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Squaring the Circle

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by David Lynch

Published Online

“What do you guys mean when you say aikido is ‘spiritual’?”

This question, arriving by email, rather shook me.

To be lumped in with unspecified “guys”(presumably fellow eccentrics) was bad enough, but to be challenged to explain a word readily found in any English dictionary, seemed a bit too much.

My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “spiritual” as, “Of spirit, as opposed to matter; of the soul, holy, divine, inspired; concerned with sacred or religious things; Having the higher qualities of the mind; concerned with or based on the spirit, etc.”

But perhaps the questioner was more concerned about the word’s relevance to aikido.

My initial inclination was to reply that the life of the founder of aikido provided ample proof of this connection, and that I couldn’t see how anyone could study any of his recorded sayings and still not recognize aikido as a spiritual discipline. Surely there was no need to restate the obvious, I thought, wondering whether the email was worthy of a reply.

The topic of aikido’s spirituality has been extensively covered in the writings of Stevens, Pranin, Gleason, and Japanese senseis like K. Ueshiba, M. Saotome, K. Tohei.

But then I remembered the “you guys” and thought perhaps the questioner was more specifically interested in what I (and those other “guys”) meant by the word “spiritual” in relation to our aikido.

This rather put me on the spot and I began to ask myself if I truly believed that shihonage, for instance, could be considered a “spiritual” technique? Was sankyo some sort of sacrament; and would yonkyo be more, or less, spiritual than ikkyo?

I pondered whether these techniques would really warrant the application of the “s-word” more than, say, a free-style defence against multiple attackers armed with swords?

At a further remove, I asked myself whether, from the point of view of spiritual training, a dojo should be a place to experiment in safety with techniques aimed at controlling violence and achieving a peaceful outcome in conflict situations; or a place to rehearse “life or death” scenarios, as close to reality as possible? Should the atmosphere in a dojo be one of “love and harmony” or something far more intense, aimed at precipitating a psychological state entirely different from that of our everyday lives?

When I used the word “spiritual” did I also mean “moral” and “ethical” and, anyway, what was the connection between these different dimensions?

Then again, I asked myself, following my own loose logic, was there any truth in the skeptical view (sometimes advanced) that all this “spiritual” talk was merely a reflection of a Japanese propensity to equate everyday activities, like making tea or arranging flowers, with a naive and outmoded concept of spirituality? Was aikido’s spiritual side merely a form of ritual superstition derived from the Shinto “cult” in which eight million “gods” are worshipped, and shrines dedicate special services to things as banal as used knitting needles?

An even more cynical consideration (not to be dismissed, since I was in the process of questioning everything) was that aikido’s “spirituality” was inherited from a perverted “bushido” in which, historically, the most horrendous violence and cruelty were justified on the grounds that they were sanctioned by “higher spirits”? These spirits, of course, being indissolubly linked to nationalism and emperor worship.

Where was the evidence, when you got right down to it, that there was anything spiritual whatsoever about aikido training?

When the social order, and with it our notions of basic human decency, took a body blow as it did on September 11 last year, was there any point in talking about the spirituality of aikido? Were ideas of reconciliation and love for the “human family” just naive delusions? Since even terrorists appear to be driven by a set of “spiritual” beliefs, would it not be wise to eschew that aspect of aikido altogether and focus instead on learning the techniques. Better perhaps to leave the spiritual stuff to the lunatic fringe or the fanatical few!

When Terry Dobson plucked up the courage, after some years as an uchideshi under Morihei Ueshiba, to ask the old man for an explanation of his esoteric discourse on the “triangle, circle and square” he reports that O-Sensei said, “Figure it out for yourself!” and walked away.

This response smacks of the Zen tradition in which the disciple asks the master a fundamental spiritual question, only to be met with a harsh rebuff, or some piece of absurd theatre. The master may place his sandals on his head and walk away, give a nonsensical reply, or whack the disciple across the head with a blunt instrument.

The acolyte might be praised for his understanding of a Zen koan (illogical question, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) one day, but when he repeats the “correct” answer the following day he is chastized and told that, “what was true yesterday is not true today.”

The Zen tradition of deliberate obfuscation, seemingly aimed at totally frustrating the student, appears to have been alive and well in Ueshiba’s dojo, judging from Terry Dobson’s experience.

And yet, without being too precious about it or claiming mystical insight I don’t possess, I feel that what was true yesterday actually isn’t true today, and what was true for Ueshiba is manifestly not true for many others who came after him.

You really do have to “figure it out for yourself” although this is not the best term since the understanding involved is not an intellectual process.

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