The First Precept

On a Saturday morning Aikido class a few years ago, Sensei brought in the book by Gichin Funakoshi, “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate”.  He read us the first precept in full:

“karate-do begins and ends with rei”

“Along with judo and kendo, karate-do is a representative Japanese martial art.  And with it’s fellow martial arts, karate-do should begin as it should end-with rei.”

“Rei is often defined as “respect,” but it actually means much more.  Rei encompasses both an attitude of respect or others and a sens of self-esteem.  When those who honor themselves, transfer that feeling of esteem-that is, respect to others, their action is nothing less than an expression of rei.”

“It is said that ‘without rei there is disorder,’ and also that ‘the difference between men and animals lies in rei’  Combat methods that lack rei are not martial arts but merely contemptible violence.  Physical power without rei is no more than brute strength, and for human beings it is without value.”

“It should also be noted that although a person’s deportment may be correct, without a sincere and reverent heart they do not possess true rei.  True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

“All martial arts begin and end with rei.  Unless they  are practiced with a feeling of reverence and respect, they are simply forms of violence.  For this reason martial arts must maintain rei from beginning to end.”

These words are both beautiful and eloquent.  I read this and re-read this now with my Shodan test less than a month away.

A friend recently asked me how my preparation was going.  I answered with:

There are a few things I need to brush up on technically, but my main preparation is more about what I want to present back to Sensei and our dojo. For my last test i emphasized consistency with each technique and connection with my partner. I’ve been thinking about what Aikido means to me and the things I have to work on off the mat: not digging my heels in, giving, and rather than escalating an issue, softening one.

So, how do I express this on the mat in test format? How do I greet a strike or a grab with softness? How do I protect my partner as I protect myself? I think that answering these questions will be what I try to express for my test.

I think that these are good goals, but if I were to boil it down, there is one sentence in the first precept that really speaks to me, “True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

So, more than anything, past technique, past competence, past expression, my goal for my test is to outwardly express my respectful heart.  That’s a truly high goal to shoot for and it means many things.  But it’s something that I can focus on and answer with a simple yes or no.  “Do my actions express my respect of others and respect to myself?”

So, with that, “rei”.

Life doesn’t Happen in Hanmi

The shomen at Centerfield Aikido

On Sunday, June 6th I had the amazing pleasure of training at Centerfield Aikido in Occidental California with Mary McLean Sensei. The dojo is a tent structure surrounded by the wooded hillside and at certain times of the day, the trees silhouette the ceiling and sides of the walls. Birds flying overhead provide moving silhouettes as they come over the ceiling. There is a magnificent shomen built by one of her students and lends graciousness and beauty to an already magical environment.

We trained and worked on yokomenuchi koto gaishi. First we we worked on the strike, then the throw, practicing getting off the line first and connecting with our partner and finally executing the technique. There were quite a few things I really enjoyed about her aspect of training:

As uke (the attacker), she suggested that while it’s ok to give your partner something to work with, try to stay balanced so that I can receive anything my partner can choose to do and be ok with it. This means that although I’m giving forward intention, if my partner chooses to do another technique that brings me in a different direction, then I can go there equally as prepared as if he were to do the called upon technique.

She likened this to a conversation. Both as uke and as nage, if we get too enmeshed with the wrist or the throw itself, it’s like opening up a conversation with someone with the only interest of proving your point. When we get too entangled, we don’t listen to our partners and we cannot have a clear conversation. We don’t hear the arguments because we are too embroiled in our own direction to go any other way.

All of this was great. However, I really enjoyed a quote she mentioned from one of her teachers, Terry Dobson, who said “Life doesn’t happen in Hanmi.” Hanmi is a stance used in Aikido and other martial arts. In the most literal translation, if we are about to be mugged or physically harassed in a street situation, we cannot ask our attacker to wait so that we can find our center and get into a defensive stance. By that time we are wounded, robbed or worse.

More often than not, we do not have that opportune moment to prepary ourselves to hear a hard conversation, to get accused, unjustly reprimanded, or be told something unexpected. Hopefully our training helps us be ready for life to come at us in any direction and allows us to find that balance so that we can go with it and act, rather than react, crumple or simply fall.

Uke, Nage, and the “what if” factor

In Aikido, our practice is primarily done with a partner. In a typical Aikido class, the teacher will demonstrate a technique, call out the attack and the students will pair up. “Uke” plays the role of the attacker. “Nage” plays the role of the person responding to the attack. Usually, uke will attack times and then the partners will switch roles.

A typical question that comes up when we practice this way is “What if?” As in, “What if instead of coming in with a straight punch, I fake with the left and come in with the right.” or “What if the person is stronger/shorter/taller/better/more fragile than you?” When we practice, uke’s job is to give a good solid attack. That means that if we are instructed to throw a mune tsuki (a straight punch to the solar plexus area), then we follow through. We don’t stop half way and change the attack as nage starts the technique. This allows nage to receive the attack fully and then perform the technique prescribed by the teacher as a response to this attack.
Aikido has been criticized by some for this approach. Some say that this does not present a realistic situation. I reserve my comments on the realism or lack thereof and would like to discuss another aspect that I feel is important aspect of practicing on the mat, but an even more important aspect of living our lives. That’s trust.
In Aikido, we have to trust that our partners are going to do what we expect them to. If we do not trust that they will follow through on their attack, then we will not build up the confidence to respond in kind. There are many carry overs in life off the mat (aka the real world) where this is true. We have to trust that we can depend on our partners to be honest and trust worthy. We have to trust that our partners can and will come to us in our time of need, and ask us for help when they need help. We need to trust that our partners love us and support us as we love them. When we do this, it gives us the confidence to open our hearts and live our lives to the fullest.
It is human nature to ask “what if”. In the myriad of experiences we have in our lives, there are an endless combinations of this question. As we see that our partners do what we trust them to do though, we allow ourselves to still the voice in our heads that ask, “what if?” and as we trust and show our partners worthy of trust, love happens, miraculously, beautifully and unending.

The Inevitability of Gravity

One of the things I love about the Aikido dojo I attend is how Sensei relates certain themes and weaves them into several different classes. Lately he’s been working with a theme he calls “dimensionality”. The process is as follows:

We do a technique to establish a baseline. After we perform the techniques a few times with our partners, we start to process the following:

Lineage – what is the lineage of this technique? Lineage has some deep connotation in martial arts, so to clarify, it’s simply “what do we do to prepare for this particular technique?” We could ask the same question, “what is the lineage of preparing for a meeting?” In essence, Sensei simply asks, how do we think of and prepare for this technique. How do we think differently about this technique than another.

Energies – Sensei will then ask us to think about the energies that we invoke to perform the technique. Do we feel earth, spiral, center? Can we relate it more to circular, triangular, square? Can we feel fire, water, or the energy of the void as we perform the technique.

Space – What is the space that we build in order to perform the technique. What does it feel like? Is it big, small, thick, airy?

The “I” – Because we do not practice Aikido in a vacuum, and these bags of bones and organs and blood have a spirit that provides guidance to the physical, what does adding the presence of what Sensei calls the “I”, our unique physical experience as individuals, bring to the lineage and energies of the technique we are performing.

Innate Knowledge – As we go through this technique, what do we know about it that transcends words? How do we move from a perspective of innate understanding of a technique that we’ve worked time and time on the mat?

Citizenship – What is the sense of citizenship and ownership that we have as we have our partners inhabit the space we have created? Does it encompass and engage our partner? Is it inclusive? Is it exclusionary? Is it playful? Violent? Aggressive?

Saturday morning, he gave us a framework to work in, in this process. He asked us to view this from the perspective of earth energy. I had some interesting revelations going through this process. Earth energy for me begat gravity. I started to think of the inevitability of gravity. I started thinking of how, because of gravity and the limitations it brings, I will not fly, I’m weighted down, I’m burdened by this physical fact and cannot escape it.

As we processed and went through the class, my perspective changed to that of framework: rather than gravity being the inevitable, I started thinking not in terms of burden or limitation, but rather framework. Given the physical fact that there is gravity and gravity affects my existence in a very real way, how can I move through and what are the qualities of gravity that I can use, learn from, and grow with.

Finally, gravity simply just “is”. It lost the forboding connotation of the inevitable, and lost the academic or opportunisting connotation of framework. It is a fact of life. It is all around and something to accept. I can feel limited by it, I can learn from it, but until I accept something that simply is, I will not benefit and grow.

The reason I’m talking about this has not a lot to do with Aikido, but rather some things that are going on in my life right now. There are somethings that I need to accept as fact. I can fear it, I can learn from it, but until I simply accept, I won’t grow. In order for me to live my life to the fullest, I need growth in my life. Growth comes sometimes through painful realization, and is not always guaranteed. I wish that growth was inevitable, like gravity, but I am ok with the process as it stands…and I’m up to the task of growing my spirit and caring for my soul.