“Transmission by Feel,” by Nick Lowry

“Information bound in words is an amazing and efficient means of transmission, but it has the weakness of the circle game at the party…”

http://www.aikidojournal.com/blog/media/lowry.jpgA student once asked a zen teacher about “Transmission” and wondered how a clear message, a clear and undiluted dharma reality, could be transmitted from person to person across time and culture, from the historical Buddha’s time to our own…

“But, isn’t it like the old party game where one person whispers something to the next person and on and on around the circle until the original message is completely lost?”
“No, it’s not like that at all.” replied the teacher.
“Then… what is it like?”
In response, the teacher slapped the student on the cheek, and said “Pass it on.”

The student did so and around the circle went the slap from person to person until it came all the way back around to the teacher’ own cheek.
“Yep that’s it.” said the Teacher.
The student bowed deeply in gratitude.

A tradition sends many streams of knowledge and wisdom into the future. The mainstream recognized in Western culture, in our idea of education is the knowledge bound to the medium of words and symbols. Information bound in words is an amazing and efficient means of transmission, but it has the weakness of the circle game at the party; its signal can easily be lost and distorted in the noise of culture and idiom, in the shifting values of time and place as iteration follows iteration from person to person. Through sound and sight it flows and shifts. This is a surface, a public face, Omote, a conditional quality.

The Ura, the back, the hidden, deep beneath the surface; here we see the transmission of the experience is altogether different. Something definite and clear is happening. Something unambiguous and human and something not secret because its forbidden, but secret because it cannot be contained in language.

It is the same in Budo–much can be shared though the medium of words and pictures, through symbols and concepts. Much can be learned and shared this way (and much can be distorted this way as well, as words are slippery things prone to wander into pet mythologies and abstractions). But the “Feel” that passes from teacher to student, from sempai to kohai, from sensei to deshi contains the real seeds of transmission of the art. The Feel and the direct intuitive apprehension, the visceral sensations record on the nervous system, the actual Kinesthetic experience contains the heart of what is going on.

All of the Budo take the form of a living energy that was originally born many many generations ago in someone’s bodily experience, some one who both recognized its inherent wisdom and value and who also had the wherewithal and time to be able to send it on down the line, and so it has been passed down, hand to hand in the bodily experience of its adherents, transmitted in touch, in Feel.

Contact Nick Lowry at the Windsong Dojo


  1. Nick, You’ve hit the nail squarely on the head with this one. Written and oral transmissions are flawed and are often lost in translation. Tactile transmissions require no explanation nor can be explained other than by doing. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  2. steve kwan says:

    Excellent ! I read another article sometime ago, and it mentioned about to “feel” and “be receptive”.

  3. Jack Hosie says:

    Feeling is believing, you just can’t beat the Ronseal effect i.e. It does what it says on the tin!

  4. I partially disagree. You can be on the receiving end of many different types of throws and feel the same thing. Without any didactic training you will not be able to replicate the action. You may after a prolonged period of struggle figure it out but why should succeeding generations have to reinvent the wheel.

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