“Renshu and Keiko” by Nick Lowry

“Real Keiko is knowing and reflection with the whole body not to be confused with dry book learning or learning by rote.”

To know something you must do it one thousand times, To “really” know something you must do it ten thousand times And to completely realize something you must do it one hundred thousand times.
-Traditional budo proverb

As we train and practice seemingly endless repetitions of budo techniques day after day after year after year, as we pour our lives into the container of our chosen art, we inevitably find our actions and our lives being shaped and honed and turned toward an edge that transcends all that we know.

This edge is the product of the repetitive practice called renshu, and it is somewhat disconnected from “knowing,” for mere “knowing” does not even really touch what this process is aiming at—namely, mastery with the whole body and mind.

In our Western educational paradigm, it is easy to get confused here. To mistake knowing for “really knowing,” or worse yet for “complete realization,” and to do so is to stop tragically short and stay stuck in mere mental budo, to become a creature of theory and projection.

Renshu will have none of that—it is the spirit behind the famous old saying “Shut up and Train!” and at its heart is the Zen activity of shaping one’s life through action. Like the sword saint Tesshu’s famous Seigan practices— in which participants vow to train for one thousand consecutive days and have one hundred matches per day. A grueling but efficient pace, for most of us the process is more gentle, we take decades, but either way, hundreds of thousands of repetitions are required. Sweat and blood are owed. The ox must be trained. It is the non-negotiable price of admission to realization.

Renshu demonstrates that knowing with the mind and knowing with the body are two very different activities that have each their own rates of realization. To know something in the sense of understanding its basic shape and form is one thing, to know its logic and purpose, its riai, another (and there always seems to be more riai the deeper you push, the longer it goes). But to realize the essence of an activity, to embody it fully, is altogether another matter. In full realization, the self falls away, understanding falls away, and the energy of the activity itself moves through you without conscious design, without even trying—it gets a little spooky. Here, the mind , the sense of self, is along for the ride here but is only a passenger on the bus. The driver is the principle, the activity itself—the doing. It’s as if you are imbued with the spirit of the thing, you become the thing. Not two. Most intimate.

When it’s over, the self, the mind and its mental wizardry return and it is time to reflect. This is the other turn of training called keiko, to reflect on things past, which gives us the basis of understanding and ultimately, transmission. In keiko, riai emerges in self evident ways, your sensei’s teaching words ring in your ears, but now you hear them differently—you are caught in the net of learning the whys and the wherefores and here again there is no substitute for deepening, for burnishing our budo knowledge in this way.

Keiko unrolls the matter, reveals the secrets, for renshu alone, though it makes for radical efficiency, is not enough. It is not enough to mindlessly, selflessly, do these actions, we must know why. For budo to flourish and thrive, both internally and externally, waza must be fleshed out with knowledge and principle, or they risk becoming meaningless iteration, mistaken, misapplied, misappropriated, the proverbial hammer that looks for a world of nails comes to mind.

http://www.aikidojournal.com/blog/media/lowry.jpgMany of us what to jump straight to keiko and bypass the grueling renshu, but the results of such shortcuts tend to be dead and limp expressions of budo. Do not be satisfied with dead words—only live words will transmit the real dharma (the truth). It is in the spirit forging activity of renshu that we make a container, a home for real keiko to take place—and this home is built from our bones and sinews, our muscles, blood and sweat. Real Keiko is knowing and reflection with the whole body not to be confused with dry book learning or learning by rote. Only with both sides of training does the full effect take place and make way for the thunderbolt of insight and the brilliance of Bu.

Contact for Nick Lowry: Windsong Dojo


  1. …still get lost, passenger on the bus, mostly enjoying the ride… (wonder what it will feel like at 100,000?)

    My son’s math teacher has “the rule of 10,000” over the door of the classroom.

Speak Your Mind