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Training For The Benefit Of All

Image: Spring sesshin with Rev. Komyo Seido at Brooklyn Aikikai, April 2024

It’s time to revisit the topic of the year–this notion that aikido is budo, a spiritual path or way of life–and I want to do that by examining who we are when we are training, and who we are training for. 

A core tenet of Zen Buddhism is that we are not separate, bounded individuals. Instead, I would say that this illusion we call “self” is constantly in a state of co-arising. Our very sense of who we are constellates and dissipates as we move from one relationship, encounter, or circumstance to the next, always flowing and changing because in a lot of ways, it is nothing more than who you’re with and what you think of them, what you have to deal with, or whatever you’re paying attention to. Aikido is a great place to experience the fluctuating, co-arising nature of this thing called “me.” When we train regularly, we begin to notice which iteration of ourselves shows up on the mat each day. We can watch our training change every time we change partners. In an hour, we can watch our inner critic grind us to a near standstill with one partner, and our inner puppy dog play with a different partner, and our inner parent rush to protect a third! 

It is important to remember that really, this self examination is the whole point of serious aikido study. You’ll be asked to produce a perfect kotegaishi a handful of times in your life. But your ability to notice whether you are spacing out, freezing because you’re overwhelmed, or totally flowing with the moment will come in handy at least two or three times a day, every single day, for the rest of your life. Being more aware of yourself is the gateway to seeing more possibilities and making better decisions! A more aware life is a life with more joy, and less strife and harm. In this way, training makes you happier and easier to be around. It’s good for you and those around you in a very small way that is easy to see. 

But that is not where this story ends. This noticing who you are today, from moment to moment and encounter to encounter, is the first step on a path. Just about every serious spiritual tradition talks about how important it is to fall through the circumstances of your individual life into a more trusting relationship with something much larger than yourself, and the way we account for that in this dojo is zazen practice. To quote the founder of the Soto school of Zen, Eihei Dogen: 

To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the thousand myriad things. 

Aikido was never meant to just be exercise that you do for an hour or two in Samurai drag with your buddies. O Sensei devoted his life to an array of martial arts and meditation practices, religious rituals, and lifestyle choices that were holistically aimed at nothing less than the liberation of himself and all beings, and that is the invitation here in this dojo. Was he super into Zen? No, not explicitly. He was more into Shinto, an animist belief system grounded in the idea that we are participants in an ensouled world that is more powerful than we are. One of the big reasons I study astrology is because it similarly describes our participation in an ensouled, animated universe, and deepens my understanding of some of the more magical/animist aspects of aikido. But for most students, especially because we mistakenly use astrology to reinforce the self in this culture, I think Zen is an easier framework for falling through your life and into Life. Zen loves your doubt and questioning. It builds on itself experientially. And it enables, over time, this forgetting of self that is so central to practice. 

It really does all start with knowing yourself. But over time, serious study becomes less and less about knowing yourself, and more and more about experiencing the fact that there is no separation between you and whatever you are believing is “other” right now–whether that’s your training partner, your spouse, or the car in front of you. This is true even if what’s happening doesn’t feel “peaceful,” or “harmonious.” This is what O Sensei meant by harmony, or the way of peace. It does not mean that everything is nice, or that you will never get hurt! It doesn’t mean throwing people with magical force fields of ki or any of the other nonsense that makes aikido the absolute favorite martial art of McDojoLife. It doesn’t even mean well-meaning degradation of training like overcommitted attacks, or trying to keep your partner on the outside of an external perimeter, as I was originally taught to train! It means moving with integrity and thoughtful use of force through a genuine facsimile of a martial encounter, knowing that you can find a loving dynamic equilibrium in the force itself. The goal of training is to walk out of the dojo with an experience of energy exchange that wows you. Changes your perception and behavior at root. Makes big shifts possible because it puts you into a consistent practice of what buddhists would call “right relationship.” 

We’re training for the benefit of all sentient beings, and I invite you to imagine how you can do that as a beginner who might feel like they will never achieve something like this. How do you train for the benefit of all sentient beings when you are still figuring out which foot is the front foot? How do you train for the benefit of all sentient beings when you’re trying to squeeze in a class a week while holding down some serious responsibilities in other parts of your life? How do you train for the benefit of all sentient beings if you are nine or ten years old? 

You start where you are! You start where you are, knowing that this dojo will hold this intention with you.  

This dojo will always be here to remind you of the profundity of this work. Can you be nicer and more open to yourself in the training you are doing in it? Can you arrive more vulnerably to each class? Can you forgive yourself for not knowing this new thing yet? Can you watch yourself more carefully, and notice more clearly that there is more to this “you” than you think there is? Can you listen more to your partners, and treat their bodies and spirits with more care? Then, can you clean the bathroom, or fold some towels?

I promise. Each one of these acts is a doorway to something much, much larger. 

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