Ei Mei Kan - November - 2009

What's in a Name?

by Tim Sullivan

As a parting gift before leaving the U.K. to take up a job in California, my teacher and fellow-students at Ei Mei Kan gave me a name: that is, a name in Sino-Japanese characters. Read phonetically, it approximates the sound of my English name, but the characters themselves have meaning. I am told that when parents in the East name their children, they choose names that evoke the qualities (virtues) that they hope their child will come to embody: perhaps courage, beauty, or musical ability, to name a few examples. The part of the Sino-Japanese name corresponding to my first name is Tei-mu. Tei (also pronounced tai) means “body”; mu means “no” or “nothing”. So I am “no-body”!

At first sight, this name might seem a bit strange and not exactly complimentary. However, there are several layers of meaning. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is to take it literally: I am nobody! Taken this way, Tei-mu is an admonishment to keep my ego in check, to remain mindful of my small part in the larger scheme of things. Of course, one can go too far in self-denial, perhaps even tending towards a kind of self-neglect or self-hatred.

A second reading of “no body” calls to mind the idea of having no conscious concept of body to interfere with bodily action. After knee surgery in the autumn of 2007, I was keen to get back onto the mats. It took a few weeks to get back onto the mats at all; seiza became fairly comfortable a week or so later; rolls and breakfalls took a few weeks longer; naturally, suwariwaza took the longest. In many ways, my recovery process allowed me to learn more about myself and my aikido than I had learned in all my previous years of life and practice. Shortly after my operation, Mooney-Sensei offered a simple way for me to know that I was “back” after the operation: I would have “no knee”. Indeed, over time, a “good day” for my knee became not a day during which it hurt less, but a day during which it simply functioned without drawing attention to itself. As Shokan-Osho explained after sesshin in May 2007, how do you run without legs? You just run. Therefore, to be called Tei-mu is an exhortation to drop my conceptual and conscious use of my body and just be, just move. Indeed, from a martial point of view, conceptualized responses are simply too slow; even if it is fast, a conceptualized movement is also somehow blocked and unnatural.

The character mu, as well as meaning “no” or “nothing”, can also be interpreted as “emptiness”; it is not an outright negative, but rather a “neither yes nor no”. What can be said of the “empty body”? To quote Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi,

“[I]t is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form, and it has some rules, or theory, or truth in its activity. [...] It has no form or colour, and it is always ready to take form and colour.”

In this sense, Tei-mu is an encouragement to embody complete openness. No one fixed idea or form will do for all situations. As students of Aikido, we are often encouraged to manifest a dynamic state of responsiveness: as uke or as tori, our rôle is to respond to the situation as it is.

In what manner is this response to be executed? In our school, Chiba-Sensei has laid down five pillars for our training that also describe the conditioned response of the Aikido body: centredness, connectedness, wholeness, liveliness and openness. I detect an element of mu-ness in several of these pillars. For example, the response must ultimately involve something physical, but it cannot be merely physical. In my view, this is what is meant when we say that Aikido does not require physical strength; it both does, and does not. The responsive process involves the body, and the “no-body”.

Ultimately, though, there is a sense in which names and their meanings are pointless. There was “Aiki” before O-Sensei; there was meditation before the yogis or the Buddha. The names of these practices — and my name — could change, yet the content would remain the same. What I take as the true content of Tei-mu is that it is a gift from my teacher and friends, and a token of those valued relationships.


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