By Régis Soavi
If we translate Zanshin by « sustaining attention after a fight or after a technique », even if we remain within the martial tradition we remain short of its profound meaning.
Tenshin: the heart of heaven
In the term Zanshin there are two Kanji: 残 (càn or zan), what remains, the residue, and 心 (Shin or Kokoro). If the meaning of the latter is known by all Aikidokas, it still seems to me necessary to specify its value because it corresponds to what we can rely upon to find the path towards fullness in life. For Itsuo Tsuda Senseï, a phrase reflected and animated the practices he proposed, both Aikido and Katsugen undo. This phrase – Tenshin – he had translated it by « the heart of pure heaven ». He writes: « The word kokoro which I translated by ‘heart’ has the same etymology as the latter: the central organ of the circulatory system. Yet, its acceptation is totally different. The ‘heart’ in French is rather the feeling, while the kokoro in Japanese is neither quite the feeling, nor the spirit, nor the thought. It is something we feel inside ourselves, it rather comes close to the English mind. If we translate it by mental or psychic, it will again be different. The search for a kokoro that remains imperturbable before an imminent danger, which stays calm in any circumstances, is the key aim imposed on those who attempt to achieve perfection, in the craft of weapons. »(1) « Your spirit has to be free from any thought, good or bad. This state of soul is compared to pure Heaven – Tenshin »
Aikido: re-learning freedom
As soon as we step upon the Tatami floor, concentration arises. A simple salute towards the Tokonoma suffices for our body to react, to leave this state that could be described as day-to-day to enter the very particular state of Zanshin. It is fundamentally a natural state, a state where our biological animality (in the best sense of the word) arises again. All the tradition that we have been given by O Sensei and that has been transmitted to us by his direct student Tsuda Sensei is essential to understand this. It is in the way we perform exercises such as the vibration of the soul, the rowing exercise and many others – often wrongly equated with a warm-up – that we become aware of their importance. It is all the attention given to breathing that allows us to sense, at the physiological level, the circulation of Ki and that summons us back towards this state of concentration that Zanshin is. All this first part of an ordinary session in our school has been designed to bring us, to take us beyond ourselves, beyond what we have quite often become – an ordinary fellow of our society. Immediately, if we are attentive enough, we can feel its effects. We move on the Tatamis in a profoundly different way, what we feel, our perception of the other, of others, becomes at the same time sharper and more pronounced, wider and lighter. It is day after day, by immersing into this atmosphere, that we can both relearn the freedom of moving, a first step towards inner freedom, and feel our space, our spaces. Recovering the sensation of how the forces that surround us are positioned, discovering or rediscovering that nothing is finished, nor concluded, but that everything is connected, that Zanshin is a moment of an eternity that runs its course in all directions.
Daily life: an eye-opener
Without us being aware of it, without us acting in a voluntary manner, our body constantly reacts to the many aggressions from our environment that we undergo everyday. Whether these attacks come from bacteria, viruses or more simply the quality of our nutrition, our body responds in an adequate manner thanks to its immune system, its digestive system or any other system according to the dysfunction at stake. The body’s response, if the terrain is good, if our immune system is well awake for instance, is not limited to a few skirmishes here and there, the mobilization of the body is total and the fight can sometimes be of great violence. Once the fight is over the body does not put itself at rest immediately, it does not go back to sleep once the danger has gone (something our mental, on the contrary, would have perfectly admitted). Our involuntary system does not loosen its attention, eliminating up to the last bacterium, to the last virus or immobilizing, blocking them so that they become harmless. And even then it is not over yet, the body remains vigilant, keeping an eye on everything that happens, serene but attentive to the least movement of the aggressors, whatever and whoever they are. This spirit is the state of the natural and involuntary Zanshin of a body that reacts healthily and therefore the state of the exact opposite of an apathetic body. When all is really over, life somehow resumes its natural course. It is essential to facilitate that this work inside our body can be done with complete peace of mind without being frightened by the slightest pain or disturbing reaction. For who approaches for the first time a martial art – and in particular Aikido –, the aims are often many, and range from the need of moving to that of defending oneself, through all possible variants, real or fantasized. The discovery of Zanshin constitutes an integral part of Aikido teaching, and its deep understanding as well as its extension to our entire life sphere brings a greater tranquility when facing unpredictable events and allows one to live every day more fully. For it is eventually in day-to-day life that the usefulness of the practice can be experienced and appraised. Without being utilitarian it is always pleasant to see and verify what it brings us in our daily life. There cannot be real attention, concentration, nor pleasure in the achievement of some work without – even though we are not aware of it – the state of presence that we call Zanshin.
Circles in water
When the child throws a stone into the so peaceful water of a little pond, s/he stays watching the concentric circles s/he has created that spread and extend from the center. If s/he has kept her/his profound nature, if it has not been destroyed by adults, parents, educators or teachers, who attempt to explain her/him the scientific rationale beyond the phenomenon or who, pressed for their so precious time, give little importance indeed to this little insignificant game, then, immobile, contemplative but deeply concentrated, the child waits until the circles fade away, until their initial liveliness, while lessening more and more, becomes no longer recognizable, becomes one with the natural movement of the simmering water, slightly nudged by the wind. This so precious moment is also Zanshin, it is an instant that could even be considered as sacred, where the child’s Kokoro quietens down, when s/he recovers her/his primordial nature, her/his true nature.
School, or how to break this natural state
The entire school education aims to equip children with weapons for the future. Though the idea looks nice on paper, reality is completely different. The grading system, whether with figures (Translator’s note : In France, grades range from 0 to 10 or 20, letters are not in use.) or letters such as in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, generates fear, indeed anguish – always concern – and produces, in fact, more damage than benefits. In this case we do not work for the pleasure of discovering nor even for a concrete result but for a grade, an assessment, that are supposed to reflect our level in the system. Yet, for a century, countless pedagogy experts have denounced the harm done by this type of schooling system and mode of education. At the total opposite of the state of Zanshin one is waiting for the verdict, the result of the written exercise, test, or exam. Instead of developing the physical or intellectual capacities of the child, we transform her/him into a scared being or later a rebel who only aspires to get out of the system in which s/he is trapped, to breathe if only a little more freely. The damage is however not irremediable, this is also what our practice is for, reviving what should never have been abandoned nor destroyed.
Who has never heard this sentence, that has now become a parental leitmotiv? Which parents have let their children follow the direction they had decided to take on their own, supporting them despite the general condemnation from their family or close circles? In France the new law4 making instruction mandatory from three to eighteen years old compels the parents, who sometimes chose home instruction because they became aware of the damage they have undergone in their own childhood, to still remain within the national education framework. To force their children to undergo exams and tests they have to pass, failing which they would have to be reintegrated in a state-approved school. How can we allow the child, the teenager, to discover, rediscover or preserve what s/he has always had and should never have lost: Zanshin, this state of concentration that remains beyond the act, this instinctive state that gives us pleasure, satisfaction, and strengthens our capacities by allowing them to benefit from the experience acquired in this moment thanks to this slight standstill where something remains suspended? The child, boy or girl, during this uncertain time, where anything can play out, escapes the world of social conventions, becomes strong, of this strength that no one will ever be able to deprive her/him of, s/he opens her/himself to an intelligence that only belongs to her/him and that is created by no doctrine or ideology.
From Zanshin a world can be rebuilt if it was destroyed or simply damaged. In the Zen practice it is the spirit that remains or the spirit of the gesture that allows one to recover what has been lost, in Aikido it is not the fighting spirit that allows us to live in harmony but rather what is behind, in depth, and that breathes life into our action. Itsuo Tsuda Sensei tells us the story of this great 17th century master Sekiun Harigaya who had found inner peace. « After having been tormented for a long time by the uncertainty that prevails when facing an extreme situation, where no recall to any precedent can be used to justify ourselves, he found : ‘Defeating the weakest, being defeated by stronger than yourself, and mutually annihilating each other among equals, these are dead-end solutions.’ Even if we win time and time again, this is, according to him, only bestiality. Those are only wolf and tiger fights. One will always remain in relativity, in opposition. One has to get out of these to find the true path. How to get out of bestiality to find the true path? Especially in a situation where the result is not measured with scores. The accepted formula has been so far ai-uchi, mutual annihilation. When aiming to defeat the other, while trying to preserve our own integrity, we lose it all, because at the last moment fear takes over and paralyses us. In order to get out of this duality that torments us, we decide to die, abandoning all what we have. ‘When you get my skin, I’ll get your flesh. When you get my flesh, I’ll get your bones’, so goes the bravado formula. We still remain in bestiality. After long years of meditation, Sekiun finds his formula ai-nuke, to mutually overcome. The basis of this formula is the discovery of the kokoro, immutable, eternal, in which there is no annihilation of the opponent, but only respect of the other. This ai-nuke shows a position quite close to that of Master Ueshiba’s aikido. If one faces the other with no aggressivity, it is ai-nuke, but if one keeps the least aggressivity, it is ai-uchi. But how can one get empty of any aggressivity when one precisely is in a situation of agressivity where at risk of losing everything? This non-aggressivity, if it comes not from a moralist or a pacifist religious, but from someone who had experienced fifty-two real fights until the age of fifty, can have a completely different value. »(3) Zanshin lies at the heart of the problem, because it is about a presence to oneself as well as the other, without aggressivity, without expectation, without any search for any result. Zanshin is neither the end nor the beginning of a movement, it does not illustrate the power of one over an opponent, it is a time, an undefined space-time, but which gets concretely realized. Recovering the Kokoro from childhood, recovering concentration, the simple joy of feeling fully alive, no longer being satisfied with the superficial aspect of the survival that is imposed to us by society, this is the path that is proposed to us in Aikido. Even if this path demands from us rigor and determination, continuity and introspection, I have always felt and experienced it as easier than resignation, renunciation and hence disillusion or passivity.
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Article by Régis Soavi published in Dragon Magazine (speciale Aikido n° 27) january2020.
1) Itsuo Tsuda, La voie des dieux [The Path of gods], Le Courrier du Livre, 1982, p.61.
2) Itsuo Tsuda, Cœur de ciel pur [The Heart of pure heaven], Le Courrier du Livre, 2014, p.91.
3) Itsuo Tsuda, La voie des dieux [The Path of gods], Le Courrier du Livre, 1982, p.63.
Photos credits: Bas Van Buuren, Sara Rossetti