Aikido seminars are a lot of fun. It is a very exhausting yet energizing way to spend an entire weekend doing nothing but training. They are hours of techniques, food, drinks, very little sleep, and back on the mat. Rinse and repeat for three days.
The amount of information absorbed at a seminar can be limited though. The amount of techniques, exercises, kata, etc. covered in the span of 12 hours can be overwhelming. Students usually forget about 75% of what they learned at a seminar after about a week. The thing is, seminars are not about learning as much techniques as you can. They’re not about learning something new and be proficient at it by the end of the seminar.
Seminars area about sharing an experience.
The instructor is there to provide an experiential training. It is impossible to cover the basics and fundamentals of anything given the short amount of time (yes, 12 hours over a weekend is not a lot of time).
It is often said that seminars are great places to experience Shugyo. The word Shugyo doesn’t have a literal translation. It is described as the ultimate level of one’s training. After practice, training, discipline, and forging, the ultimate level is embodiment. At this level, and the goal of experiential training at seminars is to surpass physical and mental boundaries. We must let go of ourselves. Even if it is for one brief moment, we may experienced MUSHIN, or “no mind”. True Shugyo, however, doesn’t end on Sunday afternoon when the seminar is over. The purpose is to embody the experience into your daily life.
Last weekend I headed down to Brooklyn, NY to teach a Shodo session at a seminar with Greg Noble Sensei from Zenshinkai Aikido Association. The seminar, called KEN ZEN SHO, was a typical Aikido seminar with emphasis on the three pillars of BUDO: KEN which means sword and represents the martial training. ZEN which represents the training of the mind through Zazen (sitting meditation). And SHO which means “to write” and represents the calligraphy brush. Although we use calligraphy, SHO really stands for art: the creative process of expressing your feelings, emotions and state of mind. These three practices are used concurrently in our training and development. Think about how an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert complete the meal. Each course by itself is good, but it’s the combination of all three that makes a dinner memorable.
My Shodo session took place after lunch on Saturday. In the three hours I had to teach the calligraphy portion of the seminar I could not get into the basic principles and fundamentals of Shodo. I have an online course for that. Anyone who is interested in taking Shodo practice seriously and regularly can sign up for my course and learn the basics. But that was not the purpose of this session. My intention was to provide an experience.
I had three hours to create an environment where the students can experience the benefits and challenges of Shodo. Somehow, it all had to make sense for them. By the end of the session I hoped they understood how Shodo connects with Aikido and Zen, but more importantly, that they experienced that connection within themselves.
I decided to work with large brushes. I had them kneel on the floor and use their body to move the brush. The physical connection of body and brush opens the door for mind and body unification. Since I didn’t have the time to go over the eight basic strokes, I decided to focus on two simple characters, SAN (three) and JUU (ten) which are composed of basic horizontal and vertical lines.
This was the “warm up”, so to speak. Once everyone was comfortable and the ice had been broken, I then moved onto a more challenging kanji character. I demonstrated how to brush the character of SHIN (sincerity), and explained the three styles of calligraphy, Kaisho (block script), Gyosho (semi-cursive) and Sosho (cursive). As they attempted to brush SHIN in all three styles, the main focus was continuity and connection. In Aikido, the concept of connecting with your uke (partner, or opponent) is always stressed. Without connection Aikido does not work, both physically and philosophically. Connection between strokes, your mind and the brush, is crucial to calligraphy in cursive form.
I knew students would feel a bit overwhelmed, or embarrassed at the outcome of their calligraphies, specially if they’ve never picked up a brush before. “I can’t do this”, was an unsaid statement shown in their eyes. To break this barrier I created a contradictory expectation. I told them at the end of the class they all had to pose for a picture holding their calligraphy; so it’d better be good. In order for them to be okay with that you had to be okay with the way your calligraphy came out. You had to feel proud to stand behind it and be photographed with it– forever attached to that outcome. I would share that picture on my website and social channels for everyone to see.
On the other hand, I told them it didn’t matter how the calligraphy came. All it mattered was that they experienced the connection between their minds and the brush, and how that connection manifested in the character they brushed. Before the bristles touched the paper, they had to be already free of any expectations. They had to let go of the calligraphy before it was even created. Only then can calligraphy from MUSHIN be created.
I have to say, everyone did awesome! I was extremely happy with the way everyone’s calligraphy turned out. Yes, those of you who practice Shodo formally may notice that composition is off, or strokes are not done quite correctly. But technicality was not the point.
I firmly believe in the integration of Shodo with martial arts. Ancient masters such as Miyamoto Musashi and Yamaoka Tesshu are prime examples of how beneficial it is to have art be a gateway to your martial realization.
I really enjoyed this seminar and I hope I can do more of these with other groups of martial artists who are interested in experiencing this connection.