Aiki Soku Seikatsu

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Merci, Guy Lafleur.

Guy Lafleur passed away last week …

A sad day for hockey.

When I heard the news, my thoughts immediately turned towards my childhood. I could see Lafleur charging down the ice — he played right wing — hair flowing, finessing his way through the opposition, scoring, smiling, celebrating. He was a national hero for my generation and a consummate gentleman of hockey — highly skilled, full of grace, class and composure — a truly wonderful ambassador for Canadian sport. May he rest in peace.

I had the great fortune to grow up in a tranquil suburb nestled along the shores of the West Island of Montreal. It was an idyllic 1950s style neighbourhood with simple houses all built in similar states of egalitarian modesty. It was the kind of place where people looked out for one another, the kind of place where parents told their kids: “Come home when the street lights come on.”

We spent our summers in The Woods or playing sports at Sunnyside Park. Our winters were another story. They were spent dreaming that we played for Les Canadiens or that we were “The Flower” himself. As it turns out, street hockey out in front of our house was where we learned some of the most important lessons of our childhoods. Buffeted by the banks of snow that lined both sides of the street, we learned how to get along and how to fight, how to stand out, and how to stand back. We learned joy and pain, and winning and losing.

I look back at those days fondly and consider them to be deeply formative of the self that I am evolving towards. The environment, friendships, accomplishments and struggles all play key roles in the person I am today. This is not so surprising, I suppose. More interesting is that in those childhood moments I had absolutely no inkling of the lessons I was learning. It is only with the razor-sharp eyes of retrospect that I consider that there were even lessons to learn.

I suspect that each of us has our own touchstones in time like this. These are the locations in our past that we think of as particularly formative — places and times where the spirits and lessons of the past speak to us, remind us and guide us. These are the places in our worlds where rituals come alive, where we embark on journeys together, where we congregate to struggle, sweat, and bond together. We grow, broaden our perspectives, and gain insights we might not otherwise have achieved.

In short, these are the dojo of our pasts. Places of the way. Places of our own ways.

Aikido and life are one. (Aiki soku seikatsu.)

Gozo Shioda

As we look back at these dojo, we realize that these were places and times where everyday occurrences had lasting impacts upon us. Taken collectively, what they teach us is that everyday life is, in fact, constantly teaching us, constantly urging us to be better, regardless of what we are doing or who we are with or where we are. This striving to be better … isn’t this why we go to the dojo today?

This is the same lesson emphasized in the saying often cited by Shioda Gozo, founder of Yoshinkan Aikido. The saying is said to have originated with Mugaku Sogen (1226 – 1286), who founded the famous Engakuji in Kamakura. Sogen was reminding us that the path is nothing special; that it is always found in everyday life. He wrote:

行住坐臥、 Gyo-Ju-Za-Ga,

一切の時勢、 Issai no jisei,

これ最善の道場 Kore saizen no dojo.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing,

Nothing can compare to this,

This is the ultimate dojo.

The first line — Gyo-Ju-Za-Ga — means literally: “walking, living, sitting, laying down.” It is a metaphor meant to evoke the activities of daily life. By drawing our attention to these seemingly minor details of daily habit, first Sogen and later Shioda, were urging us to take notice, to consider, to absorb and to grow. They were reminding us that learning is not found solely on the mats, but that our daily lives are rich with our most important learning. They were celebrating the deep lessons to be found in the mundane.

By quoting this saying, Shioda reminds us that we must be, and must remain, constantly learning. If the lessons end when we step off the mats, they cannot truly have been very important at all. As Shioda himself writes in AIKIDO JINSEI:

Of course, Aikido training occurs in the dojo, where it is important to master techniques while gaining experience through practice.  However, in the words of the Zen monk, Sogen:

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing,

Nothing can compare to this.

This is the ultimate dojo.

I try never to forget these words and keep them firmly engraved in my mind as my motto.  I would like nothing more than for those who are determined to pursue Aikido to do the same.

I hope that when you are just out for a walk, or being jostled on the train, or having a meal, or whatever else you might be doing, you feel as though this is your ultimate Aikido dojo and that you think of even the slightest thing as being part of your training.

Of course, today, we set time aside to go to our various dojo to learn. We prepare our minds, bodies and spirits to be ready and able to accept that learning and, indeed, we do learn and grow and better ourselves. But this learning must reach beyond the door steps of the dojo. It must seep and ooze and insinuate its way into our daily lives. It must help us to be better.

To fulfill Shioda’s call to action, we need simply to focus on the here and now, drawing what we can from the experiences of daily life and applying our learning to our interactions and encounters. It is a deliberate, conscious and attentive approach. Your dojo learning must inform your life outside the dojo and, symbiotically, your experiences outside the dojo must inform your practice inside the dojo. This is how martial arts training today is supposed to benefit our lives.

Play every game as if it is your last one.

Guy Lafleur

It may have taken 50 years, but Guy LaFleur reinforced some key dojo lessons for me. “Play every game as if it is your last one,” he said. Of course, he was referring to hockey, but it is an ever-so-Canadian echo of a samurai classic. What did he mean? Put your entire heart and being into what you do. Be fully present in your current moment.

Even in my career as a high school teacher, every semester, one student will inevitably and sheepishly approach me — their gaze dripping with expectancy — to ask a simple question. “Sir, have you ever had to use your martial arts in real life?” For many years, my usual answer was always the same: “No, that’s not why I practice.” Somehow, though, about 15 or 20 years ago, I had an insight and began to change the way I responded. Now, when that eager student, anticipating stories of gore or tales of heroism, asks if I have ever used my martial arts, I look them straight in the eye and say: “Every single day.”

Practice well!


Chris Johnston

Chief Instructor, Shindokan Dojo
Aikido Yoshinkai Canada

This blog post is part of a shared series. For more insights into a variety of aikido-related topics please visit the other Aikido Yoshinkai Canada websites:

Aikido Durham

AYC Hamilton

AYC Ottawa