Aikido is fascinating in the way that it glorifies the virtue of humility.
I’ve always been a sucker for samurai stories. Honestly, it’s probably a major factor in what drew me to study budo. One of my favorites is “The Taste of Banzo’s Sword”.
It involves a young samurai, Yagyu Matajuro, who was sent off to study with the famous sword-master & hermit, Banzo. Matajuro went to visit the old master, who (in a very masterly way) basically said “sorry kid, you’re not up to this – it would take you forever”.
Matajuro persisted, saying “but if I swear to work my absolute hardest, how long would it take me to master the sword?” To which Banzo replied “Hmm… ok, maybe ten years”.
“My father is getting old and I’ll need to take over for him,” Matajuro pressed. “What if I promise to work even more intensely??” Without missing a beat, Banzo answered “In that case, thirty years.”
Vexed, Matajuro replied “You just said ten, now thirty? I will pass through ANY hardship in order to master the art as quickly as possible!!!”
“Oh, I apologize. I misunderstood,” said Banzo. “Seventy years.”
I love the interplay. It’s so evocative of that classic teacher/student relationship. It reminds me of another master – the Zen master Taisen Deshimaru – and his simple reply when asked how long one has to practice seated meditation. “Until you die.”
In this story, Matajuro is impatient, but the real problem is that he lacks humility. There is something very valuable in wishing to develop oneself as fervently and as efficiently as possible. That’s what we should all do. But Matajuro doesn’t really want to develop himself, so much as he wants to be a MASTER. He wants to jump through the hoops so he can get the certificate and have the status. He doesn’t care about the way of the sword. He cares about being a success. And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world either, but it’s NOT budo. It’s not aikido.
There’s not a lot of straight lines in aikido, and precisely zero finish lines. Ok, an irimi-nage from Demko Sensei might feel pretty “straight” if you take it on the chin, but what happens after it? You roll. You get up. You keep training. You test for shodan and collapse in exhaustion. Then what? You get up. You keep training. It’s circular; constantly beginning, ending, learning.
Aikido is fascinating in the way that it glorifies the virtue of humility. Developing when it did, the art is primarily informed by two equally significant and interconnected forces: traditional Japanese budo and Zen Buddhism (ok, an argument could be made for the Omoto-kyo branch of Shinto as well). In both budo and Zen, humility is of the utmost importance, probably for different reasons.
In Zen, humility is a little different. Just as we see in aikido, in a Zen dojo, there is an awful lot of bowing. And it’s not usually to show deference to a leader as it might be on the battlefield. In Zen and aikido, we bow to our training partners. Sometimes we bow to the kamiza. Sometimes we bow to the mat or the building. Sometimes we bow to our sword or staff. Are we really telling all of these entities that they are “so much greater than ourselves”? Of course not. My bokken is a hunk of hickory. I don’t bow to IT – I bow to the art it represents. I bow to the version of myself I seek to become THROUGH the art. Who I am when I am on the path. Who I am when I am training. Real humility is recognizing that you are not greater than the path. You need the path (by the way, it needs you too).
When we bow, we make an exchange. We trade our small selves for “big selves”. We trade our individual goals for shared goals. We trade our perspective of ourselves as autonomous, individualistic spirits for essential parts of an inextricably connected universe. Some people read that and it makes them feel smaller. Others will understand that the exchange makes them much, MUCH bigger. When you bow, you aren’t saying “I am nothing” so much as “we are everything”.
As a kid growing up in the West, I thought humility was a bad thing. Like getting pushed down and having your lunch money stolen and feeling HUMILIATED. In fact, a lot of students gravitate to the martial arts because they were humiliated once and don’t want to feel that way again. But that’s not humility – it’s fear. And while aikido may teach you to defend yourself in a single stressful moment, what it will really teach you is to how to become your best self in all of the other moments. When that is your goal, the status is irrelevant. The timeline is irrelevant. The fancy pants, belt, and certificate are irrelevant. Getting past that stuff is way more challenging and way more important than any technique you’ll learn.
Oh yeah… At the end of that story, Matajuro does realize that he needs to try to commit. Banzo takes him as his student, but never teaches him the sword at all. He basically just does Banzo’s cooking and laundry for 3 YEARS. Needless to say, he was pretty dejected, having dedicated himself to an art he’s not even learning. “But,” he realizes “this is the path I have committed myself to, and I will walk it to its end or my own.” At that moment, Banzo’s wooden sword came out of nowhere and whacked Matajuro on the shoulder. It was the first time he had even SEEN a sword since arriving. And after that moment, Banzo’s sword would randomly split the air to strike Matajuro again and again, so that Matajuro could not rest or eat or even blink without thinking of the taste of Banzo’s sword.
Assistant Instructor, Jim Hyde, 2nd Dan, Aikido of Charlotte adds, “Testing is the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in Aikido – at all levels. When I started, I recall counting out all of the days to determine when I would test for my next belts, approaching it like a license or professional certification, but quickly I realized that was missing a vital point. Testing isn’t primarily about tracking progress; testing is about your sensei recognizing your progress. Having your instructor come to you and recognizing your hard work, telling you that it was time to test, is thrilling. However, completing a test with zanshin and composure and looking over to an approving and proud sensei and an excited uke, is the pinnacle of the Aikido learning experience. I realized that these things weren’t determined by watching the clock, but by diligent practice under the guidance of your sempai and the support of your kohai.”
Once he had realized this – once he lowered his individual ambition before the art he sought to learn, Matajuro made rapid progress, learned to avoid the sword, and eventually became the greatest swordman in the land.
And more importantly, he kept walking that path all the days of his life.