Saturday, November 28, 2009

Think Positively?

I started to address this yesterday, but I had to pause---the point confounded me a bit:  I noticed a purported Zen Buddhist blogger giving the advice that, when you question another's motives, you are better served by assuming the best if for no other reason than that you will personally feel better.

This is very popular council in the "self-help / feel good" circles, but it is also very problematic and contrary to Zen practice.

Suppose instead of "assume the best" the author gave the advice "assume the worst."  Would the reader celebrate his advice?  If the cycle of assuming the worst in the face of every question of motive generates a negative personality, we would shun this advice, would we not?  We would not want to set up a cycle of behavior that reinforces negative emotions, would we?

But the Zen practitioner sees that "assume the best" and "assume the worst" are equally delusory.

When a common objective of Zen practice is to see clearly,  why would we accept advice to ignore what is in front of us in favor of what we will create in our own thoughts?  And why would we not scrutinize advice that deepens attached, pleasure-seeking behavior?

Sometimes we are in situations where we feel bad.  Sometimes we are in situations where we feel good.  This is not a problem.  But, here you are in your current situation.  Are you in control of yourself in spite of your circumstances, or are your circumstances in control of you?

So, how should you respond when the question of motive arises?  The first koan in our Zen tradition considers a similar question:

Mount Sumeru

A student asks Master Yun-Men, "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?"

Without hesitation, the master responded, "Mount Sumeru!"

Why did the master answer this way?

Can you catch the sense of this koan?  What are your thoughts?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ignoring or Denying Thought? A Note to a Student

You asked a good question that I did not get to address:  In essence, is Zen practice about ignoring trapping questions or even realizing that the subject of the question is not real?

The answer is non-trivial.  To investigate this, you should consider this question from two points of view, your own and the questioner's.

  • From your own, ask: If I ignore a thought, where does it go?
  • From another's, ask: Is ignoring a question not itself an answer?

Once an something becomes part of your consciousness, you have no choice but to respond.  So, how does one properly respond?  Zen looks for precisely the same thing that Aikido does:


clear, spontaneous, and appropriate response to your circumstances that restores harmony.

That statement, though, has many land mines, and in my view is almost universally misunderstood.  My goal for my Aikido teaching, besides training an effective martial art, would be to find a person or two who could clearly see the meaning this, perhaps even better than I can.

The first koan I was given was very succinct:

A student asks Master Yun-Men, "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?"  Master Yun-Men replied, "Mount Sumeru!"  Why did the master answer this way?

If you see why Master Yun-Men answered the student this way, you will also see why this study is relevant to  Aikido practice.

I am happy to help to whatever extent I can and to point you to others where I cannot.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The "Guided Missile" Attack

While the defender is learning a new technique, his execution is naturally rough at best.  To give the defender an opportunity to study his own movement at a slower speed, the attacker will sometimes compensate with a bit of "acting," moving at less than full speed and full power.

Naturally, the goal is that this interaction will build over time toward fluency in the face of full speed and full power.  In the meantime, however, there is the phenomenon whereby the attacker will continuously adjust his slow-motion punch, for instance, following the defender's movement quite unnaturally so as to land the strike.  Here, I often find myself cautioning the the students:

No guided missile attacks!!!


... but I have come to reconsider whether my advice is actually counter-productive.


Where Does it Come From?

Consider:  Following the defender does in fact represent the attacker's pure intent to find his target.  After all, no one instructed the students to chase their opponents with a punches, for instance, so we really have no choice to consider this movement somehow natural and pure.  This purity of intention is precisely the root of the often discussed "fully committed attack" and is something we wish to cultivate at least through the intermediate stages of practice, giving the defender the opportunity to practice the principles and techniques of handling this energy.

As practice moves through intermediate stages into the advanced practice, the defender must learn to deal with the less-than-fully-committed attack (such as feints and combination attacks) and recovery from failed techniques (including changing techniques).  Here, the defender must be sensitive to the attacker's intention and energy as well as to changing conditions in order to practice operating "freely."  Also at the higher levels, the attacker should learn not to follow his physical attack with his mind.  As noted in an earlier post, the archer need not "follow" his arrow downrange to see if it lands; rather, he should ready his next arrow or moving from the area.  Launching even a powerful attack need not be more than an impulse on the attacker's part, allowing him to observe and to make adjustments from a centered state.  At this stage, the attacker should become sensitive to the defender's attempts to manipulate him and should learn to take advantage of them (such as with countering techniques).


Leading Ki

The "guided missile" is perhaps the simplest and most explicit example we have of the principle of "leading ki."  If, for instance, we see an attacker reaching to grab your shoulder, and if the attacker is actually intent upon grabbing your shoulder, your pivoting your body back away from the grasp so that your shoulder stays just ahead of the attacker's grasp will likely draw the attacker off balance into the circular motion of your pivot.  There is the "guided missile" in a more realistic attack, and it is precisely the affect we are practicing to create.  We would not correct the beginning or intermediate student for pursuing the shoulder, would we?

Naturally, there is a balance to be struck between practice and realism.  Consider that if the defender pivots too quickly, placing his shoulder obviously out of reach, the attacker would be hard pressed to follow; instead, he may realistically select a different target and reengage---no guided missile occurs.  Here, we may laugh if the attacker does continue to pursue that particular shoulder as the defender pivots around and around and around, but for training beginners, we can discern the value of such apparent silliness.


So, what about the munetsuki "lunge punch" or shomenuchi "downward strike" that tracks the opponent?  Well, in fact they do, just not as dramatically as when performed in slow motion.  The strikes are not essentially different than the grabbing attacks except in the amount of power present and perhaps in the intent (perhaps to harm rather than to control, for example).  As the speed and power develop, the attacker will simply not be so able to follow so directly.

It is an interesting phenomenon that students and teachers alike should consider.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Six-Count Jo Kata Meditation?

The Iwama-style of Aikido has a fairly simple six-count kata for the jo.  So simple in basic form, beginners love it and are delighted to discover that these six moves are embedded in the same style's 31-count jo kata---the six moves beginning at movement 13.

In essence:
  1. Thrust to Uke's center.
  2. Block above.
  3. Strike downward at Uke's head from above.
  4. Slide back to your rear left corner, drawing the staff down behind you as if holding a broom.
  5. Step in and strike at Uke's calf.
  6. Slide back to your rear right corner, flipping the staff to parry a thrust downward.
  7. And now you're set to begin again with Step 1.
As in the last post, you might ask, "Is that all there is?"  Naturally, you can find as much as you willing to search for.

Certainly the description above is very naive and not designed to teach you the kata; it's just to show you six steps and nothing more. There can be incredible nuance to the movements: how to handle the weapon just so, your posture, your balance and shifting of weight, how to pivot and turn properly, and so forth.  We can introduce an imaginary opponent, or an actual opponent, to give meaning and timing to the movements; or, even a solid object such as a tree to give the feel of striking a solid object versus striking air.  The blocking movements evolve; they are not just blocks, but rather making contact with and guiding an incoming attack.  The robotic, by-the-numbers "one-two-three" performance will smooth into continuous motion.

And, in time, conscious thought leaves the process.  The body knows the movements.  We can now perform the kata unconsciously, mindlessly, stringing one set of six movements after another until we wear ourselves out.  But this is not necessarily meditation yet.  Where is the mind while the body performs this kata ritual?

Let's consider this same kata differently:
  1. See an opening at Uke's side; thrust through it.
  2. See Uke's head is unprotected; cut downward at it.
  3. See Uke's leg is in range; do a sweeping strike at it.

Center.  High.  Low.  Center.  High.  Low.  Center.  High.  Low. ...  Consciously identify the targets and, without hesitation, take them.  The evasions, blocking, parrying, and so forth?  You transition through them on the way to your targets.  Launch the attacks like releasing an arrow: your body knows how to perform the strike; your mind does not have to follow it to the destination.  Launch the attack and reset your mind, coming back to center, ready for the next target.

Practicing in this way, remaining conscious and aware of Uke and our other circumstances, we work on integrating the mind and the body.  Sense the opening and take it.  Sense the danger and evade it.  Continue with your mission; move toward your intent.

Commit the individual basic methods of striking, blocking,  parrying, to "muscle memory," yes, but learn how to transition smoothly between them.  From this position, how can I find that target?  This begins to develop "fluency" with the weapon.  In time, improvisation appears and is no longer considered an "error" in performing a kata's form.

Kata is no longer a rote practice, but is alive.

Now it is a true martial practice.  Now it is a Zen practice as well.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Is that all there is?" Don't know.

For some Aikido students, the study of the art becomes a lifelong endeavor.  It turns out that I am one such person.

After a few years of practice, it occurred to me that my breathing was not quite right while practicing, so I dedicated the next year of practice to watching my  breath during techniques.  The rest of the practice was routine, but my attention was on improving this aspect.  There was a period of several months where I consciously explored feeling better balanced during practice.  Every so often, I appreciate spending a few weeks exploring softness in execution.  I may dedicate a few sessions at a time to the spirit of irimi in execution.

And for the last few years, I have been working on teaching beginners as well as integrating my Zen practice into my Aikido.

There is no end to the possibilities.

It is easy to conclude that Aikido has infinite depth, and certainly it would not be wrong to say so, but what is the real lesson here?

What happens once we believe there is more?  What happens when we believe that that there is no more?  In the most limited sense, either belief may affect whether or not we attend class tonight.  Expanding ever so slightly, how we approach the next class in no small way is affected.  How our training partners, students, and instructors experience that session is also affected.  And so it goes.

Holding a belief sets a course for exploration.  We inherently seek the evidence that our beliefs are correct. Whether the beliefs are ultimately true or not is irrelevant; the magic is what happens once we believe.  We have this spotlight and we point it where we choose.  Don't just see what happens when we point it; look at the pointing itself!  There is the magic.

But is it necessary to believe?  What happens if we replace believing not with disbelief, but rather with not knowing?  Will we fail to function?  Will Aikido cease being Aikido if we do not hold ideas like "Aikido is this, not that"?  Will we fail to learn or fail to acquire skill?  To the contrary, we will find ourselves exactly where we are, open to all possibilities.

Should we then believe that holding no belief is better than holding a belief?  This question is most certainly a trap.  How can we resolve it?

Don't know...

Recognize that it is not essential to have an answer.  Just practice.

[Inspired by Ron Ragusa's post, "One Hundred and Forty-Seven."]

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Leave your problems at the door, they'll be waiting for you when class is over."

An AikiWeb thread asks what others think about these words on a sign at a dojo.  It is hard to imagine that there could be argument about something so simple, but AikiWeb is known for such debate. It is also true that some interesting points of view were revealed, including those considering the goal of integrating on-the-mats Aikido practice with off-the-mats daily life.  Some cited the possible use of Aikido practice as an escape from other responsibilities, and some suggested that the poor state of mind that you bring to your practice is a part of you to be worked out on the mats with everything else.

There is much to consider---including several questions of what I like to call "Applied Zen"---but, to get started, here is my first contribution to that thread:

If a bokken (image from Wikipedia) is swinging at your head, you'd be hard pressed to argue that you couldn't move because you're behind on the bills. Handling the attack does not deny the bills.

Similarly, your maiming the attacker because you had a bad day is also unjustified. A vigorous practice can positively transmute a shitty day into a wonderful evening, but there's no need to imagine your boss' face on uke as part of the process.

The ability to remain fluid is very important. Part of this is is developing the ability to realize quickly when you are stuck and to shift yourself quickly from that state. This "stuck" comes in different flavors between "attachment" (e.g., can't let go of a bad day, focusing on uke's grasp, focusing on uke's blade, etc.) and "aversion" (e.g., escaping life by going to practice, avoiding that technique because you're not good on that side, etc.), but the result is the same: you're out of "center."

The sign is a tripwire, a reminder. Changing clothes, bowing in, and so forth are other reminders: "This is where and when we practice Aikido."

What are your thoughts?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Great Faith, Doubt, and Effort in Training

Linda Eskin presents some good insight in her blog post, Grab My Wrist - Your Teacher is Always Right.  It is indeed very constructive and natural advice to the teacher that if your students don't understand something, presume that it is your fault; similarly, it is very constructive and natural advice to the student to presume that the teacher is right.

I will only add that, over time, both points of view must be merged and released.

It can be said that on any path,  there are three key elements necessary to progress:

Great Faith
Great Doubt
Great Effort

You must have some faith in the the effort you are making, that it will produce the results you are seeking in spite of the constant doubt you must hold in continually examining and questioning what you currently hold as true as you experience more along the way.

The student should not surrender doubt in placing faith in his instructor's methods, nor should the instructor surrender faith in doubting his methods when facing a student who does not understand.  Both student and teacher require balance in faith and doubt as they make the great effort every practice session.

Naturally, you should not have blind faith even in this post!  You should doubt it and check it against your own experiences as they arise to see if it makes sense.  Keep what makes sense and discard the rest.