When new students showed up in Aikido class, one of Sensei’s favorite questions was, “What have you come here to learn?”
When Sensei asked such a question, you could be sure he wasn’t going to accept the first answer someone gave. I was intrigued to see that no one seemed to have a reply that was well thought out. Myself included!
The longer I studied Aikido the more I felt Sensei’s question was a kind of Zen koan, a paradoxical question designed to show the inadequacy of logical thinking. When he asked this question, a common scenario went like this:
“Why are you here to learn?”
“I’m here to learn Aikido.”
“Oh,” sensei would reply. “And what is Aikido?”
“Aikido is a martial art,” the student would say.
“Ah, and what is a martial art?” Sensei would ask.
“A martial art teaches self-defense,” the student would reply.
“Well, if your aim is to learn self defense, you could spend your time much more effectively studying Judo or Karate,” Sensei would respond. “Perhaps you’re in the wrong dojo.”
I rarely raised my hand when Sensei asked questions, but once when he asked why we were sitting there in his dojo, I raised my hand and replied in a clear voice, “I don’t know.”
“Ah,” sensei said. “Finally someone with an honest answer!”
“If you don’t know why you’re here, why waste your time?” he asked.
“Well,” I replied, “studying Aikido helps me understand that a lot of what I think I know doesn’t hold up when put to the test. And a lot of what I do in life, I have no idea why I do it. Aikido is a mirror that helps me look at myself and realize my inadequacies as well as my strengths.”
Sensei smiled and said, “Not a bad answer. It’s good to realize there’s so much you don’t know, as long as you’re confident in your ability to learn.”
“Everyone comes to class wanting something,” Sensei said. “But few students come with the idea of giving. When you’re filled with wanting, you feel empty inside and don’t want to give away the little you sense you have.
“A hungry man hoards what is his and doesn’t share it with others. On the other hand, if you’re already feeling full from all the knowledge you have, you won’t have the hunger to learn something new.”
Sensei pointed to a student who often came to class and said, “You tend to focus on wanting to perfect your technique, and you wind up losing sight of why you’re here. If you were to focus instead on why you’re here, your technique would likely suffer, and you’d wind up with more questions than answers. Are you comfortable with not knowing?”
After a brief pause, he continued, “You need to pay attention while understanding that you won’t know exactly what to pay attention to until after you’ve found it.”
Sensei looked at another student and said, “When you stop fighting with yourself, you’ll realize you already have everything you need. Already having everything you need, you’ll be much more willing to give to others. The more you give, the less there will be to defend.
“If you get to the point where you have nothing to defend, you’ll discover no one wants to attack you. Once you’ve experienced this, your study of Aikido will take on a very different importance. Then you’ll be ready to take your learning to a new depth of self-discovery.”
“You see,” sensei said, “the reason I ask these questions and say the things I do is that your reason for being here determines what you will learn and who you will become. ”