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Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void
Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void
by Niall Matthews
Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void

Zen by Sergio/Pulsarin

The karesansui (dry landscape) rock garden in the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, Japan, contains 15 seemingly randomly placed rocks in a sea of raked gravel. A study published in Nature of the visual of this oddly satisfying composition revealed a clear structure to the ‘empty' space of the garden. Thus, the artist was arranging space, not objects. In doing so, they removed a lens from the viewer. Unwittingly unburdened of the ‘focus on the form' prism, the viewer is relieved, calmed.
Angus Thomson, www.irrationalscientist.com

If we put this in terms of your own martial art, the mind is not detained by the hand that brandishes the sword. Completely oblivious to the hand that wields the sword, one strikes and cuts his opponent down. He does not put his mind in his adversary. The opponent is Emptiness. I am Emptiness. The hand that holds the sword, the sword itself, is emptiness. Understand this, but do not let your mind be taken by Emptiness.
Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind

In Chuang-tzu's book of Chi-hoku-yu (荘子 知北遊篇), it is written, "There is nowhere that Tao is not. It is everywhere." The entire universe is Tao, and it is ki that gives birth and life to all the phenomena in the universe. It is also said that in order to know that ki and the flow of ki, one must know Tao. It appears that this is the origin of the words, Seeking Tao, and Mastering Tao. Lao-tzu referred to one who has mastered Tao as mu-i-shi-zen (無為自然, natural and unaffected). Chuang-tzu interpreted this as unlimited emptiness or absolute nothingness. When one grasps and masters the flow of ki of all the phenomena in the universe as it is, one is in the state of mu-i-shi-zen and absolute nothingness. To strive to attain such a state is a true way of life for humans. This is what Taoism teaches.
Seishiro Endo, Aikido 8 dan

Some say existence like a Pirouot
And Pirouette, forever in one place,
Stands still and dances, but it runs away;
It seriously, sadly, runs away
To fill the abyss's void with emptiness.
Robert Frost, West-running Brook

The moment we try to fix our attention upon consciousness and to see what, distinctly, it is, it seems to vanish: it seems as if we had before us a mere emptiness. When we try to introspect the sensation of blue, all we can see is the blue; the other element is as if it were diaphanous. Yet it can be distinguished if we look attentively enough, and know that there is something to look for.
George Edward Moore, The Refutation of Idealism

There are moments of existence when time and space are more profound, and the awareness of existence is immensely heightened.
Charles Baudelaire, My Heart Laid Bare

Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase, Form is emptiness. That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase, Emptiness is form. One should not think that these are two separate things.
Tsunetomo Yamamoto, The Hagakure

Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form. Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form.
The Heart Sutra

What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man's knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.
Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of the Void
Emptiness. Nothingness. The void. Maybe these ideas are useful in the martial arts. Maybe not. That depends on you.

But as well as the metaphysical concepts there are practical ways we can use emptiness.

Ma ai
First there is ma ai. That is the distancing. Again the concept of space. The critical distance between us and an opponent.

The ma ai changes depending on the circumstances. The opponent's height and reach, for example. If the opponent has a weapon or not. What the weapon is.

We always have to control the ma ai. To set a correct ma ai. We shouldn't let the attacker choose a ma ai for us.

In practice it is sometimes good to use ma ai which feel uncomfortable. The perfect ma ai is at the edge of being dangerously close.

There is another point about this critical distance. It is self-evident for people who train in weapons or in striking martial arts. It is a concept which has important tactical points about seizing and keeping the initiative. If we are close enough to strike the opponent we are close enough to be hit. That applies in boxing where a mistake could be painful. And it applies in the sword where a mistake could be fatal.

So we have the space. The gap. If there is a chance that we will be attacked we have to close that gap. In aikido we use irimi. Entering.

In The Book of Five Rings Miyamoto Musashi talks about the body strike and entering into the opponent's space.

By mi no atari - body strike - is meant to push one's way into the space of the opponent and to hit into the body of the opponent.
If the attack is fast the irimi can become almost a negative irimi. We don't have to enter physically because the attacker does the work for us. We absorb the attack. Sucking it in and neutralizing it.

When we enter, we should just enter.

As well as emptiness in space - in three dimensions - there can be emptiness in time too. Time stops. We fill the emptiness. It is the same irimi. Just enter.

I'll finish with another quote from Miyamoto Musashi from The Book of the Void.

To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior you must study fully other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the Way of the warrior. With your spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.

Links and pdf downloads
The Hagakure

The Heart Sutra

The Book of Five Rings

The Book of Five Rings

Robert Frost, West-running Brook

George Edward Moore, The Refutation of Idealism

Charles Baudelaire, My Heart Laid Bare, translated by Christopher Isherwood
Squibs, XVII

Interview with Seishiro Endo, Aikido 8 dan

Angus Thomson's blog

my blog on aikiweb | my blog on wordpress

© niall matthews 2012
Niall Matthews lives with his family in Japan. He teaches aikibudo and community self-defence courses and has taught budo for twenty-five years. He was the senior deshi of Kinjo Asoh Sensei, 7 dan Aikikai. He was the exclusive uke of Sadateru Arikawa Sensei, 9 dan Aikikai, at the hombu dojo in Tokyo for thirteen years until Arikawa Sensei's death in 2003. He has trained in several other martial arts to complement his aikido training, including judo (he has 4 dan from the Kodokan in Tokyo), kenjutsu (for about ten years) and karate (for about three years). He originally went to Japan as a staff member of the EU almost thirty years ago. He received 5 dan from Arikawa Sensei in 1995. This 5 dan is the last aikido dan he will receive in his life. His dojo is called Aikibudo Kokkijuku 合気武道克輝塾. Arikawa Sensei personally gave him the character for ki in kokki. It is the same character as teru in Sadateru - not the normal spelling of kokki 克己. It means you make your life shining and clear yourself.
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Old 07-24-2012, 04:06 PM   #2
graham christian
Dojo: golden center aikido-highgate
Location: london
Join Date: Oct 2010
Posts: 2,697
Re: Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void

Thanks. This is more like it for me. These are the types of views I adhere to in order to gain the true essence of Aikido.

Just reading such things makes me feel good.

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Old 08-03-2012, 12:09 PM   #3
R.A. Robertson
Dojo: Still Point Aikido Center
Location: Austin, TX, USA
Join Date: Jul 2002
Posts: 346
Re: Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void

O Sensei reportedly said something along the lines of "Unless you embrace the Void, you cannot do aikido."

Once I came to an understanding of what this means, it has made all the difference.

Nice column, as always.
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Old 08-06-2012, 07:21 AM   #4
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Join Date: Apr 2010
Posts: 394
Re: Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void

Thanks Graham.

And thank you too, Ross. Great quote and cool concept.

we can make our minds so like still water, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life
w b yeats

aikiweb blog|wordpress blog
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Old 08-06-2012, 08:12 AM   #5
dps's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2006
Posts: 2,415
Re: Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void

You don't live in the walls, floors or ceilings of your house or apartment, you live in the voids between them.

"The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes ah, that is where the art resides."

Artur Schnabel (Musician)

"A pause is not a break in the dance, it is THE dance itself."
Tom Goldhand, Dancer

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Old 08-28-2012, 09:35 AM   #6
  AikiWeb Forums Contributing Member
niall's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2010
Posts: 394
Re: Emptiness, Space, Ma ai, Irimi, and the True Void

Thanks David. Those are great quotes.

we can make our minds so like still water, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life
w b yeats

aikiweb blog|wordpress blog
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