, continues on only absent the word ki as it is replaced by the term energy in daily practice.

When asked once about all the different teachers in Aikido and their political strife, Sugano Sensei wryly commented how strange it must seem to outsiders for us to call Aikido the art f peace.  They then observe how we all fight vehemently over who is teaching the real art of peace.

On Ki – Usage in Martial Arts Training (2nd article in series)

First, let’s look at what ki is:

(Note: All quotations with pages given are from Zen and Aikido by Kamata Shimizu)

“Aikido is a martial art which aims at the cultivation of ki. The aiki in aikido refers to harmonizing one’s ki or vital energy not only with a partner, but with all living beings of the universe. This harmony enables one to realize that the flow of an individual’s ki exists as part of the flow of ki of the universe…” (pg 4)

“…it is often difficult to get up early for work whereas it is easy to rise early for pleasure. This is entirely due to the action of ki. It is our ki that orders the body to take some action and, therefore, it is essential to cultivate the spirit to develop ki-power.” (pg 10)

In aikido, the philosophy of ki can also be explained in terms of kokyu power, or breath power. “Kokyu-power is a force which unites one’s consciousness and breathing, which emanate from the center or lower abdomen (seikatanden). This power is not physical strength or a form of trickery. Using kokyu-power, which originates in the lower abdomen, a practitioner can entirely absorb an opponent with his breathing…” (pg 38)

Before one goes off and spends all their time focusing on their lower abdomen, remember Takuan’s comment from the first entry: “You should not place your mind within yourself. Bracing the mind in the body is something done only at the inception of training, when one is a beginner.’

Continuing: “Then, what is kokyu-power? I regard it as a power which fundamentally unifies the movements of consciousness, breathing, and the body. There is a phrase in Zen philosophy referring to the ‘oneness of mind and body.’ The mind is ‘the spiritual body’ while the body is ‘the physical spirit.’ To consider mind and body as separate is abstract thinking. In Zen, the most important thing is to act.  And action is nothing but the physical manifestation of will.” (pg 38)

So how does this apply to the actual performance of technique?

According to Munenori Yagyu, mentioned in the Takuan post, “That which is kept inside one and which thinks continuously is called the will. That this will, which remains inside, emits outwardly is called ki. For example, the will is the master while ki is the servant. The will remains inside and uses ki. If too much ki is emitted, one will meet with a setback. The will should control the ki to prevent it from excess.” (pg 85-86)

“…In all aikido techniques, you control your opponent with the flow of ki which comes from the center.

It is important in aikido to begin the flow of ki to control the opponent before he projects his own ki. This concept, known as kizen, is also considered to be important in the teachings of Yagyu-ryu swordsmanship…

For example, kizen must be utilitzed when executing the aikido technique ikkyo. Unless you are able to step in at the exact moment your opponent strikes you, you cannot make the technique work fully. Kizen is to take advantage of the instant just before your opponent projects his ki.” (pg 86-87)

A very famous analogy suggests that there is no space even for a single strand of hair. “If your mind hesitates with the movements of your opponent’s hands or legs, an opening appears, your defense weakens and the maai (combative distance) is lost. You should make sure not a single strand of hair can fit between the opposing technique and the movements of your hands and legs in response.” (pg 88)

Regarding another famous phrase, swift as sparks from flint, “This expression should not be misunderstood to mean simply instantaneous. It means that one’s mind does not stop even for a second. In aikido terms, it means one’s ki does not stop even for an instant…If one thinks about doing something quickly, his mind will be carried away with that thought and this will create an opening…

The importance of seeing this ki – [timing [meaning that the flow of ki should not be stopped even for a second, as opposed to the ki of aikido]] is explained in the following manner in the Katsujinken.

‘The first strike of the sword (itto) is not actually made with the sword, but is rather to see the ki [timing] of your opponent. The first sword sees the movement of your opponent and is thus the secret of swordsmanship. You should keep in mind that the ki [timing] of your opponent is seen through the first sword, while you strike your opponent according to this principle using the second strike of the sword (nitto).

‘The essence of the first strike does not lie in the sword itself, but rather in seeing the ki [of aikido] of your opponent. It is most important in swordsmanship to see the movement of the ki [of aikido] that your opponent emits. You see the ki [timing] of your opponent through the first strike and actually cut your opponent with the second strike. It can be understood that grasping the concept of ‘swift as sparks from flint’ is the essence of the martial arts.” (pg 89)

So the next question is what is this seeing…

“Musashi distinguished ‘physical seeing’ from ‘mental seeing’ because he believed that ken [sight] means to see something with your physical eyes while kan [perception] means to see things with your mind…Normally, we see [and hear] things with our physical eyes [and ears]…our eyes and ears only see and hear well the things which we like; this occurs merely because of our personal prejudices. We see and hear things with our own egos. Although we believe that our eyes and ears accept things quite objectively, we are totally mistaken. No matter how much we can see or hear, we do not see or hear what does not interest us.  Therefore, it can never be said that we always see and hear things correctly.” (pg 91)

“…Although usually when we talk about hearing we are talking about the ears, here it says that to hear something with your mind is the equivalent of perception….one can hear the movement of the opponent’s ki [with one’s mind]. Since you hear with your mind you don’t have to see with your eyes…You feel the movement of your opponent with your mind and this is perception. Perception is seeing the will…you should see things without stopping your mind in any one place. Mental seeing is not seeing the movement of your opponent , but rather the movement of your opponent’s ki…

It is not possible for one to learn to use this perception in a single day…Seeing with the mind comes first. Seeing with the eyes must follow seeing with the mind. We see things with the mind in order to see things with our eyes. Therefore, it is necessary to train ourselves to see things with the mind.” (pg 92)

Some of these concepts may be difficult to fathom. The text itself repeats these points many times in the discussion; but we don’t have space here to rewrite the text in its entirety. Rather, perhaps a rereading of the discussion above a few times may help. However, these ideas may simply be difficult for many people to fathom, and training is an essential element in developing an understanding. Genuine understanding cannot come simply from the conceptual mind. For example, while I cannot find the quote at the moment, I seem to recall a poem where the founder talked about seeing with the ears and hearing with the eyes. While the topic is the same as above, clearly trying to understand a statement like this with the intellectual mind will not be fruitful. In answer to such questions as these, my teacher often replied with a “just practice.” Through training, that is the quickest way to understand the meaning. Anyway, the above explanation is the best one I have found in discussing the uses of ki in the context of martial arts training, while simultaneously integrating the discussion with the key points from Takuan regarding the stopping mind.

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