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.
For about a year, I trained in aikido, a Japanese martial art brought to this country back in the 1970s by a man named Mitsugi Saotome. Aikido was appealing to me on a number of levels, but it was how my fellow dojo-members — especially my teachers — responded to the practice that made 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 was light, playful, happy. And, yet, we were engaged in attack and defense.
As I trained over those months, I had this funny, nagging bit of memory knocking at the back of my brain every time someone fell 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’d just walked into a roomful of rowdy brothers, a pile of squirmy puppies, or a gang of otters at play, I also associated my dojo-mates’ smiles as they tumbled and rolled with the smile of Lao Tzu. There was an “Ah, yes!” expression on their faces as they learned from the energy they exchanged with one another. Any why wouldn’t there be?
That energy — attacking, defending, moving in agreement — is perfectly itself.
These are a few of the moments I captured and recorded after our Saturday morning training sessions. These people made me laugh, made me bruise, and brought me back into myself at a time when I felt so very, very lost. I am grateful to them all.