When we enter the Aikido dojo, we bow. When we begin the class, we bow to the portrait of the O’Sensei, then to the Sensei, and then to our partners as we begin practice. If we enter the dojo late or must leave early, we bow to the Sensei requesting special permission. Whenever partners are changed, we bow to each other. At the end of the practice session, we again bow to the founder, the Sensei, and each of our partners of the day. The final bow is made as we leave the dojo. The significance of such frequent bowing as a means of transforming the ego is expressed by Suzuki Roshi in his Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“Bowing is a very serious practice. You should be prepared to bow, even in your last moment. Even though it is impossible to get rid of our self-centered desires, we have to do it. Our true nature wants us to.”
Related to the discipline of bowing is the emphasis on realizing sincerity and humility in Aikido practice. Advance students naturally desire to improve their movements and techniques and thus seek our higher-ranking students for practice, but they are urged to work out with beginners who in their awkwardness and clumsiness manifest total sincerity. The more a student becomes advanced in Aikido, the more he must practice with beginners, for rather than becoming sincere and humble, he tends to become prideful an arrogant. As one teacher said, even a monkey can easily master all the techniques, but only man can manifest the qualities of sincerity and humility. This is the reason during the Aikido promotion tests the examiner carefully watches not only the techniques but the attitude and bearing of the student. And this also accounts for the fact that sometimes it is the most awkward who becomes the best Aikidoist.
Above all else, it is infinite patience that is required in the mastery of the art. This does not mean mere persistence and repetition in practice; rather, it refers to an essential attitude in any form of true learning. As in all Japanese cultural arts, the assumption is that the student cannot be taught the essence of the art, whether by explanation or exhortation. He can, however, learn the art by watching, repeatedly and carefully, the action of the master. Unlike verbal instructions which may be readily understood but rarely realized in practice, such learning takes time and effort, but once mastered it can never be forgotten and it can be manifested spontaneously in critical moments. True learning in the Asian tradition, whether it be cultural, religious, or martial, is to transform the jagged rock of ego into the smooth, round stone of the total self. This takes infinite patience, not only of one lifetime but even of coutless lifetimes.
The discipline of bowing, sincerity and humility, and infinite patience is the secret of Aikido. This secret is expressed by a single word in Zen; “mushin” or “no-mind”
By Taitetsu Unno