“The atoms that make up your body were once forged inside stars, and the causes of even the smallest event are virtually infinite and connected with the whole in incomprehensible ways.” - Eckhart Tolle
I wanted to spend some time thinking about my shodan test today. Early this morning I went and grabbed some breakfast and dusted off “The Secret Teachings of Aikido” to read while I ate.
Although this book has some incredible insight about the philosophy of Aikido from O Sensei’s perspective, I didn’t have to read much to get exactly what I needed. The title of the first chapter actually fed me exactly what I needed. “Aikido is the study of the spirit.”
When we are new to Aikido, we learn our fundamentals: how to roll, how to fall, where our hand goes, where our feet go. These fundamentals lead us to do great physical things on the mat. But hopefully as we grow in the art, we come to learn that Aikido is not just physical. it is in fact the study of the spirit. We start see Aikido not as a system of movements for self defense but as the guiding principles that we can use to live as human beings.
In the second paragraph of this book, O Sensei says, “We must rely on the battle cry ‘Masukatsu agatsu katshuhayabi‘ (True victory is self victory, a victory right here, right now.)” 1. If this was a simple system of throws and joint locks, why would he say that? He answers in the next few sentences, “That spirit enables us to become one with the universe and its operation and allows us to develop the inner and outer realms of existence -such knowledge reverberates throughout the whole body, removing all obstacles and purufying our faculties. Realize that the source of the univers and the souce of your own life are the same, and do not underestimate the power of the concept of Masakatsu agatsu katsuhayabi. Rely on the supreme power of takemusu no bu no a-un (valorous, creative living from start to finish) to create spiritual techniques and walk along the way.” 2.
I have had some great teachers and I do not take for granted any of it. I needed to learn how to move and get in touch with movement and my body. I needed to learn how to perform techniques consistently from a variety of attacks and I needed to learn how to do so in a calm manner. But as even before I started preparing for my shodan test, Aikido started to be much more than a “system of self defense.” I am starting to scratch the surface of how connecting with the universe is what we all are meant to be.
This sounds much more abstract than it really is. “Connect to the universe” by acknowledging others. Connect to the universe by trying to do good for the simple reason that we are all one. Connect to the universe because each one of us understands joy, sorrow, happiness, fear, pain, ecstasy and dispair. Connect to the universe in as big or as small as you are able.
O Sensei thought it important enough to refer to takemusu no bu no a-un as a “supreme power”. The simple truth of this is, at any given moment, we have the potential to do good, to practice creative and valorous living. We can do this indeed “from start to end”. This is the power of Aikido as I am starting to understand it. It does not have anything to do with “street effectiveness”, swagger, or ego. It is the exact absence of these elements that true practice can bring about. With that, I begin my serious practice of Aikido.
“Shodan” means new or beginner. It is indeed a milestone in my journey, and one that I have prepared for with my other dojo mates, Aldo and Nancy, and I am ready and looking forward to testing tomorrow. Our teacher, Bob Noha Sensei talked to us about the significance of the title of “shodan”. He said that the first degree black belt, “shodan” should not be thought of in fact as “1st” as in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. In the japanese language, 1st is in fact “ichi”, 2 is ni, 3 is san, 4 is yon, etc. So while we have nidan, sandan, yondan, then the first degree should be called “ichidan”. But it is not. It is called shodan. Shodan, literally means beginning degree, or new degree. It designates us not as experts but rather as beginners of serious study in our art.
One of the first things I learned on the Aikido mat, something that I have learned and kept close from my very first Aikido teacher, Cress Forrester: Cress taught the beginning Aikido class at San Francisco State University and back in the late 80s I was very fortunate to train under her as my first Aikido teacher. Cress had a unique way of interpreting the Japanese characters of Ai Ki and Do. Conventionally, we interprete as “Ai” – Harmony, “Ki” – Energy and “Do” – the Way, to get “The Way of Harmonious Energy.” Cress, instead interpreted “Ai” as Love. So that for her, her practice became the “Way of Loving Energy.” I have kept that close since the start of my Aikido and I still do today. So, I am ready to begin. I am ready to continue my study of Aikido in all that I do. I am ready to try to open my heart and soul to the wonders of the universe as small or as big as it wants to reveal itself to me just a little bit more each day. I am ready to express my respectful heart.