I discovered Anna Sanner’s book of teachings from Aikido and Zen master Katsuyuki Shimamoto, Dance With Heaven and Earth, after a Facebook friend posted a story from it on his page and I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Here’s the story that obsessed me:
Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Japanese swordsman who lived about 400 years ago. He did everything in order to win. When he sat in zazen meditation, he always had the possibility in mind that at any minute, somebody might attack him. He did zazen in order to clear his mind of distracting thoughts and always be ready to react to any kind of attack. His zazen was a kind of strategic weapon.
One day Musashi was sitting next to a professional monk in the mountains. Both of them were meditating, sitting in zazen, with correct leg position, good posture, and calm breathing. From the outside it looked like they were doing exactly the same thing. You couldn’t tell the difference.
As they were sitting there meditating, a snake came along. When the snake saw Musashi, it stopped dead in its tracks and pulled back its head in a startled swan neck pose. Even its constantly moving tongue got stuck in its mouth for a second. The snake caught itself, cautiously made a U-turn around Musashi and slithered swiftly across the monk’s legs to disappear back into the mountains.
So even though to us there seemed to be no difference between Musashi and the monk, the snake could not be fooled. It clearly felt that Musashi was ready to cut any attacker at any moment. The monk on the other hand, who was doing zazen in the sense of true Zen meditation, was in a state of 空ku (emptiness). To the snake he was the same as the grass, the stones and the earth it slithered across daily, and slithering across his legs did not make the slightest difference.
One of key elements of good training in martial arts is learning how to be aware of what is happening around you at all times. In Aikido, we emphasize this by reminding people to continue to be aware of their partner even when they have thrown or pinned them. When we train on a crowded mat, we must pay attention to everyone around us so that no one gets hurt.
Awareness is inherent in our practice.
When I teach self defense, I emphasize the importance of paying attention to everything going on around you. But the specifics of learning how to do that are more complex than just the barked words “pay attention,” which I’m sure all of us heard from parents or teachers or coaches at various parts of our lives.
In both cases, practice opens the door to awareness. Continue reading “Snaking a Path to Enlightenment”…
I meet weekly via Zoom to discuss ideas with a group of friends who have many years in Aikido among them. A couple of weeks ago, one them (a philosopher as well as an Aikido sensei) was taken aback when she came across a comment that our U.S. founding fathers did not come here for freedom and were not interested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The person who made those observations was referring back to slavery, of course, but my friend compared it to saying that Aristotle was not a great thinker because women during his time couldn’t own property. Since the Greece of Aristotle’s time, like the U.S. today, is often touted as the birthplace of democracy, it is worth noting that women had almost no rights there, which is one of the things that makes Aristophanes’s plays Lysistrata and Congresswomen so funny.
The commentary got me to thinking about how we should look at great thinkers and art in an age when many of us are no longer willing to accept racism, misogyny, and other practices that assume some, or even most, people exist only to serve the elite.
I recently read a discussion of Thomas More’s Utopia in which it is mentioned that the perfect fictional land included slavery. I haven’t read the book in many years and that fact had somehow not stayed with me. However, having looked up a summary of the book, I think I still need to go back and re-read it, because there are some important concepts in there, one of them dealing with the importance of the commons.
This is a roundabout response, but my point is that there is both value and harm in what was done by those who settled this country (many of them my direct ancestors, at least from the 1700s on). In the same vein, both More and Aristotle had important things to say, but there are things they missed. Continue reading “On Aristotle, Thomas More, and the U.S. Founding Fathers”…
I’m doing a weekly Zoom in which I discuss principles and other philosophical aspects of Aikido with several other practitioners. One of the topics we keep coming back to is warriorship.
In the news this past week, I read that a U.S. army sergeant has just been become the first woman to become a Green Beret. I cannot help but be thrilled by that. Women can, of course, succeed in programs that are designed for men, even physical ones.
But while I know that Green Berets and other special forces are intended as elite combat troops and therefore expected to have intense physical skills (ones usually associated with very strong men), our Aikido discussions make me think real warriorship has little to do with that level of physical ability.
Common Japanese words for martial arts are budo (the way of war) or bushido (the way of the warrior). But bu, usually said to mean war, can also be translated “to turn the spear,” which means it has a connotation of protection or defense. That opens up a different way of thinking.
As I began to study martial arts, I found myself drawn to the concept of being a warrior, of being the person who would stand her ground, protect others, fight for those who needed me. And, of course, to be a woman able to walk the streets or travel on her own.
That is, to be a woman who was not afraid of men. Continue reading “The Way of the Warrior”…