Saturday, October 08, 2005

Stillness in action, action in stillness

"Stillness in action, action in stillness"
Aikido & Zen,
An Interview With Rev. Kensho Furuya Sensei
By Ze’ev Erlich, Aikikan Dojo, Rehovot, Israel.
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1. What is Zen?
Zen is the contemplative or meditative sect of Buddhism. In ancient times, each school of Buddhism had meditation as an important part of their training from the time of the Buddha. Around the 6th century, a new form of Buddhism was brought over to China from India which specifically emphasized meditation over all other forms of practice and ceremonies which had developed since the time of the Buddha.

Meditation is called Dhyana in Sanskrit (Dhyana means “emptiness” as in “empty mind,”) which, when it was imported into China, was pronounced as “Chan.” In Japan, this is pronounced as “Zen” The Chinese character or kanji is composed of two radicals meaning “single” and “robe” which refers to the “kesa” or cloth robe worn by Buddhists priest.
Zen means “meditation,” but today, we try to stay away from the many associations and nuances this term has picked up in its growing popularity, so we simply call it, “sitting.” With such a simple word as “sitting,” we can avoid all of the misunderstandings and confusion which has become attached to the word, “Zen” or “meditation.”

2. What Zen sect are you part of?
I was ordained as a monk of the Soto Sect of Zen. Originally, in China there were two, the Northern and Southern Schools, of Zen. Of the five main sects which developed, the three main ones in Japan are Soto, Rinzai and Obaku.

Soto Zen was brought over to Japan from China by Dogen Zenji in the mid 13th century. When he travelled to China to meet great teachers, he was very disappointed with the practice at the temples and returned to the ship to sail back to Japan.

While waiting for the return trip, he met an old priest who came to the ship to buy imported mushrooms for the meal at the temple where he lived. Dogen struck up a conversation with the old priest. “How far did you come to buy mushrooms?”

“About 14 miles,” replied the old priest.

“That is very far for an old priest like yourself, You should take it easy and let the younger priests do such a menial job as this. Why don’t you relax and have some tea with me?”

“This is my job and my practice, so I have to do it myself. I have no time for tea because I must go another 14 miles back to the temple to prepare this evening’s meal.” said the old priest.

“What do you mean ‘practice?’” asked Dogen.

“1, 2, 3, a, b, c. . . .” replied the old priest.

“I don’t understand!” queried Dogen.

“You do not understand the meaning of ‘practice.’ You better come with me and meet my teacher!”

Through this priest, Dogen was introduced to Nyojo who was a very strict teacher and taught Zen in the old, traditional ways. After four years, Dogen received a great enlightement and was acknowledged by Nyojo. Although Nyojo wanted Dogen to remain in China, Dogen decided to return to Japan and introduce the teachings of Soto Zen. Dogen wrote the Shobogenzo, (“The Treasury Of the Eye of the Law”) which is considered a National Treasure in Japan and relates in very great detail, the form of practice as Dogen learned it in China. Today, in Soto Zen temples, this method introduced in the mid-1200’s by Dogen is still practiced today as it has been for the last 800 years in Japan.

Soto Zen is rather astere and simple. One just sits in the same posture or form of Shyakamuni Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment. For Dogen, it is not important to become famous or skilled or enlightened, but it is to recover one’s “original, normal” state of mind.

3. What does the title "Rev." mean in connection with Zen?
I was ordained under the Rev. Bishop Kenko Yamashita who was the Head Priest of the North American Head- quarters of Soto Zen Buddism and the Abbot of the Zenshuji Soto Mission for over 50 years. Zenshuji is over 90 years old and is the oldest Zen temple in America. I was ordained in Yamashita Sensei’s later years because he had not taken any students during his long career. I was very much attracted to him for his great learning and wisdom. I received ordination in 1988 and worked for several years at Zenshuji until his passing at the age of 94 years.

“Reverend” refers to my title as a Zen priest. I keep my title in honor and remembrance of my late Zen master and teacher.

4. Can you please tell us about the meaning of your name, "Kensho?”When I was ordained as a priest, I received one character from my teacher’s name to be added to one character from my own Japanese name. It was decided that I become, “Kensho.” “Ken” comes from “Kenko,” my teacher’s name and the Sho” comes from my personal Japanese name. Kensho means, “proliferation” or “spreading” of “Truth.” It is a very good name, do you not think? - Maybe much too good for me! There is an old saying with my name in it by coincidence: “Haja Kensho” or “Destroy evil and spread righteousness.”

5. Can you please tell us about how your connection with Zen had started?
Although I did not have a strict religous upbringing in my family. I had always been interested in Zen since I was a child, especially as it related to martial arts. From my early years, I practiced Kendo, Iaido and later, Aikido.

I read my first book on Zen in 1957 when this little book first came out. At that time, very little was known about Zen in this country. I must have been about 9 years old at the time. I started Kendo when I was about 6 or 7 years old, Iaido when I was about 8 and Aikido when i was about 10 years old.

Since this book, I tried to read and studied everything I could about Zen. Although I was very young, I remember that I had to order books from England and Japan just to satisfy my learning because there was so little information here in America. Suzuki Daisetsu, one of the pioneers of Zen outside of Japan, had written many books in English published in England and also a monthly Journal which I was also able to find. These books today are very rare, I think. I estimate my library on books on Zen alone to be somwhere about 300-400 volumes. . . .

Later, I began to practice Zazen by myself and later at Zenshuji in the 1980’s when I moved my dojo to the Little Tokyo area. My dojo was conveniently just around the corner from the temple. After practicing for several years there, (Regretably the main temple is separate from the Zendo where we practice Zen sitting so we were segregated from the normal temple activities. I don’t know why this was.) I finally met the Head Priest of Zenshuji who turned out to be Bishop Kenko Yamashita. This was very fortunate for me and a very odd coincidence because I had met him many years before at one of my good friend’s father’s funeral where he had officiated the service.

At the reception after the funeral, I sat in front of the Bishop and was so impressed with his noble manner and wisdom that I thought to myself, “I want to be a priest like him!” It was my Karma to meet him like this, I believe.

I should also mention here that one very great influence for me to pursue Zen very strongly was Kisaburo Ohsawa Sensei, 9th Dan, at Hombu Dojo. Although he never mentioned one word of Zen to me, he, in some way, led me to the real doorstep of Zen by introducing me to the name of the great Zen master, Sawaki Kodo Roshi, who was his teacher for almost 20 years. Sawaki Roshi also had contact with many of the great martial artists of the time including O’Sensei and Nakayama Hakudo Sensei, the “father” of modern Iaido.

Although I really had no connection with Zen outside of my own personal interest, somehow, I was led to the right door to finally meet Bishop Kenko Yamashita who taught me so much. O’Sensei, of course, Doshu, Sawaki Kodo and Hakudo Sensei taught me so much and influenced me greatly.

6. Can you please tell us about your daily Zen practice?
Today, I don’t sit much because of my bad knee. I still observe the precepts of a Zen priest. I live quietly in my dojo and reflect everyday on teaching and my Life. Writing my thoughts, and teaching my students is my form of practice - I think about my practice and the way to live and teach correctly. I like to consider teaching my students as “doing good acts” in helping others. I try to practice a non-violent, peaceful life completely avoiding the arena of politics, fame, power, money and competing for prestige.

Other than this, I don’t really do much as a priest that anyone can tell nor can I brag really about. Just trying to be a decent, normal person and trying to do good deeds and being a caring human being is the way my teacher taught me to live and practice Zen.

7. How does Aikido connect with Zen?
I don’t want to say that you must practice Zen in order to practice Aikido. I believe that in practice, Aikido is Aikido and that is all. Because I am a Zen priest, I do not want to become a Zen “salesman” to sell Zen to you.

I think if you like Zen and have an interest in Zen, I am sure it will help your Aikido in some way. If you have no interest in Zen and do not practice Zen, I think this is also fine and has no effect on your Aikido at all.

From my own personal point of view, I had a strong interest in Zen from a very early age - I really do not know why, I was just attracted to it like someone falls in love. I fell in love with Zen, much like Aikido. I was first very interested in Zen because I knew it had a strong connection with the spiritual side of Japanese martial arts and as I began to find out more about it, it only stirred my interest in it even more.

I think, for myself, it is important to study Zen because it has had such a strong, pervading influence on Japense Budo and the Samurai from the very beginning of Japan’s feudal history. I think another reason I find Zen very important is that the form of practice we see in Japanese martial arts today, including Aikido, was taken from the method of practice in the Zen temples. To understand why we do the things we do in the dojo and why we have these standards for our mental and physical training all stem from the methods of Zen training in the Zen temples.

Ohsawa Sensei of Hombu Dojo never mentioned Zen but you could see it in his actions and manner. This is what I like about Ohsawa Sensei and Zen. It taught without words or fancy methods and there was no complicated ceremonies or manners. To become a won-derful teacher and Aikidoist like Ohsawa Sensei, I thought that I should pursue my Zen practice more thoroughly. That is about it, no real reason to really discuss and no real reason or intention I can tell about. . . . .

8. Can one practice in a way that his Aikido training becomes Zen training?
Yes, for myself, I must emphasize again, I think there are two aspects of Zen and Aikido which are very compatible and blend nicely in one’s daily life and it is these two points I try to think about and practice all of the time in my own life and practice. The first is “Do not fight.” This is both the first principle in Zen and Aikido. Secondly, “Be a nice person and do good acts.” I think I see this in both Aikido and Zen and try to understand this from both points of view. In both Aikido and Zen, I believe, it is nothing more than to become a good person and try to be helpful and caring towards others.

9. The phrase "Moving Zen" is sometimes heard in connection to some martial arts like Kyudo or Aikido. Can you please teach us about it?
Yes, you are right, we hear this often said. They say it about Iaido as well, and recently, they like to say it about Karate and Tae Kwon Do. . . In America, they like to say it about tennis, motorcycle riding, gardening, cooking, and almost everything!

I think we like to say this because it means that we are seeking a “special state of mind” - very focused and contemplative or well centered - which we can apply to what we do such as Aikido or Iaido or any discipline or activity.

In many ways, this is very true. In Zen, there is the idea to “wake up!” your mind or “open your eyes!” or to shake the mind out of its stupor or sleeply state and become more aware and sensitive to what you are doing.

Because Zen is always from a “sitting’ position, this “applied” form of Zen is always “moving” as in Aikido.
* Image of a scroll with the words “Heijoshin Kore Do,”
From the outside looking in on Zen, we can say, “moving” Zen or moving something. . . However, from the Zen point of view looking outward, we never say such things. In Zen, everything is the “activity of the mind” whether we are moving or not. In Zen, meditation is considered the “purest form” of “being” because it represents the posture and mental state of the Buddha as he acquired his great enlightenment. However, in Zen practice, whether reading sacred texts or working at cleaning or cooking or talking with friends or doing Aikido, all of this, even when we are sleeping, should be this state of Zen, where the mind is always in its own natural, original condition. I hope this makes sense to you. In Zen, and in martial arts, we often say, “Heijoshin Kore Do,” which means, “The everyday, normal mind is the Way (“Do”) as in Aiki-Do. This is Zen.

10. What is Satori?“Satori” means “enlightenment” and refers to the enlightenment of the Buddha. In Zen, people often think that the goal is to achieve this enlightenment through practice. In Soto Zen, oddly, we never talk about satori. If we do, we are reprimanded and joked at by our teachers. Sometimes, they say, “When you get your enlightenment, what are you going to do with it?” Oh my! This is a good question! In Soto Zen, we often explain it like this: “Before practice, an apple is just an apple. When we begin to practice, the apple becomes something more than an apple. When we achieve enlightenment, the apple is just an apple again.”

Dogen Zenji said not to look for anything “special” in practice. Practice itself is the enlightenment. Whe you are practicing Aikido or Zen, you are in a state of enlightenment. As you are, you are enlightened. There is no need to chase after anything. However, we cannot understand this with our intellect or reason or small, self-centered mind. We practice and train hard to understand and refine this realization. . . This is why even though we are already enlightened, we still need to train. In this same way of thinking, everyone is already a great master of Aikido. But because we cannot understand this for ourselves, we need to practice in order to refine this understanding.

When he was alive, O’Sensei was famous for giving out 10th Dan certificate to everyone and all of his friends. I think many people thought this was very odd but from his way of thinking as I just mentioned, I am sure that O’Sensei looked at everyone he met as great Aikido master and teacher. . . . how do you reach this level of existence when you can see everyone like this? You must practice as hard as O’Sensei!

11. Can one reach Satori through his Aikido training?
If my student asked me this question, I have to put an angry expression on my face and say, “No!” Of course, the answer is “yes,” but the “dangerous word” here in this question is “reach.” We are always “reaching” for this and “reaching” for that. Our whole lives are “I want this” and “I want that.” We are in satori when we can escape this cycle or mental state of always “wanting” or “reaching for” something.

In Zen, we never say, “I am enlightened!” If someone does, we all laugh. It is like saying “Will I ever become a master of Aikido?” Of course, we have to say, “no!,” but in actuality, we also have to think in our hearts, “yes!”

I think it is like saying, “Will I ever get to heaven?” Who knows? No one has ever come back to confirm this but, in our hearts, we say, “Yes, I will go”

As in Aikido, many questions cannot be answered by words or logic and some things cannot be explained by what we do or think, it is just in our hearts and we have to know it. I believe, in this way, everyone reaches Satori in Aikido.

12. What is Beginner's mind? And how can one "not forgetting" it?“Beginner’s Mind:” is considered to be one of the most important ideas to grasp if you are beginning Zen practice, it is also an important principle in all martial arts training. It is very useful to apply this principle to our Aikido practice as well.

Beginner’s mind is the naive, clear, untainted mind or the excited, new, fresh mental attitude you have when you first embark on a new project or endeavor. It is the fresh spirit you have when you first start a discipline like Aikido that you must try to maintain throughout your entire career in practice. Typically, after you gain some time and experience, you begin to think about rank and prestige, about who is better of worse, or who you like or dislike, about your next promotion, or you beomce jaded and bored with practice or begin competing with others - this is all the opposute of the “Beginner’s Mind.” I think in your dojo you have the famous saying, “Shoshin Wo Wasurebekarazu.” - Or “Never forget your beginner’s mind.”
* Image of the scroll with the words “Shoshin Wo Wasurebekarazu.”

How do you not forget about this? This is the challenge and charm of our practice and what compels us to always be on your toes and constantly correcting our mental state in practice.

13. What is the difference you see in people that practice Aikido and Zen in comparison with those that practice Aikido only?
I don’t encourage or force my students to practice Zen, I only answer their question s about Zen practice if they ask me directly. Also it is not a requirement in our dojo to practice Zen, however, some students practice on their own in different Zen centers and I think some people join my dojo because I am also a Zen priest and they have an interest in both Aikido and Zen.

I should say that I don’t expect to see any difference if one practices Zen and Aikido and one only practices Aikido.

I should say however, that because Zen also emphasizes non-violence and serenity, I “feel” that those who practice Zen are more settled and centered in their outlook and movement. They are usually not as competing or aggressive. There are many scientific studies which clearly show that Zen sitting does have an effect on the mind and in Zen sitting the mind is at once more energetic and, at the same time, more settled and quiet. As you can see, this is also the ideal mental state and attitude for our Aikido practice as well.

I have studied many different Eastern disciplines and practices but I have always found Zen to be the most compatible with Aikido practice. However, it is not really fair to tell this to everyone hoping they will start Zen. Everyone should come into Zen freely and by their own will. I always have to keep this in my mind when teaching Aikido. I do talk a lot about Zen in my writings on martial arts because it is so hard to get away from Zen which has had such a wide and profound impact on the traditional Japanese martial arts.

14. Do you believe that Aikido can become a part of Zen training?
In addition to myself, I know of many teachers who have combined Aikido and Zen practice and there are many who think that they are very compatible. When I observed Ohsawa Sensei, it was obvious that he was a practitioner of Zen, yet he never spoke of Zen directly nor pushed Zen on anyone. However, I thought that if I ever wanted to be like anyone in Aikido, it would be Ohsawa Sensei because he was such a wonderful teacher with amazing technique - so calm and powerful at the same time. So, I think I would like to follow his example and only emphasize Zen in a non-verbal way. I also have a strong obligation to Doshu and Hombu Dojo so I must teach Aikido as purely as I can and I have to think about this a great deal.

Ultimately, I think it is important to keep Zen as Zen and Aikido as Aikido - and, if the student has interest in both paths, like myself, somewhere they will both come together in a natural way. I think this is the best - not the easiet - but the best way to teach both by giving each discipline its own integrity and respect.

Zen teaches to be non-violence and cultivate a calm, awake, sensitive mind, but it accomplsihes this by sitting and being still. Sometimes, the idea of this non-violence and this calmness is not clear in the Aikido techniques, because we are always moving, throwing and pinning against an opponent or partner. Of course, we are always moving dynamically and “movement” or the “activity,” both mental and physical, is the most obvious, evident sign of Life. One teaches stillness and one teaches movement. For me, it is much like the old saying in martial arts: “Do Chu no Sei, Sei Chu No Do.” which translates as: “Stillness in action, action in stillness.” This is, I believe, the perfect combination of both Aikido and Zen practice together.

15. How can one bring Zen practice to his daily Aikido training at the Dojo?
* Image of a scroll with the words : “Shoaku Makusa”
The famous Zen priest, Ikkyu once wrote two sayings which I think express Zen very well. One scroll says, “Shoaku Makusa” or “Don’t do bad deeds.” The second scroll says, “Shuzen Bugyo,” or “Practice goodness.” if you can understand these simple words and bring them into your practice and your Life, I think I can say that you have mastered the Zen spirit. When O’Sensei talked about non-fighting and peace and one family of man, I think that he was trying to tell us this very same idea but in slightly different words.

How to practice Zen in your Aikido? Become a caring person and treasure and respect all of those around you and treat people with goodness. For yourself, always look at Aikido training as a part of your normal daily life - like brushing your teeth or having tea, - it is nothing special but, at the same time, something very important and essential to your Life.

On a more practice level, Zen deals with “attachment.” As an example, we often have the habit to grab at the hand in Shomenuchi when we know we should guide in downwards with a hand-blade. Sometimes this notion is hard to break because our logic says, “grab” rather than “guide downwards.”
This is a kind of “attachment” to an old idea. Zen teaches that we shouldn’t be hung-up but act freely, without such hinderances. In another sense, we do not focus or hang on so hard to ideas, but let them flow freely and naturally. We do not become stuck on the attacking hand but allow it to flow away from ourselves.
You do not have to worry about doing meditation sitting or chanting Zen scriptures and acting like a priest in order to apply Zen to our Aikido practice, as long as you are a caring, loving person. We do not fight, nor are we attached to the enemy or idea of an enemy. We are mentally free and unfettered, thinking only to harmonize with the other person, not harm or destroy him.

*Image of a scroll with the words :“Shuzen Bugyo,”
16. Do you have a message for us here in Israel?
When I first met Ze’ev Sensei, he had invited me on several occasions to come to Israel to teach a class or two. When I first heard this, I was quite surprised. From what I read in American newspapers, it thought it must be a dangerous, war-torn country filled with violence. After getting to know Ze’ev Sensei much more, I found that the information in our newspapers here is inaccurate and Israel is also a very lovely country with many good people. When I asked my students, “What if I went to Israel?” To my surprise, so many of my black belts and students wanted to go with me, so many people in my dojo want to see and visit your country.

I don’t know much about your religion and life in Israel but there is a movie which I found very interesting and I like this movie very much. Of course, this is only a movie so probably it is not all correct information. . . . so please forgive me for mentioning this. It is about a female detective who must live in a Jewish Hassidic community in New York in order to solve her case. It is a story about the culture shock of suddenly being transplanted into this Hassidic lifestyle which is so different from the life of a young woman of this modern age. What was very interesting to me is that so much of the religion is intermeshed with one’s daily life. For me, I thought this is very similar to the Zen life where there is no border between what is religious and spiritual and what is our normal lifestyle.

I think for you in your country you may find this an unsual remark but if you have ever lived in the United States you will know what I mean. Here in this country, we have the principle of “separation of church and state.” Although this refers only to our civil rights and laws in society and really has no bearing on our personal beliefs, today, many people here mis-interpret this to mean that our religion or spiritual practice must be completely separate from our normal life style. . . Of course, in my personal life or among my students, I have never run across such an idea that one’s beliefs or religion cannot enter our personal lives but a few years back when I was participating in an Aikido website, I was severaly reprimanded for answering an inquiry about clapping hands in the dojo which was interpreted as a “religious” question. I was so surprised and shocked when this happened because it was only an answer to a question and in no way a sales pitch for religion. I think Ze’ev Sensei remembers this incident which caused me so much grief. It was so funny to me! Indeed, sometimes our thinking can become too stiff and narrow-minded.

I think that although the world changes so much and so quickly, you must hold on to your customs and beliefs very strongly no matter what. Aikido or Zen does not contradict or reject any belief system or other religion or philsophy and is very comfortable wherever it is. In both Aikido and Zen, we must practice hard and enjoy the virtue and benefits of practice. And, - just to be a good person trying to do good for others - for me, this is the essence of my practice and this is how I try to understand both my Aikido and Zen together.

I realize that you have such a very good teacher and many good students of Aikido where you are. Maybe someday I will get to I know my good friend and senior, Mastake Fujita Sensei recently visited you and I heard that he enjoyed his trip very much. Of course, he read a great deal about you and Ze’ev Sensei from our dojo newsletter here in my dojo and wanted to see you. I see this as a kind of karma where is are all interconnected and interdependent on each other. Although this is a principle of Zen, I think it is also O’Sensei’s One Family of Man all getting together in harmony through Aikido.

I hope I have been able to answer all of Ze’ev Sensei’s questions on Zen clearly. Because Zen and Aikido are not “officially” joined together, I have to present this as all my own personal views and if I have offended anyone, it is due to my lack of experience and wisdom

I wish you all of the best, and hope O’Sensei’s spirit of Peace will touch all of you and your country. I also pray for you as I pray for Peace and Harmony in this world everyday. Please continue to practice hard and support your teacher and your dojo. With all my best wishes,

Rev. Kensho Furuya,
Aikido Center of Los Angeles

Thank you so much for your time.
Ze’ev Erlich, Aikikan, Rehovot, Israel