Tsvet and I had the pleasure of traveling to Iowa City for the Iowa City Aikikai’s 40th Anniversary Seminar. The guest instructor for Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning was Harvey Konigsberg Shihan.
(A Shihan is a senior teacher. It’s written in Japanese 師範, which literally means “master example.” I’ll most often refer to Mr. Konigsberg as Sensei in this essay, however. Sensei in its usage also means teacher, and is a more general term.)
I had not trained under Konigsberg Sensei’s direction before. Folks said that he taught this weekend differently than he teaches black-belt seminars, which is where my friends had previously trained with him. This weekend, Konigsberg Sensei slowed down his techniques so that people could actually see what he was doing.
I saw two main points in Konigsberg Sensei’s teaching this weekend. Sensei’s first point was to turn uke away from you. Uke’s purpose in grabbing you with one hand is to hit you with the other, so step one in defense is to prevent him from reaching you with that strike. When he grabs your wrist, you must turn him away from you. And you turn uke with your hips, not your arms or your shoulders. Yes, he’s got your arm, but your strength is in your hips. You have to lower and relax your shoulders, and then throw him by turning your hips.
Sensei’s second point was that you must expand when you are attacked. It is instinctive to contract your body when you are attacked. Rather than contract, however, you must expand. This is what we are trying to learn in aikido: to respond to an attack by expanding. Sensei repeatedly spread his arms wide and soft as he explained this; he also urged us as he walked among the practicing pairs, “Expand! Expand!”
I had heard these two main points before, and in the broadest sense, Konigsberg Sensei’s style resembled that of Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan’s, in whose dojo I now train. Perhaps what you see in the Shihan is the same single reality, reflected through less personal clutter than in more novice practitioners. Perhaps reality is real, and aikido is aikido, once you polish your mirror long enough to be a Shihan.
I made an effort to practice what Konigsberg Sensei invited us to learn. What I most noticed during the weekend’s seminar, however, was the diversity of the experience of aikido. Each person that steps onto the mat is surprisingly individual, unique in mind, body, spirit, experience, and even age. As a set of principles, as an art that reflects reality, aikido itself may be the same for all these individuals; perhaps, then, it is the journey of learning aikido that is unique to each person. Where is this person in her learning journey? Where is she in the course of her life, even in the course of this single day, relative to all the aspects of her life, and relative to the knowledge of aikido? How aikido will manifest through her will be unique to each moment.
Not only is the intense variability of individual people present in aikido, but also aikido is practiced in pairs. It’s sometimes practiced in larger groups, but usually in pairs. So aikido will manifest uniquely in each pair of people. This is an expansion of diversity by factorial. Let’s imagine that there were 60 people at the seminar; if everyone practiced with everyone else, then there are 60! possible manifestations of aikido in just that seminar. 60! = 8.32098711e81. If I’ve written out the zeros correctly, that’s 8, 320, 987, 110, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000.
I’m not sure there is even a name for a number that large. Perhaps it could be said as “eight billion, trillion trillion trillion, trillion trillion trillion.”
This diversity is complicated by the fact that seminars bring guests from outside the dojo. So the people in a seminar may be meeting each other for the first time. Each pair must get acquainted. They will learn about each other through each iteration of a technique; as they become familiar with each other, they will come to understand how their skills and personalities fit together, at what level they can train together, at what level they can explore the sensei’s recommendations. The aikido within a pair will change as they learn about each other.
Iowa City Aikikai is my home dojo, in the sense of “hometown” — it’s the place I originally come from. I started my aikido training there. Many of my friends still train there. Tsvet and I came to the anniversary seminar as their guests.
But it had been three years since we trained together. We had all learned, changed, in life, in aikido. Training together in the seminar was like meeting each other for the first time, except that I had memories — I had impressions of who I thought they were, and of what I thought aikido was, then.
Now, we met again. I was surprised. How unique each of my aikidoka are; how different aikido feels in each combination, each moment, of us.
Chris*, cheerful, youthful, contemplates Zen koans and calls me Sempai, warning my other partners to beware of me, beaming as he does so. And somehow, this exists; he laughs as he falls, and then springs up to fall again. I, too, can’t see how it works. Together we are surprised.
Jim’s mind misses nothing on his path to his doctorate, but he can feel that he can’t see in aikido. He leaps smiling from the edge of the known, of the seeable, dives into my technique with such energy and openness that I can help him see the turns that Konigsberg Sensei showed us. I see myself in him, but for his courage — do I ever leap like that into someone else? I think I used to, but now I am more cautious. Together, Jim and I watch our minds change shape.
Matt, strength and refinement, flows like a fine, scented oil, knows the circles like he had painted their portraits on his heart. I did the best I could with the technique assigned to us, but it came out as something different — I came in like a raptor that stuns its prey from above, my hands low before me like the bottom of my wing stroke. He hit the mat expertly and observed, “Ah, an Ikeda technique.” The circles introduce themselves to us.
John glitters cold like snow, waits sharp and sudden like your first breath of negative thirty, but his certainty is the mountain beneath the snow, a mountain of having decided. He’ll carry you if you’re tired, and he can see when you are. How many times he’s carried me, on light laughter and intricate wings that outfly the downdrafts of life. Gravity bends the fabric of space around us.
Jason stands in an inner depth that few face and survive. The whole sky lies within his arms, horizon to horizon, all the clouds and the wind and the heat and the hail; he has too all the colors of just before dark, but he hesitates, because he can feel the butterfly on the single leaf, somewhere in that expanse of land, and he knows, apprehensive, that she could change everything. Together we are both knowing and blind.
And finally, Diana Sensei stood before me. She blurred into a symbol, and I held out my hand to her, joyful. I said with my hand, like a beaming child presents a hand-woven paper basket on May Day, Look what I made for you!
She reached for me, but just ahead of her I slid away, the pull of my hand emerging just from the settling of my shoulders, my motion so small it could almost not be seen. She paused, lifted her hand, surprised, and a smile spread across her face.
Come! Come! I urged her, still holding out my hand and laughing like Time, This is Troy and Alan mixed together! It’s beautiful!
She laughed and leapt, and with just her fingers laid in mine I could invite the arcs to flow between us, a bright stream that flowed down my arm and across her shoulders, sunlight sheening on its surface, the flow so smooth the water looks solid, like slightly melted ice.
“Is Ikeda teaching you to do that?” she breathed.
“The whole school is teaching me,” I replied, smiling too.
I did my best to flow with her in my turn, and the circles came out to play like the ribbon dragons, light, one, many.
“Oh, feel that!” she sighed. “I could train with you all day.”
I pushed all sorts of things in my heart out of the way, and set her words in the center, an unforeseen gift.
“Tsvet says he can see your style emerging in me,” I replied. “So light, so flowing — just like water.”
It did feel like I made it for her, but also that I did so not quite consciously, as though our aikido was already there when we turned to face each other, between us, around us, simply us.
Perhaps Konigsberg Shihan would forgive me for how seldom I successfully practiced turning uke away from me during the seminar, and for how I wasn’t conscious of expansion or contraction. So soft-spoken you can only hear him if you’re almost on top of him, watching all the students through such deep-set blue eyes that you almost can’t see them, he once granted me a “Very good!” when he saw me toss a partner with pure hip motion; then he silently laughed with me, acknowledged me kindly, as I was sequentially and repeatedly baffled, frustrated, delighted, confused, and interested through all the rest.
Perhaps he would forgive me. A Shihan has stood for a long time in the diversity of numbers so large they are nameless; a Shihan can probably see in each person, in each pair, a glimpse of the One.
* I changed the names of these gentlemen. I thought it wasn’t fair to say so little about them — or to say so much.
~ Best wishes and thanks to all of my aikidoka in Iowa City. I am thankful for all of you!