Kokikai and Zen

As many of you know, I have been living in Japan since 2002 and in this time I have experienced and discovered so many wonderful things in this country and I always enjoy sharing my experiences with everyone who is willing to listen.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Joseph J.

Since the 5th Kokikai Aikido International Convention in Nagoyain May 2010, I have received numerous emails regarding Zen and Sensei’s aikido [1].  While I am not an expert on Zen [2] (or aikido for that matter!), I have had extensive training in Japan and received kechimyaku [3] (a document that links a Zen student to all previous generations of practioners), kaimyo [4] (Dharma name) and jukai [5] (a Zen public ordination ceremony wherein Zen student receives Buddhist precepts) at Eiheiji Temple, the Mecca of Zen.  Additionally, I have had many illuminating conversations with Sensei, Zen monks, roshi [6]and professors regarding the nature of Zen and, in this little piece, I would like to offer a glimpse into how I am coming to understand the relationship between Kokikai and Zen.  Moreover, and perhaps more ambitiously, I would like to deepen our understanding and practice of Sensei’s Aikido.  Answering the question of “What is Zen?” (like answering the question of “What is Kokikai?”) is a intimidating endeavor as both must be experienced in order to understand their essence and benefit.  Hopefully by discussing some of the salient points that Zen and Kokikai share, we can come to understand our tradition a little better.

The cornerstone of Zen is the doctrine of impermanence (mujō [7]). By impermanence, Zen asserts that everything is in constant flux, transient; everything changes and is in change.  Nothing stays the same: not the seasons, nor our bodies, nor our thoughts, nor relationships and (hopefully) not our techniques.  This is one of the pillars of Sensei’s aikido.  Many of you can recall Sensei’s technique from 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago, last week and yesterday…always changing, always a little more correct, more powerful.  Change is what makes Kokikai Aikido so special and so effective because with change comes growth and progress.  I believe this is why there is no “Kokikai Aikido Technique Textbook.”  Once a textbook or manual is written, technique becomes written in stone, stagnant, and when this happens, true growth and progress withers away and die.

Another essential component of Zen as it relates to Kokikai is the concept of no-self (muga [8]). Simply put, “no-self” means that everything is interconnected, interrelated; nothing exists in a vacuum.  This is to say that there is no such thing as an individual.  There is no such thing as a separate object, event, or experience, because no portion of the world can exist apart from all others. What is more, everything is actually dependent on, and consequently interwoven with, something else. Everything (every object, event, idea, experience, whatever) is made up of other things.  This is what Sensei tells us at every camp, seminar and class.  Sensei repeatedly says “help each other,” “we are a family,” “grow and make progress together.”  Because we practice together and help one another we can grow and make significant progress not only in our aikido techniques but we can also make progress in applying Kokikai principles in our daily lives. The community nature of Kokikai Aikido is what gives us stimulation, helps us grow.  We cannot grow if we are alone.  We are interrelated with everyone and everything and once we understand this, we can begin to realize our full potential.

Another element that Kokikai and Zen share is the notion of no goal or no desire (mushotoku[9]). Mushotoku can be understood as the optimum state for Zen practice, in which there is no goal or object, no intention for self gain or profit.  When we are concerned with a goal or desire we lose sight of the here and now.  This does not mean that we do not have dreams; quite the opposite.  Dreams are wonderful and they can be motivational in helping us achieve whatever it is we want to achieve.  However, dreams should not come between us and the moment.  Sensei shows us this day in and day out.  Sensei is always in the moment and when you are in the moment you can achieve your best, strongest state.  Think about it in slightly different way.  When most people try to throw Dave, Jason, Todd, Glenn they might get nervous or they think, “I wanna throw Dave.”  When they think this way, their bodies become tense and they lose their correct feeling and, consequently, cannot throw them.  Sensei, on the other hand, is always in the moment; he does not have a desire to throw anyone…Sensei just throws!  Because Sensei is the moment, because Sensei is relaxed, calm and correct, and goalless, he can throw.  The desire to throw, the desire to win is absent and, consequently, Sensei can throw everyone so easily.

A final quality that Kokikai and Zen share is the notion of practice.  In Zen, this practice is called zazen [10] in aikido, it is technique.  Zazen is central to Zen practice.   It is a particular kind of meditation, unique to Zen, that functions on uniting the body, the breath and the mind.  It is to sit without seeking enlightenment (or anything for that matter) and without rejecting delusion.  Zen encourages the practioner to “just sit” and let everything be as-it-is.  In zazen, we must let all thoughts and feelings pass through the mind like the spring breeze.  Pay attention to them.  When we find that the mind has grasped onto a thought, gently release it.  When we open the hand of thought, the things made up inside our heads fall away.  In short, zazen is a meditative practice to settle your mind in its original state: purity and clarity, and from that you can see everything in the world as it is.

In Kokikai Aikido, we do not do zazen.  We practice techniques with correct feeling and posture.  To borrow from the Aikido Kokikai International website, “Kokikai Aikido is a martial art, concerned with effective self-defense technique and realization of our full potential power in all the activities of daily life […] We discover our whole human ability, our full potential power, through self-mastery.”  This is where the connection to Zen lies: both traditions strive to calm and clarify our minds by allowing us to get out of the way of ourselves.  Through Kokikai techniques, we clean the impurities from our minds.  As Abhijit Dasgupta has so eloquently stated, “We have to remove artifacts from ourselves that hinder our ability to be effective, and ultimately, by peeling way the layers of artifacts that we have ensconced ourselves with over a lifetime, we arrive at the pith, the essence of ourselves. This nascent essence is powerful, strong and natural, and the husk of artifacts that we have covered ourselves with make us less powerful, less effective, less natural.”  This is what zazen does and here in lies the relationship between the two.  Zazen returns us to ourselves by cutting through the delusions that exist in our minds; Kokikai Aikido returns us to our best, most natural state by purifying our minds and allowing us to use all of our ability and grow as human beings.

I hope that this brief overview of the relationship between Kokikai and Zen helps us to understand our practice, where it comes from and where it is going.   What Sensei teaches and what Sensei is proof of is this: the impurities in our minds can be cleansed and Kokikai is an excellent way to do so.  I hope everyone continues to practice hard and continues to research Sensei’s teachings in order to grow and live a full, successful life.

Joseph Pielech
Nagoya, Japan

[1] It has been my experience that Westerners enjoy learning the kanji of Japanese terms and phrases so I will include them as footnotes in this piece.

[2] Zen = 禅

[3] kechimyaku =血脈

[4] kaimyo = 戒名

[5] jukai =受戒

[6] Roshi =老師

[7] mujō=無常

[8] muga =無我

[9] mushotoku =無所特

[10] zazen = 座禅