The Parable of Poison is an old Taoist lesson that speaks to the heart of Aikido.
Two brothers are farmers that have cultivated the land their whole lives. One brother grows his crops to feed others and help his community. The other brother grows plants in the pursuit of profit and riches, and secretly nurtures many poisonous plants for sickening his enemies. The first brother is strong and hale because he is loved by many, cared for when he is ill, and surrounded by a great family. The second brother is bent, grey and crooked, and filled with pains and illness because it was impossible to cultivate poison without it seeping into the soil and water he drank, and into his very skin and bones.
Two brother practiced Kung Fu side by side their entire lives. Each day they exercised the same movements, and they strove with equal discipline, skill, and ability. Each rose to great and equal renown for their prowess and skill. One brother trained for the purpose of protecting others from injustice, and to build health and wisdom that he could use to serve and teach others. The other brother trained for the purpose of gaining fame and adulation, for destroying and casting down enemies, and to hide from his own fears and insecurities. The people of the land always commented how the first brother had the body of a young man, and the face and smile of a wise sage, and were drawn to him for his peace and strength. The people of the land always whispered how the other brother had a body as twisted and old as a juniper tree, and a face and eyes of a viper, and they avoided him out of fear and the unpleasant nature of his dark and suspicious personality.
The main lesson of the parable is clear – the “why” of what you do is at least as important as the “what”. Many martial sports claim they are true “Dó” (spiritual) arts without understanding this simple principle; they cannot see that they are cultivating only to defeat others or gain trophies. The essence of Aikido keiko (training) is different – we strive with all our heart and sincerity to challenge our partners so that they might grow and become stronger, and in return we gain an entire community of sincere and growing friends who do the same for us. Although the result of a successful technique may look similar no matter what art you practice, I like to say that the “victory moment” for sport arts is when the practice partner is lying at one’s feet; in Aikido the “victory moment” is when both partners are surprised and delighted by an unexpected moment of pure Aiki (blending), and both “win”.
There is another lesson from the parable we can study in Aikido. In our training, we practice to release the pain and discomfort received from atemi (strikes) and locks, to not become fixated upon the attack and aggressive energy of our partners, so that we may see the opportunities of the greater situation. This is especially important when training with a tense or defensive partner, or in a multiple attacker situation where the threat reaches right past our thinking minds into our emotional minds.
But it is one thing to try not to cultivate poison in our lives, and another to recognize and understand when poison is given to us by someone else. Anyone who has ever had an emotional conflict with another can recognize the symptoms – a lingering restlessness or nervousness, unsettled thoughts, perhaps an unidentifiable feeling of having done wrong, a physical sensation of queasiness, or even difficulty sleeping. Hollywood teaches us that when we stand up to a villain or wrong minded person and put them in their places, we are the heroes and should feel great! Everyone around us should cheer and admire our bravery. Reality is usually different, and regardless of how you dealt with the situation you may find your inner calm destroyed after a conflict. This is because the other person’s poison has been taken into yourself, and you have not yet let it go!
Proper Aikido Dojos are spiritual temples where we meditate in situations of physical conflict to release physical and emotional tension, distractions and poisons and to discover our inner strength and calm. This gives us the tools to recognize when we find other sources of poison in our lives, and the tools to let the poison go. The farmer often visited his brother without bringing poison back to his own fields, and the Kung Fu sage trained often with his darker brother without losing his own lifetime focus.
Remember the “why” in all of what you do!