A koan is an insoluble puzzle that gives deeper and deeper insights but is never resolved.
Recently Mark Sensei slipped us a dual koan to ponder:
Uke is irrelevant/Throw it all away
“Uke is irrelevant” originated from a video produced by Warren W., 6th dan, from New York Shin Budo Kai.
After Mark Sensei’s koan challenge, the emails flew concerning the irrelevancy of the uke. A great deal of insight, poetry, and even a Monty Python video came down the email thread. I was impressed with the wisdom, cleverness, and humor of my dojo mates.
The comments followed two contrasting, even contradictory, interpretations of the phrase “uke is irrelevant,” along the lines of:
1) If your aikido is done well, it doesn’t matter what your attacker does, so uke is irrelevant.
2) The core of aikido is blending and becoming one with your attacker, so uke is extremely relevant.
A perfect koan.
I chose to stay out of the irrelevancy fray and take “Throw it all away” as the object for meditation.
“Throw it all away” comes from the second principle of four formulated by Koichi Tohei Sensei, usually translated into English as “Relax completely.” What he said in Japanese is “Zenshin no chikara o kanzen ni nuku”
Zenshin – whole self
Chikara – power
Kanzen ni nuku – throw it all away
Roughly translated, this means to take the power of everything that you are and have ever been, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and throw it all away.
(Tohei’s rule condensed into “Relax completely” may have lost a little in translation).
But what does this actually mean? How are you supposed to “throw it all away?”
I contend that “throwing it all away” is not something to begin with, but a state to experience once you are down the road a little way in your journey.
In other words, you can’t throw it all away until you have an “it” to let go of.
In Austin, I practiced aikido with a sax player who called himself a “jazz Nazi”. One night after class, he invited me to come hear his band, which was playing at a local hipster coffee shop. “We play free jazz,” he informed me.
I love many kinds of music, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Bob Dylan’s surreal poetic diatribes. (I do draw the line at polkas, however). I have listened to a bit of free jazz, but I must confess it’s not my favorite form of music.
After class, I headed over to the coffee shop where I was greeted with an outrageous cacophony of sound. As I listened, I was somewhat perplexed. This was different from the free jazz I had heard before. Slowly it dawned on me that “throwing it all away”–throwing away the rules of melody and harmony and rhythm—means one thing when you just do it out of ignorance, and something totally different after you’ve spent years studying music theory, playing scales, learning chord progressions…
You can just “move freely” and dance like a Deadhead, or you can spend years studying the subtleties of dance and then “throw it all away” and move spontaneously. The results are quite different.
I’ve encountered students in aikido who just want to “flow with the ki” and resist learning the finer points of each technique. For me, the constant refinement of technique is the door into moving freely. Only after you have subliminally learned, after hours and hours of practice, the subtle way that ki moves, are you ready to throw it all away and move freely.
Discipline is freedom. Another koan.
Featured image Dance by Mark Strozier