The term KEN ZEN SHO (sword, zen, and brush) was coined by Omori Sogen Roshi as a way to identify the three vehicles used in his Zen training. Omori Roshi’s lineage can be traced all the way back to Tekisui Giboku, connecting him with the famous Zen and Sword master Yamaoka Tesshu. Tesshu was, in a way, Omori Roshi’s inspiration in integrating Shodo and Budo as tools into Zen training.
The practice of calligraphy and martial arts are used in addition to sitting meditation to break down mental barriers, develop awareness and achieve realization. Omori Roshi stated that realization of one’s essence can be found in all aspects of life. Formal disciplines such as meditation, and koan training are among the most commonly used. Daily activity such as cooking, parenting, and gardening can also be used as strong instruments for spiritual forging (Sogen, Katsujo, 1983). Omori Roshi was a skilled swordsman and an avid calligrapher. Because he knew these disciplines well and understood its benefits, he decided to make them an integral part of his Zen training.
“Kendo is practicing Zen with a sword, calligraphy is writing Zen with a brush”.
This week, I want to expand a bit on the martial arts component. In my case, this vehicle is Aikido (for Omori Roshi was Kendo, but any martial arts which focuses on character development can work). I find Aikido commonly misunderstood. Its gracious fluid movements are accused of being ineffective, choreographed and useless in real life situations. These perceptions arise from people who do not know what Aikido is and where it comes from.
I am a lot of times shocked at the fact that even many current Aikido students from beginners to mid level ranks don’t even know the name of the old man in the picture hanging in the Kamiza (front wall) of their dojo. I believe the fault falls on their instructor. Very few instructors today take the time to talk about Aikido’s philosophy and history during classes. A lot of instructors are only focusing on technique because there is this pressure to “proof” Aikido’s effectiveness in order to stay relevant in today’s world of mixed martial arts.
I have to thank my first Aikido teacher, Iris Ruiz Sensei, for deliberately teaching Aikido’s philosophy during class. Maybe it was because she was a school teacher and she felt the need to lecture during classes, but she made sure we knew who the founder of Aikido was. We understood the principles of Aikido and what made Aikido different from other martial arts. Toyoda Sensei was also instrumental in my understanding of Aikido’s philosophy. Although his classes were heavily technical, he would often dive into a deeper conversation on the philosophy of Aikido and what it meant to be a martial artist. Training under both of these teachers forged my interest in digging deeper into the history and philosophy of Aikido. I complemented what I learned from them by studying books and reading magazine articles (this was back in the pre-internet days).
I am not interested in giving you a wikipedia definition of Aikido. You can google that. I do want, however, to define what Aikido was meant to be and how, this very different martial art, can fulfill the role of KEN (sword) in Omori Roshi’s KEN ZEN SHO training method.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969). Its techniques are based on traditional Jujutsu practiced by the founder during the years prior to World War II. Consequently, Aikido’s philosophy was born from a post-war Japan. After fighting practically what was a suicidal war, Japanese society rejected anything, martial arts included, that carried a militaristic spirit (Pranin, 2016). As a result, many other martial arts turned into sports, but Aikido didn’t. Instead, Aikido became “the art of peace”.
The founder’s techniques were effective, and his training was martial in spirit and practicality. The war had a huge impact on the development of Aikido, and eventually led the founder to conclude that the true spirit of martial arts (Budo) was not found in combat. Aikido was set to carry what the founder considered to be the true purpose of Budo: to achieve victory over one self. Aikido became a vehicle to perfect our humanity, develop our mind and bodies, and become useful members of society. This level of personal development was to be achieved through rigorous training with kindred spirits in the martial arts (Ueshiba, 1984).
Aikido’s technique can be brutal and effective if executed at the right time in the right situation. However, training in Aikido is not aimed at this goal. The purpose of Aikido training is to defeat the ego– our worst enemy. As a by product of our training we are left with a handful of useful self defense movements that could be used if the occasion ever arises.
Because of the nature and purpose of Aikido, to develop our character and spirit and become better human beings, it can be practiced by any one at almost any age. Yes, its movements are gracious, and more often than not classes can be soft and mild, but they are difficult and challenging. In order to be proficient at Aikido and enjoy its benefits one must train constantly for years. Unlike other fighting arts, Aikido cannot be learned during a short period of time. Mastery is not subject to physical strength or athleticism, but to one’s understanding of body movement, flow of energy and mental awareness.
Just like Omori Roshi, founder Ueshiba understood the importance of calligraphy and meditation practices as components to Budo for a complete system of human development. Seiseki Abe was Ueshiba’s calligraphy teacher. Abe explained that Ueshiba’s reason to take on calligraphy was the he recognized both arts required an incredible amount of concentration and extension of Ki energy. Ueshiba then realized he could capture his Ki on paper through Shodo (Moyer, 2013).
Morihei Ueshiba practiced Jujutsu, a very effective fighting art, but he founded Aikido as a way to reconcile the world after the devastation of World War II. It is a martial art in every sense of the word and should be practiced as such. Techniques must be dynamic and full of energy, attacks must be strong and with intention. If we eliminate this approach to training, then Aikido’s criticisms of being useless become true. If we do practice Aikido with the spirit of Budo, it can then firmly fulfill the role of KEN in Omori Roshi’s KEN ZEN SHO way of training.
Katsujō, T., & Sōgen, Ō. (1983). Zen and the art of calligraphy: The essence of sho. London: Routledge et Paul.
Kent Moyer (2013). The Master who taught calligraphy to Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba and actor Steven Seagal. Black Belt Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.blackbeltmag.com/daily/traditional-martial-arts-training/aikido/the-master-who-taught-calligraphy-to-aikido-founder-morihei-ueshiba-and-actor-steven-seagal-part-1/
Pranin, S. (2016). The man who shaped modern aikido in his image. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://aikidojournal.com/2016/03/10/the-man-who-shaped-modern-aikido-in-his-image-by-stanley-pranin/
Ueshiba, K. (1987). The spirit of aikidō. Tokyo: Kodansha International.