From the Exoteric to the Esoteric, by Mahipal Lunia, Sensei

It has been an interesting few months. Among a number of events, I lost the entire crop of my senior students at my little dojo. This forced my hand to teach relative newcomers into the arts of Aiki-in-yo-ho.

It has been a blessing and a curse.

A blessing in that I get to see the basics again but a curse for I too, have to begin again. The new students are blessed with a matured teacher and cursed with his sea of advanced information.

This has forced me to reexamine how the art is presented to ensure it lands. For this nomenclature and morphology (the study of forms) has to be well understood. To quote the German philosopher Martin Heidegger 

"Language is the house of being." 

How we frame and understand what we do pretty much forms the context we find ourselves living in. Thus the language, nomenclature, has to be agreed upon and understood well.

Terms like 'attributes, techniques, concepts and principles' can cause a lot of confusion. 

Let's clear it up. 


Attribute:-  is "a quality or feature regarded as a characteristic or inherent part of someone or something." Examples of attributes include 

  • Speed
  • Power
  • Balance
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Endurance
  • Mobility
  • Co-ordination
  • Rhythm
  • Timing
  • Visual Acuity

Most schools spend time developing specific attributes, cementing the system's biases. Certain schools will emphasize flexibility, agility and speed as in TKD and Eskrima. Others may emphasize power, endurance and co-ordination like Old school Kempo, boxing. Still others may emphasize timing, mobility and balance (Aiki, Bagua etc.). 

Attributes are the fuel system of a fight. Inferior fuel leadto inferior performance (fight). Super charge your fuel, supercharge your performance potential. Want quick noticeable results in your art? Want to hack your performance? Tweak the attributes you work on. 

Mastering attributes means: Functional Fitness. Aesthetics. Others envy.

Technique:- or as the Japanese arts call them, Waza. These are set methods of executing the Yi/Ki/Will. Examples of it 

  • Kihon-waza (basic techniques such as boubisuri and taisabaki) 
  • Te-Waza (hand techniques) 
  • Geri-waza (kicks)

When bound together in a prearranged shape, techniques become Kata. The heart of most systems comprises of practice sets, kata, 2-man forms. This is the birthplace of codifying stylistic differences. Within our art these kata show up as

  • Atemi (striking techniques), counters (sensen no sen, senzen no sen and gonosen), and Keiraku (use of meridians for 'neutralization of body strength')
  • Seigyo (controls/Locks) and Gaeshi (reversals)
  • Nage (throwing methods) and Otoshi (methods of dropping)
  • Kenjutsu (sword), Jojutsu (staff), Obi waza (tying methods) and Tessenjutsu (fan) forms

Mastering technique means:Tradition. Solid replication. Correct presentation. 

Upon transcending prearranged form, arriving at a spontaneous unravelling of techniques, we get 

  • Shadow Boxing as an example of empty hand freeflow as we see in boxing, kickboxing and sport fighting
  • Carenza as an example of freeform with weapons with the SE Asian arts
  • Free style Kata as an example of stylistic expression of ones attributes

Mastering this spontaneity means: Liberation. Personal Expression. Signature.

Attributes and Techniques train the brain. But as we start to go into Concepts and Principles, it is about training the mind. Such a different beast.The Nobel Laureate, and an early inspiration of mine, Dr. Buckminister Fuller, beautifully explained the difference: 

"The difference between mind and brain is that brain deals only with memorized, subjective, special-case experiences and objective experiments, while mind extracts and employs the generalized principles and integrates and interrelates their effective employment. Brain deals exclusively with the physical, and mind exclusively with the metaphysical."

The brain/body are the realm of physical, the exoteric.

So let's journey from the exoteric, into the esoteric.

Concepts:- or as the Japanese say Gainen (概念) which means the outline/wish/idea. Concept is a compressed experience packaged as a generic idea. We follow this idea to to deal with violence. A concept can birth a thousand techniques that stay true to the "generic idea" or "shape". The techniques may adhere to a particular style or be a personal expression, never the less they emerge as spontaneous henka/variations of the waza/technique. 

As an example, Aiki is a key concept for our school. The term Aiki means Harmony, and in the old days, actually meant timing. The concept of Aiki (harmonizing or timing) with an opponent has 5 methods. These are 

  • Tenshin (means Divine Will. Here the attack simply unleashes)
  • Bubisuru (Parrying, while moving into a superior position) 
  • Go-No-Sen (Parry & Counter while taking choices away from the opponent) 
  • Sen-Sen-No-Sen (Stop hitting/Intercepting)
  • Sen-Zen-No-Sen (Attack by Drawing, feigning retreat and coming back in) 

This one concept of timing, gives birth to at least 5 methods. These methods unfold thousands of possibilities/henka, while staying true to the concept.

Real magick begins to unfold when we cross pollinate concepts. For example when one marries a FMA concepts (of say "defanging the snake") with the JMA concepts (of say "Go-No-Sen" or "Sen-Sen-No Sen"),  it gives birth a to whole new level of techniques/henka, that at once includes and transcends both systems. 

Mastering concepts means:Freedom. Expansion. Alchemy.

Principles:- In the Japanese arts there are at least two kanji and ways to look at the notion of principle. One term is "ri" commonly used to express ideas such as "Ju-No-Ri" meaning principle of softness. Ri/principle is an encapsulation of of "how softness shows up everywhere, especially in the Budo.The second kanji refers to "Tessoku," or the iron law or immutable law. These are immovable laws and I understand them as the Laws of Nature or higher intelligence. Laws we can leverage, but not command. These are laws of nature such as

  • Negentropy and entropy 
  • Spiraling (no straight lines) 
  • Gravity 
  • Opposing forces (law of opposites)
  • Sacred geometry (as language of nature)

Mastering principles means: Crystallization. Artful Emergence.

A student asked "Sensei, the 9 Principles of Japanese Aesthetic, are these natural principles like Ri or Tessoku?"

This was a great question. I had long struggled with it, unable to classify it as a concept or principle. One could argue it both ways. But then, an epiphany hit, "We do need to make one more distinction here, that of tenet. A tenet is a pillar within a worldview."

"For example, one hears of the Wabi-Sabi a lot when we discuss Japanese Aesthetic. Wabi-Sabi is the acceptance of imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness as beauty. To achieve this etheric state of Wabi Sabi, 7 conditions or tenets have to present." (for a more detailed breakdown look up Wikipedia)

  • Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity
  • Kanso: simplicity
  • Koko: basic, weathered
  • Shizen: natural, absence of pretense
  • Yugen: subtle grace, not obvious
  • Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free
  • Seijaku: tranquility

"Within the worldview of Wabi-Sabi, these 7 conditions are seen as principles. But in my opinion they neither follow the notion of Ri or Tessoku. They are tenets that hold together a worldview, a belief system and a certain way of being. "

How do you know you are in the realm of true principle? Again, Dr. Bucky Fuller comes to the rescue

"Principles never contradict principles. . . . The synergetic integral of the totality of principles is God, whose sum-total behavior in pure principle is beyond our comprehension and is utterly mysterious to us, because as humans — in pure principle — we do not and never will know all the principles."
"Principles are not dependent on a worldview, they would apply to all arts.  How they choose to leverage the principles gives birth to specific concepts, and they can transcend arts. The unpacking of the concepts in a specific worldview gives birth to systemic/stylistic techniques. And what packs/fuels the techniques are your attributes."
"Plato referred to the hierarchical links that went from the most foundational elements through the highest perfection as the Great Chain of Being. I think of this journey from attributes to pure principle as the Great Chain to Martial Being."
"The fastest way to accelerate performance for a beginner is to go from the gross to the subtle. From the exoteric to the esoteric. This is the journey from attributes to techniques to concepts and finally principle itself. An advanced practitioner with a good base of techniques, can jump start right of the bat into other concepts and principles."

It was a heavy lesson. So I wanted to ground it a little more, make the esoteric more exoteric. "The principle of gravity and opposing forces (yin yang) apply to all arts.  We specifically use the concepts of Tai Sabaki (Body Positioning), Toate no Jutsu (unbalancing the body and mind of the opponent, some arts call it kiai jutsu), Tai Ichi (moving the body as one whole) and RyuHa ( strategic methods of the school). These concepts can be used across many other arts by a skilled practioneer.  However the specific mix of TaiSabaki, Toate no Jutsu, Tai Sabaki, Tai Ichi and RyuHa give rise to a very specific worldview - our art. Within this worldview, we follow certain tenets and this gives birth to very specific techniques/waza/kata.  The mastery of these techniques require honing of certain attributes like timing, balance, flow. 

The easiest way to approach when learning new arts/skills is the exoteric to the esoteric. Climb the ladder of Martial Being if you will.  Pay your dues with attribute development, make the techniques functional, conceptualize and generalize them in a way to move the learning around, and finally hope to get to the the essence/principle of it all.

This is a radical simplification. The forever removing of the superfluous until a deep crystallization of principle emerges. This is elegance and effortless perfection - a state of shibumi. This is as esoteric as it gets. But you have to start with the attributes and build up. 

The Great Chain of Martial Being.

The same student asked again "The Principle is the goal then?"

"Beyond principle is the primodial soup. The field of all possibilities. The Atman, the Godhead. The real YOU. Enough for today!" I concluded as we bowed out.

Train Hard, Train Smart.

Mahipal Lunia