About Zen and Aikido

From an interview with Rick Gendo Testa, Zen Usui  and Dojo Cho (Chief Instructor) at City Aiki.  

“Why do you think it is important to study Zen as an Aikido teacher?”

My role as a Sensei is demanding on many levels. Not just physical, but I need to be in “good supply”. The Zen training is my own restorative practice. Being a monk, every season there are nine days set aside for traditional Rinzai training under a teacher who is a resource to me – someone who is asking me to be a student.

It is also the practice of having the time to not be in the dojo, not be concerned about paying bills, and to drop most worldly concerns and just be in the present moment. To be in an environment like that helps propel me through the challenges when I’m not there. It is an ongoing practice.

It is almost like a “maintenance program” for someone like me who has students who rely on him. As a Sensei, you are leading the way, they are looking at you. If you run a dojo you can run astray if you are not keeping yourself clear. You want to make sure that you are making very good choices, because you can lead a whole group astray. You influence people and you can influence people in a positive way if you are aware of most of the things you are doing. I find that the practice helps me maintain a certain level of efficiency, compassion and flexibility.

It helps you get clear so that you know what not to do.

It is almost like emptying your backpack. Each time you don’t need as much stuff. And when you do the practice consistently it changes who you are in your ordinary life. You take care of what needs doing. You don’t get bogged down as much if you have a lot of things to do. You take care of what you can and you recognize what you can’t more clearly. And you also make better decisions. Sometimes they are sharper decisions about what needs to be done in your life. It helps you get clear so that you know what not to do – that’s almost more important.

“How can Zen principles be applied to Aikido?”

They are different paths, but they complement and support one another.

Let’s start with the simple stuff: Sitting that way, physically, makes your core stronger and the muscles that are required to maintain that structure. This will help to improve your posture, open your hips, become aware of your balance through your spine. It will eventually create an understanding of the “easy up”: when you are sitting for a long period of time you find a way to ride gravity and you get a lift in your spine, up from the top of your head.

When you develop that it really affects your balance taking skills in Aikido. Basically, Aikido is moving your legs and hips around with this nice straight spine and level chin. That is a definite correlation.

Zen training can help contribute to that ongoing centeredness or concentration.

The next level would be this: In Zen training you have to accept being there – sitting and staring at the floor, holding your concentration. That concentration becomes very valuable as a martial artist. You will be able to see what is really happening with the teacher.

Most of our Aikido techniques or joinings between Uke and Nage only last a few seconds. But you won’t be able to keep your mind in one place during those few seconds. The Zen training can help contribute to that ongoing centeredness or concentration. And once you start getting a bit of it it really starts to emerge in your physical training.

So Zen and Aikido complement one another. I don’t necessarily think you have to do both, but I found that my Aikido deepened from the Zen training. I think some of the spirit of Zen training is almost very martial, because of the intensity of physically sitting that long and working through waves of fatigue, physical and mental discomfort, trying to stay focused and staying in sync with the group from Kinhin to having your meals together, and then being able of having a direct interaction with the Zen master in regards to Koan work. All these require a certain openness.

Zen training can make you emotionally and physically raw, and so can Aikido. I think that that is what makes them complement each other. I take my Aikido training – which has been a lot longer – and I apply my martialness to my Zen training and it fits really well. That is probably one of the reasons why my teacher said “he already looks like a Zen priest”. That is what he said to me once I showed up to the temple with my shaved head. He said, “you are already doing it”.

There are physical and there are mind-oriented or concentration-oriented attributes to both forms of training and they can cross over.

“Can people incorporate their own spiritual practice with Aikido?”

Spiritual practice is a personal thing, so that would be up to each individual.

Aikido is the practice of exploring your primal nature, researching our primal impulses. Even though Aikido training is very beautiful, deep down at some level as it gets progressively more intense in your journey, each time your primalness gets tweaked and those impulses arise – whether you are afraid or get mean. I haven’t found another way to safely explore those things.

Aikido is the practice of exploring your primal nature.

Aikido allows you to have this physical experience that is a martial experience, but it is also helping you develop an understanding of your primalness and developing another response system. But it takes a long time. That is what is really valuable about Aikido.

Whatever your spirituality is, if you can have some experience with your primalness and not have it run the show without you – those impulses firing up and you speak from that primal place or you physically harm someone – what can be better than that?

I’ll even throw religion in there. I don’t care if you are Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Native American, … it doesn’t matter. We are all human and we are all wired to be primal beings. There hasn’t been a way to study that primalness, to release it, to have a laboratory of sorts to let it all percolate.

Zen training is similar. You will feel your primal nature – it will bubble up. That awareness of where all the little pockets and avenues branch off from this primalness.

“Why do you think Zen and Aikido are a good combination?”

I think Zen training helps you become more patient, because you have to be. You are holding your concentration and awareness with an intensity and focus that is not passive. They can be misunderstood, but Aikido and Zen are not passive.

In Zen, you are actively engaged in the practice. You are not just sitting there waiting for something to happen. You are actively trying to be aware of every pore in your body. You are letting the thoughts go by and your fields opens up. Aikido isn’t that different.

There are definitely similarities, but I think there are similarities in almost every art. I could be a painter and get into the same zone – when I do it right – like when I am sitting very well or I have sat for many days. I think that if you practice painting, let’s say, you are training yourself to be in a certain zone to create. When you are playing music – and you are doing it well – you are in a zone where the concentration is on what you need. Not too much, not too little, just right.

All of that comes down to refinement.

It takes training to do that, just like Aikido. Aikido is unbalancing your partner without pulling, pushing, or twisting. That is a crude example of something that should be graceful and beautiful. Not rough and overly primal without refinement. Again – whatever your cultural identity, spirituality, religious view or overall worldview is – all of that comes down to refinement. Refinement of what?


Learn more about Zen and Aikido at CityAiki.

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