What is the Function of a Shrine?

A Dialogue with Sensei, Mitsugi Saotome Shihan

The question had been sitting in Facebook for a while, a glow fading, yet was warmed by passing breath day by day, and today, this morning, the words were rearranged, and it was asked, “Sensei, what is the function, the activity, the meaning of the Aiki Shrine?”

“Why people interesting in this?” he seems dismissive on an outer layer, yet burrows in, withdrawing, rubbing one of his canes, thick with oils and inks from days of working on them. “Everyone is different,” and another few strokes of oil on wood, “it is easy to learn technique.” The velvet fabric iridescent in the morning light, diffuse, and lighting perfect.

That was this morning, and sitting to write, the clouds are passing by, notes to the right on a small table set atop a small very narrow pedestal. Sensei goes to fetch another cool beverage from the refrigerator. In route, he brings back some cardboard, a box, freshly empty, to use it for future katagami, a Japanese word for paper crafts of the home. Weaving, joining, this is aiki. Right here too, this very article, atemporal.

“Every martial art… learning to fight,” he pauses, another stroke of the rag, “aikido learning to harmonize.” And this is the pace of the dialog, it is not talking to, nor talking at, it is beyond even talking, just moving, as the clouds pass, as the palms sway in the breeze, sensei saying the first day here, “look! it looks like the trees are talking to each other,” when the wind, the fronds, beyond and; the five heaps of buddhist psychology at play.

Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, “don’t play the butter notes,” and here is the case. It’s behind this, can you hear it? The melody and rhythm, the -lessness of it? This is mono, as in mono-no-aware. All things. Right here, right now.

“Sensei, so, the Aiki Shrine… is an expression, a manifestiation,” words acting as reaction wheels to adjust the azumith and inclination of the conceptual frame, heuristic, “a bigger expression of this harmonizing of space?”

“Yes.” He begins to smile, yet not all the way, that’s how this works, ai ki. The pedal is never pressed all the way, it’s just enough to make it over the hill, then as expected, he pulls the rag, pushes the rag, across the knots and shape of the wood entire. The C-130 flew just high enough, nape of the earth, yet without clipping a single branch over the hill, and just high enough to be seen by the allies.

“Life: two sides. Protecting,” the rag changes direction, “also fighting. Not only protecting.” A dramatic pause, he looks to the other side of the cane, “Embody Aikido Philosophy. Spiritual Go<al|ld>.”

Right now writing, out on the porch, Sensei removes a jacket, revealing the same dragon he placed by the loft years ago, Hi Ryu Zai Ten, the dragon that flies in the heavens. He then moves the largest pair of shears for professional garment workers, textile mill workers, and clothing designers to the cardboard. The sun is hot, he’ll probably be in soon, yet this moment, turns.

“People adopting aikido philosophy. Conflict situation. How to harmonize with other,” the waviness of earlier movements, created a slight ripple between utterances of both parties. The very breathing a little turbulent, yet now the master permutates routes, superpositionally, and drives straight to it, a wave now measured, the quantization looms, a split second to crashing upon shore.

“Aikido <ha|i>s [a] deep paradox,” the weight sinks, earlier yesterday he mentioned the beauty of a shakuhachi song, and gestured that it was “down here,” and he pressed a palm toward the earth low. “Yin. Yang.”

“Usually traditional budo, bujutsu… two<,|.> sides…,” even in the speech. He now sits outside examining the very side of the box being cut, he stares deep into it, looking deep into the design, and there it is, right there… he looks up to the horizon, and turns the cardboard plane revealing the seal word.

“Physical Defense, weapons defense… fighting… Yin. Yang.” He continues, and then looks off into the sky out through the condo window, “Also sometimes thinking… Universal Nature… very complicate[d].” The rag moves.

“Example:” the plosive grand, and with impact. It reverberates between to-be, that place perception enters, deep, the very word is interest, “Sun. Moon… very bright,” he trails off for a second, arranging rags on the large square wooden table arranged with a large assortment of crafting materials, and a container of rescued tobacco from cigarettes, for his pipe. It’s magic, all of it, every bit of it a signpost for humanity, for the world, “nighttime, dark. Yin. Yang.”

“Why many animal, male, female. This is complicate[d].” And the nod, and the reply.

“Yes sensei, it is indeed,” pausing to allow the wave to disintegrate, the foam to churn and recover back into the sea. “O’Sensei said he built the aiki shrine for world peace, and you built [an] aiki shrine, [is this] the same? Mission?”

“Yes.” Hearts sing, yet like a calligraphy brush traversing paper. The rag moves, spiraling around wood, “Otherwise I not build. I am a disciple <of|;> O’Sensei. I have responsibility,” the plosives strong, as strong as I have ever remember, “I have mission,” the beseeching sensei approaches, “Why name is Aikido Schools of Ueshiba? Not just technique.”

He leans forward just a bit, hands stilled, caressing the cane, gently propping it up, yet not overtly pressing against it, the O’Sensei imitation appears, “You know Saotome, I never making aikido.” The smile comes to both these faces, a breath of fresh air.

“Tenri Shizen…,” his voice trails off, and repeats, “tenri shizen.” Natural spontaneity. He then utters several kami, then voices more strengthened, “kami-sama no…,” and the voice trails off again, continuing to move the rags across the cane, as if to a melody across the burls, and between the knurls.

Sensei then imitates a question, the pitch elevates just a bit, yet more nuanced than a decade ago, “‘Is aikido a style business?’”, he responds to himself, “what do you mean?” He looks left, and right, tilting the head too, “The whole world, how many billion Christian Students?”

“Hundreds of millions sensei, hundreds of millions.”

“Yes… different group but…,” he grumbles a little.

“Sensei, it is like sounds in speech,” a sequence of utterances, consonants, and vowels, “it would be similar in many languages.”

“Yes,” another pause, “aikido is not <a|> narrow martial art.” Now editing, it becomes clear, indeed, narrowness is not self. It is not other, it is not we, it is not they. The beauty of the ten thousand things, mono-no-aware.

“This is a life, any kind of life, your survival… or,” sensei prepares the emphasis, “you never born!” The rag continues the song. And now, writing this, sensei arranges cushions on the guest side of the couch, he sweeps some dust off the couch onto the floor. He’ll sweep it with a small dust pan and brush here soon. Arranging, neatening.

“Aiki. Means. Kokyu,” sensei says clearly, with great succinctness, “survival,” and this evening at dinner, it makes perfect sense what this was setting up, “Harmony of Nature.” The rags move again, up and down, up and down the cane, “People stop breathing, stop eating,” a slight skip, “sayonara…”

“So many life, universe, creative, even bacteria,” a reference to the conversation at breakfast, sensei sat at the table, and talk of coronavirus was closing, “maybe bringing world closer together, maybe helping; bring nation[s] together,” and there is some reservation admitting to the world, these same thoughts.

The reverberation returns, the canyon is wide, and the echos return in waves, “what kind of style [is] your eating?”

“No style sensei, just salty, just sweet, just sour, just bitter…”

“Yes. All creatures. Heaven,” he raises his palm up high, then moves down low, the hands so well hewn as if out of the roots just touching the earth of an elder tree, “and earth<,|> tree. Same.”

Another story with O-Sensei returns, “Saotome, your life is how old?” Sensei gestures counting with the aid of his fingers, “what are you doing? Baka. God created you. Heavens created you.”

“It’s true sensei, it’s all true.”

“People studying Ai Ki Do,” again deliberate in accentuating each character, each image, each impression, as if stamp, stamp, stamp on a calligraphy. “People [must] study biological function. Biological history.” More rags to the wood, rubbing up and down, the cane flips in his hands, the work, a little more effort is applied.

The hands moved, writing an MDL note, the braket notation writing “<BIO|LOGIC>” and there, a memo, aligned with a world of memos, sorted along this same axis, and then kami was written with an arrow pointing to, yet perhaps it is from, as in the rays of sight coming out of the eye historically, whereas now, the rays enter the eye. Yet light moves instantaneously from its own perspective, so it is most likely beyond one, other, and, neither nor; the original boolean logic of insight, sunset by wisdom. “Sensei, Bio is on one hand, Logic is on another, inseprable,” the palms were brought together with a smack.

“Yes, many aikidoka studying biologic history,” the remainder commentary emerges, continuously in bloom, and redacted now by wisdom.

The hands searched again, what was biology in Japanese? “Sei Mono,” sensei says, hence the earlier echo of mono-no-aware written, yet not yet remembered. It was asked about the characters, and sensei gestured to many things, “Mono, mono… many mono.” The room is quiet; superpositional awareness. The fans whir in air filters, in the air handler, outside too. Just calm, all these things pointed to.

“Like mono-no-aware sensei?”


And the dictionary entry poured forth, sensei continuing to oil the cane, “empathy due to the understanding of the transient naturelessness of all things”. Indeed. Yes. Muso. Mu.

“Sensei, Muso, empathy for all things,” he gestured to clarify, “empty, a difficult concept for people, there is empathy for all of this because it is empty. Mu.”

“Yes. Mu is zero.” Beyond growth, beyond dissolving, the pointer is exactly the case.

And there it was while writing this, looking out to sensei holding that cardboard box of some NA Beer, and on the side of the cardboard his gaze fixed, “Budweiser… ZERO”, revealed.

Annutara Samyok Sambodhi. This is law.

Some say it cannot be made up, yet here it is. Superpositioned, beyond this, beyond that, beyond this and that, beyond neither this nor that. Far beyond even empty.

The living shrine – aiki, and beneath the pedestal, placed, is the negative cutout of the kata, a half of a heart used as a template. Upon a new cardboard form, raw, it is placed, and traced, and removed, to reveal the line for a new heart, to cut out, and reveal, for the benefit of the world, anew. This is transmission, this is aiki wisdom, spontaneous and creative, not self, not other, not we, not they, just love, unburdened by ignorance, raw, and exciting… as Mary Oliver pens, “harsh, and exciting…”, Wild Geese.

Go for it. <“|If I can do, you can do…|”>

t<w|o|o>, the cow[herder] way