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The Principles of the Circle, the Square and the Triangle

Aikido is a martial art which was founded by the Japanese martial arts master Morihei Ueshiba (1883- 1969).  In Aikido he has the title O Sensei (meaning ‘great teacher’). This art focuses on harmonizing its practitioners (Aikidokas) with the energy of the universe. The Aikidoka harmonises with the movement of his/her opponent to neutralize the opponent’s attack rather than conflicting with it, the aim is for the resolution of the conflict without anyone being injured.  That does not mean that the person acquiesces to the opponent ‘s attack but moves in unison with it controlling the centre and thus changing its structure. Two components can be identified in an attack, the attacker (uke) and the person being attacked (nagi or tori). If the person being attacked re-aligns his/her position in relation to the attacker then the attack will fail.

O Sensei used three principles to help his students understand the concepts of the movements and techniques used in what they are learning. They are the principles of the circle (marui), the square (shikaku) and the triangle (sankaku). O Sensei was a deeply religious man (although it is emphasized that Aikido is not a religion) and often used these symbols to illustrate some of the principle of ichirei-shikon-sangen-hachiriki, that is One Spirit, Four Souls, Three Fundamentals and Eight Powers which is a framework he believed to be present in every religious cosmology.

One Spirit is the single source of creation and is omni-present, in Aikido it is the seed of kototama SU from which KA-MI (fire and water) arose and thus all other components of existence.

The Four Souls are the

Kushi-mitama associated with heaven and the principle of centralization. This is the source of wisdom, clarity and virtue.

Ara-mitama associated with fire and the principle of industriousness. It is the source of courage, valour and progress.

Nigi-mitama associated with water and the principle of consolidation. It is the source of empathy, trust and respect.

Sachi-mitama associated with the Earth and the principle of differentiation. It is the source of love and compassion

The Three Fundamentals (for which O Sensei uses the symbols of the Circle, the Square and the Triangle) are

Iku musubi (or iku-tama) the vivifying fundamental, it is the dimension of ki-flow symbolizing initiative and Masakatsu. The triangle is the key to entering.

Taru-musubi (taru-tama) the completing fundamental, it is the dimension of liquid symbolizing unification and Agatsu. The circle is the key to blending.

Tamatsume-musubi (tamatsume-tama) the fulfilling fundamental, it is the dimension of solidity symbolizing form and Katsuhayabi. The square is the key to control.

Finally, the eight powers (which sustain creation) being

movement and stillness

solidification and fluidity

extension and contraction

unification and division

 

“The body should be triangular, the mind circular. The triangle represents the generation of energy and is the most stable physical posture. The circle symbolises serenity and perfection, the source of unlimited techniques. The square stands for solidity, the basis of applied control.”

O Sensei

 

A triangle can be seen as having two angles at the bottom and one at the point, the two lower angles can be imagined as a stable platform and the angle at the point as the Atemi. It can be compared to entering techniques (irimi) giving the impression of direct movement as opposed to turning techniques (tenkan) or avoidance movement (tai-sabaki).

Circle comes from the Japanese word Ju meaning soft or gentle. The concept arising from Ju entails pushing when pulled and pulling when pushed. A circular technique is not direct, it is to be like a ball rolling with the attacks effectively paralyzing them. Many Aikido techniques give the appearance of the attacker co-operating with the person being attacked and in a sense this is what happens. The attacker is the person providing the force, strength and opportunity, the Aikidoka merely guides the attacker’s force until the opportunity presents itself for the attack to be defeated. Circles are not stable in the ordinary sense of the word but as they are constantly moving they never fall (can a ball be made to fall over?). If all the possible circular and semicircular movements around the centre of an Aikidoka are combined into one image, the result is a sphere - rather a dynamic sphere as any attack is directed into any one or combination of circles. The mental attitude of Aikido is centralized and the energy required to carry out a technique is extended outward from the centre. The principle or circularity is an ancient one and can be found in many martial arts (for example, Chinese Pa-Kua boxing, the sword and dagger techniques in many European fencing schools or it can be seen in early demonstrations of Judo). It should be noted though that, unlike Chinese yin-yang with two centres, the Aikido circle will only have one centre for both attacker and Aikidoka.

A square is a stable and strong position. When O Sensei drew a square he often wrote the word go (strength). A square is made up of four ninety degree angles and O Sensei said that the most effective attack would be at a ninety degree angle. Unlike the triangle and circle, it lacks movement as it plays from strength, it is grounded and dependable. It is not as easy to visualize in a technique as the triangle and circle but it is the mental and physical stability needed while in kamae (ready stance), the Aikidoka must be grounded for any technique he/she performs to be effective.

 

These symbols should not be restrictive in any way, they are simply a visual aid in practice for the Aikidoka . They are constantly changing, a technique can start from a square, move into a triangle and finish up as a circle. These symbols are appropriate in day-to-day life in our behaviour towards others, it can be seen that a person who is a:-

centred triangle is direct and takes the initiative, an uncentred triangle can be arrogant and bullying.

centred circle sees other points of view, is fair and accepting. An uncentred circle is flighty, impressionable and cowardly.

centred square is calm allowing other persons to be calm and at ease whereas an uncentred square is stuck unable to move and thus unwieldy.

They express the purpose of Aikido which in the words of O Sensei “is not merely training yourself in the techniques of bujutsu. Its other purpose is the creation of a world of beauty grace and elegance. It is to make this world a better place, a world of joy. As I am always saying, God gave us this world, and the world is all one family. We have the continued privilege of enjoying its beauty and splendour. It is our obligation, as human beings, to establish a society that does justice to that beauty and splendour. Our goal in budo is not merely to protect ourselves. We must accept the gift of the divine love of God and constantly strive to honour that gift by nurturing the changes that will bring happiness to the world. If we truly honour the sacred heart of budo, we must work for peace, for a world without quarrels, without misery, without conflict. This is the real reason we practice Aikido. Aikido is a way of making the universal principle clear. Its purpose is to create a reasonable and logical world. The society that harmoniously combines body and mind produces a world of unity. We ourselves must take the responsibility to realize the heart and mind of God.”

John Rogers, Shodan, Koshinkan Aikido Society

   
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