By Paul Hibschman
We hear people refer to themselves as Aikidoka as a way of saying that they practice Aikido. In my understanding, this is incorrect on several levels. Ka is an honorific suffix that is not used in the first person, “I”, in Japan. It denotes a high honor and is rarely used at all in Japan. In this “Reflection, I want to go into what does it mean to practice a martial art. I hope, if you understand the complexity of what we are learning, you will realize why none of us are likely to get to that level of honor. So let me create the following argument.
“Is he Tia Chi or does he do Tia Chi?” was a question I overheard in restaurant in Chinatown, San Francisco a decade ago or so. The question goes to the heart of martial art practice and who is a practitioner. What does it mean to be involved in a martial art.
I doubt few who approach a martial art’s practice hall ever stop to wonder what “doJo” means or what the word, “do” means as used in the name of various martial arts, for example, judo.
Once I was by a swimming pool in California practicing Chinese calligraphy when an Asian woman came over to see what I was doing. I was trying to draw the ideograph for “tao” as in Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu which is a basic book for Chinese philosophy about life and its goal. This is also the character for the Toa of Poo, if you want a reference closer to home. The character is also Romanized as “do” which is also the last character in Aikido. She looked and said, “wu shu”, paused and again said, “wu shu”, paused again, looked at me and said, “you wu shu !or?) and walked off.
For the purist in the readership, an Asian character cannot be transliterated which means to take one letter in one alphabet and render it in another alphabet, as in the Roman A = the Greek Alpha. For us, an Asian ideograph is Romanized and even then by several different systems which drives scholars crazy. When it comes to meaning, Asian characters are that: characters. It is like asking what does the character Mickey Mouse mean? Each of the thousands of Chinese characters has many meanings and ways to pronounce it. We Westerners try to force this artistic expression into a kind of binary process with limited success. But this is really my point: we try to force a given meaning onto the name of a martial art. In doing so, we lose part of the art.
The character for “tao” that I was working on has a root meaning of “way,” as in the road to enlightenment. When you train for Aikido you are training in a way of life through harmonious energy. The various techniques are just that: techniques. In the West, we have a hard time getting away from dualism as in a mind/body split. In the East, it is the other way around — mind, body, spirit, aliveness are all in one and difficult to split up. In the East, (non-movie style) martial arts are one of the ways working on mind/spirit progress.
If any reader is getting restless and wants to go break boards or find an article on causing pain through pressure points, I ask for a bit more patience. Most Eastern spiritual practices have a few aspects in common. Most require a leader, teacher, or guru. Most involve a physical aspect – yoga postures, Sufi dancing, Shoaling martial training. The teacher is central with the task of aiming the student in a nameless direction and drawing the student out of self. Practitioners who are lucky find a teacher and virtually fall in love or, at least, awe.
My teacher is Saotome Sensei. When I hear, see, think about him, there is a curious twist that happens someplace deep inside me. I doubt that he has any idea who I am, although he might recognize me probably, as his student. He taught Aikido in Washington, D.C., for what must seem to him, forever. He is now retired in Florida after over 50 years of weekly teaching but still shows up in D.C. with some frequency.
Once, he decided to offer a short series of 5:00 a.m. classes in movement meditation. It was a standing meditation with a particular and not easy to do correctly, rocking motion of the hips, accompanied by a very defined arm swing. Breath control was also central to it, as was a kind of chant.
When he was teaching a regular class, if he wanted to say something while we were practicing, he would clap, we would sit where we were, and he would talk. Once, years after his special meditation class, he clapped, we stopped and sat. He assumed that mentation posture, rocked forward, moved his arms forward but continued them up into that wide-open, encompass everything posture that we are seeing frequently from the politicians in this election year. Then he said, “Aikido!” He did this twice maybe even three times in different directions, looked around and asked, “Understand?” Then he motioned, and we continued to practice the technique we were working on.
If you search YouTube, you can find films of O’Sensei doing and saying (according to the subtitles) something similar. I doubt that I could find an example quickly for these little clips are buried in films of a regular practice sessions or talks.
I am now in my early 70’s and my practice of the physical aspects of Aikido is definitely limited by energy reserves and a certain lack of bounce. I also lag because I spent over ten years in the mountains of California without any good Aikido training within 50 miles and did not practice. Yet, there is this other side of Aikido that is learned with a teacher and with the physical and the mental practice achieved through that teacher. Once that is learned, it has the possibility of going on no matter where is the dojo or the teacher. That is, it becomes a part of us which, in a way, is a step towards us becoming part of it, in the sense of, “he is aikido.” I do not think that I have the answer to what Saotome asked with his up-swung arms. But I do think I understand the question.
“Ka” as a suffix probably means the person has become the art. I hope we are all practicing in a way that the art can at least become a part of us. I suggest we leave “ka” for the Shihans who probably will not use it anyway – except in analogous way to indicate everything is Aikido and can be elevated to a position of honor.