Takuan’s Unfettered Mind

Takuan Soho, as legend would have it, was friend and teacher to famed Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest swordsman in the history of Japan. As a Zen monk, poet, painter, calligrapher, etc, he lived during a particularly violent period of Japanese history. He therefore confronted war and violence, instructing both shogun and emperor and befriending the likes of Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu school of swordsmanship. Zen and martial arts training maintain a long history of inter-relationships in Japan. Zen practitioners also needed to interact with other religions/philosophies, and did so by supporting each individual in pursuing the belief system of their own choice.

That said, the interaction of Zen monks with famed martial artists during their growth and development can be quite instructive regarding the underling principles of martial arts training. A critical aspect shared by both traditions, Zen and martial arts, is learning to face one’s mortality. Takuan, himself, faced death unflinchingly. He requested no funeral ceremonies be done, that everyone simply go about their business for the day, and at the moment of death penned the Japanese character for dream and departed.

In his essay “The mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom,” written to Yagyu Munenori, he addresses certain very basic principles of all martial arts training. I’ve selected several quotations from the first two sections below:

“Abiding place means the place where the mind stops…

Abiding signifies stopping, and stopping means the mind is being detained by some matter, which may be any matter at all.

To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means.

Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent.

…This is what you, in your style, call ‘No-Sword.’

If you place yourself before your opponent, your mind will be taken by him. 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.

The mind can be taken by the sword. If you put your mind in the rhythm of the contest, your mind can be taken by that as well. If you place your mind in your own sword, your mind can be taken by your own sword. Your mind stopping at any of these places, you become an empty shell…

Glancing at something and not stopping is called immovable. This is because when the mind stops at something, as the breast is filled with various judgments, there are various movements within it. When its movements cease, the stopping mind moves, but does not move at all.

If ten men, each with a sword, come at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in a proper action for every one of the ten.

But if the mind stops before one of these men, though you parry his striking sword, when the next man comes, the right action will have slipped away…

When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all of the others. When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face a tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there…

This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are all settled in one conclusion.

At any rate, when one practices discipline and moves from the beginner’s territory to immovable wisdom, he makes a return and falls back to the level of beginning, the abiding place.

There is a reason for this.

Again, we speak with reference to your own martial art. As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop anywhere within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he simply meets the attack without anything in mind.

As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted. Later, as the days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.

In this sense one sees the beginning being the same as the end, as when one counts from one to ten, the first and last numbers become adjacent…

…of the beginning, the abiding place and the immovable wisdom that comes later become one. The function of the intellect disappears, and one ends in a state of No-Mind-No-Thought. If one reaches the deepest point, arms, legs and body remember what to do, but the mind does not enter into this at all…

There is such a thing as training in principle, and such a thing as training in technique.

Principle is as I have already explained above: when you arrive, nothing is noticed. It is simply as though you had discarded all concentration…

If you do not train in technique, but only fill your breast with principle, your body and your hands will not function. Training in technique, if put into terms of your own martial art, is in the training that if practiced over and over again makes the five body postures one.

Even though you know principle, you must make yourself perfectly free in the use of technique. And even though you may wield the sword that you carry with you well, if you are unclear on the deepest aspects of principle, you will likely fall short of proficiency.

Technique and principle are just like the two wheels of a cart.”

I suspect most of the words written above, on some level are familiar to those who practice in the dojo. For example, on technique versus principle, Saito Sensei has often explained that there are two sorts of people in Aikido, those who talk about practice and those who do it. Regarding the unconscious ability of the body to respond naturally to attacks, Sugano Sensei terms this muscle memory. He also describes the way to look at an attacker, “glance as if looking at a mountain in the distance.” In other words, don’t look at his fists, his hips, or any specific aspects of their body in attempting to calculate how the attack will be launched and/or how you will respond.

However, the central theme his is the abiding mind versus the mind that does not stop. The description of how these aspects change throughout one’s practice, from beginner to middle to expert levels, is very important. Consider this point in how you train on a daily basis. How does the stopping mind leave you open to be defeated. We may begin to see this in some small way in daily practice, but it is also important to understand the process on an intellectual level, so we may become more aware of what is happening in practice and consider them in more depth.

Video…MMA fight between Randy Couture & James Toney…What strategy did Randy use?

This is an incomplete video of the fight.  You can see the entire 2-3 minutes here http://www.boobootv.com/2010/08/30/randy-couture-vs-james-toney-full-fight/ if you give it time to load and start at the 3 minute mark. It ends in about 3 minutes.

So can you figure out which strategy he used? How many different strategies? If you want to know about strategy in real self defense situations, in business or anywhere, this will really help you.

If you want some hints, check out the Firebook chapter of Miyamoto Musashi’s “A Book of Five Rings.” He goes through the basic strategies and subsidiary strategies, which we discuss in Aikido classes from time to time. You can find it in our library (username and password are both: sa).  Just go to http://www.scarsdaleaikido.com/Library/A-Book-of-Five-Rings825.html , put in the username and password, go about 2/3 of the way down and you will see the Firebook chapter. The strategies list starts at “The Three Methods to Forestall the Enemy.”

If you want to comment or discuss, feel free to post it here. Later this entry will be listed on the Video Discussion page for reference…

“True Budo is love” – Morehei Ueshiba…was O’Sensei just some kinda hippie?

This realization captures the feeling the founder had after the profound experience of gaining genuine insight into the discipline of his art.  Yet, for most of us who read this statement, we will think of it in very idealistic terms.  The founder’s realization, however, was anything but idealistic.  If we take our ordinary state and smile lovingly at a mugger, we will most likely get killed.  The point here is to transcend our ordinary state, which means the loving smile emerges from the depths of dealing with very real and extreme violence.  The founder studied self defense in a traditional and realistic setting.  He dealt with attackers who meant him serious harm.  Out of THESE interactions, he looked beyond the immediate threat and realized the point of training was not petty hatred and vengeance, but to find love for this aggressor.  With this love, he found genuine power, not of his own personal ego but emerging from universal forces.

O’Sensei used two key words in this line – Budo & love.  Budo is the path of the warrior, defined in terms of mortal combat.  Let’s be realistic for a moment.  What would be our first reaction in the face of the threat of death?  I recall speaking to a detective in the Eastchester Police Department, who upon hearing I taught martial arts, wanted to run his philosophy by me.  He explained that when in a fire fight, if you are supposed to be protecting an innocent civilian, just drop them and do whatever you need to do to protect yourself.  He felt this was the best way to insure his survival.  He did not seem to want to listen to any other point of view, so I simply did not support his theory.  But let’s think about what happens when we practice.  Many of us have experience training against a knife attack in a dark room.  If someone attacks fast in the dark and we are fearful, we generally have trouble assessing the distance and direction of the attack.  Against a real knife, we would surely be killed.  So the detective advocated hunkering down in fear to protect oneself, which is exactly what leads to getting killed.

Love, on the other hand, is the unconditional caring for the well being of others.  Aikido is the development of unconditional caring for others (even the attacker) in the midst of mortal combat.  Why does this make sense?  We can see the problems with batting down the hatches in the midst of a panic attack.  But dripping with love does not seem like much of a solution either.  Here again we can investigate the matter.  Imagine seeing your spouse threatened.  If your life was threatened, you might be afraid.  But what happens when you see your spouse’s life threatened?  Are you still as fearful of losing your own life?  Most of us would experience some reduction in fear for ourselves. (As a note, if we substitute fear of losing our spouse for fear of losing our own life, we actually accomplish no martial gain).   In class, we know a reduction in fear for ourselves translates into an increased possibility of survival.  As described above, suddenly we can perceive the distance, direction and speed of the attack with greater accuracy, and our reflexes are not so obstructed from immediate reaction.

So here we can begin to see the logic of the founder.  Caring for others (in this case the attacker) gives us the strength to relinquish our fears for ourselves.  With the reduction in fear, we are free to see and respond to an attack with greater perception and creativity in self defense.  Our response time is faster and we don’t unbalance our posture out of fear.  By extending this approach to ever increase our perception, we can discern the faults of the attacker and deliver to THEM the same sense of peace we learned to access ourselves.  When we are peaceful, the attacker may not experience our peace through a gentle smile, but perhaps a stern strike or wrist lock delivered out of caring for their suffering and seeking to correct their imbalances.  Again, the founder teaches that these skills do not emerge from our own limited ego or a wish to harm, but from more universal forces of compassion we are able to discover through this elimination of fear and increased perception.  So by investigating our own practice we can begin to see the point of the founder’s realization that “True Budo is Love” is not at all idealistic, but fundamentally logical and actually the most efficient approach for real self defense purposes.

Respect – The First Step Towards Practice

As for the actual practice of Aikido, think about the first act in every class.  As soon as we enter the dojo, we bow.  When we get on the mats, we bow.  When we start class, we bow and when we engage a partner, we bow.  Aside from exercising our hip joints, what is the purpose of all this bowing?  Generally, we are told the reason is to show respect.   If we do not respect a subject, we will not be able to learn it well.  This fact is true of every subject, not just Aikido.  However, why should we respect the practice of Aikido?  In earlier posts, Aikido was established as a means to promote genuine peace and happiness within ourselves, while at the same time learning how to perform a function in the most efficient manner humanly possible.  As it turns out, the function is to preserve our life in the face of grave threat.  In this sense, Aikido touches upon the two most important facets of human life: the wish to be happy and the wish to live.

So, in essence we look to the practice of Aikido to learn how to become happy and survive in the face of a difficult threat.  We look to our lineage of teachers as setting out the path to accomplish this goal.  Dojo protocol suggests we respect this path and the lineage of teachers.  Well, excuse me for being devil’s advocate, but WHY?  Who are these people?  What do they know?  How do I even know it is possible to accomplish these goals?  Yes, in order to be successful, we need to be confident that success is at least possible and that our lineage of instruction can lead to success.  Being confident because the person sitting next to me seems to be okay with the idea is not our target level of confidence.  We need to do some real inspection.

The first question we need to address is whether or not success is possible.  The previous entry “Back on Track…Targeting the Source of the Problem” explored how we can be confident genuine happiness is possible.  We can apply similar reasoning for self defense.  Try an experiment: become enraged about something and ask your partner to punch you.  Then relax and be peaceful and do the same.  Under which circumstance can you perceive the attack earlier.  I will let the cat out of the bag here – you should be more perceptive when not angry.  So by eliminating anger and other such negative/uncomfortable emotions we can perceive an attacker earlier, and with training can respond reflexively for defense.  Taking this process to its natural conclusion, we become invincible as we become aware of the attack before someone immersed in these negative emotions is even aware of their own physical movements.  The only possible exception from the stand point of logic is the question of immovable object meets irresistible force.  Specifically, if 2 people are 100% successful in finding happiness (and also perfected their perception) and they try to kill each other, who would win?  I will let the absurdity of the question provide the answer.

Any process which can produce complete happiness and protect us from harm efficiently is worthy of great respect.  So the next question to address is whether the practice of Aikido and our lineage of instructors fall into this category.  The answer might not be as straight forward as you would expect.  The fact is that the world is comprised of an enormous number of people with different dispositions and cultures.  If we are going for the extreme result of 100% happiness, and why should we target anything less, we are going to find that different people have different ideas on the subject.  Not surprisingly, while most have not achieved 100% success, they all feel their particular approach is the correct one.  (If they felt they were on the wrong track, obviously they would change to the right track, so believing you are correct is healthy.)  The practice of Aikido does not regulate or even try to manipulate which belief system, if any, to which someone might ascribe.  Instead, the idea is more one of how to blend with different people.

So while some people might believe Morehei Ueshiba was the pinnacle of human existence, no one is really expected to draw that conclusion.  Others might take Jesus, Mohummed, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Buddha, Jung, Socrates, etc. as their role models.  Another population might be divorced from religion, philosophy, psychology and other traditions that do target the search for peace and happiness, yet they have not lost interest in the pursuit themselves.  Perhaps the institutions representing some of these traditions caused them to lose confidence in the underlying tradition or its practice.

So for someone who wishes to follow a particular tradition, whether participating in an institution or not, they can compare the teachings of the leader, say Jesus for instance, with those of Morehei Ueshiba.  Where they are the same, they study both because they are the teachings of Jesus; where they differ, they follow Jesus.  They believe following the teachings of Jesus will lead to pure happiness and use that confidence when practicing Aikido.  When they bow, they simply consider they are showing respect to Jesus.  For someone who takes more of a secular approach, they might have noticed that individuals on the above list did seem to be happier and more effective than the average person on the street.  They might then take a common sense approach to their search for happiness: generally reducing extreme emotions is helpful, ethical conduct is beneficial, compassion for others is useful, etc.  In showing respect for the practice of Aikido, they might think “All of those people can’t be wrong.  I can show respect for the locus where they all agree.”  Such areas as compassion, the importance of ethics, etc, are examples.

So showing respect for the practice is critical in order to be successful.  And in targeting respect, merely a mundane level will be a hindrance.  Targeting complete respect and appreciation for the practice can lead to a more completely positive result.  So the answer to how to show respect does not take a rigid form where everyone follows the same protocol.  Instead, each person should inspect their own thinking and follow a process suited for themselves to gain the best result.  Since the practice of Aikido targets benefit for each participant, the approach is not prescribed based on a fixed practice but rather specifically directed to each individual according to which will produce the most positive results for them.  We blend/harmonize with each person by doing what is purely best for them.

Testing Children in Martial Arts

Some questions came up with the recent children’s tests that I thought should be addressed for everyone.  The questions are along the lines of “If a child is being lazy because they think they can get away with it, how/when do we ‘get tough’ on them.  How come children never seem to fail their tests?  If a child can do better on a test, how do we encourage it, and why can’t a child who has the ability to perform the test techniques actually take a test if they haven’t practiced long enough?”

These are good questions that bring out the differences between the philosophy of education and goals in martial arts training vis a vis the school system and other activities such as gymnastics.  In other endeavors, children are pushed to perform at higher and higher levels.  Martial arts training uses a different model.  The goal is not to maximize performance by encouraging children to find the quickest way to achieve a goal.  The quickest way is often memorization.  Also, a significant component of martial arts training is development of positive character and compassion.

Martial arts training is designed to teach children how to “do something.”  In this particular case, they are learning self defense, but the process can be generalized.  Learning does not involve so much memorization as it does in depth study.  A child should ask questions about why a technique works so they can understand how to use it or how to adjust it to changing circumstances.  The questioning evolves out of a natural sense of curiosity which is developed in the context of a fun and relaxing environment.  Children learn through play and we do not over-ride that process.  The questioning needs to come from the child and not be forced upon them.  They should experience a moderate challenge and not be pushed to any extreme such that their own curiosity and study is cut off, being replaced by memorization to accomplish a short term goal.  This environment not only fosters in depth study now, but also brings about an appreciation for life time learning.

In addition to learning how to do something, children are introduced to ideas that will help them develop good character and compassion for fellow human beings.  Other activities may not expressly target these aspects, but instead may focus on short range performance objectives where a coach or teacher may sprinkle some lessons learned during their personal lifetime among technical information.  In martial arts we tend to target lessons learned through the profound training passed down from countless generations of highly realized individuals.  The lessons tend to be more precise, more clearly thought out and more profoundly beneficial.

The testing process is quite different from what we expect in the west.  We think of tests and certificates as a means to certify the accomplishment of a particular grade of technical skill.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We do give tests, colored belts and certificates to children because they need such encouragement.  However, the test is not designed to certify their level of knowledge at all.  Testing is nothing other than a teaching tool that will be applied to each person individually.  The process of learning involves developing a practice over a period of time.  If a student has not done so, even if they can perform certain test techniques they will not be allowed to test.  Once the practice is developed, we pick out and emphasize certain techniques for study.  The child is supposed to examine these techniques in more detail and ask penetrating questions which arise out of their practice.  We don’t force depth in questioning technique, but place the children in a fun and relaxed environment where the questions arise naturally.  Once this study is accomplished in these techniques, they can apply this knowledge across all the techniques they practice.  If a child is awkward or cannot memorize their material, but they are kind hearted and helpful for others on a regular basis, they will assuredly pass their exam.  Advancement in rank therefore does not certify accomplishment, but merely represents the child is practicing and learning with sincerity appropriate for their age and capabilities.

We have yet to fail a child fully on an exam (meaning they do not pass and are not allowed to test again for another 6 months).  The reason here is that there is a difference between a child failing a test in school in private and failing a test here in front of their peers and friends.  We do not wish to take harmful action towards children.  The process is more one where a child will not be allowed to test if they are expected to fail.  If a child is lazy, we will definitely address the issue, but not normally by failing them on an exam.  We have taken harsh action towards certain children from time to time to deliver a message directly that certain lazy habits are unacceptable on the mats.  Those messages quite definitely were received.  If a child shows disrespect for the testing process, we will address that as well.

Hopefully this explanation will help people understand our methods.  Our objective is not to produce athletes or high performance individuals in an immediate sense while sprinkling in an occasional lesson of character.  Instead we seek to encourage students to dig into the training methods, ask questions that arise out of their own imaginings so they will know how to use the material when needed.  Testing is only a small portion of the overall program where the purpose is strictly to facilitate study and not to identify standard levels of knowledge or ability.  Character is also emphasized in the testing process.  Ultimately, the objective is to foster deep understanding of the material and lifetime learning in an enjoyable setting while being cognizant of the character of the society we develop.  If our objective is met, the child can become a high performance individual through in depth study and sustain the effort indefinitely.  I encourage everyone to kick these ideas around and develop a discussion here to the extent you have further thoughts or questions.

Aikido and Self Defense – How to Acquire the Skill

All martial arts talk about self defense benefits, yet they can be very elusive.  Some people offer self defense classes where you learn a couple of techniques in a day and go off certified as equipped to handle yourself if someone out there really attacks you.  Chances are the student will become overconfident in their abilities and get themselves into trouble without knowing how to get themselves out of it.  So how do we approach acquiring real skill in self defense?  What are our responsibilities as a student?

As in any martial art, Aikido teaches the notion of non-attachment.  To the extent you are attached to any phenomena, that phenomenon becomes your weakness.  As a reference, Takuan explained the matter well.   So to become truly effective in self defense, we must release our attachments to all phenomena, and anything short of complete success will leave us open to defeat.  Once open, a perceptive attacker will always be able to harm us, and so we may only rely upon the fortune that they do not figure out our weakness.  The ability to defend ourselves will not be based upon skill.  So if we begin our practice hoping for self defense skill, that wish will act as an attachment and we will fail.  Instead, the initial approach to training should involve dropping that motivation and simply practicing.  Through practice one learns to drop all attachments, including the fear of being harmed if attacked, and this approach is the fastest way to accomplish the goal.

Over the years, I have heard people from virtually every martial art talk about how they believe their training would never work in real life, and the grass is always greener in some other discipline.  Aikido does not work because you do not start out with 100% resistance.  Judo does not work because you don’t deal with people striking.  Tai Chi does not work because you spend all day doing these weird forms.  Karate does not work because if you miss and the opponent gets up close and personal, you are at a complete loss.  MMA does not work because if there are two opponents or one is armed you are clueless.  Proposed solutions?  Do Aikido, Judo, Tai Chi, Karate and MMA.  Each method teaches the same principle: nonattachment.  If you achieve the goal of nonattachment, any of these methods will work.  The point is that one should not become frustrated at the intermediate levels of practice and give up training for nonattachment or success will never be achieved.

There is, however, another point.  In Aikido I was taught that there are two methods of study.  One is to study Aikido itself.  Another is to study other forms of knowledge and use what you learn there to see and understand what you are learning in Aikido.  To the extent someone finds certain avenues of study helpful, approaching self defense via cross training in another martial art can be very helpful.  One steps outside the Aikido world and attempts to examine the same principles through a different lens.

This opportunity addresses the student’s responsibility in achieving success.  No martial art is designed as a method to spoon feed information to the student.  In fact, in olden days they used the term “steal the technique.”  Stealing the technique does not refer to taking something which does not belong to you.  I would reference the article in Hoa Sensei’s book for further interest, but basically the idea is the student is responsible to investigate matters and find the solution themselves.  The teacher is not responsible to offer up everything on a silver platter.  The student must investigate on their own with 100% thoroughness, or success will never occur.  So the student must investigate the points completely and simultaneously be completely unattached.  Perhaps you can get a sense for why genuine skill in self defense is considered to be elusive.

The decision on whether to cross train or not is completely personal.  If someone, in the process of diligently studying the notion of nonattachment, feels examining the matter through a different lens would be helpful, they should certainly pursue it.  If they find a school that can help them and have the time and opportunity, the process can be very productive.  If they are not interested or cannot find the appropriate opportunity, continued study of nonattachment in the midst of self defense related activity in Aikido can work as well.  Again, the decision is completely an individual matter.

So in summary, the student of Aikido, in order to learn genuine self defense skill, must take on complete responsibility to examine the principles of the art down to their very core.  The principles teach nonattachment, and so the study must also employ complete nonattachment in the process.  The task is difficult and the goal is elusive, but the effort along the way is designed to provide benefits of all kinds as we continue to transform ourselves.  Some of these benefits are described in earlier entries of this blog and more will be posted later.  Some wish for the alternative of instant self defense, just add water.  The idea that someone else will take responsibility to give you the skill you wish immediately without any responsibility on your part simply does not exist in any martial art.  Anyone who makes such a claim, if believed, will only bring trouble.  You will expect to have a skill that you really don’t possess and make poor decisions based upon false information.  Depending upon circumstances, the results could be devastating.  The only sane alternative is to relax, drop the attachment to the wish for self defense skill, enjoy the basic practice of Aikido and study hard.  That approach is the most direct path to acquiring many benefits, including self defense skill.

Aikido and Sparring

I apologize for neglecting the blog for some time, but the need to change locations for the dojo just took up too much time.  This post is related to a topic that came up during training recently.  I invite everyone to comment, discuss and ask questions.

Aikido is known as a noncompetitive martial art, according to the wishes of the founder Morihei Ueshiba.  He stated that attempting to dominate or defeat another in order to win violates the principles of the art, and so competition was to be eschewed.  In the mean time, Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo, employed competition and taught that one should not have a desire to win, to dominate or defeat another in the midst of competition.  So the question here is why we do not spar in Aikido.  Is there some aspect of the physical movements that preclude sparring as a training method?  Is there some aspect of the underlying principles that prevent the use of this method, or are the issues with principle more headache material that can be avoided with proper care in practice? If no fundamental problem exists, why do we not spar?  What is the impact of not sparring as a training method on effectiveness of the art?  These questions will be addressed in this entry.

The answer to the question of the techniques preventing sparring, presumably for safety reasons, is straightforward.  Kenji Tomiki, and advanced student of both Ueshiba and Kano, developed his own martial art which applied sparring to Aikido techniques.  Tomiki was a very advanced practitioner who developed the art effectively in this form.  So the answer is no, there are no inherent characteristics of the techniques that preclude sparring.

As for the principle, Aikido aspires to Takemusu Aiki as its highest objective.  This form of training can be summarized as responding reflexively to violent activity without any conceptual thought intervening.  The founder discussed some conceptual thoughts that might intervene in sparring, such as a desire to win, dominate or defeat another.  However, these thoughts are not absolutely required to take place in a competitive setting.  As a result, martial arts such as Judo employ competition and achieve the same objective, Takemusu Aiki.  So the answer here again is no, the principles of Aikido do not absolutely forbid sparring as the problems created by that training method can be avoided with careful implementation.

So why don’t we have sparring absent a desire to win in Aikido?  The answer lies in the nature of the training methods of Aikido as compared with Judo, for example.  In Aikido, we study techniques in great depth from the outset of training.  We start slowly and investigate the basics against a strong grip.  We study posture, breathing, etc.  Next we increase the speed to moderate at an even pace.  Then we go to full speed.  We increase resistance so nage must change the technique, we add counters and deal with multiple attacks.  These attacks begin against a known attack and then move towards unscripted attacks.  Not only does the resistance level increase with each new aspect of training, but over time performing each approach such as multiple attacks the resistance level increases as well.  Ultimately, we finish with completely unscripted attacks in the absence of rules from a fully resisting partner intent upon stopping us at every turn, but only at a point when we can handle it safely.  We are to respond with Takemusu Aiki, or reflexively without interference from conceptual elaborations.  The founder of the art undoubtedly achieved this level in his practice and taught this approach through his lineage.

Judo, by comparison, starts with a rather shallow instruction in technique to start.  Competition is begun immediately with some rules in place.  The job of the Judoka is to learn the techniques in the midst of competition through detailed study, but in the absence of a desire to win.  I suspect the training does not include destroying beginners, so there is probably some graduated levels of resistance perhaps at the early stages at a minimum.  However, an important aspect of Judo training as the level of the student advances is the relinquishing of the rules.  To achieve Takemusu Aiki, the student cannot rely upon the rigid requirements of competition, as a real attacker can do virtually anything.  Eventually, Takemusu Aiki is accomplished as in Aikido and taught through this lineage.

So the ultimate answer is that both Judo and Aikido meet at the top.  Both achieve the highest level of training in martial arts.  Takemusu Aiki is considered the highest level because all avenues to be defeated are closed.  Our ability to perceive an attack and respond reflexively with the appropriate action before the attacker has had the opportunity to fully engage will always yield positive results.  When we stop to consider various concepts, even minutely on an unconscious level, we close down our perception and also unbalance our bodies through inattentiveness to the sensory world.  Through training in Aikido against successively higher levels of resistance, we learn to close each and every opening.  Through training in Judo we may also learn to close each and every opportunity, but this time through relinquishing the safety net of the rules all while immersed in 100% resistance.  When ALL openings are closed, and only then, can we engage in fully effective self defense.  When only one opening exists, should an opponent find it, we can be defeated.  In that case, our survival is dependent upon luck that we will not be caught as opposed to skill.  As long as masters of each discipline live to transmit this knowledge from one generation to the next, the possibility of learning genuine self defense is present in both systems.  For this reason, one would not be surprised by learning that the founder of both Judo and Aikido worked well in supporting each other’s efforts, providing a model for us to follow as well.

Aikido does not employ sparring techniques only because it would interrupt the gradual process of increasing resistance in training.  Suddenly people who study in depth would shift to a shallow approach and learning would shift to 100% resistance sparring with rules from the graduated resistance without rules.  Other days the reverse would occur (A complete switch to competition would simply be a change to Tomike’s art – Shodokan).   The result would be a mixture of two training methods and a lot of confusion.  Learning would stop.  Switching back and forth would prevent continued learning and as a result, all openings would not be closed.  Aikido would no longer be viable as a martial art in that confused form.  Our practice in Aikido appeals to those who need to learn with graduated increases in resistance without rules.  That said, some people feel a need for the learning style that derives from 100% resistance with rules.  If they are already in Aikido, there are several options.  One would be to practice Tomiki’s art.  Another would be to take up a second martial art that employs sparring and cross train.  A third would be to periodically test oneself outside the dojo with friends who studied other martial arts.  Finally, when sufficient self control is present to prevent injury, increasing the resistance in regular Aikido training might also more closely approximate competitive training.  (Resistance might include unscripted combination attacks, pulling back, etc.).  These tactical solutions would enable the training methods of Aikido to remain intact while also meeting the needs of the student.  If anything can be learned from the study of this process, let it be a warning that one should never become complacent in their training.  In Aikido, we must continue to increase resistance.  In Judo we must continue to relinquish rules.  Failure in either case will leave openings where we really only rely upon the luck that an attacker will not perceive our openings as the only means of survival.

Back on Track…Targeting the Source of the Problem

This entry continues to lay the foundation for how Aikido training works, and we will begin to go into the actual training itself next.

So the first step in determining how to find happiness through Aikido training is to figure out the source of the problem.  An inspection of the simple sentence, “I wish happiness,” identifies the problem.  What is this “I?”  If we don’t understand that which we would like to be happy, how can we affect it?

It would seem we are born with an innate assumption that we are our body in some fashion.  Intellectually, we might have some other ideas, but imagine your arm is suddenly amputated.  Your instinctive reaction would not be passive disinterest.  From this reaction we know that any ideas we maintain are purely intellectual, and deep down on an unconscious level, we really relate to ourselves through our body.  At the same time, we have an underlying belief that we are independent, unitary and permanent.  Think about it…when you think of yourself, is this not what you somehow imagine?  Yet this does not fit the description of our body.  If we existed independently of everything else, we would never need food or water.  If we were unitary, we would be represented by our entire body, even if part was amputated.    If we were permanent, we would never die.  So we have an unconscious idea of who and what we are which is completely unrealistic.  Then when we face the reality of our mortality, we become frightened because we think this false idea of ourselves will suddenly turn from something to nothing.  When we try to make this false notion happy, obviously it could never work.  In this way we discover that ideas we have within ourselves are inaccurate and obstruct our ability to find happiness.

Based upon these false ideas, we then go out and engage the world in search for happiness.  We look for a very limited form of happiness through the senses.  For example, we think our favorite ice cream is a cause of happiness, but if you consume it nonstop for 24 hours, you would probably find it to be a cause of misery.  Even if we only have it for a few enjoyable minutes, the joy goes when we stop having it.  We cannot find a permanent source of happiness through our bodies.  Yet to get the ice cream, we may wind up doing all sorts of negative things to other people, which deep inside will cause a much more lasting form of misery.  To solve the problem, we need to go within and correct these false notions.  Aikido is a practice that targets our unconscious ideas of how we relate to our bodies so we can stop defeating ourselves and ultimately find happiness.  Tamura Sensei explained it very well when he said the point of Aikido training is to destroy illusion so we can directly perceive the truth.

The next basic step in the search for happiness is to be certain that it is physically possible to achieve the goal.  Otherwise, why waste the time when we can just all be miserable together?

To start out, let’s consider two extreme states of mind, hatred and lust, which represent the basic ideas of pushing away and pulling towards oneself in the search for happiness.  Something is uncomfortable, so we push it away.  Something is enjoyable, so we seek out more of it.  Short term we think the pleasurable physical states will bring about happiness, but we know this is not a permanent solution.  We can do the same analysis with pleasurable mundane concepts such as fame.  Eventually we will wind up with something we don’t want and become miserable again.  The search for happiness through this medium can never work permanently.  When we have great hatred or great desire, is that a genuinely enjoyable state?  If you look closely, I think the answer is that it is uncomfortable…not peaceful.  If you begin to release your attachment to the body as “I,” you will reduce the hatred and lust.  That frame of mind is more comfortable…peaceful.  Imagine effecting this reduction so that the hatred and lust we experience is zero.  If we can reduce it somewhat, logic dictates that it can be reduced to zero through practice.

So we can conclude that it is possible to find happiness…obviously it is worth the effort, so we are ready to embark upon the task of searching for it through practice…

Inter-Religious Disharmony – The Path to Peace

Our dojo is a pluralistic organization in the midst of a pluralistic society.  By pluralistic, I don’t just mean open to rich and poor alike, but people of all different religious beliefs, or none at all.  On the surface, it may appear that there are conflicts between the various religions based upon their doctrines and policies in trying to convert others to their way of thinking.  So the question arises, how can we be pluralistic and all get along at the same time?  Look at the Mideast for an example not to follow.  What does Aikido teach us here?

To answer, we should start with the stated reason the founder spread Aikido worldwide – to give humanity a practice that could foster world peace.  So this is straightforward: we are supposed to peacefully co-exist with others, even if they do not agree with our belief system.  We need to harmonize with them.  Aikido is an international practice, and even in our small dojo, we have had experience dealing with roughly 10 different religions. It is absolutely critical that we learn to accomplish this task or we cannot fulfill the founder’s mission?

Let’s start out with the big picture.  There are roughly 6 billion people on the planet, all with different cultural backgrounds, dispositions, interests, etc.  Imagine getting everyone to believe exactly the same thing?  Let’s be realistic here; it’s not happening.  If we try to force the issue, the environment would be unhealthy and we would wind up pushing more people away from what we want them to believe.  Instead, we need to develop a system where we accept people with different beliefs.  Now, some people will have no beliefs, some a mild hint of an idea but without religious practice, and still others will be devout practitioners of all different sorts of faiths. It’s actually helpful for ourselves if we know where we are.  For example, we may believe we are religious, but if we don’t practice on a daily basis (practice includes doing the difficult work as well as the easy stuff), perhaps we should consider ourselves something less.  That said, we need to include everyone here.  So we can first devise a system to organize the different practices: (1) theistic religions, (2) non-theistic religions and (3) a secular or non-religious approach.

The theistic and non-theistic approaches both have very similar attributes despite their vastly differing beliefs.  We can start with the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  This idea represents restraining oneself from harming others.  Next, they all agree that love and compassion are critical and should be actively used in helping others find happiness.  Finally, they all ascribe to some form of selflessness.  So starting with the outward behaviors first, we can see that the function of religion is to benefit the people in society because everyone winds up helping everyone else.  In this type of environment, clearly the people doing the helping wind up much happier.  So we can define the purpose of religion to make the individual happy through the practice of helping others skillfully, so the effect is very constructive for society as a whole as well.  How many people whose beliefs could be described as secular would disavow these ideals as negative or unworthy?  Common sense supports their value.  So whether religious or not, the target is the same: to become happy ourselves through benefiting society as a whole.  Well, that is convenient for our purposes, as Aikido also teaches this as the purpose of our practice.

So if ultimately everyone is trying to help each other become happy, how does it get so fouled up?  I think we forget the underlying motivation more often than not as we trudge through our daily activities.  Let’s take a sample case:  I will tell a funny story that happened to me many years ago.  I happened to be on a date with a very strange woman.  Suddenly she blurted out that she was a witch.  I did not know why, so I just sat there and waited.  She asked me what I thought of witchcraft.  I simply explained that I did not use labels.  I thought about it and asked why she practiced witchcraft, to which she replied that she wanted to learn how to manipulate the material world with her mind.  I simply said, “wrong answer,” as I recognized that as a deviant motivation. She was not looking to help others, but accumulate power for herself.   I started to relay the story that afternoon to a female friend and she stopped me quickly; “Oh my God what did you say to her…I am a witch.”  Well, that was an even bigger shock.  Two witches in one day.  So I then told her exactly what happened, and she said, “Oh, that’s good…very good.”  Then she explained that in witchcraft, you basically spend all your time praying for world peace.  She agreed the other woman was a deviant practitioner.  In our culture, we grew up with the historical hatred of witches that probably stems from the Salem witch trials.  If you look closely at what happened during those trials, I suspect you will find a group of people named the Puritans murdered a fair number of innocent people merely because they thought they had different beliefs than their own.  If the Puritans were alive today, we might not look as kindly upon them as the witches, which does seem somehow at odds with the reference to the word pure in their name.

So let’s take a look at the pitfalls if I interact with the bad witch (no reference to the Wizard of Oz intended).  The first issue is one of my own prejudices.  I was brought up with the idea that witches are evil, but I never questioned why.  The prejudice simply came through the many generations of American society, but the reason seems to have been lost.  If I react out of prejudice without consideration of her actual beliefs, she will be hurt and upset.  This apparently occurred to her often in the past and became a sensitive issue for her.  By indiscriminately pushing her buttons I would not expect to gain her trust and she would not look favorably upon my advice.  If my advice is to shift her to helping others from accumulating power for herself, her likely response would be to try to accumulate more power for herself.  I therefore need to be very careful and look at what she believes and actually does in the context of finding happiness for herself rather than my own preconceived notions.

So if I step over this hurdle and begin a process of encouraging her to help others rather than accumulate power, we will run into some pitfalls from her end.  I would need to help her understand that she is either practicing a religion or not.  If she finds she is not really practicing her religion, she might be surprised.  In either case, her objective is to become happy, but let’s take the case that she is practicing a religion on a daily basis.  I explain that the purpose of religion is to make her happy.  Most would not be upset by this idea.  Then, we go through some arguments that making others happy is the best way for her to find happiness.  In this way, religion is good for society as well.  Obviously this fact is common sense, but her religious texts and teachers should be telling her this as well.  If not, challenging her to become happier is not normally looked upon poorly.  I can tell her to investigate her religious texts and talk to her teachers.  If she is not able to find greater happiness or help others reasonably well, she should reinterpret the doctrines she follows so that happiness and the benefit of society are targeted.  If her teachers cannot produce this sort of result, why does she need them?  Her scriptures, however, should possess this information.  As a genuine practitioner, she should be in the business of improving her understanding of her scriptures on a moment by moment basis, so my request should not be difficult.

If she accepts the challenge, we are done with the problem.  However, some people get locked into positions and forget the ultimate objectives of happiness and improvements in society.  When this occurs, I simply do my best to skillfully lead her in that direction.  If the efforts fail, I do not suffer myself because my intention was good.  She will suffer to the extent her intent is selfish.  I then just deal with whatever situation arises as needed, and with a clear conscience.  On the other side of the coin, if I approach her based upon prejudice or hatred, being fundamentally selfish myself, I will suffer.  So the bottom line is that if we keep the interests of others in front of us and act on their behalf, we will be happy, and to the extent the other person feels our intent, they are more likely to listen to us.  When we go in the direction of selfishness, we undermine our happiness and increase the likeliness of failure in our efforts.  The same is true regardless of which side of the discussion I take.  We need to remember the ultimate objective of our practice  – to find happiness through helping others and society –  whether we are religious or not. We should be distracted with hatred or disputes about dogma.  This approach is the fundamental idea of Aikido, as well as all of the religions and also complies quite well with common sense.  By following this prescription, we find peace, harmony and happiness.

The same sort of approach can be taken with the proselytizing practices of the various religions, but we will save that for another discussion.

Overview – Why Practice Aikido?

After training about 20 years, my teacher told me that part of the practice of Aikido is to figure out why you are doing it.  Why did he wait so long to tell me, I wondered…

There are two factors that all beings have in common: a wish to live and a wish to be happy.  There are no exceptions.  Even those who wish to be miserable do so perversely because they think it will make them happy.  Even those who wish to die are ignoring their deeper longings.  They really wish to live and be happy, but many times just become discouraged  and think they can never be happy alive, so they then think they prefer to die.  Ultimately all wish to live and be happy.

Aikido is an activity that functions in two ways.  The physical function is to teach people how to survive a violent attack without harming the attacker unnecessarily.  The activity itself promotes life both of the attacker and attacked, one of the two factors that all beings desire.  The second function is that by learning to perform the activity efficiently, one can develop a profound sense of peace and happiness.  This happiness represents the second factor that all beings desire.

So far, this process looks fairly easy.  We wish to live and we wish to be happy.  By studying how to survive in the most efficient possible manner, we live and become profoundly happy.  The problem emerges not in the why, but in the question of how.  We have become habituated to failure and unhappiness since birth. Bruce Cockburn said it rather well…”the blues have the world by the balls…”  Do you question this fact?  Name one thing you have ever done because you genuinely wanted to be miserable?  But are you profoundly happy every moment of your life and in every circumstance?  Is there ever a worry or concern for the future?  If people were genuinely happy all the time, who needs a hobby?  Why search out a job you like or a marital partner you prefer?  If we were genuinely happy in all circumstances, we would not need to search out happiness in anything we do, but if you look closely we are always searching, in every single moment.  This is our habit.  In the same way that we fail to find a complete sense of happiness, we are programmed for self defeat in every endeavor, which becomes painfully evident to us when we train.

The problem is that we are looking in the wrong place for a solution.  There was once a story of a man who saw his neighbor searching under a street lamp for something.  He went up and asked him what he lost, to which the man replied that he lost the keys to his house.  “Did you lose them here?” The man replied, “No, I lost them in my bedroom.”  “Then why are you looking for them here?”  The man answered, “Because there is more light here.”  We look for happiness outside ourselves, but the only place we can find it is within.  We should continue our search, but we need to do it more intelligently…find a more permanent solution.

Since we don’t need to spend much time explaining why people want to live and be happy, the focus of this blog will be the question of how we get from ineffective and unhappy in our activities to effective and happy.  We will discuss the philosophy of Aikido and explain how the training methods and specific aspects of the study of technique enable one to achieve the dual goals of life and happiness.  Feel free to comment, question and challenge as we go along the way…