So What?

Shinichi Suzuki Sensei’s 
Four Principles

So What?
Do Nothing
Be Natural
Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Onegaishimasu.  Hello everyone.  Let me begin by reading Koichi Tohei Sensei’s Shokushu #17, Reiseishin:

Reiseishin (The Universal Mind)

We, as human beings, are given a mind that is directly connected to the universe.  This is Reiseishin.

Water, when it settles, can clearly reflect the moon.  When our mind becomes calm, Reiseishin expresses itself clearly and unmistakably.  Once this mind arises, in that moment any selfish urges and desires disappear, and the universal mind of love and protection for all things shines forth.

Let us polish our Reiseishin.

Shinichi Suzuki Sensei was recognized by his teacher, Koichi Tohei Sensei, as the first to reach 9th Dan, outside of Japan.  Suzuki Sensei was a master teacher.  However, you might have needed to train with him personally to fully appreciate these four sayings of his. So, please allow me to provide you with a little background. I have been following him as his student for almost 50 years. When he was living, he was the Chief Instructor of Maui Ki Aikido here at the Shunshinkan Dojo in Maui, Hawaii.

Suzuki Sensei was born here on the island of Maui, the oldest child in a family of 10 children. He became a police officer before World War II, and over the years he became a well-known detective. He achieved the rank of Major of detectives. Sensei once told me that the secret to being an effective police officer or detective lies in treating everyone, even the worst criminal, with complete respect and regard. To this attitude and practice he attributes never having to draw his weapon in all his years with the police. When Sensei was ready to retire, they asked him to become Chief of Police, which he considered a great honor, which he told me that he had dearly wanted to accept. However, it was a choice between that and going to Japan to train with Tohei Sensei. That being the more powerful draw, he chose the latter.  This was 1973, the year Koichi Tohei Sensei resigned his position as Chief Instructor of Aikido Headquarters, and introduced his own school strongly emphasizing Ki training, then called “Ki no Kenkyukai.” Therefore, Suzuki Sensei was present and assisted Tohei Sensei with all the important decisions and meetings surrounding this critical transition. During that visit, he remained in Japan acting as otomo for Tohei Sensei for a year and a half. Suzuki Sensei was assigned to the task of handling all foreign correspondence during this period, and for many years after.

When I came to the Maui dojo in the spring of 1974 to investigate Aikido, Suzuki Sensei was still in Japan. So, I didn’t meet him until six months after I started training. Somehow, he and I became very close soon after meeting each other.  However, as close as we were, I never forgot that he was my teacher. This is a very important point.  If you really have a true student-teacher relationship, you have a strong bond, unique and deeply personal, because you are exploring things together that you may never explore with other people. It’s the kind of investigative study that you don’t carry out with just anyone.  In the beginning, there is a huge gap between the teacher and the student, but as time goes on, at least with a genuine student and a trust-worthy teacher, that gap closes until it is no more.

Suzuki Sensei was a great lion at heart. For those of you that knew him and trained with him, you know already that he could be a little scary when you first met him.  His teaching was big, bold, and a roaring assurance of authenticity, exhibiting unparalleled experience. At the same time he was a warm and friendly guy, and fun to hang out with.

All of these things he used to great effect in his teaching, and it was out of this kind of individual that these Four Principles of living arose.”

I offer this brief character sketch in hopes that it will help to add meaning to his Four Principles.

The first of Suzuki Sensei’s Four Principles, “So What?” is designed to help us along the path to equanimity in our relationships with other people and circumstances. Some of us are born with great advantages, while others of us are born quite disadvantaged, and of course there are all shades of this in between.  There is always someone more advantaged than us, to help keep us from being proud. Also, there is always someone more disadvantaged than us, so we must never feel disappointed about whatever our condition is.  In both cases, when we think of our personal position in life as compared to others, we must say to ourselves, “So What?”

To be born into a peaceful society where an education is freely available and where the rule of law is respected is a huge advantage for anyone. This allows us the time, freedom, and hopefully the intelligence, to explore our practice without unnecessary concern or interruptions. At the same time, the life of ease offered through advantages may encourage the taking of circumstances for granted, resulting in what may be the very worst kind of tragedy, which is a wasting of this life of great opportunity.  

On the other hand, it is a disadvantage to be born into society that is chaotic and unruly, one that does not respect the rule of law, education, or the encouragement of equality of opportunity.  This may cause us to have to spend much of our time and energy simply seeking safety and survival for ourselves and our families.  However, while the shock and stress of this kind of life might tend to discourage any kind of formal spiritual training, it very well might instead prompt us to a deeper and more inclusive questioning of our purpose here on earth.   

Since the conditions we each were born into cannot often be changed at will, it is to our advantage to find the benefit of, and gratitude for, any condition in which we find ourselves in this life.  For this reason, Suzuki Sensei presents “So What?” as the first of his Four Principles.

Once we take this view to heart, we can begin to feel the same kind of appreciation for every person and situation that we meet, not just those that appear to be advantageous to us. 

There are many small, even daily, occurrences that may be seen as advantages and disadvantages. Even these are always something to be grateful for. 

This is the kind of even-temperedness that Suzuki Sensei encourages at all times.

These sayings that came from him…they were the result of years and years of his personal exploration into what it means to experience and share with others, this mind-body unification.  The foundation of these principles, of course, he learned at the feet of his teacher, Koichi Tohei Sensei.

Some people, when they hear this “So What?” perceive it to be cynical, but this is a misunderstanding, so please don’t take it this way.  This is not something like saying, “I don’t care.” It’s not like that. It’s not that we don’t care. Maybe “I don’t mind” is more like it. That’s is wise, but we don’t ever say, “I don’t care,” about some one’s difficulty or misfortune. “So What?” is not minding when the weather is hot, not minding when it’s cold, not minding if we’re ill, not minding if we’re getting old, not minding that someone just insulted you. So what? It’s a little bit like saying, well, we’ll see what happens now.

Do you know the story about the farmer and his wife and son? The three of them lived on a farm, and they had a horse, and the horse made all the work possible. It pulled the plow. It pulled the cart. It did everything for them. Their son was a teenager, and he did a lot of work also on the farm.  One night, at the end of the day, the son put the horse away but didn’t properly lock the gate. The horse ran away during the night, and in the morning a neighbor said to the farmer, “Oh no, what are you going to do now? You don’t have a horse anymore. How can you farm?” And the farmer said to him, “We’ll see.”  

The next day, the horse returned with another horse. It had found a friend. So now the farmer had two horses, and the neighbor came over and said, “Wow, you are so fortunate. Now you have two horses,” and the farmer said, “Well, we’ll see.”

The next day the farmer asked his son to train the horse to pull the plow and the cart.  In the process of teaching the horse, the boy fell off the horse and broke his leg.  And so the neighbor came and said, “You poor thing, you’re not going to be able to harvest your crops. Your son can’t even walk.”  And once again, the farmer said, “We’ll see.” 

The next day, the Army came through town and conscripted all the young men to go off to war, except his son, because, of course, his son had a broken leg. 

Of course, this story could go on and on with “Oh, no’s” and “we’ll sees.” But the point is already obvious.  Never assume the worst or the best.  So What?

This is a little like this Covid19 Virus, have you noticed?  Of course, we’re sensible, and we follow the direction that science recommends.  But still, we all have “self-oriented” questions, like we want to know why we have to be cooped up like this, when we can train freely in the dojo again, and will all the students come back and train again with us, etc.  We can’t know these things, of course, so we can only say “We’ll see,” or “So What?” There’s only this right here for us to experience now. 

I am very grateful to be able to relate these stories about Suzuki Sensei. They are often revealing. But please don’t just believe any of this. If anything strikes you as truthful, then find out for yourself if it is or not. If something sounds a bit strange to you, don’t do anything with it at all. Just let it sit there until you can see what it is pointing to. It may take years.  Of course, you’ll have to sit a lot. You’ll have to do the work. I am doing this also, but I cannot do it for you. You have to do it yourself, okay?

When I first came to the Maui Dojo, Suzuki Sensei was training in Japan, so I did not meet him for several months. The first day he returned to the dojo, he walked in and yelled , “Hello, fellas, I’m here.” He put on his gi and hakama, and without hesitation he stepped onto the mat, grabbed a bokken, and chased us all into the corner while pointing the bokken at us while yelling things like “spot!” and “byu!” I was a big guy, and I was right in the corner, and I felt like he was holding me personally with that bokken.  He said, “You don’t understand anything, folks.  This training is shinken shobu, life and death training.” 

It wasn’t long after that when I began hearing “So What?” from him. This “So What?” phrase might seem to some to be different than, or even the opposite of seeing and treating each moment as “life and death.” However, properly understood, “So What?” is very close in meaning to “shinken shobu.”  We have no way of knowing when our death will occur, so therefore each moment of this life carries with it that impending possibility.  However, if we live this life as if we’re terrified of this eventuality, then naturally we won’t be living our life at all.  And on the other hand, if we cynically treat the inevitability of death as if it doesn’t matter at all, in an arrogant way, as if it has no power over us, when it comes to us we will be utterly unprepaired.  There is nothing we can do about death, one way or the other.  So we learn to not mind this conundrum.  We say to ourselves, “So What?” This is venerating life in the deepest way, by respecting the inevitable presence of death.

Of course, we don’t worship death, but we don’t worship fear, either.  We don’t live to die, so we don’t have to think about dying all the time. We don’t have to be worried about it, but we must respect it. So What? means just be here now, knowing that we might die any time, accepting that fact, and not minding it! There are so many things in this life that we can’t do anything about, including dying. 

We can never know what will take place next in our lives. We have no control over these unknown events, and so, it’s interesting to see that so much time is spent worrying, planning, cajoling, praying, wishing, seeking some measure of control over the unknown. It’s best just to say So what? and work diligently at whatever we are given, and then we don’t suffer. 

When I use the word “suffering,” I am pointing to the reaction to an experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Suffering is the resistance to pain and loss. This resistance is something we cause ourselves to feel.  Pain and loss do not cause us to feel the way we feel. No. And no one else causes this within us either. We create our own suffering by how we react to pain and pleasure. When we have pain, we moan and complain.  When we have pleasure, we worry over the loss of it. Instead, if we have pain, “So what?” If weu have pleasure? “So what?” This is not pushing the pain away or clinging to the pleasure, and this is not trying to control the unknown future moment. 

After Suzuki Sensei died, we had a rather large funeral.  The place was standing room only, over 350 people attended from all over the world.  His family asked me to speak to give the eulogy. I was honored, and I really wanted to do it because I felt so strongly about Suzuki Sensei, However, as I was going up to the lectern to speak, I realized that there was no way I could do this. I was already choked up emotionally. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to speak at all.

However, at that moment I remembered Suzuki Sensei saying to me, “So What? if you are afraid of being too emotional to speak, just speak louder and you’ll get through it.” I had a ten or fifteen minute talk, and I delivered pretty much yelled my way through it. I’m sure everyone wondered why I was so loud, but it got me through it. 

Let me say something more regarding the difference between not caring and not minding. In English, when we say “I don’t care,” that means we don’t feel that something is important to us. By not caring, we become indifferent to the suffering of others, and so we don’t pay attention to them.

Instead, we want to care enough to pay attention to everything, no matter what, because attention, awareness, is the key to our development. Our capacity of attention is our capacity to be present and open in any situation. So caring is very, very important. We pay attention to what we care about.

On the other hand, not minding something simply means we don’t worry unnecessarily about it. Not minding is like, So what? He’s suffering, yes, and I do care, so I’ll take care of him, but my caring does not depend upon a result or a reward. I’m not going to imagine that I’m going to heal him.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m the source of his salvation. I’m not going to pretend that I’m more than what I am in this situation. At the same time, I’m not going to worry about it. When it’s in front of me, I’ll serve it. When it’s not, I don’t think about it. Not caring and not minding are opposites.

For instance, let’s say that someone pulls a knife on us, and they hold the knife to our throat.  Of course, they’re doing this in an attempt to control us, to intimidate us. They’re doing this to frighten us into seeing them as the center of authority, and to see ourself as a victim of this authority, and therefore as at the mercy of this authority.

That’s what a weapon means, and people have all kinds of weapons. They’re not necessarily sharp knives, physically. People can be very threatening in the way that they use their non-lethal weapons. The weapon might be intellectual, of it might be emotional, or it might be financial. Of course, it’s true that are usually physical components involved, but that’s not always how it works in our daily life.  

However, the relationship I’m going to talk about here is always the same, whether physical or not.  This is where Suzuki Sensei would mention So What? when we were training, when we were not connecting with our partner.

We cannot become one with our partner if we’re intimidated by them, or even suspicious of them trying to control us. This One Point is the center of our universe. If I am the center of my universe, then I don’t allow anyone else to step in and become that center. Only I have the ability to allow someone else to shift my view of myself to make me a victim, a receiver instead of a giver. This would mean to receive Ki instead of extend Ki. 

When Koichi Tohei Sensei would give public lectures, he would often begin by saying, “I am the center of the universe.” And of course, in the west, many would react to that by thinking, “Who does this guy think he is?” And, of course, he said it like that to get that exact reaction. And then he would remind us that we are all, each and every one of us without exception, the center of the universe we inhabit.  

Therefore, the way we look at others must be So what? This does not mean that we dismiss or disrespect others. Instead, it means that we choose to remain the center of our universe, and not give that away to the demand of any other individual or group. This is the responsibility of the individual in Aikido.

One day Suzuki Sensei said to me that his Four Principles match Tohei Sensei’s Four Basic Principles. “So What?” is “One Point,” “Do Nothing” is “Relax Completely,” “Be Natural” is “Keep Weight Underside,” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is “Extend Ki.”

Early on, Tohei Sensei often referred to his Four Basic Principles as four different ways of approaching mind body unification. Later in his life he expressed this a little differently. He said that the Four Basic Principles are the same, not different. This fits with Tohei Sensei’s sense of the mystery of the sameness in all things. For instance, he liked to refer to opposites (like concentration and expansion) as the same. 

Perhaps, then, we can similarly say that Suzuki Sensei’s Four Principles are also the same, meaning of course that the experience of each is the same. The experience of “So What?”, “Do Nothing,” “Be Natural,” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is the same, and that experience is of our natural mind-body unification.  This is not merely a matter of semantics but reveals an important clue pointing to our experience of mind body unification.  What is the nature of this experience that we are able to identify all of these as the same?

Tohei Sensei would say that the nature of “sameness” resides in Reiseishin, or “Original Mind.” Reiseishin is that state of being where there isn’t any yearning or any need for more, any disappointment or dissatisfaction with less. Those experiences are products of the small mind, the shoga mind. All clinging to, and inability to let go of, tend to arise from a small mind state of aggressive ambition. The initial stages of transforming out of that small, pro and con mind are called keiko practice, self-development training. This stage of practice is basically letting go of past conditioning and preparing ourselves to begin to live with a beginner’s mind, which is a state in which not-knowing is recognized and accepted.

There’s nothing “wrong” with our previous conditioning, except that we do not want to be stuck in it, since a mind that is full already has no room to learn something new. Specially in this stage of our training, So What? can be very powerfully useful.  It automatically takes us directly to the next, higher stage of our training, known as shugyō practice. This is a level where mind and body are unified. Mind and body unified means self and other are unified. There is no more “other” to be overcome.