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Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day and Zanshin

War is sweet to those who have no experience of it, but the experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach.
- Pindar

Today is Memorial Day, the day set aside in the United States for remembering those military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. Typically, Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer, the first federal holiday of the year when it's nice enough outside to really enjoy the day off. This particular Memorial Day, though, the weather here in Milwaukee is much truer to the somber occasion than usual (which is why I'm here on my computer rather than, say, outside playing with my daughter).

This past Saturday, I dutifully sent my thanks to all the veterans on my Facebook "Friends" list. One of those thanked, an aikido instructor and former Army Ranger, was appreciative, but made sure to remind me that Memorial Day is for remembering the dead, not just for celebrating the living. My intentions had been good, but I had, as so many civilians do, skipped straight to the fun part of war and glossed over the rest.

Anyone who spends much time on the internet will see a lot of criticism pointed at Americans for being too enthusiastic and too idealistic about war. I'm not sure Americans have a monopoly on such things, but we're certainly guilty. No American my age has ever been pressed into military service or seen his country undertake a war that it had a realistic chance of losing: it's easier than ever for an American to watch a war with the carefree enthusiasm of a fan watching a sporting event.

Such detachment not only dishonors and trivializes the real sacrifices made by real people in war, but it also robs us of an opportunity to learn. Even if we are unlikely to be drawn into war ourselves, we have a great deal to learn from it, as individuals and as a nation. It behooves us, the sheltered civilians, to pay attention, so that we can choose and direct our leaders wisely.

As a martial artist, I like to think of this as a macrocosm of what we in budo call zanshin. In the dojo, even if our training is not an honest approximation of combat (and, frankly, most training isn't), it behooves us to keep in mind the violence from which our art was born. Maybe uke isn't really going to punch me in the face if I give him the opportunity to do so, but it still makes me a better martial artist to be aware of that opportunity and to avoid offering it. Maybe no one is waiting to attack me after I throw uke, but my technique and my stance will be better if I am ready as if someone were.

Zanshin is hard work. Maintaining awareness is not easy, in life at large or in the dojo. This is why we like our war without death and our training without the responsibility of risk management. But the benefits of living -- and of training -- the hard way are many.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Aikido the Word

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Before I start, I'd like to give a warning to anyone reading this. Many people, especially on the internet, find semantic arguments to be inconsequential and pretentious. Little is more common on an internet message board than to see an argument dismissed as "just semantics". What follows is an entry about nothing but semantics written by a guy who is obsessed with semantics, so don't read any further if you're one of those people who find discussions of semantics tedious and annoying. What's more, please don't leave a comment unless you're prepared to have a dry conversation about words with the guy who corrects your use of literally on Facebook. I am that guy. You have been warned.

Aikido is a word that carries a lot of baggage with it. It is, in some mouths, the name of a particular Japanese martial art, but there are many people who seem to want it to be so much more than that, who are not satisfied to see the word confined to the dojo.

This is, as far as I can tell, a phenomenon unique to aikido in the martial arts world. None of my taekwondo buddies ever tried to convince me that the movements of a dancer or a golfer might be just as validly called taekwondo as our martial art, but these exact claims have been made to me of aikido by some extremely knowledgeable aikidoists.

Much of this kind of thinking must be credited to aikido's founder Morihei Ueshiba, in whose writings we find such cryptic lines as: "The Art of Peace has no form--it is the study of the spirit," and: "Any movement can be an aikido technique." Clearly, Ueshiba intended aikido to be more than just a martial art.

This is, in many ways, a very good thing. Ueshiba wanted us to learn more from him than rolling, throwing, and twisting wrists: he sought to show us, through the lens of his martial art, a way to live and move in harmony with the world around us. And there's certainly no need to explain why some more of that in this world would be a good thing.

For all that, though, Ueshiba's vague and idealistic explanations of aikido create some rather daunting semantic problems. First of all, a word for something that "has no form" and which can be applied to "any movement" is a word that has very little meaning of its own. Furthermore, it's hard to justify using such a word as the name for a particular martial art with a particular lineage and technical focus.

Word nerd that I am, such semantic problems bother me more than they bother most people, so I have always tried to use the word aikido as specifically as possible. When I say (or write) the word aikido, I mean Morihei Ueshiba's martial art, whose primary technical basis is Takeda's Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and the practice of which Ueshiba intended to serve as an expression of the principle of aiki.

Some spiritualists might find a definition like mine too confining, and some traditionalists might think it diverges too far from the founder's own way of thinking. The inevitable question is: can't someone who is  dancing, negotiating, or playing a sport be closer to the the principles of aikido than someone who is practicing Daito-style grappling techniques? It's a reasonable question, one that has been issued to me as a challenge by many people who know much more about aikido than I do.

My answer has less to do with aikido than with language, and so I think C.S. Lewis, one of modern history's great authorities on language, can make my point better than I can. In the preface to his book Mere Christianity, Lewis details the demise of a useful word:
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information...But then came people who said--so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully--'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should?...' They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing...To call a man 'a gentleman' in this new, refined sense becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is 'a gentleman' becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object...A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes.
The aforementioned spiritualists and traditionalists are, of course, absolutely right when they say that aikido's principles are far more important than its lineage and its techniques. But I think they cause a great deal of linguistic trouble when they decide that the principles, rather than the lineage and the techniques, ought to be the basis for how we use aikido as a word.

If I say, according to my understanding of aikido principles, that the dancer who moves in flawless harmony with his partner is performing aikido, and furthermore that the martial artist in the dojo who does not grasp the underlying truths of his art is not performing aikido, then what have I communicated? Since there is no clearly articulated and agreed upon list of the principles of aikido, all I have really managed to say is that I approve of the way one task has been performed but not the other. In that case, aikido has, as Lewis explains above, ceased to be a term of description and become merely a term of praise.

If, on the other hand, the word aikido simply names a martial art that was founded by Morihei Ueshiba and gets most of its technical curriculum from Daito-ryu, I can use it to communicate, with reasonable specificity, a particular kind of activity. As an added bonus, this "coarse, objective" definition does not require any judgments on my part about what is and what is not a real expression of the true principles of aikido (judgments I would not feel the least bit qualified to make).

At this point, other objectors are likely to chime in, arguing that since there is no agreement about which styles have truly preserved their Ueshiba roots and which technical curricula are correct, even the kind of definition I suggest will not produce universal agreement about what is and is not aikido. These objectors are correct, but their objection is ultimately irrelevant. My purpose here is not to extinguish all discussion about what fits the definition of aikido, only to provide a definition that allows us to have the discussion. If aikido is no more than a set of subjective principles, there is no discussion to be had.