What Is The Purpose of Practice?

by Ryugan

 

What is the meaning of our practice? Why are we here and what is possible for us here? And how may we approach this practice?

The training paths of Aikido (with weapons), Iaido, Zen and Misogi all point toward a deeper unity of self. It could be said that as we are now, we are incomplete but have the possibility to move toward completion. Whether one views this as a Fall from being united with the Higher, living in delusion regarding the self, or unable to see Reality correctly, is not too important. What is essential is to uncover our path towards who we really are. For this, in relation to what we are practicing here, there are three threads woven together, inseparable, and at the same time unique. These threads are the three aspects of our practice.

The first thread is that of self study, which propels one to join the dojo in the first place. How do we understand our bodies in this martial context, in this movement with others — giving, receiving, harmonizing with force(s)? Do we understand our emotions? Specifically, how they attempt to take us away from the present moment, or contrarily, how they can add to us being more present? And finally, how can our minds soften — the inner dialogue being dropped — the mind instead grasping angles, possibilities? With regard to these questions, we have the potential to see how we are on the mat and to see what is lacking as well. This can inspire us to stay after class working on movements, thinking about why each technique works or does not work efficiently. It can inspire us to question how we are in the midst of our day. The understanding of not being a certain way on the mat, or outside of the dojo, is a kind of food for our further study.

At one point we see that the tendency to be overly concerned with ourselves in practice is limiting. The second thread, therefore, is practicing with others — essentially what is done in each and every class. However, do we really notice our partner’s body and what is going on with them during the encounter — her or his limitations physically, emotionally and mentally? Do we see how either our force given is being harmonized with (or not); do we see how the force they are giving us is received (or not)? How do we see ourselves in relation to our partner? Do we even take her/him into account, or are we just practicing for ourselves? Even though we are both sweating, exerting ourselves, does our partner really even exist for us? This practice extends beyond the mat, when working together in samu, and interacting with others in our daily life. We have a tendency to think that working with others is naturally easy, and often do not take into account the different natures of personalities and egos. All this is material for each person to work with — grinding, like two stones against one another, to produce some energy that could help transform each person.

The third thread is that of working for the larger community, helping to preserve the practice and spread the teaching. At this level each person seeks to perpetuate the Way (the Tao, or Do). In this stage, one sees that the practice cannot be maintained only with the efforts of a few individuals. One has a sense of gratitude for what one has received and helps to give back to her/his teacher(s) and community. This practice is sometimes called karmic yoga — essentially one is doing something without receiving benefit for oneself. This may take the practical forms of: helping to support seminars and visiting teachers wherein a new level of practice is being brought, doing work for the dojo that ensures our community lasts and helps to attract new practitioners to support the Way, and making donations that help to spur students in additional training.

Each thread is woven together: the need for one to go further in one’s development leads one to a teacher, which leads one to practice with others, thereby resulting in a community following a Do (a Way) that must be cared for and protected. Each thread could be likened to the Buddhist model of Buddha, Sangha, and Dharma. The thread of self study is the Buddha, who strove to penetrate the truth and dispel his illusions. The second thread of working with others is the Sangha, the sacred community which must be preserved and cared for and is made up of fellow seekers on the Way. The last thread is Dharma, or the Tao, Do, Way. The Way is preserved by establishing a place for it, both internally and externally. If guarded and followed it will flourish.

These three threads form one. Intertwined, they are all necessary to form the strength for one rope. Without practice in each area, something is fundamentally missing in our training. Of course, each area overlaps and interpenetrates the other: it is not simply a logical progression from one level or thread to the next. And yet, it is usual that we begin seeking something just for ourselves, and then if we train long enough we begin to see the necessity of giving back to the community and beyond. Training one, three or even seven years is not enough — it is really only a beginning. As the famous maxim goes in Japan: after thirty years of training, train thirty more. What is disheartening is that most people do not stay with the art long enough to see the necessity and importance of working with others, and working to preserve the wonderful arts passed down to us.

A friend related to me two types of monasteries on Mt. Athos, in Greece: the first, where everything is given, dictated, and followed precisely; the second, where there is a bare schedule, and freedom is given for each individual to pursue what may help him transform himself at a precise moment. My ideal for the dojo is the latter model, which presents a certain problem. Each person must have a certain inner level so as not to need to be told what is necessary. The monastery/dojo in the latter model runs well precisely because the inhabitants do not need to be spurred. It’s a concept that works only when each person demands the very best from themselves. At this point the teacher is really only a brother on the path, albeit one who has been on the path longer, but still a brother. In this ideal, all three threads are present: an urgency for self study and development, concern and interest in others, and an understanding of the need to preserve a form which may hold the essence of awakening. It is my sincere hope the dojo can move toward this…