“Pondering Doka,” by Drew Gardner

Although I have read O’Sensei’s doka (songs / poems of The Way) in many places online and in books, these are verbatim from The Aikido FAQ. I especially enjoy analyzing the metaphorical ones that don’t make sense to me right away. Here are just two such doka, along with how my mind deciphers them.

“His sword raised to the attack
The enemy flies at the man he thinks before him
But from the very start
I was standing behind him”

This either makes no sense or is a metaphor. I believe it is about empathic love for all people, even if that means tough love. I believe that “standing behind him” means understanding what’s fundamentally best for all people, then supporting every person’s buddha-nature (perfect soul beneath all corrosion of ignorance). Also, I understand that when it came to two swordsman of old Japan, the protector would stand behind and to the left of the protected, becoming an obstacle for assault on the protected’s most out-of-reach place if he had to draw his sword. So, an enemy might rush to attack on a whim of fear, yet then realize he or she is attacking a person who in fact wants to help him or her.

“Except for blending with the void
There is no way to understand
The Way of Aiki.”

I began Aikido training in January 1999, not even a month since learning of this martial art’s existence. Having faith in what I read online and in a couple books, I began with optimism and humility. The humility was the easy part, as I watched both my sensei and many senpai do incredible things. I hoped I would learn someday, but I did not feel the need to be in a racecar (my favorite palindrome). I learned about meditating and took the idea seriously for the first time. I went to sparsely populated parks and learned how to clear my mind. I enjoyed keiko, and I realized early on that it kept gasoline in my newfound vehicle of mental serenity. Because I thought it possible, I was able to discover “blending with the void.” For someone who does not know what it means, as I did not for my first 20 years, I believe the most someone can do for another is suggest meditation along with a supportive, active discipline such as Aikido, and most importantly, promise the potential for its existence. Even at the face value of this doka, O’Sensei generously offers a simplistic, yet absolutely true message.


  1. Brett Jackson says:

    Thanks for sharing. I agree and wrap up the readings like this.

    Already standing beside him means not seeing the aggressor as “enemy”, but rather as someone requiring an aiki fix. :)

    As for blending with the void, doing Aiki with the void, I see that as having a clear mind as your constant mood and companion and then being able to keep that clear mind in the face of conflict.

  2. Christopher Lester says:

    I view the first doka as less a metaphor than direct transmission of a core concept. Similar to my understanding of the saying “if he doesn’t move, I don’t move. If he moves first, I have already arrived” in the Tai Chi classics (which also implies “I know my opponent but he does not know me”). I am sensitive enough that I know exactly where his energy is going and what qualities it has and he does not percieve me equally… enabling me to move to where he has no power or lead him into nothingness so that his power is empty, with my energy behind him.

    Of the second doka, my understanding is similar to your interpretation although I cannot say that I have experienced this in any real sense.

  3. Brett, I appreciate it, and thoroughly enjoy your words, “aiki fix.”

    Christopher, that’s what’s great about so many of O’Sensei’s doka. I concur that it can be taken the way you did; perhaps O’Sensei was a man of such intelligence that he could say more than one important thing in few words.

    Feedback like this rewards me, so thanks you all.

  4. Whether my mind is in the void or not, which tends to oscillate, observing others even for short periods of time reveals to me those who have it and those who don’t. It often seems safer to me to conform with the mental confusion of people in the vast majority. However, knowing that the Path or the Void is safe, having been there, it takes me less courage to return than someone who has never been there in the first place. The majority will find a person who has returned to the Source to be somewhat odd, but indeed quite sane. I believe the opinions of most others leads to “nice girl” or “nice guy” and that’s about it. The Void is a place for better functioning in the world, but for many striving to feel quietness of mind, the leap of faith required is just too perilous. No one could blame another for not finding no-mind.

  5. Perhaps the first one has a simpler ‘answer’.
    From the start the enemy has an estimation of me, and attacks me, but even from the start I am behind him – not where he expects me to be, at a point where he is most vulnerable. The enemy thinks I’m over there, but I’m actually standing behind him, the physical position being of course a metaphor for outclassing an opponent.

    I recall a story about Takeda Sokaku doing something similar.

  6. Phil, what you say makes sense, but the doka (at least the translation) doesn’t say, “from the start.” It says, “from the very start.” As many times as I have been taught by English teachers and professors throughout my life to exclude the word “very” from my vocabulary, because it has been overused and has lost much of its meaning, I still find this word important in this doka.

    We may be extremely quick to move into an attacker’s shikaku, but even if that takes a tenth of a second (standard human reaction time), it comes after the start, not at the “very start.” Recognition of attack intention always precedes irimi or any Aikido response. So, a response may be very near the start, but not from the “very start.” Also, the word “was” is past tense. If this doka is read as physical Aikido, and since I don’t believe in pure precognition, it makes less sense to me than it does as a philosophical metaphor.

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