Commusings: The Aikido of Love by Terry Dobson

Jun 02, 2023

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Dear Commune Community,

I am no snail on the road, but you wouldn’t confuse me for Mario Andretti. I tend to woolgather behind the wheel, hovering innocuously 5 miles per hour above the posted speed limit. Snug in the middle lane, I’ll become engrossed in the piano stylings of Bill Evans. You must listen to his astounding rendition of “Danny Boy.” Or I’ll get immersed in an audio book. I’m currently listening to “A Hunter-Gatherers Guide to the 21st Century.” Brilliant. I’ve given up on rushing because every time I was in a hurry, I seemed to arrive late. And a frantic journey is always a dismal one. Now, I just enjoy the ride.

Admittedly, my equanimous driving style can aggravate those with greater urgency. From time to time, an impatient tailgater will lean aggressively into their horn. In my younger days, a blaring klaxon might have elicited a hostile reaction. Thankfully, I’m getting wiser. More than 550 people were shot in road rage incidents in the U.S. in 2022.

Now, I respond to belligerent drivers with an enthusiastic wave and a huge smile. I give them the impression that I think they recognize me from somewhere. Sometimes, they’ll pull up beside me at a red light poised to scream expletives. I’ll just keep waving exuberantly and ask them if I might have met them at the Grateful Dead show. Generally, they are so flummoxed by my cheeriness that it pops their rage balloon and they move on. Sometimes, I even get a laugh.

I’ve been practicing this effective, albeit annoying, pastime for about a decade. It wasn’t until I listened to Alan Watts recount the tale of the great Samurai Miyamoto Musashi that I realized I was part of the “No Sword School.”

The "No Sword School" is a philosophical approach to martial arts, particularly those from Japan, which can also be applicable in broader life scenarios. The concept is primarily one of non-attachment and adaptability. 

In the context of martial arts, the "No Sword School" approach signifies the state of mind where the practitioner does not rely on their weapon, but rather their awareness and understanding of the situation at hand. In a broader philosophical sense, the "No Sword School" is a method of peaceful conflict resolution.

Today’s essay by Terry Dobson is a marvelous example of the “No Sword School.” Terry was the first America aikido master trained in Japan. He told this story, which took place in the early 1960s, to his dear friend Ram Dass, who often referred to it. I hope you enjoy.

Here at [email protected] and driving the speed limit on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,

• • •

The Aikido of Love

By Terry Dobson

The train clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty — a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk, and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. 

I stood up.

I was young then, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearly every day for the past three years. I like to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

“Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard. I even went so far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

“This is it!” I said to myself, getting to my feet. “People are in danger and if I don’t do something fast, they will probably get hurt.”

Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” He roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!”

I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

“All right!” He hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.

A split second before he could move, someone shouted, “HEY!” 

It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it — as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he suddenly stumbled upon it. 


I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly.

The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” 

The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer.

“What’cha been drinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. 

“I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” 

Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake, too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening — even when it rains!” 

He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. 

“Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons too…” His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” 

Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. 

“I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I am so ashamed of myself.” 

Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed, youthful innocence, and make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. 

“My, my,” he said, “that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of combat. 

Terry Dobson was a holder of a fifth-degree black belt in aikido, coauthor of “Aikido in Everyday Life,” and author of the book “It’s a Lot Like Dancing: An Aikido Journey,” among other works. He died in 1992 at age 55. Published with permission by Riki Moss.

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