When new students showed up in class, one of my sensei’s favorite questions was, “What are you here to learn?” At other times he would simply ask, “Why are you here today?” When sensei asked such questions you could be sure he wasn’t going to accept the first answer anyone gave. I was always intrigued to discover that no one ever seemed to have an answer that was well thought out. Myself included!
The longer I studied the more I felt sensei’s question was a kind of Zen “koan”. A paradoxical question designed to show the inadequacy of one’s logical thinking.
One common scenario would take place with a student answering, “I’m here to study Aikido.”
“Oh” sensei would reply. “And what is Aikido?”
“Aikido is a martial art.”
“Ah, and what is a martial art?” sensei would ask.
“A martial art teaches self defense.” The student would reply.
“Well, if you’re wanting to learn self defense you could spend your time more effectively by studying Judo or Karate. Perhaps you’re in the wrong dojo.” Sensei would respond.
I rarely raised my hand when sensei asked questions, but once when he asked why we were sitting there in his dojo, I raised my hand and replied in a clear voice, “I don’t know.”
“Ah” sensei said. “Finally someone with an honest answer!”
“If you don’t know why you’re here, why waste your time?”
“Well” I replied, “Studying Aikido helps me understand that a lot of what I think I know, doesn’t hold up when put to the test. A lot of what I do, I have no idea why I do it. Aikido is a mirror that helps me look at myself and realize my inadequacies as well as my strengths.”
Sensei smiled and said, “Not a bad answer. It’s good to realize there’s so much you don’t know, as long as you have the confidence to know you’re capable of learning.”
“Everyone comes to class wanting something, Few people come with the idea of first giving. If you’re filled with wanting, there’s no room inside you for giving. A hungry man hoards his food, he doesn’t share it with others. On the other hand, if you’re filled with knowledge, there’s no room inside you for learning.”
“If you focus on wanting to perfect your technique you’ll lose sight of why you’re here. If you focus on why you’re here, your technique will suffer. Without good technique, your reason for being here will have little value.”
“You need to pay attention, understanding you won’t know what you missing until after you’ve found it. When you stop fighting with yourself, you’ll realize you already have everything you need. Already having everything you need, you’ll be much more willing to give to others. The more you give, the less there is to defend. If you get to the point where you have nothing to defend, you’ll discover there’s nothing to attack. Having learned this, you’ll likely realize you have little need for the techniques you’ve learned. Then you’ll be ready to take your learning to a new depth of self discovery.”
“You see” he said, “I ask these questions and say these things, because your reason for being here determines who you are and what you will learn.”