Jul
31

“Maai, an Aiki perspective,” by Francis Takahashi

“Once the student can successfully control his maai, the ability to then apply appropriate kuzushi, tsukuri and kake, are greatly enhanced.”

Ma, in Japanese, refers to a “space, or an interval” between objects. As a principle commonly used in martial arts, it refers to the “physical spacing” between individuals, and can also determine the outcome of any martial encounter. The term used to describe this phenomenon is called “Ma-ai”.

No one should have the right to invade the personal space of another without permission. This basic truth lies at the very heart of any valid claim to preserving one’s security, and the natural right to act resolutely in one’s own defense. No fully trained or accomplished martial artist, would willingly abdicate this right without justifiable cause or reason. Being vulnerable at any one time is understandable. To exist while being defenseless is not.

One aspect of proper maai may refer to an “inner space”, within one’s consciousness, that an individual requires for solitude, privacy, peace of mind, and the ultimate freedom to think and act independently for him/herself. This right is inviolate, and must be defended with every ounce of vigor and practiced preparation, whenever challenged or attacked.

The other aspect of proper maai refers to the “outer, or physical space” that is required by the individual to move in or out of, and to efficiently deal with any real or perceived threats to his welfare. This is the more troublesome of the two examples, as reasonable notions of proper boundaries are quite often blurred, and ill defined. Being social animals, we may be naively duped into relying on the agendas and decisions of others, in foolishly determining what really is in our own best interests.

In aikido training, this regard for personal (inner) , and for interpersonal (outer) “maai”, involves ongoing thought and interactive training. Throughout this lifelong process, each person must resolve to remain individually accountable for personal safety, and mutually responsible for respecting the rights, welfare, and boundaries of the others we train with.

Quite often, It is the head instructor who must set and monitor the correct parameters of such training, and coordinate harmoniously with assistant instructors, seniors, and the very students themselves, to successfully and safely practice the principles and applications of appropriate maai.

A key factor to remember for each student working with the confrontation scenario, is to recognize separately the maai for himself, as opposed to that of his opponent. The goal of the exercise is to maintain one’s own maai, while disrupting that of the opponent. Once the student can successfully control his maai, the ability to then apply appropriate kuzushi, tsukuri and kake, are greatly enhanced. This refers to balance taking, creating the opening for entering, and the successful follow through with proper technique, and of zanshin, or proper finishing of the movements.

I often recall stories from my past, which serve to remind and guide me in my understanding for, and the proper pursuit of my training goals. Some such stories involve the great “Kensei”, or “sword saint”, Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was reputed to have fought over 60 battles, or actual contests of skill and survival, on his path of Musha Shugyo.

Shishido Baiken was an expert with Kusarigama, a combination of a ball and chain, attached to a reaping sickle of lethal purpose. Its design was to trap the sword with the ball and chain, and then dispatch the opponent with the sickle. Musashi recognized the problem of proper maai, immediately drawing not one, but both swords as he approached his enemy. Baiken successfully trapped Musashi’s long sword, but was himself dispatched when Musashi entered Baiken’s maai, using his short sword.

Another anecdote of interest was Musashi’s supposed encounter with the great and legendary Yagyu Munenori, referred to in Japanese history as “Tajima no Kami”. Lord Yagyu was indeed a minor daimyo, but also the official sword instructor to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

As Yagyu was tending to his garden, he was interrupted by a servant, announcing that a shugyosha was at the gate, requesting a match. The great master sighed, and gave a cut flower to the servant to present to this individual, with his regrets that he was now retired, and accepted no more matches as before. Of course, this shugyosha was Miyamoto Musashi, who humbly accepted both the gesture, and the gift of the flower. Yet, upon examining how amazingly fine the cut on the stem was, he remarked, ” I could not seriously hope to defeat the one who cut this flower anyway, so I will best be on my way.”.

Both of these serve as examples of how the concept of proper maai may be understood and applied. One involved action; the other forestalled it.

In our ongoing training in Aikido, or of any other art form of choice, the imperative need to recognize, apply and to learn from proper maai is clear. Such understanding can lead to both wise withdrawal and defense, as well as towards entering, and taking the initiative to accomplish our goals.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Takahashi Sensei for this thoughtful article. It reminds me of our Sensei always telling us that we should be aware in our attack, that when we can reach our opponent, he has the same possibility.

    About the “inner space” I fully agree with you, but would like to add just one thing, of course we need our solitude, privacy and peace of mind, but sometimes one doesn’t even know what is happening with the self and I’d like to share this phrase, what I read today: a friend is the one who lift you up when others do not even know that you have fallen.

  2. Joe Peterson says:

    A wonderful explanation on the heels of watching the historic and superb gold medalist Mariel Zagunis fence up to the semifinals. In her brilliance she conquered all opponents with adept cunning, lightening speed and precision skill. The thing she uses so brilliantly is Ma-ai and all the other principles expounded upon by the great samurai, like Mushashi, and great martial artists like Osensei. It should be brought into attention that any great fencer from Musashi to Zagunis develops and delivers great skill because of the utilization of the universal principles. It should be extolled Zagunis understanding of those principles as seen in her dominance. Zagunis cut down her opponents, up until her loss in the semifinals, showing she had a brilliant mastery and understanding of ma-ai.

  3. Thank you, Francis, for a great article, well articulated, beyond misunderstanding. I think one of your best. One of the most significant and meaningful changes in global history in its day was the founding of the USA by a group of insurgent rebels who the king of England of the day deemed to be terrorist because they dared to revolt against unjust imposition of that empire. They took an immense risk to reclaim their maai and the maai of a people from the clutches of tyrrany. On the edge of kime, they took a decisive risk and by a fine line won the freedoms and entitlements and articulated them in a Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Articles, being of such core import that cannot be altered without such altering being and of in itself a tyranny. One turncoat could have got them all hanged the following morning. But they saw through and history was changed permanently.

    Benjamin Franklin rightly made the statements: “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither. People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.”

    These men and others like them throughout global history understood well the finer nuances of maai, why it must be protected and the creative value of appropriate and responsible freedom.

  4. Thank you Francis for a great article, well articulated, beyond misunderstanding. I think one of your best. One of the most significant and meaningful changes in global history in its day was the founding of the USA by a group of insurgent rebels who the king of England of the day deemed to be terrorists because they dared to revolt against unjust imposition of that empire. They took an immense risk to reclaim their maai and the maai of a people from the clutches of tyrrany. On the edge of kime, they took a decisive risk and by a fine line won their just freedoms and entitlements and articulated them in a Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Articles, being of such core import that cannot be altered withouts such altering being in and itself a tyranny. One turncoat could have got them all hanged the following morning. But they saw through and history was changed permanently.

    Benjamin Franklin rightly made the statement: “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither. People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.”

    These men and others like them throughout global history understood well the finer nuances of maai, why it must be protected and the creative value of appropriate and responsible freedom.

  5. Joe Peterson says:

    “One aspect of proper maai may refer to an ‘inner space’, within one’s consciousness, that an individual requires for solitude, privacy, peace of mind, and the ultimate freedom to think and act independently for him/herself. This right is inviolate, and must be defended with every ounce of vigor and practiced preparation, whenever challenged or attacked. ” Brilliantly explained.

    My comment to this is rather simple. It is not one of refute, for this idea is truly culturally foreign to me. I don’t have the same social restrictions, protocol or daily stressors/pressure privately or publicly as Japanese then and now have. I instead benefit by dancing upon the stage of freedom those historic rebels built. The only time I can experience any internal Ma-ai as defined by the originators of this concept is when the pressures of life and work creep upon on me, and taking a run allows me to enter that world within side myself, or when I am “in the zone” absent of the function of the critical, and occupied mind. Not only are we dictated my our environment, but also by our circumstances. A good example of that is if you where able to watch the Olympic Air Rifle competitions. This is how I would be able to apply internal ma-ai, as a zen exercise, in my practice.

    Sometimes it is best to use the familiar to address an idea and helps it get across. There are wonderful sayings by Claude Debussy, “Music is the space between the notes, Search for a discipline within freedom!, Don’t let yourself be governed by formulae drawn from decadent philosophies: they are for the feeble-minded.”

    It may not be the identical true experience as defined by the originators delineation of ma-ai, but it is close to say when both internal and external ma-ai come together working in harmony the results are remarkable. I see that fusion happening with successful results as skill and perception in those other than Musashi and Zagunis, and Osensei, but also in other great artists.

    The idea of Ma-ai loosely used in a Japanese context is essential to life. Mental health professionals recognize the internal and external importance of Ma-ai, Politics use it, recognizing with various terms, Musicians and artists, among so many other. But unfortunately, the concept of the term Ma-ai as defined by the Japanese is a term born out of conflict and violence, out of the obsession for power and will over others. The peaceful Japan we know today, was not born out of a conflict for peace, but rather war. Entertaining the thought of no peace, of no possibility of surrender, Aikido as the art of peace would have never been conceived. Ma-ai is so very important.