My Experiences In Zen
Voices of Experience seems to be a much less visited section so I thought I might try to encourage a little interest again. Lately, I have been receiving many inquiries about Zen so I thought it might be of some interest to you here.
I don't want to say that Zen is related to Aikido. But I say, as most everyone well knows, that Zen has very deep relation to traditional Japanese martial arts, especially in the art of the sword and sword arts are so strongly connected to the basic structure of Aikido.
As a background note, my interest started very young when I started Kendo and Iaido and saw such a clear relationship between the sword and Zen. Unfortunately, at that time, there was very little information on Zen in books nor did I really know where to seek out good information.
Very early on in my Aikido training, I was introduced to Kisaburo Ohsawa Sensei (whom I have always admired as one of my teachers) and discovered that he was a student of Zen and it was through his strong influence on my Aikido that I pursued my Zen training further and further. It was sometime later, by some very odd coincident that I was introduced to the Reverend Bishop Kenko Yamashita who many years later, accepted me as his student and I was ordained. What was a great blessing to me was that Ohsawa Sensei's Zen master, Sawaki Kodo Roshi, was the same spiritual guide to my own teacher so I was able to pursue this lineage of instruction and wisdom even further.
In my own dojo, I do not teach Zen. I do not want to mix my personal religious beliefs with my Aikido instruction to my students out of respect for their own beliefs and backgrounds. If my students want to pursue Zen further, they are always welcome to visit some Zen training center. However, I do suppose that my Zen training does occasionally bleed through whatever I say and do. For myself, I have found both paths very compatible and complimentary but I cannot say this for you. Anyways, because I have received so much mail in regards to Zen lately, I thought I might start another line of thinking here and answer everyone's questions at once.
In 1988, my Zen master and I had the great honor to speak before the General Assembly of the United Nations. Generally, religious leaders do not speak here but we were invited in a cultural context. My teacher spoke on Zen and Peace and I spoke briefly on Aikido and Peace. I would like to relate briefly my teacher's words because they talk about wisdom in relation to our practice and to the reality of our lives. He told this odd story:
There was once a famous thief who had a son who wanted to learn the "business."
"Teach me how to become a great thief," asked his son.
The father replied, "If you want to learn the great secret of my skill then you must come with me tonight when I work!"
So the son accompanied his father and off they went in the dark of night. They climbed a wall and broke into the warehouse of a rich merchant.
"Look into that big chest over there," the father told the son and the son opened the big chest and looked inside. Suddenly, the father came up from behind and pushed his son inside the chest and latched it so there was no escape.
"See you later!" said the father and took off.
The son was so surprised and so angry at his father for such a cruel betrayal and dirty trick played on himself and he had no idea what to do.
After sitting there for a few hours, he heard some commotion outside and realized that the household had discovered the break-in and there was this great chaos all about him - he knew that he would be discovered, captured and have his head cut off.
He started to make a little scratching noise like a mouse from inside the chest. A maid opened to chest to see what it was and he suddenly jumped out and ran out the warehouse. Running around the corner of the house, he saw a well and threw a large stone in with a great splash and hid. The household thought that he might have jumped inside the well the kill himself and soon went away. When all was quiet, he slipped over the wall and made his way back to his home. Opening the door, he saw his father sitting there having some wine.
"Why did you betray me likle that!" yelled the angry son.
"You seem to be ok and have made it home safely, tell me how you escaped?" asked the father and the son related to him how he made noises like a mouse, threw a stone in the well to distract his pursuers and on and on.
"There!" replied the father, "you have mastered the secrets of being a good thief."
Hpe you liked this story. Happy Thanksgiving!
My teacher once told this story:
A traveller once stopped by an old man sitting by the side of the road and asked him, "How far to the next town?"
But the old man did not say anything and continued to stare at him blankly. The travller asked again and again but the old man seemed not to understand and remained silent without a word.
Finally, the travelled gave up in digust and began to continue onwards.
"About a half a day!" the old man suddenly cried out.
The angry traveller returned to where the old man was sitting and complained, " I asked you politely over and over but you refused to say anything, and now suddenly you shout this out. What is the matter with you?"
"Well," the old man replied, "how could I know how long it would take you until I could see the length of your step?"
Sometimes, we ask questions too prematurely. Many times we do not know the real question until we actually begin to do it for ourselves. We were in a big meeting about an upcoming project and as much as everyone asked the Bishop about this and that and what to do, he refused to say anything. Everyone became upset with him. Later, back in his private office, he told me this story and said, "How can I answer any question when I do not know the answers myself until we actually begin to throw ourselves into the work!" They really do not want my counsel or advice, only my guarantee and assurance that everything will be ok. They do not have enough confidence to get into it by themselves, too worried about profit and loss. . . . .
In Zen, and in most sects of Buddhism in general. we make "sanpai" or three prostrations to the Buddha as a form of greeting. Sometimes it is done before very illustrious priest of high rank. One day during a conversation, my teacher said, "In my whole lifetime, only one person did "sanpai" to me." It is a kind of joke to mean that he is not an illustrious priest or very deserving. He went on to say that during a visit to India to view various important landmarks in the history of Buddhism, as he was boarding a bus, he noticed that a woman was on the ground crying and in such a terrible state.
He asked the bus driver and they said that someone had stolen this woman's prayer beads while she was visiting this holy site and she was so unhappy to lose them.
Without thinking it to be a big deal, the Bishop handed over his own beads to her and boarded the bus. He then noticed that there was a big commotion at the back of the bus and apparently the woman was in the middle of the road bowing and thanking him for the wonderful and unexpected gift.
What may be not much to you, can be very important to someone else. And what is very important to someone else, might not appear very important to yourself. We always have to think very carefully about everything we do and say. . . . . Although the Bishop was not so attached to his prayer beads, it was a great gift for this poor old woman whose name he had never even found out.
One of the most often discussed topics in the Zen study group for beginning Zen students was "meditation." Actually, we do not like to refer to it as "meditation," because this word is too tainted carrying with it much too much baggage. Now, we just say, "sitting." Actually, it is simply to sit in the posture of the Buddha in meditation, but this word carries much more because it goes to the essence of the meaning of practice.
We are obliged to explain that sitting has no purpose or meaning and there is no result. You cannot achieve enlightenment through meditation nor is meditation a miraculous drug to cure your ails or a helping hand from heaven to save you.
"If there is no meaning to meditation, then why do we do it? It must have a purpose!" is the usual inquiry from students.
"No," we say, "there is nothing. . . . not even the thought of meditation!"
It is so confusing for many because "logically," we do something to achieve a purpose or goal. This is what we call our "calculating mind." the mind which figures our profit and loss, why and why not.
One Zen master said, "The only way to do Zen is to simply like doing zazen." If you do it for a purpose or goal, you will most likely be discouraged or quit."
I suppose it is like my friend of the other day who "fell in love." I don't know why because it doesn't seem like a match at all but he is in love and that is all there is to it!"
In Aikido, I find that those who come in with very specific goals usually get discouraged quickly and those who practice Aikido just for the love of the art, continue on and on. In addition, those who do not make high expectation of themselves but want to go at their own pace in their own time, seem to last the longest too. I think it is here where we can find the secret to our Aikido practice, just simply practice because we love to practice and that is all. . . . ..
Thank you for the stories. I'm enjoying them.
Clark Sensei: Many thanks and best wishes!
Quite a few years ago, one student approached me and said that he wanted to begin Zen sitting so I sent to him to the nearby Zen temple telling him to go there and ask to join their Zen sitting group. A few days later, in practice, he didn't say anything so I asked how he liked joining their group.
He said, "I didn't like it at all. When I said I was interested in Zen sitting, he was very nice. But when I told him that I also studied Aikido, he frowned and said that Aikido was no good and that I should quit. I was very angry and insulted at his words so I just left and never joined them.
I told my student that this is very odd behavior and that I will go to the temple and ask the same question and see what happens. I knew there was one new priest there recently but I didn't have the chance to meet him yet.
I went and met the new priest and also told him, "I want to join your Zen study group, I practice Aikido in the nearby dojo."
He said exactly the same thing, "Aikido is no good, you better quit and just do Zen sitting!"
I smiled at him and said, "Ok, I will go back and quit Aikido at once."
"No, no!" the priest cried out, "don't quit! I was just kidding you. Usually, when I meet martial artists, they are very arrogant so I just wanted to test your mind! I apologize!"
After we introduced each other, we began to laugh. It is such a small world. This new priest was also formerly an Aikido teacher, 3rd Dan, and we must have met many years ago at some time. He was first called to the Boston area to teach Aikido on the recommnedation of N. Tamura Sensei of France to the Macrobiotic Institute in those days. But after a while when this young priest returned to Japan on personal business, he met a Zen priest and quickly entered a temple where he stayed for several years in training. In order to replace him, Tamura Sensei recommended the wonderful, more highly qualified M. Kanai Sensei who still leads this area today. . . . . I met Kanai Sensei in 1968 while I was going to school in Cambridge. Such a small world. . . . . .
In Zen, often such dialogues take place. It is always easy to get offended if we hold too much pride within ourselves or too rigid in our thinking, usually we are just challenging each other's practice or level of training. Someone once said that asking a Zen master a question is like jumping on a sleeping tiger's back. Easy to get on, but hard to escape after!
I received this question fromone of the members here on December 3 and received permission to reprinted it here with my reply:
I am an admirer of your articles. It is good to hear regularly from an
experienced sensei (aside from my own instructor). This is the first time I've
I am curious: in a recent story, you described going over to a temple and, when
told you needed to quit aikido first, you readily agreed and turned to leave.
What was going through your mind then? I imagine you were not serious about
quitting aikido. Did you say that just to avoid a problem, or to prompt him to
begin to argue his side, etc.? I ask because it seems a fairly radical move.
Thank you! -Paul Sanderson-Cimino
My Reply: I knew from the beginning he was just testing me. . . . "Agreeing" to his conditions meant politely that I am "open" to anything in order to learn from him. Traditionally, this is a way to show sincerity. Because we both come from the same tradition and understand this "form," such dialogues can take place. . . . Like my student who didn't know what was going on or to a person who is to full of himself or over-confident, one would be immediately be offended and lose one's temper. . . . and this would mean a lack of focus or lack of openess to learn. . . . . . . and, as in olden times, the student would be turned away. This is why they say in olden times, when one is going to learn from a teacher, one must become like a empty teacup or blank piece of paper. . . . . A good teacher can see this in a student in just a few words. Today, we look at a lot of these teachings too literally or too superficially and often forget that there is a subtle transmission of knowledge here in our tradition of martial arts and Zen, etc. . . . . . . . . These traditional methods of learning are extremely interesting, aren't they? Does these answer your question? Maybe we should share this on the thread? I wonder if others have that same question as yourself - I never thought of the point you made. . . . .very good!
PS: If this teacher actually thought I was going to quit Aikido so easily or make his own Zen so all-important, I would instantly realize that he is a fool and leave immediately! Nothing to learn here!
Aikido Center of Los Angeles,
Rev. Kensho Furuya
I wrote this for my students and I thought I might share it with you. It is a kind of funny, odd story:
Baka Ni Nare! (Be A Fool!)
In today's world, we pride ourselves on how much we know and how much we can know by just entering the web and hitting a few buttons. Of course, it is a virtue to be well-informed and to be smart. No one wants to be called, "stupid." For some, this is the worse thing that could happen!
In traditional, old stye training, there is a phrase I heard very often. For a long time, I did not understand or appreciate it. In fact, I thought it was kind of silly and unreasonable. As the years pass and I have much more experience teaching, I am beginning to realize the wisdom of such words and how important they are to apply to one's Life.
Maybe I was too smart for my own good, I don't know. . . . I never thought so myself. I often heard, "Baka ni nare!" Or, "Become a fool!" It doesn't really mean to be stupid or lazy or silly. More than this, it means "Don't be so smart!" In English, I think we say, "Don't be such a smart ass." Or "Too smart for your own good!" In practice, especially, there is great wisdom in this - you must be surprised that I say this! I heard this often in Zen and very often in the dojo.
The person who just comes for practice and enjoys practice for the practice itself always does very well in the long run. The student who thinks he has all the answers, or thinks that he is smarter than others is the one who always gets himself into trouble. Not into trouble so much with others, but with himself.
To become stupid means ultimately to become "pure," or "naive." It is important to practice with a pure heart - this is the meaning of "shoshin" or "beginner's mind." We all know, I think, that as soon as we think as have all the answers, we are already in deep trouble! As much as we know this, we still fall so easily into this old trap.
I know students who suffer so much because they think they have all the answers and prove themselves wrong or who think there is an answer to everything and cannot find the answer they want. For many things, there is no answer. Finally, you will discover everything you need to know in practice as your practice, no where else. In Aikido practice, you already have all the answers - it is not to grab at them, it is to realize them. . . . . Many thanks,
I noticed that a few people here are asking about bowing. I think we usually interpret it as a greeting or sign of respect or paying homage to someone or something. In our Zen practice, we interpret it as part of our spiritual training. It is not simply to go through the motions, but it is important to bow with the proper frame of mind.
We often teach new students that bowing is a way to purify the mind by releasing our egos.
Some interpret bowing as a way to recognize the Buddha-Nature in the other person. In this regards, in Zen thought, all living, sentient beings already have the Buddha-nature or seed of enlightenment from the beginning. When we bow to a person, we recognize his enlightenment and Buddha-hood. The purpose of training is to come to this realization within one's self or to refine this knowledge.
Of course, in Japanese culture, one sees bowing everywhere. Today, it is much less, I think, but several decades ago, we even see Japanese bowing to the telephone or to the other person while speaking on the telephone. I always thought it was the natural thing to do until a friend of mine started to laugh at me. I didn't know what was wrong until he pointed out that while I was on the phone, I was actually bowing several times to the other's conversation. After that, I became very self-conscious, because I thought it was pretty funny too! Why should I bow when the other person can't even see me? Bowing is not just a sign of respect but it is a way to say, "thank you" and bowing on the phone only means that I am thanking the other person. To show my appreciation and gratitude, he can be there or not.
Bowing means to recognize the "worth" of the other person. In the tea ceremony, one bows to the cup of tea, in appreciation of the tea and to say "thank you" to the tea itself. The tea gives up its "life" so I can enjoy a drink, so I should say "thank you" to the tea. In Japanese culture, it makes sense to me. If I look at it through my Western mind, I think, "how odd!" why we can bow to an inanimate object in Japanese culture is the old idea of "ikasu" or "give life to everything." It is an old idea of giving our energy or spirit to everything we come in contact with.
In Japanese feudal culture, bowing is looked upon as a symbol of the vertical hierarchy. If we look at bowing from the standpoint of Japanese culture and the "spiritual" life contained within, the act of bowing is much more refined and profound.
For O'Sensei, I imagine that more than just a sign of respect and social custom, I think bowing was part of his spiritual practice. . . . .
Just as people determine a person by the way he shakes hands with you. In Japan, we can tell the person's character by the way he bows. When we bow to each other, before and after practice and to O'Sensei, it should always be done with great dignity and beauty. Finally, we must always bow with a very strong "ki" or energy because when we bow to the other person, we give him a bit of our spirit.
Many apologies for all the commotion I have caused. Recently in the "General" forun someone asked the question about "why do they clap in front of the kamiza." It appeared from reading the responses that he was not getting the appropriate information, so I explained the custom and why they did this practice. It was not that I was trying to convert anyone to another religion nor was I advocating or insisting upon this practice in Aikido but merely sharing information which I have come upon in my own curiousity in this unusual custom. For some reason which I still do not understand clearly, many people misinterpreted my response and became very angry and offended. I was quite surprised.
As I mentioned several times, we do not clap in my own dojo in the opening and closing bow, although there are many Aikido dojos who do around the world. In this case, I was only sharing information without any other intention so I hope I have made my self clear. It is only information which you can take or leave. If this subject has no interest for you, please ignore it. If you are interested in this custom of clapping, I hope I have provided some interesting bits of information of why they do it. Largely, my interest in only scholarly because in Japan, it is a widely practiced custom in Shinto and the meaning behind it is rather interesting to me in my study of world religions. It is purely academic for me. Please keep in mind that it is only a belief-system of a particular culture and society is and really not subject to scientific investigation. Again, I say that it is only what some people believe in and not something I am advocating or insisting upon in Aikido.
I have also mentioned a relation of Zen to the traditional Japanese martial arts and this has caused a big ruckus too and some are strongly insisted that there is none. This is fine. If someone feels that way and interprets his practice that way, it is his right and priviledge and free will to do so and has nothing to do with me. I practice in a different way as I was trained and that is all. I do not insist that my way is right or better or whatever, it is simply the way I practice, understand my practice and choose to practice. If people feel differently or have a contrary point of view, I see nothing wrong with this at all, not at all. I don't feel like I need to defend myself nor do I insist my way is right, I repeat again. I also do not feel a need to condemn others simply because their views are different from mine. I certainly do not want to change or insist on changing another person's point of view as well. I only hope and pray that although each person may have a different view of his practice, we can still get along harmoniously together on the web and still exchange friendly discourse in a polite and pleasant way. Maybe I am asking too much?
This reminds of an old Chinese story called the "Parable of the Peach." An emperor in ancient China had a favorite minister who was very wise and a tremendous helto running the country. Once in the imperial garden, the minister took a peach and bit into it and handed it to the emperor saying, "What a delicious peach, please try some!" The emperor praised the minister saying how generous he was to share this delicious peach.
When the minister's mother had taken ill, the minister jumped into the emperor's personal coach and took off to see her. The emperor only praised the minister on his filial piety and loyalty to his mother.
The other ministers became very jealous of this favored mnister who seemed like he could do no wrong and plotted against him. Through lies and intrigue, they finally turned the emperor's attitude against the minister. Enraged the emperor screamed, "How dare this minister eat an imperial peach and hand such a dirty thing to me. How dare he use the imperial coach without my permission!" The emperor had the ministers legs cut off for using his coach and he was finally tortured to death for eating the emperor's peach.
We decide so much by how we think. If we like a person, it seems like they can do no wrong. But, in a split second, we can change our attitude and suddenly the same good friend can appear as an evil traitor. This is just human nature.
I thought you might enjoy this essay: Sometimes The Same Is Not The Same, Different Is Not So Different:
In practice, it is easy to make conclusions by trying to lump things together because they appear to be similar and separating others because they appear different.
I was teaching a student one day, correcting his posture and hands for irimi-nage. "Both hands are extended with power projecting forward in the throw," I said and began to walk away.
"Oh," he said, "you mean like looking at the back of your hands?"
"No," I said, "like extending your power forward just as I said."
Although it might appear the same, a different name would give this a different meaning - meaning, in this case, an incorrect direction and usage of one's power. Extending one's power forward and looking at the back of one's hands - may appear the same on the outside, but it is not the same thing at all in practice.
Here is an example of two things which may appear to be totally unrelated but, in actuality, are very closely connected. Years ago, a visiting Zen priest once gave this talk which I like very much:
There was a small coastal village in Japan that prospered greatly by harvesting a delicious variety of shrimp which flourished in their little bay. The farming of this shrimp had gone on for generations of fishermen in this village and they all prospered and lived very well marketing this product.
One year, suddenly all of the shrimp had disappeared. No one knew why they had gone and the village fell into very bad times. It was really a big mystery because these shrimp had been here for so many hundreds of years.
Finally, a team of scientists from a nearby university were brought in to figure out this problem. After much research, the scientists found that the shrimp flourished on a type of plankton which only grew in these local waters. This plankton grew found nutrients and minerals which washed down into the sea from a nearby mountain.
A year previously, the village cut down all the trees on the mountain to sell the valuable wood for profit. With the trees gone, the soil lost its richness and none of this washed into the sea with the rains. Without this natural wash, the plankton did not grow and the shrimp disappeared.
No one ever imagined that trees growing on the top of a mountain had such a strong connection with tiny little shrimp at the bottom of the ocean. . . . .
Often in practice, things are strongly connected but it is not easy to see how they are connected until we advance in our training and experience. In the same way, things may look the same, but not be the same at all. The main point is to focus on practice and try to understand that everything is connected whether we can understand it easily or not.
Yann Golanski emailed me this wonderful story:
A man and his son go to the market to sell a donkey.
They pass some travelers who laught at them. "How stupid, they are both walking and have a donkey! Why don't they ride it?" Ashamed, the son asks his father to ride the donkey.
They pass another group of travelers who get angry at them. "Look at this cruel father! He sits his arse on the ase and makes his son walk. How cruel!". Ashamed, the father and son swap places.
They pass yet another group of travelers who get even more angry at them. "What an ugratefull son! He sits on his donkey whereas his old father walks in the dirt! Such disrespect!". Ashamed once more, father and son decide to ride togather.
They pass a last group of travelers who get angry as well. "Look at this poor donkey forced to carry those two fit people on his back. What a way to treat an animal!". Ashamed, the father and son do not kow what to do... How can they please everyone?
I certainly always enjoy your stories, explanations and posts. Keep posting sensei.
Domo agigato gozamaishita.
My intention in coming into this website was to share some little bits of information. But as you can see, this did not work out very well and so many people are so offended. I guess I am surprised and shocked at how hurtful people can be, especially in the name of Aikido. Even with Aikido, I see that people have not changed much. My intention was only to share my experiences and knowledge and that is all. Anyways, and I really don't know why, my intentions have been misunderstand and there doesn't seem much I can do about this so this is my last imput here. Just a few of you have been very nice to me and to those people I would like to express my thanks. Anyways, best wishes to all,
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