Ma'ai, an Aiki perspective
Ma, in Japanese, refers to a "space, an interval" between objects. As commonly used in martial arts, it refers to the "space" between individuals, that can determine the outcome of an encounter. The term used is "Ma-ai".
No one has the right to invade the personal space of another without permission. This right lies at the very heart of any sense of security, and the right to act independently for the martial artist. No experienced or accomplished individual in any art form, would or should give this right up without just or worthy cause. Vulnerability is fine. Being defenseless is not.
One aspect of proper ma-ai refers to the inner space that each individual requires for security, privacy, peace of mind, and the freedom to think and act independently for him/herself. This right is inviolate, and must be defended with every ounce of vigor and practiced preparation, whenever attacked.
Another aspect of proper ma-ai may refer to the outer space required by the individual to move, encounter and interact with the environment surrounding the individual, hopefully without invading the ma-ai of others in the process. This is the more troublesome of the two examples, as the boundaries are quite often blurred, and ill defined. Being social animals, we make many seemingly innocent compromises that we would do well to reconsider, and to redo.
In aikido training, this respect for personal and interpersonal "ma-ai", is an ongoing study, and a non negotiable responsibility to maintain, understand and respect by all in training. It is the instructor who must set the proper tone, with the assistant instructors, seniors, and every student playing their part to ensure that this essential practice is faithfully carried out with mutual respect and honor.
The key advantage of any martial artist faced with confrontation, is to recognize the ma-ai for both himself and his opponent, and to preserve his own while disrupting that of the opponent. Once successfully controlling ma-ai, the ability to include and apply appropriate kuzushi, tsukuri and kake are greatly enhanced. This refers to balance taking, creating the opportunity for entering, and the follow through with proper technique, and zanshin.
I recall stories from my past, which serve to remind and guide me in my understanding of, and the proper accomplishment of training goals. Many such stories involve the great "kensei", the "sword saint" Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi fought over 60 battles or contests on his path of Musha Shugyo.
Shisido Baiken was an expert with kusari gama, a combination of a ball and chain, attached to a reaping sickle of lethal capabilities. Musashi recognized the problem of proper ma-ai, immediately drawing not one, but both swords as he approached his enemy. Baiken successfully trapped Musashi's long sword, but was dispatched when Musashi entered his ma-ai with his short sword.
Another anecdote of sorts was Musashi's supposed encounter with the great and legendary Yagyu Munenori, referred to in history as "Tajima no Kami", a minor daimyo, and sword instructor to the Shogun, Tokugawas Ieyasu.
As Yagyu was tending to his garden, he was interrupted by a servant, announcing that a shugyosha was at the gate, requesting a match. The great master sighed, and gave a cut flower to the servant to present to this individual, with his regrets that he was now retired, and accepted no more matches as before. Of course, this shugyosha was Miyamoto Musashi, who humbly accepted both the gesture, and the gift of the flower. Upon examining how amazingly fine the cut on the stem was, he remarked, " I could not hope to conquer the one who cut this flower anyway, so I will best be on my way.".
Both of these serve as examples of how the concept of proper ma-ai is understood and applied. One involved action; the other forestalled it.
In our ongoing training in Aikido, and/or any other art form of choice, the imperative need to recognize, apply and to learn from proper ma-ai is clear. Such understanding can lead to both wise withdrawal and defense, as well as to taking the initiative to accomplish our goals.
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