Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What is Hidden in a Martial Art?

Naturally, on hearing the question, one tendency will be to consider what techniques, tactics, or strategies that are not being taught to you within your own art, perhaps before you are initiated into some inner circle of understanding. Another interpretation will be to ask what principles and techniques are hidden inside some martial art's kata. But what if an art claims that there are no hidden techniques, that everything is right in front of you?

It is more than simple fortune cookie wisdom that many martial arts are understood to be paths to not fighting and onward to peace. While the physical practice is undoubtedly fun and what is learned is hopefully effective when it's needed, each art's path is very easily lost if we pursue such an art with the sole goal of some kind of invincibility in physical conflict.

Aikido's founder, in particular, was very explicit about this. In some cases, in particular in his doka ("songs of the way," his own poetry about aikido), the founder wrote very esoterically, in a way familiar to students of zen and other mystical traditions. It is all too easy for an ordinary fellow looking for simple martial arts practice to dismiss such writing as senseless ramblings of a lunatic.

This thread on AikiWeb inspired the following post:

I wonder to what extent we can know O-Sensei's understanding of or intent for his aikido by virtue of understanding his doka?

Consider: Would we assume that O-Sensei put less effort and meaning into his poetry about his art than he did in demonstrating the physical aspects of his art, and would we then dismiss the former as inaccessible while claiming any understanding of the later?

It seems that O-Sensei wanted others to see the universe as he saw it. If so, then that's what's hidden; and, if so, since there is this "aikido" thing he taught and all of this poetry, presumably it's only hidden by our own lack of understanding, not for his lack of effort or any attempt to obscure it.

But this is speculation.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Post: "It is winter."
Other hemisphere replies,
"You're an idiot!"

Can you speak without attaching your own thoughts, circumstances, and biases, which are a natural result of your entire life's experiences? Can you listen without doing the same?

Is it someone's role to understand the other's frame of reference and to be accommodating?

Is it ultimately important either to understand or to be understood?

My wife says, "It's cold!"
I, sitting right beside her, say, "No, it's not."

Was she simply expressing her state, or was she fishing for me to turn up the heat or share a blanket? Did I express a simple truth, that I am not cold, or did I tell her that she is wrong? Did she hear that I am not cold, or did she hear me calling her a liar? Maybe we were joking? Maybe we were fighting?

Even such a simple two-line exchange can be interpreted so many different ways, but there is only one way that comes unencumbered by personal "baggage": She feels cold, and I do not. Putting hidden meaning behind what is spoken and wondering about hidden meaning behind what is heard may be entertaining in certain circumstances, but it can be very easy to lose oneself in such a game. Some of the most devastating misunderstandings occur when we do not realize when we are projecting our own thoughts and feelings upon another's words, when we are hearing what we expect to hear rather than what is actually being said.

Given that you have no ability to ensure that any other person sees things clearly, the best you can do is to practice communicating and sensing things clearly yourself, which in turn will at least help you to see when another is not. Then you can decide how to deal with the situation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Aikido, the Martial Art of Vigilant Sheep?

Plastic flowers did not kill Ikebana.
The ballpoint pen did not kill shodo.
Lipton did not kill Chado.
The AK-47 did not kill Iaido.
UFC will not kill Aikido.

Why in my neighborhood do we cultivate certain flowers and maintain our yards just so when clearly those plants that we call "weeds" have the evolutionary upper hand?

It's clearly an aspect of our own evolution as a species that we do---or have the inclination to do---things like this. There must be value to our species as a whole in our behaving this way. This is not to say that the best strategies for the species collectively are also the best strategies for the individual on any particular day; after all, as an individual, my best strategies might include rape, pillage, theft, murder, hoarding, and so forth. Indeed, there are such places where this is a way of life. If I am there, I should probably cultivate my abilities to do those things and to defend against others' efforts to those things to me.

In Suburbia, U.S.A., and elsewhere, though, the community would likely thrive optimally if we all behaved as vigilant sheep. If we were all vigilant sheep, we could individually spot and collectively handle would-be wolves, leaving us free to munch on our lawns and pretty flowers, keeping our society (i.e., local species) strong.

You could argue from a certain perspective that the most watered-down versions of aikido teach us the principles of being vigilant sheep. We can be taught to have: unquestioning loyalty to organizations and to those individuals ranked above us; responsibility to peers and those ranked below us; absolute discipline; faith; cooperation; some physical exercise to work out aggression and to keep us healthy; and so forth. Throw in the uniforms and maybe a reading from O-Sensei's collected works each morning over a bowl of rice and we're ready for a fully functional life in a family, company, government, and the larger society!

All of that is not necessarily a bad thing. It simultaneously reflects and benefits a certain type of society. After all, societies evolve too. Consider that there are arguments that much of the Japanese samurai-associated code and arts came from warriors with too much time on their hands living in a newly peaceful society. I have the opportunity to ponder these things and write this note because I have a roof over my head, a locked front door, and no ninjas are scaling the walls!

But, if you're a cabbie working in areas with different rules for society, maybe the previous type of aikido is not for you. But, there are people who are teaching and learning interpretations of aikido that may very well be suitable for you. I personally have a very zennish perspective, and my aikido reflects that. If you want to call it a spiritual pursuit, that's fine with me---but for my view the pursuit requires challenging training in line with a martial path.

Maybe there is a "middle way" after all?

Must Something Evolve?

I heard someone suggest that, in order to survive---particularly with respect to the currently popular martial arts such as BJJ and the MMAs---Aikido must evolve. If even we accept his premise that the popularity of one martial art threatens the existence of another, we still have a question to ask...

Which is better, apples or oranges? Would apples have to evolve to survive in a fight against oranges? Of course! Apples would have to migrate from cooler climate zones to warmer ones. They would need new characteristics, perhaps a thicker skin to retain moisture, maybe a different flower to attract the local species of pollinators, maybe a different growth cycle to adjust to a continuously warm climate, ...

... and, perhaps in time, the evolved apple would become an orange!

Apples are apples. Oranges are oranges. Given each plant's individual circumstances, each is already optimally evolved, perfect as it is right now. That is not to say that, as circumstances change, things will be as they are now; but, for now, things are as they are.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chasing Wisdom and Compassion

Buddhists, like many religious, tout the attributes of wisdom and compassion. Some go on to make a practice of cultivating them. Unfortunately, it is easy for such a practice to lead one astray.

The want or need to act compassionately itself kills compassion.
The want or need to act wisely itself kills wisdom.

Compassion does not have a fixed form. It has nothing to do with doing what is expected, and it is not doing what you think should be done. Only when you are neither doing something nor not doing something are you truly acting compassionately.

A similar argument can be made for wisdom.

How can this be?

Wisdom and compassion emerge naturally as the mind is cleared of delusion. Giving life to the concepts of wisdom and compassion and then chasing them cultivates delusion.

There is no wisdom in trying to be wise. There is no compassion in trying to be compassionate.

[Inspired by this post on the Zencast blog.]

Zen of Argument

"I feel far away.
I see you're angry with me."
"I am not angry!!!"