Aikido and Kabbalah III

Da’ath – aikido is something that is always transmitted, from master to sensei, from sensei to student, it is a lineage that carries on through its practitioners. It is the realisation of aikido in its ideal form to its practiced form, which is filtered and adapted by each practitioner. What I learn from my sensei will be limited to how and what my sensei learnt from his sensei and also how he teaches. In turn, as it is transmitted to me, I will be changed by the aikido I am learning, but also aikido will be changed in contact with me. And yet there is still a continuity of lineage.

Binah – the form of aikido is a martial art. Each technique has been derived from earlier forms – jujitsu, judo, amongst others –  that often hurt, damage or even kill an opponent, but these have been adapted to the philosophy of non-violence. We learn to use the bokken and jo (wooden training sword and stave), which were used by the samurai and peasant soldiers in war. The form and attitude of using these weapons complements our main work with the empty handed practice of aikido. It is at its core about self-defense, and even if it takes a long time to perfect, all that we learn should be effective in a combat situation.

Chochmah – the impulse of aikido is produced not by violence but by peace. The guiding philosophy encourages harmony and neutralising aggression, not only of the person attacking you but also your own aggression. It has been mentioned before, aikido is best done in a relaxed and calm attitude. Any tenseness or force used will work against you. An attitude of aggression is itself unbalanced, and if you attack first, even more so, that is why, in aikido, we recieve the attack and respond from a balanced and harmonious centre. That is how aggression can be neutralised (I have to admit though, there is a long, long process to get there!).

Keter – the source of aikido as a distinct martial art was Morihei Ueshiba or Osensei. It was he who, after years of studying various martials arts and an encounter with a pacifistic Shinto religion, began developing his own style that has many adherents around the world today. Aikido shows its Japanese roots, not only in the form of the martial art but also in much of the ritual and etiquette, including the use of some Japanese words. Perhaps overwhelming or just odd for many non-Japanese, but it’s all integral to its practise, and there is honour in remembering this.

The Flow of Saille

Willow is the tree associated with Saille, and as such its symbolism is very watery, since willows are often found growing by rivers and lakes. Their form also evokes a “flowing” sensation, with long, elegant leaves and flexible branches. This also evokes traditional (stereotypical?) ideas of femininity.

This ogham few also expresses for me the essense of aikido. My sensei often says that the best aikido is a woman’s aikido. In general, men are encouraged to be aggressive and competitive, and to some extent dispassionate with other people – martial arts like karate or jujitsu tend to come easier. Aikido is much more of a challenge for a “typical” man, though women have their own challenges in aikido, perhaps relating to the more martial aspect of it.

Aikido, a martial art based on peace and harmony, cultivates more “feminine” qualities of gentleness and compassion. Many times I’ve been pracitising a technique and even if technically it is correct, my sensei still corrects how I do it: “Too rigid.” – “You’re using too much force, it wouldn’t work if your opponent were stronger than you.” – “Adam, there’s too much tension and aggression. Relax, breathe.” Not corrections you’d recieve in most forms of karate.

In aikido we are taught to flow, not use force or strength, to work with dynamics and movement, to be “like water”. Aikido still remains a martial discipline – a certain confidence and directness is involved – but it always based on a principle of non-harm and fluidity.

Aikido and Kabbalah II

This is a continuation of my series using the kabbalah’s tree of life as a model to explain a bit about aikido, a Japanese martial art based on non-violence.

Tiferet – the sensei leads and guides the class, they are the centre of the dojo, sharing what they know through discipline and compassion. They represent the lineage of aikido and will transmit that according to the level of their own integrity and ability in aikido. They maintain the coherence of the tradition and discipline, as well as maintaining the coherence of the class with the dojo. What the sensei says goes, there can be no doubts or excuses, though there’s plenty of room for reflection later. They may be imperfect and make mistakes, but within the dojo, in the moment, they should be listened to. The sensei is a student too, still learning, though with more knowledge and experience than their students. Being a sensei is a lesson in itself with it own challenges

Gevurah – when you walk into a dojo, or even before, you will notice that there’s a lot of etiquette and protocol, as with any Japanese tradition. The goal is to maintain the discipline within the dojo, between the students and the sensei. The sensei maintains the overall discipline of the dojo, but within that the students themselves must maintain their own discipline. This has nothing to do with conformity or control, but respect. Respect for Japanese tradition and respect for the people we are working with. Aikido, as with any martial art, is a discipline, and so we must treat it as such. It’s a discipline that marks every aspect of our behaviour within the dojo, and in every respect character building. Not just a discipline to learn the techniques of aikidio, but in practicing it we better ourselves as people.

Chesed – effective aikido is about defending not just oneself but also defending one’s attacker from harm. Aikido cannot be hard, aggressive, or tense – this is where harm comes in. Instead it should be applied with gentleness, calmness and compassion, which, perhaps surprisingly, requires a good deal of discipline (we’re not used to this mode of being; we learn a lot of bad habits over the course of a lifetime, and it takes a lot to undo them). Flexibility is also an important part of it. I am learning a particular form of aikido, with a certain form and style, but each technique can be applied and adapted to a variety of situations and attackers. Within aikido, there are many schools with their own styles and emphasis on different aspects of the art, displaying its own inherent versatility and flexibility. In the end, the aikidoka has to manifest this flexibility and compassion in everything they do.



Aikido and Kabbalah I

A while ago I was contemplating the Kabbalah’s tree of life, and considered how its structure could be used to describe the martial art of aikido, and it seems to work quite well. For this post, I’ll start working from malkhut, through Yesod and Hod, to Netzah, working up the tree of life. You don’t have to know anything about the kabbalah, and my purpose here isn’t to explain it, but using it as a basis to reflect on aikido. In the near future I shall complete this series with two more posts.

Malkhut (the dojo) – this is the “kingdom” the physical arena in which you find yourself. This is the dojo (training hall), covered over by the tatami, or mat. Before entering the dojo we must remove our shoes out of respect. There is a lot of ettiquette about entering and leaving the dojo, and about where we enter and where we sit or stand during class. This is the place where we learn and have our abilities tested. It is a place in a sense “separated” from the outside world where we dedicate ourselves. It is guided by different rules than what we are used to in every day life. Entering the dojo isn’t just a physical action, it is psychological, and we enter into a different attitude or martial discipline with respect for the space and our companions.

Yesod (the class and ki) – the students themselves make up the body of activi ty as we practice with each other. We form a fellowship where we all learn from each other and help one another as we practice. Here we can also talk about ki or life energy. This is the vital energy that links mind and body, an important concept in aikido. Aikido is the “discipline of coordination”, which immediately becomes evident as we struggle at first to coordinate our limbs, and also to harmonise our actions with our training partner – each person presents their own challenges: stiffness or floppiness, aggressivity or timidity, these must all be dealt with as they arise. Above all, it is the harmonisation of mind and body through ki. Our lack of bodily coordination or harmony with others signifies our own disharmony between body and mind. Eventually, we must learn to unite our ki, so that there is no aperture of action between mind and body – there is fluidity, continuity and oneness.

Hod (instruction) – the students sit in a row facing the kamiza, the wall on which the portait of the master is hung (usually Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, but sometimes another master, such as Kobayashi in my school). There the sensei gives their lesson, presenting techniques and exercises with their uke (the person that “recieves” the technique). Usually they just show a technique, but occasionally will explain the finer details of each part. The sensei will ask if we have understood, if they need to show the technique again, we may nod but we’ll have to put it into practice to really see.

Netzah (practice) – we select a partner, bowing in front of each other, then we put into practice what the sensei has explained, or as close to it as we can. Each person is different, the habits and attitudes built up in our bodies interfere with the harmony of our ki. What works with one person becomes a struggle with another, but that’s good. If there were no difficulty or struggle we would learn nothing.The sensei stands by and observes his students, correcting where needed or silently nodding approval. Aikido, as a martial art, is not something you can learn quickly, it takes a lifetime of learning and discipline to perfect aikido, always something to learn. It isn’t just technical, it shows us who we are and how we relate with and react to the world, teaching us to turn conflict (inner and outer) into harmony and peace.