先 SEN

When I first heard Sensei talk about sensen-no-sen, sen-no-sen, and go-no-sen I thought the concept had to do with sen (線, meaning “line”) in relationship to timing (sen, written 先, also means “before”). But the more I heard the term used in the context of practice and Sensei’s demonstration on the mat, the more I got confused—how does “line” come into play? Increasingly, it appeared the concept was much more about timing than anything. Then, several years ago, I finally got around to reading Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings for the first time, and the proverbial scales fell off my eyes. In the Fire section, Musashi writes about the “Three Sens (先).” I realized that, in every instance in the phrase, sen means before or forwardness (先々の先(sen-sen-no-sen) 先の先(sen-no-sen) 後の先(go-no-sen), note how の先is in all). While he used slightly different terminology than ours, the concept was the same.[1] The Three Sens are really about one thing: forwardness.


It suddenly made sense when I thought about timing in regard to forwardness. In each timing, 1) sen-sen (before), 2) sen (simultaneous), and 3) go (after), the constant is one’s own forwardness (the latter sen)—forwardness in different circumstances. On the mat, the concept might be understood as 1) forwardness upon sensing the partner’s intent to come into my space, 2) forwardness as the partner enters my space, and 3) forwardness after the partner has entered my space. While the external circumstances (what the partner is doing) may vary, my spirit, intent, and physical attitude are always forward. George Lyons sensei often uses the term “positive” when talking about our practice, and it strikes me that forwardness is exactly that—positivity. Perhaps “positivity” is the better word here, as “forward” can connote linear movement, but the concept is much more than that. The three forms of positivity shift “according to the moment and as reason dictates,” as Musashi said. In other words, it’s not simply about whether I’m striking early or waiting for the strike. Merely understanding the Three Sens as how to do a technique at different timings is to miss the heart of the concept, which is to understand the moment and seize it through positivity manifest in action.


What, then, is positivity? Certain things come to mind as I contemplate this idea. In body art, the basic of basics is tai-no-henko[2]. The tori moves forward with irimi and turns with tenkan. As Sensei says, irimi always comes first. In whatever attack, the uke practices attacking the tori “fully.” This means moving the whole body forward, as one enters the tori’s space. Striking through in tsuki, shomen, or yokomen uchis, and pushing through the tori in grabbing techniques—as we all know, if you’re leaving half your body behind in the attack, you are not doing your job. “Extension” is another form of positivity. One of the few times Chiba sensei ever spoke to me was to tell me to “extend more” when I was doing kokyuho—to open my body and expand my energy in a large circle. The idea of extension is also hammered home by Sensei in weapons. We must extend through the tip of the weapon as we strike—a positive action to extend our intention and, consequently, our body’s energy outward.


Of course, this is much easier said than done. We in modern society are fragmented in body and mind—what we know in our mind does not easily translate to our body. Take something like standing with feet parallel to each other, under your shoulders. I cannot recount the times I’ve looked down to find my feet were still turned out, despite my intention of making them parallel. Of course, that is why we practice, and practicing aikido can restore the connection of body and mind, but it is not easily accomplished. Much harder is connecting our mind to our physical environment and the moment—to simply be in the now. This is why the practice of sitting and meditation is integral to our training—so we foster an inner life that is unified with our physical being and our physical surroundings.


Sitting is perhaps the starting point for sen—for how can we seize the moment if we are not present in the moment? Meditation hones the ability to quiet the mind and emotions, to expand one’s awareness of connection to the environment and, ultimately, to something deeper. Paradoxically, as the things that crowd my consciousness are shed by doing nothing, my awareness simultaneously extends positively beyond what is within to what is around me. While tai-jutsu (body art) and buki-jutsu (weapons) demand that I be present and responsive in the moment during the most strenuous of circumstances, sitting allows me to deepen my inner stillness. A stillness that opens my awareness and connects me to my surroundings. Hearing my breath, the passing cars, the buzzing mosquito, seeing the grains of the wood floor in front, feeling the air move when a person passes behind. I learn that I’m connected to all of it. This stillness is the foundation for the immovable spirit. And it is the immovable spirit that gives birth to the freedom to move positively.


Still, awareness of one’s surroundings is easily forgotten when your lungs are screaming for air. Inner stillness is not magically transferred from the quiet environment of sitting to the onslaught of strikes and grabs and throws on the mat. Here it must be remembered that aikido is not confined to the mat. As the word, do (道), suggests, it is a way. A way of life. And, as such, everything is practice (embracing this concept is an act of positivity, too!). A crowded subway station can be a place to practice soft focus of taking in everything in the field of vision without intently staring at one thing. A social gathering might be where we practice extending our consciousness to the nuances of human dynamics. Walking on the sidewalk can be practice for moving from our hara and not from our head. Seeing a dinner guest’s water glass nearly empty can be a chance practice sen-sen-no-sen and refill it. Opportunities abound, and as we positively move into that place of practice—strengthening our forward spirit and manifesting that in positive action, we will inch closer to the Three Sens. As Musashi reminds us, “these are all about sen, practice and practice more to achieve the spirit for certain victory through this martial wisdom.”




[1] Some English versions translate the heading to this section as “Three Methods to Forestall the Enemy,” but the Japanese is simply, “About the Three Sens (三つの先といふ事).