It was like a lighted match had been tossed into my soul.
It was like a dam had broken in my heart.

From The Song Remembers When
Trisha Yearwood 

The lyric is about a song unexpectedly bringing back long-forgotten memories of someone. But these lines really capture for me the experience of discovering Aikido. Something clicked internally. Perhaps, like the song, it is a kind of remembering, too. Not memories of another, but of who I am.

Knowing the Principle

This excerpt from The Book of Five Rings reminded me of something Sensei said in class recently, in the context of techniques versus principles. My recollection of the point is that if you hunt for techniques in jiyuwaza (“When my partner attacks like x, I should do technique y.”), you will be limited in the freedom, flow, and appropriateness you can achieve. Even if you get really good at it, you will still be only really good at a self-limiting system of operating. Your mind will always be getting in the way of free expression. Instead, by internalizing the principles, the appropriate techniques will appear easily. 

“The Great Learning speaks of consummating knowledge and perfecting things. Consummating knowledge means knowing the principles of everything that people in the world know. Perfecting things means that when you know the principle of everything thoroughly, then you know everything, and can do everything. When there is nothing more you know, there is nothing you can do either. When you do not know the principle, nothing at all comes to fruition.

In all things, uncertainty exists because of not knowing. Things stick in your mind because of being in doubt. When the principle is clarified, nothing sticks in your mind. This is called consummating knowledge and perfecting things. Since there is no longer anything sticking in your mind, your tasks become easy to do.

From The Book of Five Rings – A Classic Text on the Japanese Way of the Sword
By Miyamoto Musashi
Translated by Thomas Cleary

Words: Huh? What’s Everyone Saying?

[An introduction to my Words posts, if you haven’t read it yet.]

Everyone’s first few days (weeks? months?) of training can be disorienting and overwhelming. You need to learn how to dress yourself, how to sit, how to stand… Acck! You also hear a lot of new words – Japanese terms and phrases. When I was hearing them for the first few times I couldn’t even make sense of them enough to remember them so I could look them up later.

Here’s a huge tip: Almost every dojo, including ours, has a list of common terms in the dojo handbook! Be sure to look there – it’s very handy. Ours can be downloaded as a PDF from the Membership page of the Aikido of San Diego website.

For my first Words post, here are some you will hear in every class. They are mostly the same from dojo to dojo. You’ll be saying them often, too. Here goes:

Onegaishimasu

[OWN-ah-GAH-ee-shee-mahs  Note that the “u” at the end is silent. A good way to remember it is that it sounds a little like “Oh my gosh, a mouse!” To help with spelling, remember that it starts with “one”.]

You will hear and say this at the beginning of class, when Sensei and the class all bow to each other, and when you approach another student to ask them to train with you (you both say it). I’ve heard several interpretations of it. Whatever the exact translation, in practice it is a polite request which functions as “would you please train with me?" 

Domo arigato gozaimashita

[DOE-moe ahr-ee-GAH-toh GO-zah-ee-MASH-ta  When I have heard native speakers say it, it sounds like there is a comma after domo, like this: "Domo, arigato gozaimashita.”]  

Everyone says this when Sensei and the class bow to each other at the end of class. It means “thank you very much for what you just did.”

Arigato means thank you.

Domo is an polite, formal intensifier, like adding “very much” in English, except it comes first (like muchos grácias in Spanish).

Sometimes, informally, you will hear people just say “Domo” by itself. In that context it’s used like “thanks.”

Gozaimashita places the thanking in time, relative to the action. Roughly it’s used like, “for something you’ve already done.” Here you are thanking someone for having just trained with you.

You may have also heard “gozaimasu” [go-ZAH-ee-mahs, silent “u”]. That’s used when thanking someone for something they haven’t done yet. Like “Would you pick up some milk at the store? Thanks!” It’s also used for something that was just done, sometimes, so you will hear people saying it at the end of class, too. 

A Few Words

Several people have asked me recently about some of the words we use at the dojo. I’ve sent them some info privately, but what the heck, I might as well share with everyone. 

It drives me nuts to not understand what’s being said. Even worse, to use words I don’t understand, repeating them by rote. So I’ve tried my best to make sense of the terminology around Aikido. In most cases the explanations I give will simply be my own understanding of the meanings, tricks I use for remembering them, etc.

Some of the things I intend to cover include

  • Numbers and counting-related words
  • Attack and technique-related words
  • Names of things
  • Weapons technique names
  • Commonly-heard Japanese greetings and phrases

These posts will be as accurate as I can make them, but will all be informally based on my own very limited understanding. I will try to give some indication of how sure I am of what I’m saying, and if I’m just plain wrong please tell me so (and if appropriate I’ll go back and correct things). Any pronunciation tips I give will only be for how I’ve heard them spoken in the context of training, not The Correct Japanese Pronunciation. In no case should anything in these posts be considered authoritative. I do hope it will be helpful, though!

When I know of solid sources of information I will point those out. There are a few very good books, websites, and podcasts, both for learning Aikido-specific terminology, and for learning to speak Japanese.

I will tag each of these posts Words so you can click that tag after each post to see more posts about words. You can also go directly to a page here that will catalog all my posts about Aikido terminology.

Things Your Sensei Says?

Someone on Facebook recently asked what your sensei says regularly that sticks in your mind & helps inform your Aikido or other Martial Arts practice mentally, physically, or spiritually?

I actually misinterpreted the question as asking about things Sensei says about Aikido that inform my life outside the dojo. Off-the-mat Aikido. Here are the things (not his actual words, of course) that came to mind, plus a few more, that stick with me:

  • Constant reminders to settle, check our own posture and alignment. Be in integrity with ourselves. 
  • Attend to doing what we are doing as well as we can, not to trying to make it affect our partner.
  • Notice where we are, and where we are going. Being aware of these things is what allows opportunities for positive transitions to arise.
  • Keep our eyes up and see the big picture. Don’t focus attention on the attack.
  • Work with others at their level. Help them be safe, and don’t pile on information or levels of detail or finesse they are not yet able to understand.
  • It’s not about having a soft or a hard style. It’s about being appropriate to the situation. 
  • If you operate at the mind-based level of planning each action based on if-then decisions leading to codified responses, you won’t experience freedom in your actions, and you will always be limited in what you can achieve.
  • And one that I heard for the first time in tonight’s class, that seems to fit here: If your attacker wants to retreat, build them a golden bridge on which to get away.

Important lessons for every aspect of life.

Before & After

We did a simple little cleaning project today at the dojo. The bamboo around the garden had gotten mildewy with the recent rains. It had become worn and mottled, attacked by the elements. It took only a little time and elbow grease to reveal the warm natural color and solid structure that was still there under the grime. It’s beautiful again. 

Afterward a few of us went out for lunch. We were talking about how we got started in Aikido, and how we’d changed because of it. Our Befores and Afters.

It wasn’t until I thought about the photos I’d taken that the parallels came to mind. The bamboo started out shiny and fresh, as we all do. The seasons took their toll. Ugliness and disease were winning out. It had started to look like maybe we should give up, and pitch it in the dumpster. But Sensei knew what was underneath all the crud. So we worked together, put in a little effort, and brought it back. 

That knowing what’s under the crud that’s built up, that working together, that little effort and elbow grease… That’s what we do, with Sensei’s guidance, in Aikido. We bring each other back.