Who am I, and Why am I Here?
My name is Anna, 30 this year. I am German and work as a writer and translator in Japan. I have been training aikido for 5 years and am currently a first kyu. I have kindly been asked by Shimamoto Shihan to accompany him on this trip. My main role is to lend him my language skills and enable him to communicate more fluently here in English speaking Canada. I am more than glad to do so. I have been training with Shimamoto Shihan for about 3 1/2 years now, and his teachings, which encompass the philosophies and physical components of both Zen and aikido (he lives between his Zen temple and his aikido dojo, working both as a priest and a teacher) have changed my life.
Why? I have been brought up without religion, and, often suffering from the frightening vastness of complete freedom in decision making, have long been in search of a system of values I could wholeheartedly agree with. I have never found anything that rang truer than anything else in all the religions and ideologies I have encountered. Or I could agree only with parts. Of course I have flexibly borrowed from many systems, and formulated the odd rule for myself, based on experience.
But then, freshly settled in Japan, with 5 years of karate training, and a little bit of aikido under my black and my white belt, I encountered a stroke of luck. In search of martial arts training in my neighborhood, I was told by a stranger who suddenly decided to take over my conversation with the office worker at Budokan Hibiki about Shimamoto Shihan’s dojo 正泉寺Shosenji (the name of the adjacent temple, written with the characters for honest, mountain stream, and temple). It wasn’t far, he said, and if I wanted to train any martial arts around here, that was the place to go. He photocopied the map for me, smiled through his almond eyes and wished me all the best. I wish I could find this man again and thank him for all the luck his kind advice has brought my way.
The next day I enrolled at Shosenji dojo and realized soon that I had found something like a church, where I could practice with body and mind to walk steadfastly on the path of aikido, a system of movements and values that its inventor Morihei Ueshiba called ‘The Martial Art of Peace’.
In Shimamoto Shihan’s words, aikido is the same as zazen. The only difference is that in aikido you move around, and in zazen you don’t. Other than that, they are one and the same thing.
In the following description of Shimamoto Shihan’s Toronto weekend seminar June 5th and 6th 2010, not everything will appear in chronological order. His seminar had the main themes 不動心 ‘fudoshin’ (first day) and 和合 ‘wago/ harmony’ (second day) – explained in more detail later – and every part of it contributed to teaching these concepts. I am not sure in what order everything was taught, so the different parts of the seminar will be more logically than chronologically linked.
Also I am sure I have left out some parts of the seminar. As hard as I always try to remember everything Shihan says, he builds such a vast world with his teachings that I can never re-visit every part of it. But every step is enriching, so I will keep walking, and I invite and welcome everybody to walk it with me and enrich it more.
1. Obata Sensei’s Class
Obata Sensei teaches the first class. His aikido shows he is a friendly and honest man. It looks upright, light, and pretty. I like his first drill a lot: the 3 ways of entering: irimi (entering), tenkan (turning to partner’s outside), and tenshin (turning to partner’s inside). He is a man of few words. Instead of talking a lot, he demonstrates things many times and adds little explanations of what he is doing here and there. It is an enjoyable class that passes very quickly. Next, it is Shimamoto Shihan’s turn.
2. Shimamoto Shihan’s First Class
Key Words Day 1: posture (shisei – shoulder blades together and down, knees relaxed and ready to move), shizentai (natural posture), field of vision (mesen – wide), fudoshin (the unmovable spirit/mind, the zen mind), mushin (no mind – emptiness), hold your partner dear (taisetsu ni suru) like your own baby, good form (tadashii shisei) becomes good attitude (tadashii kokoro) – good attitude becomes good form
Shimamoto Shihan introduces himself by telling everybody: ‘I have not come here to teach you my aikido. I have come here to search for the kind of aikido I am looking for together with you.’
Then he sits down in seiza (kneeling posture) in front of the class and performs the customary greeting routine of bowing with us to the front (shomen) where a picture of Osensei Ueshiba resides, bowing to Obata Sensei head teacher of this dojo, who bows to him in return, and then bowing to us, as we bow to him. As usual, we say ‘Onegaishimasu’ to each other, a polite word used when requesting something, in this case, the mutual effort to teach and learn, to train with each other.
Standing up and Sitting Down
‘Whether we stand or sit, we should always have good posture. It should always be the same: shizentai (natural posture). Put your shoulder blades together, close to the spine, and then move them down. It is the same for zazen and for aikido. In any case, I believe both are the same. You should always look natural: shizentai. I cannot really do this either, but I will give it my best shot.’
The humble Shimamoto gets up keeping his back completely straight, and sits down again without losing his good posture, but without looking stiff. It looks natural and beautiful.
‘When you sit down, it is simply because you descend. When you get up it is simply because you rise. Shizentai, natural. Get up from your abdomen, not your feet. It may seem easier and more comfortable to just bend your back, kick out your leg, support yourself on it and get up in this sloppy way. I often want to skip all the hassle and just do this too, but please let’s try to get up and sit down properly, naturally. Always maintain shizentai.’
We get up and sit down with him a couple times.
‘Good posture, whether you get up or sit down. Whether you stand still, or move.’
And with this, we enter the moving stage of today’s training.
What is Fudoshin? What is Mushin?
‘To be honest’, Shihan begins very humbly worded, ‘It’s really difficult to teach after Obata Sensei.’ He exudes a laugh from his audience – one of his many valuable skills is humor. His theme for today is 不動心 ‘fudoshin’, written with three characters: ‘no/ non’, ‘move’, and ‘heart/ mind’, displayed in a calligraphy scroll on the front wall. It is sometimes rendered as ‘the unmovable spirit/ mind’. Shihan’s translation is the ‘Zen mind’, so I offer both to the aikidoka who have come to train with us today.
One of the great people I get to meet at this seminar asks me during break time ‘You said fudoshin was the unmovable mind, but it doesn’t mean rigid, right?’ This is an important question. Here, ‘unmovable’, Shihan often clarifies, does not mean ‘rigid’ at all. In this case it means ‘the freest possible’. Its meaning is closer to ‘calm’. A good example often used in Zen is provided by Shihan himself later: the comparison of the mind with water.
If the surface of a lake is rippled by the wind, the reflection of the moon gets distorted in it and looks nothing like the real moon. Equally, if our mind is full of thoughts and distractions, the things it perceives will become distorted in it. If the surface of the lake is calm on the other hand, and not a breeze stirs it, it turns into a perfect mirror, and the reflection of the moon, sickle moon, or full moon, becomes the real moon’s spitting image. Equally, if our mind is calm, if we achieve fudoshin, we can perceive our environment’s true colors and shapes, even its hidden energies.
無心 Mushin is a related concept that is written with the characters ‘no/none’ and ‘heart/mind’. Again, it does not translate into English very smoothly. Mushin could literally be translated as ‘no mind’ or ‘no heart’, but it is important not to assume that it means ‘mindless’ or ‘heartless’. Like fudoshin, it expresses the state of mind zazen is meant to create in the practitioner.
Normally, our mind is always thinking, remembering, expecting, assuming, hoping, and fearing something, which all means that it is constantly distracted from what is currently happening. Only once it becomes empty of all thought and completely calm can it realize the true nature of itself and the world. As soon as the emptiness of the mind is perfect, the world comes flowing in and fills it. Only then can we react to things immediately as we are no longer distracted by hope, fear, and other expectations, but take each moment as it comes.
The 3 Parts of an Attack and your Field of Vision
Fudoshin, Shihan says, is more reliable even than our eyes. There is a student at his dojo in Osaka who cannot see at all. He demonstrates by closing his eyes, standing at 90 degrees to his partner, Yano Sensei, who will attack him with shomenuchi (a one-handed strike over the head resembling a sword cut, the arm and open hand being the sword) whenever he wants.
‘There are three parts to any attack,’ Shihan says. ‘And to any time a golf player hits a ball.’ (He adds this special nugget for Pat, his single handicap golf teacher who is also present at the seminar). ‘First, the thought occurs to the player or martial artist to perform the movement. Next, he lifts the club, or his hand or sword. Third, the club hits the ball, or the hand or sword comes down on the person targeted.’
Back to the shomenuchi attack coming from the side while Shihan’s eyes are closed. Back to fudoshin. ‘If my mind is calm,’ Shihan says, ‘I can feel the waves made by his intention to attack. I can detect the attack in its first stage.’ Before Yano Sensei’s hand has time to come down, Shihan turns his hips towards him, stretches out his hands elegantly, with perfect timing, and stops the attack. Needless to say, whatever bad is coming our way, it is always better to detect it as early as possible. You still have time to counter it.
‘If you look at your partner,’ Shihan continues, ‘your focus will be broken. You will be taken in by his eyes, or the scary look of his weapon, or attacking stance (kamae).’ This is another grand theme throughout the seminar: ‘field of vision’. ‘Do not look at your partner,’ he recommends. ‘Both Osensei and Miyamoto Musashi (the famous Japanese swordsman, 1584-1645, an oft-quoted source for both Shihan and his son Tamayuki Sensei) said Do not look your partner in the eyes. Make your field of vision as wide as possible.’
He demonstrates standing in front of the class. ‘I now have about 50 people in my field of vision. Now, somebody has bent down over here. Now somebody has moved his feet over there. Now I can see through the window that some branches have moved outside. Make your field of vision as wide as possible. Your partner is simply one part of this wide three-dimensional screen. In this way, your eyes can serve you together with fudoshin.’
Good Posture, Wide Field of Vision, Good Breathing
‘So these are the most important things to watch out for when trying to do good aikido: first your posture. Shoulder blades together and down.
Next, your field of vision. Musashi said don’t look your opponent in the eyes. Make your field of vision wide, and include your partner in the multitude of things you see. Musashi also thought that it would be beneficial to reduce blinking. To do this, he said, pull the insides of your eyebrows together and narrow your eyes. Like this.’ He demonstrates. ‘Like I’m looking for my glasses.’ Laughter. ‘Usually I think it’s best to do things as naturally as possible. But sometimes little tricks like this can help you achieve certain goals, like widening your field of vision in this case.
Third, pay attention to your breathing. If I breathe fast and hard, my shoulders are likely to tense up, and I cannot perform techniques in a relaxed and efficient way. Make sure your breathing matches your movement. Try to breathe calmly and evenly. Breathe in when you welcome your partner’s attack. Breathe out when you re-direct him where you want him to go. This will make your technique flow effortlessly. It also makes it easier to detect your partner’s intentions.’
Inviting the Attack
In this first session, we train very softly, and all techniques are soft and kind. Shihan often mentions the teacher of his life, Kisaburo Osawa Sensei, whose movements were extremely soft and gentle, but very effective. Osawa Sensei stressed that it was important not to wait till your partner wanted to attack, but to invite his attack, and then welcome it with all your heart. ‘You invite your partner in, and then let him do what he wants, but your way.’
He invites in Yano Sensei’s attack. ‘Here,’ Shihan demonstrates iriminage, ‘he wants to go down, so I let him go down. Next, he wants to get up, so I let him get up. Then, he wants to go down again, so there you go. Down.’ The technique looks harmonious and perfect. ‘Invite your partner, welcome him in, breathe, and accept, and things will go your way.’
Your Partner is Your Baby
Shihan shows us an unusual, static kind of shihonage (four-direction-throw) from katatedori (one handed wrist grab, left hand to right or right hand to left). His hands start in the middle of his body and move circularly out and down, which draws in his partner and makes him move downwards and behind his body. Once he is there, Shihan lifts his hands, which brings his partner round the second half of his back and back to the front. There, he gently cuts down with both hands and sits down, cradling his partner’s head as he falls.
‘This is Yano Sensei, but he is my baby’, he declares and gets another laugh. He does a harsh technique and smashes Yano Sensei down. ‘You wouldn’t do this to your baby, would you?’ Laughter agrees. He changes his technique back to gentle. ‘Be nice to your baby. Be careful with him, make him a headrest.’
Not a Throwing Hand
When we wrap up our training with a gentle zagi (seated technique) kokyuho (breathing technique), he has Marc, a white belt demonstrate and says: ‘Watch how beautiful his mind is. There is no intention of throwing his partner, no malice.’ We watch Marc’s smooth, round movements and applaud. This is another important point he repeatedly mentions: ‘You should not perform techniques thinking about throwing your partner. Your hand should not be a throwing hand. It should be a caring hand. I often say: I don’t want to train aikido. I want to train through aikido and apply what I learn in everyday life.’
3. Shimamoto Shihan’s Second and Third Classes
Strict Training leads to Gentleness
Shimamoto Shihan begins the afternoon session with a harsher, faster, more vigorous looking technique. ‘Sometimes, you train like this,’ he says. ‘But as you progress, it will become more like this.’ And his technique gradually returns to his own, gentle style of aikido. ‘This is not achieved in one day. You have to be strict with yourself and train hard and persistently over a long period of time. Sometimes your techniques may look fast and rigorous. But the basis for them to work is still accepting what your partner gives you and welcoming him into your own sphere, where you can control him.’
‘Miyamoto Musashi fought with two swords. But this did not mean he always used both. He would use each sword where appropriate. If he had a lot of space, he would use the longer sword, if he was fighting in a confined space, he would use the shorter sword. If the situation called for it, he would use both swords.’
Shihan demonstrates a technique that looks harsh and exaggerated. ‘In this case, I have overused my hand. It has become a throwing hand. Instead of 100% I have used 120%. This is not what we’re looking for.’
‘Musashi has left us the saying: Whatever means you have, use them to the fullest. This does not mean using 120%. It means using exactly 100%. Only what is necessary, no more, no less. Be efficient. Use your body efficiently.’
‘Musashi also said: When I have a sword, I don’t rely on it. So even when I have no sword, it doesn’t bother me. Whatever weapon you have, use it to the fullest when you need to, but at the same time, always have the courage to throw it away.’
Correct Form, Correct Attitude
‘In Zen, we say that correct attitude follows correct form. So when I come into the dojo, I give a bow at the entrance. I walk up to the mat, take off my slippers and place them neatly in front of the mat. All these things are part of the material world. They are formalities. But through performing these little rites correctly, I have already tidied up my attitude while stepping onto the mat.
At the same time, correct attitude also leads to correct form. If I feel truly grateful to my partner for training with me and giving it his best, I will be able to absorb him into my sphere, create harmony with him, and perform a beautiful technique with good posture.
Pay attention to both your attitude and your form. In this way, one will correct the other. Inside, feel acceptance and gratefulness. Judging from experience, this is the more difficult part. So make sure you work with correct posture and observe etiquette. This will help you tidy up your attitude.’
Strict Training – Beauty – Dance
‘If you keep training and being very strict with yourself, your training will give birth to beauty. Your aikido will turn into a dance.’ He demonstrates the beauty and the dance he is looking for. ‘Your aikido will turn into a beautiful traditional Japanese dance called Noh (as in Noh theater) that looks a bit like tai chi.’ Then, Shihan uses 100% beautiful English, says: ‘Let’s Dance!’ and gives us a 100% beautiful bow.
We practice the technique for a while, but he stops us and says: ‘Think of this more as a dance.’ Pause. ‘A BEAUTIFUL dance!’ Laughter dances through the air. I wonder: Are jokes correct etiquette for teaching, or a form of teaching that comes from correct attitude?
Wrap Up of Day One
At the end, Shihan thanks us for training with him today. He sums up today’s main points: Correct posture, wide field of vision, good breathing, inviting the partner’s attack and absorbing him into our own sphere, holding him dear like a baby, trying for good attitude and good form, being strict with ourselves, training hard and persistently, aiming to give birth to beauty and dance. Then he invites us to come back tomorrow for three more morning aikido classes and an afternoon Zen lecture.