Sunday, October 28, 2012

The vinegar tasters

Frank and I face off. I move quickly toward him, a wooden practice knife -- or, tanto -- gripped firmly in my right hand. At the last moment before I enter Frank's space, I playfully switch  the tanto to my left hand and jab him lightly in the ribs, throwing off his defense and forcing him to adapt his technique. Frank laughs and smiles that brilliant, open smile of his. "Thank you!" he exclaims, with a twinkle in his eye. He has accepted what was given him and learned something from the exchange.

In the last several months, I've started training in aikido, a Japanese martial art brought to this country back in the 1970s by a man named Mitsugi Saotome. Aikido is appealing to me on a number of levels, but it's how my fellow dojo-members -- especially my teachers -- respond to the practice that makes it feel somehow right for me.

When the technique's essence is captured, and the uke (attacker) finds him- or herself hitting the mat, there is almost always a smile, a laugh, a congratulatory "Yes!" or "Nice!" to the nage (defender). The energy in the room is light, playful, happy. And, yet, we are engaged in attack and defense.

As I've been training over the past several months, I've had this funny, nagging bit of memory knocking at the back of my brain every time someone falls to the ground with a smile or a laugh. It finally broke through: The Three Vinegar Tasters.

The Three Vinegar Tasters is a painting that comes from Eastern tradition and its story goes something like this: Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu are pictured around a vat of vinegar, which represents life. Each of the men has dipped his finger into the vat and tasted the vinegar, and his facial expression reflects the nature of his philosophy about life. Confucius wears a sour expression; Buddha's grimace is bitter. Lao Tzu, however, smiles with an expression of "Ah, yes!" And why shouldn't he?

Life is, after all, perfectly itself.

In my observations, martial artists can also be vinegar tasters. Certainly, some wear sour expressions as they practice. Some look angry or bitter. Many look as though the practice is a strain. But I somehow landed in with the smilers. So, in addition to feeling (especially on some Saturday mornings) like I've just walked into a roomful of rowdy brothers, a pile of squirmy puppies, or a gang of otters at play, I now also associate my dojo-mates' smiles as they tumble and roll with the smile of Lao Tzu. There's an "Ah, yes!" expression on their faces as they learn  from the energy they exchange with one another. Any why wouldn't there be?

That energy -- attacking, defending, moving in agreement -- is perfectly itself.

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