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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > April, 2006 - Affection and Affectation
by Ross Robertson

Affection and Affectation by Ross Robertson


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An instructor of aikido, perhaps after having read one too many zen fables, decided one day to take his students on a small field trip. They left their dojo and went to a nearby park. Leading the small group through the woods and along the meandering trail, they arrived at a pleasant spot beside a small brook. The instructor invited the students to make themselves comfortable, and directed their attention to a large, smooth rock in the middle of the creek.

After a time, the sensei said to the students, "Consider the rock and the water. Who can tell me where is the aiki?"

A young student, eager to please, said "The water best represents the spirit of aiki. It moves around the obstacle effortlessly, and continues on its natural path uninterrupted." There were some nods of assent, as if the obvious had been stated.

"Good," said the instructor. Do we all agree then? he asked Socratically.

A woman said, "I don't think the rock is any less aiki. It simply sits imperturbably -- it has no mind to interfere with the water. I think it represents calmness in the midst of chaos. Over time, it even adapts its shape to ease the passage of water around it. I think that is very aiki."

"Yeah, but eventually the water will wear the rock down to sand," said a large guy, the same one who was often difficult for the woman to work with. "This creek will be here long after that rock is gone. Maybe it will even turn into a big river as it deepens its channel."

An argument broke out among the students. Meanwhile, the less vocal among them had their own thoughts. The one who is always worried about getting his money's worth was thinking "I know were the aiki is... it's back in the dojo where we all should be right now." Another sat with a knowing smile at all the noise and ruckus. "Aiki is everywhere, all around us, and in all things."

In defense of the woman's point of view, another man said, "But after the rock has turned to sand, it becomes one with the river (for by now it had become a river in everyone's minds)." The sand will wind up in the sea, and maybe will turn into coral or seashell. The rock becomes life. Isn't that aiki?"

The discussion then wandered into the subject of the Great Ocean, Mother of all Life, and some of the students (they had read Lao Tzu) asserted that this proved that water is still the best example in nature of aiki. Others objected that life is made up of matter, and it is as containers that organisms are able to live. Eventually the moderates broke in, sure that they were sounding the voice of reason. "The universe is both form and formlessness. Aiki is in both. Each is aiki."

The instructor said nothing, but observed that the water ran roughly here and there, and collected in still pools elsewhere. After some time, the argument seemed to have exhausted itself.

Finally, one of the senior students said, "I don't think either the rock or the water are aiki. I think aiki only exists between them, where they meet. A thing can't be aiki or not aiki, only relationships can be aiki."

By now everyone was too tired to argue, and besides, the instructor didn't say anything to correct the senior student. They picked themselves up and headed back toward the dojo. A light rain had begun.

On the way back, the instructor fell in beside the senior student. "So, if it's about relationships, what is your relationship with the rock and the water?" The student thought about it for a while, and said, "Both the rock and the water are now in my mind, and I'm different because of it. But I don't think my mind has had any effect on the creek. The stone and the water affect each other, and together they have affected me. But I haven't affected them."

At the door of the dojo, they let everyone else pass on through. The instructor took his place last in line, and motioned the senior student through the door. He smiled noncommittally at her, and made no comment. If only she knew how the world is always affected by her presence, he mused. He was suddenly filled with the sweet melancholy of the rain, of distance, of teaching, and impossibilities.

As she went on in to join the others, she turned, smiled affectionately, and shrugged.

"I guess some things are real even if we can't always locate them."

The water fell from the hard roof, ran through the gutters, and seeped into tiny cracks in the moistened tarmac. Dewdrops beaded on the skin of the instructor as he scurried inside. On the mat, sweat leaked through pores, soaked into the threads of gi cloth, and through the lining of lungs of students practicing kokyu-ho.

Not too far away, a stone was disappearing beneath the rising waters.


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