“Aikido Koan,” by Nick Lowry


“Be patient and hold your mind in the practice of inhabiting the circle in all your aikido.”

Simple ink on paper, three figures in a line. Circle. Square. Triangle.

Terry Dobson once asked O Sensei to tell him what the circle, square, and triangle meant in aikido. The master told him to figure it out for himself. I love that, it’s Beautiful.

This is how zen koans work. The answers you arrive at must come from you, must be really yours, not something somebody else has said. They must be authentic expressions of your lived experience, of the living energy of the question interacting with your own experience. They must really be authentic, and if a teacher rolls out his or her understanding too readily, too often, his generosity and helpfulness may displace the student’s work. Too forthcoming, he may actually weaken the learning process, and he may build dependancy and laziness, under the guise of teaching. Such a teacher may wind up with lots of followers and few real students.

I think the circle, square and triangle figures probably sneak into aikido by way of the great zen artist Sengai. I think probably Ueshiba saw the enigmatic geometric figures of Sengai and was perhaps struck by a powerful sense of intuitive resonance with his lived experience of aikido–an immediate apprehension–a spark on the flint, and suddenly there was the light of a new way of seeing, of organizing his thoughts and perceptions about aikido. He had a glimpse, and nothing was the same after.

The way to work with a koan is to be all the parts of it–to inhabit each nook and cranny and find out how you inform it and it informs you… much like learning aikido. Understanding the physical principles, the rules of play and etiquette, the arcane verbiage, the techniques, the kihon, the kata, the henka , on and on–all the bits and pieces of the activity of learning the art are not themselves the art. AIkido is not only learned it must be realized. Understanding is not the same as embodying. To arrive at your goal (a goal you may not even be aware of when you first step on the mat, but one which grows in you as you aspire to really get it); to arrive, you must give yourself to the activity of practice, again and again to “learn” this. No amount of research or thought will reach it. Understanding in itself is not sufficient.

That said, what does it mean to inhabit the circle? I mean in your body? In your practice? Please invite the question in and stay with it in your practice. Don’t rush. Don’t settle for the first impressions that bubble up (which aren’t wrong per se, just still raw, not cooked yet). Be patient and hold your mind in the practice of inhabiting the circle in all your aikido. Be patient. Allow it, and it will begin to take over. You will see the circle everywhere. Near and far, big and small, Circle. Circle. Nothing but circles. The image, the idea, (perhaps most importantly) the Feel of “circle” will pervade, and once you have reached saturation, once you have lived the question from the inside out, once you have looked deeply into the eyes and heart of Circle, then you have “answered the koan.”

If you are fortunate you will have a teacher who has been through the process before you , who can help you out a little, keep you focused, and give you feedback while you’re at it . On one level, its nice to be able to celebrate this kind of work together, and working it together can accelerate your process. But even if you don’t have such a resource available to you– work the circle koan anyway. The give and take of the student/teacher dynamic is a skillful means, but the real matter, the stuff that transforms you in your practice is what happens in your own life, your own activity, with focus and intention. It is never something bestowed upon you. O Sensei himself could not give it to you.

Once you have done the deed– plumbed the depths and returned with “Circle” then do like wise with “Square” and “Triangle.”

And once you have cooked all three with your whole body and mind, with sweat and motion, then turn back again and do it one more time as the whole picture: “Circle, Square, Triangle.”

You may immerse yourself thus for a good long while…
Thats OK, most things worth having are worth the effort of the getting.

Then you can pass on to other aiki koans because you will have taken the lesson O Sensei was offering. Then you will “know” what these cryptic figures mean in a real sense. And you just might find that your aikido will reveal itself as far more than you ever imagined it was or could be.

Contact Nick Lowry at Windsong Dojo.


  1. So perfectly said!

  2. Thanks for mentioning Terry Dobson. He was great. Am really glad I had the privilege of training with him.

  3. Brett Jackson says:

    I like using “wave”, as in an ocean wave, as a practice key or stimulant.

  4. Thanks Nick. As a teacher, I was glad to be reminded of the importance of letting students discover the koans as opposed to trying to “teach” them. No matter how often we give someone a fish or teach them how to fish, can they ever really know a fish without actually fishing?

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