The 108 Aikido Meditation Practice
Chaos devolves into order, stillness... a stone is
moved; the brass bowl gonged.
I arrived late for an afternoon class being taught
by Tom Gambell Sensei at the San Rafael Summer Retreat several
years ago. Perhaps because I had already decided to 'sit this one
out', I was not concerned about missing the first few minutes -
probably just the warm-ups, anyway. But the scene that unfolded
before me in the large, gymnasium-turned-dojo was unlike any class
I had ever seen.
|There was activity
all over the mat, but as I tried to make out what technique had
been demonstrated and was being practiced, I could not.
The first pair that I focused on seemed to be doing
different techniques between them. So I concentrated on another
pair only to discover that they were doing something altogether
different. Everywhere I looked for a clue as to what technique had
been taught only brought more confusion.
And then I realized that people were - on their own
- stopping their training and were sitting in seiza, eyes closed,
facing each other. Here and there scattered around the mat. At
first just a few, then more, until all the confusion, noise, and
energy had dissipated and was replaced by a tidy array of aikidoka-pairs
Here was something different as well: there was no
talking. There had been an absence of speaking among training partners
as they trained, but now there was also no 'instruction'.
Gambell Sensei, sitting in seiza near the shomen,
struck a small brass bowl gong and the pattern of 'chaos' returned.
What was this new practice? Where did it come from?
Recently, I asked Gambell Sensei to write an article for our website
about the origin of the 108.
|[Michael Smith Sensei, Aikido of
Here is his reply:
108 Aikido Meditation Practice
by Tom Gambell
There's an expression attributed to Meher Baba that goes something
like, "Things that are real are given and received
in silence." As I mulled over the creation of my "108"
aikido meditation practice for this article, I realized that, in
an unexpected way, this practice has its roots in such silence.
The notion of an aikido
practice where one does 108 repetitions of the same technique in
a single training session first came to my attention sometime in
the mid-70's, shortly after I started aikido. This tidbit of aikido
lore, mentioned in passing by someone who had never done it, nor seen
it done anywhere, intrigued me. From time to time over the next 20
years, I would ask senior practitioners of the art about it. I expected
one day to run into someone who had done it or who could, at the very
least, answer some of my questions about how the practice was done
After two decades of waiting
patiently for clues about its history and structure, the silence
surrounding my curiosity became deafening. It gradually dawned on
me that if I wanted to experience the 108, I would have to create
some semblance of the practice myself. So I did. During the fall of
1995, I developed my own version by weaving together silence, movement
and seated meditation. When I shared my creation with my students on
November 18, 1995 to mark the 7th Anniversary of my dojo, East Bay Aikido,
everyone loved it. In fact, they loved it so much that we did it again
to mark our last training day of that year.
I was thrilled. And worried.
It was thrilling to have finally found a way to express the ritual
and spiritual part of my practice in such a simple and profound way.
At the same time, I was worried that by turning this curious myth
into an experiential reality I had - O'Sensei forbid - "made up" something
that did not follow the letter and law of tradition that was handed
down to me by my teachers.
I didn't stay worried for
long, however. My own interest and personal need to bring the
spiritual part of my practice to the center of my experience outweighed
any concern I might have had that I would offend tradition by expressing
my own creative drive. After all, isn't that what O'Sensei did?
Having intuitively created
the practice, the next step was to repeat it several times to
see if it needed any refining. To accomplish this, in 1996 we began
a year-long ritual during which we marked each full moon by doing
the 108 aikido meditation practice followed by a "waterfall" misogi
outside in the light of the moon. The intensity and beauty of this
extended lunar ritual deeply touched those students who embraced its
spirit of inner exploration and outer purification.
During the course of the year,
it became evident to me that no adjustments to my original format
were necessary. Out of the combined energies of silence, curiosity
and imagination, a wonderful format had emerged already complete in
itself. And over the coming years, I would use it often to deepen my own
training while marking special occasions.
The first major "public"
offering of the 108 outside my own dojo was in June, 1997, when
I was invited by Frank Doran Sensei and Robert Nadeau Sensei to
be a guest instructor at their annual Aikido Summer Retreat in San
Rafael, California. The response to my Tuesday class where I introduced
the 108 was welcoming and encouraging. So much so, that I decided to
do it again on Thursday so that some of the students who had not attended
the earlier class could also experience it.
In the last five years here
at East Bay Aikido, we've done the 108 practice to mark all sorts
of special training occasions. We've done it on Tai Sai to commemorate
O'Sensei's passing, on Solstices and Equinoxes to mark the turning
of the seasons, on the dojo's Anniversary, on Setsubun for the purification
of the dojo, as well as other times when it felt like time to break
our regular training patterns. This year I began preparing my junior
students (6-13) for the practice by introducing them to an abbreviated
format. Although we haven't yet achieved complete silence, nor reached
our goal of 108 repetitions, the enthusiasm displayed by these young
aikidoka who so eagerly alternate movement with seated meditation
bodes well for the future of aikido.
There are many aspects of
the format that I love. One of my favorites is the breath-like rhythm
of the activity-to-silence, silence-to-activity cycle. The mat slowly
becomes quiet as pairs of partners finish each set. Then sound reemerges
as everyone rises from their bows to begin another set. It's as though,
through our movement and meditation, we are inhaling and exhaling a giant
I also enjoy the more formal,
ritual aspect of the practice. Sometimes my daily aikido practice
becomes a bit, how should I say, casual. At such times, doing a 108
reminds me of the deep respect I hold for my training, myself and my
partner. The frequent bowing and then sitting facing each other reminds
me how important each person is to my training and how lucky we are to
have been given this gift of aikido from O'Sensei.
Over the years, a lot of
people have commented on the practice, sharing their feelings and
impressions with me. Out of them all, my favorite is a comment
by someone from the Tuesday 108 during the 1997 Summer Retreat.
Right after the practice was over, I noticed someone weaving their way
through the group toward me. He had a big smile on his face. He
waited while I finished speaking to another person and then when
I turned to face him, he just bowed and said, "Thank you. Thank
you for that practice. That's the first time in the 2 years since
I started aikido that I've spent an hour on the mat training with no
one telling me what to do. It was great just being able to do the movements.
I loved it!" I smiled back because that's another one of the aspects
that I also love about it. By the way, he was one of the first people on
the mat for the Thursday 108.
For those of you who may wish to do a 108
practice, here's the format that I use:
Everyone chooses a technique that they will do for the entire training.
Any technique may be selected. However, if this is your first time
experiencing the format, I suggest choosing a simple technique that
does not require an elaborate pin. (Or leave the pin off.) Also, I suggest
that if your technique has an omote and ura version, that you choose
either the omote or ura version and stick with that for the whole time.
Simplifying the movement part of the practice allows one to focus more
deeply on the inner aspects of the practice. Also, choose a technique that
you are at least moderately familiar with. This is not the time to "learn"
a new technique. This is a time to "deepen."
After a short warm-up,
we do a bit of tai no henko to settle the energy in the room. Then
the meditation bell rings once. Everyone sits down in seiza where
they are, facing their tai no henko training partner. Space yourselves
evenly on the mat, with enough room between partners to bow easily. When
the bell rings again (ONCE), everyone bows to their partner, gets up
and does their first set of techniques together. A silent gesture at the
beginning of the set indicates which grab or strike is desired (e.g.,
a fist toward ones stomach indicates "mune tsuki," pointing to one's shoulder
indicates "kata dori," etc.)
A "set" of techniques is when each person has done 4 techniques.
However, instead of the usual "4-4" pattern where you do 4, then your
partner does their 4, the 108 format is 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4. You do your
first one, then your partner does their first one; you do your second
one, then your partner does their second one; you do your third one,
then your partner does their third one; you do your fourth one, then your
partner does their fourth one.
When both people have completed
this alternating set of 4, they sit down where they are, face each
other, bow, and wait in silence until everyone in the room has finished
their set and is also sitting. After a short pause the bell rings
(ONCE). Everyone bows to their partner, gets up and does a second
set with the same partner. At the end of the second set, you sit, bow,
and wait for everyone to finish their second set. After a pause, the
bell rings again and everyone gets up to do a third set with the same
At the end of the third set, after everyone is sitting, there is
a pause and then the bell rings TWICE. The two rings let everyone
know that it is time to bow to their current partner, then rise and
change partners. Once a new partner is found, everyone sits in seiza
spaced evenly on the mat and waits for the bell to signal the start
of the first of the next three sets with this new partner.
This pattern continues
until a total of 108 techniques have been completed. (Everyone will
have a total of nine different partners.) At the end of the 108, the
bell is rung THREE times and everyone does kokyu dosa with their last
partner. After each pair completes one set of kokyu dosa (we only do
one set here), they wait in silence until the final bell rings ONCE.
Everyone then returns to the line and we bow out.
the training, I use rocks from under our shomen to keep track of
the count. I place one rock on the mat at the beginning of each set.
When three rocks have been grouped, I know it is time to ring the
bell TWICE to signal a partner change.
Initially, I tried to keep
the count in my head, but I quickly learned that too much of
my attention was absorbed with remembering the count. I wanted
to feel more of what was happening in my body. So I began using rocks.
Letting the rocks keep track allows the practice to move much more
deeply within me since I can slip into the timelessness of the moment
without worrying that we will do 1,008 techniques before I notice.
I also enjoy the soft clicking of the rocks as I arrange them in
groups of three. Nine groups of three rocks each signals that the
training has come to completion.
During the seated meditation
parts, drop deeply inside yourself just noticing, not judging,
your experience. Pay attention to your breath and notice any feelings
you might have in your body. If a thought appears, let it go and
come back to your breath. Some people like to close their eyes during
this time and some people prefer to keep their eyes slightly open and
cast downward in the space between them and their partner. Either way
The 108 takes about an
hour to complete - sometimes longer, sometimes less. During the
training some students may need to sit out for a while or get off the
mat for some reason. That's OK. It is not uncommon for someone to
feel dizzy, lightheaded or overheated. That's OK. The 108 tends to
bring things up - especially energetic things.
Remember, the 108 is meant
to be an edifying ritual, not an agonizing ordeal. (Although, it
can be intense.) If you need to sit out for a while or get off the
mat, take care of yourself. You might not complete all 108 techniques,
but you did enter into the spirit of the ritual. And after all, this
willingness to "enter in" (irimi) and open to new experiences may
be the most enlivening aspect of our practice together.
If you have any questions or comments about the
108, feel free to contact me either by e-mail or phone (510) 531-0303.
I would enjoy hearing about your experiences.
Photos by Michael Smith Sensei,
taken at Aikido of Monterey.
This article is also available on the California Aikido Association's website.