Monday, October 31, 2011

The Bridge

Last night I had a dream of a world gone awry. It started with a newspaper report showing multiple cars driving off a bridge that had collapsed. When I went to the scene (arriving instantly in my dream, of course,) I saw car after car going over the edge into the water. Many people saw the problem, but no one was trying to warn the drivers. The rest of the dream had more scenes of people unwilling to help each other even when all it would take was holding out a hand.

When I awoke I thought hazily about this quality of empathy that was missing from the people in the dream. Empathy is something all humans - and perhaps many animals - share. We would try to help someone in danger without thinking, even if there were no direct gain. A psychopath, a person without empathy, has a mental disorder. Although psychopaths seem to make excellent business leaders, the idea of a world full of them is what makes zombie movies so scary.

The concept that people are connected is not a theory. It is not just a part of our humanity, it is our humanity. If you are not sure, imagine a world without empathy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What is Ki?

The concept of Ki, or lifeforce, exists in many cultures. In Chinese it's Chi or Qi, in Sanskrit, Prana. In western culture, while we may say someone has a soul that is distinct from their physical body, the soul is connected to the individual. Ki, as it is understood in Japanese culture, is a universal force that permeates everything. Individuals may manifest more or less ki, but it is a connecting force between everyone and everything.

In Japan, ki is an everyday concept that's found in many common phrases. For example the phrase "O ki o tsuke te," which means "take care," literally means, "apply ki."  "O genki desu?" the most common way to say "How are you?" means, literally, "Do you have ki?"  "Ii kimochi," a phrase heard often, particularly in popular songs, means "(What a) good feeling." "Ii" means "good" and "kimochi" literally means having, or holding ki.

Sensei often says that practical application of the four basic principles "equals ki," but he doesn't talk much about ki itself. This may be because he feels that the concept is more foreign to westerners, and I have to say I agree that it is. Even now, after 17 years of practice in Kokikai Aikido, I still struggle with the question: "Is ki real?"

I have experienced the effects. I can touch someone and immediately know where their balance is, where they are stiff, where they are relaxed, but surely that's just sensitivity and experience, not ki. Some days I feel absolutely brimming with life and happiness, and when I walk down the street, guys drive by in delivery vans and wave and wink at me, and frowny-faced youmg men in low-slung pants and do-rags say, "Hey, how ya doin'?" (FYI I am gray haired and pretty ordinary-looking). Is that ki, or is it just because of my posture and smile? Leon Brooks Sensei walks into the dojo and everyone sits up straighter. He counts as we do our ki exercises at the beginning of class and everyone in the room becomes more energized and alive. Is that ki? Is ki real?

Well, I don't know. And I don't think it matters if I know. If the concept helps me practice, then I'll use it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Kokikai Sangha

At the start of Kokikai Winter Camp some years ago I greeted David Nachman Sensei. I told him I was becoming more dedicated to Buddhist meditation, but I was having difficulty with the lack of a sangha. "This is your sangha!" he answered, gesturing to the 200+ people beginning to fill the gym.

This reminded me of a time I was asked to deliver a copy of a group photo to Maruyama Sensei. The photo had been taken at the previous winter's Kokikai Aikido camp. There were about 230 people in the photo, all sitting formally in lines, arranged with Sensei in the center. He zeroed in on their faces, all smiling, relaxed, happy. "If you didn't know," he said, "what kind of group would you say this is?"

I wasn't expecting the question and had no idea how to reply. "What kind of group?" he persisted, "College reunion?" 

We both agreed, no. "Family?" "No." "Religion?" Even religion, no. It was impossible for me to place my finger on the relationship between the people in the picture and compare it to another group. It was only later that I was introduced to the concept of sangha.  

A sangha describes this group perfectly.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Power of Teaching

When you think of the Buddha, you think of the young man who was born in Kapilvastu, who practiced many years in the forest and who went around India to live the teaching. But that is only a portion of the Buddha, because the moment when the Buddha began to build the sangha, he begin to transfer himself to the sangha and many disciples, monastic and lay, they continue the Buddha. You have to see the Buddha in the sangha. You have to be able to see the Buddha in the dharma (teaching). If you have not seen the dharma and the sangha, you have not seen the Buddha. The dharma is available in the here and the now. The sangha is also available in the here and the now. You do not have to go to India in order to see the Buddha. If you believe that Buddha is a god, and can bestow on us the things we want, then that is not the Buddha. 

The Buddha is a human being who has a deep capacity of understanding and of loving and of having maha karuna, great compassion, maha maitri, great love, maha prajna, great understanding. He can perform miracles. 

Understanding people is a miracle, and it is described that the Buddha is one who understands the world well. Lukadidu, it means understanding the world. Because he understands the world deeply, that is why he can offer the kind of teaching that can help heal the world. The miracle of understanding and the miracle of teaching are very important miracles that the Buddha can perform.

When you give a teaching that can transform people who heal you, that is a miracle. The Buddha described it as the greatest miracle of all miracles. And there were disciples of the Buddha who were capable of doing that during the time of the Buddha. They already continued the Buddha in the time of the Buddha. And in our time, there are those of us who can do the same. By their practice, by their teaching, they can heal; they can help people liberate themselves from their suffering. So the miracle continues. 

From a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, October 21, 2011


In Buddhist practice, the "three jewels" represent the foundation of practice. These three jewels are the Buddha (or teacher), the dharma (the teaching), and the sangha (the community of practice). It's interesting that not only the teacher and the teaching, but the people around you are considered not just important but essential!

This community of practice might also be described as "spiritual friends," or people who share the same goals of practice. If we look around, we can see that, whether they call it by this name or not, many groups understand the importance of "sangha" in supporting others along a particular path, particularly a difficult one: AA, mental health professionals, even Jenny Craig!

Here's a quote from the Upaddha Sutra:
Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, Lord, admirable friendship." The Buddha replied, "Admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk [or anyone else] has admirable people as friends...[s]he can be expected to develop and pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.
We tend to focus on individuals when thinking about the people with whom we practice, rather than thinking of them (and ourselves) as a community. It's good to remember that these "admirable people," whatever their foibles and individual character traits, are nevertheless engaged on the same journey. As the Buddha said, their very presence supports us on the path.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Judging vs. Living

If I am judging this moment, I am not living it.If I am living it, I am not judging it.
 Judging is head centered, living is heart centered.
 Judging springs from doubt and insecurity. Living springs from love and contentment. 
And each moment I choose again, as my choice a moment ago is no longer relevant. 
-Michael Jeffreys

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Are Your Three Things?

Over the last few years I've had the privilege of taking several yoga classes with Max Strom. He's a great teacher and I think one reason is his knack for coming up with memorable concepts. One of these is to keep in mind your "Three Things."

Max spoke of a student who he described as "all over the place." This student had trouble focusing, and as a result he was distracted by every external stimulus and seemed unable to listen to verbal cues. Max decided to give him just three things to work on, but they would be three things that would work in every pose. From then on, every time he walked by this student, he'd say, "Remember your three things." This gave the student something that he could grasp to bring his attention back to his own body in the pose. Gradually the student progressed to the point that Max would just have to catch his eye occasionally and hold up three fingers.

Most of us could benefit from introducing this kind of concept into our yoga, meditation, aikido or anything that we practice with heartfelt intention.

In yoga at this point my three things might be:
  • Reach the feet into the floor
  • Inwardly rotate the legs
  • Knit the ribs in
At an earlier time they might have been:
  • Come back to your breath
  • Relax your shoulders
  • Relax your face
In aikido:
  • Find your center 
  • Relax your face 
  • Keep your ribs up and over 

As a teacher it's great to work with your students in this way. I think it's helpful for any student to identify two or three areas of challenge and address those areas consistently for a few weeks or even months. It can:
  • Help them filter out or prioritize the many incoming instructions, which can be particularly confusing for a beginner
  • Help them develop better internal focus and avoid external distractions
  • Foster the idea that they can be their own teachers by giving them something to think about even when you are not there
  • Last but not least, give the signal that you're paying attention to them and that you care about their progress
I think most of us as teachers tend to react to what we see at any particular moment and give instruction based on that, rather than thinking of our students in a more wholistic way. Or we may be aware of the long-term needs of our students but be ineffective at communicating them. It's good for instructors to train ourselves to be more perceptive to students' overall needs, and to refine our comments to a limited number of important areas. Asking, "What are your three things?" can benefit both student and instructor.