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Touching the Absolute: Aikido vs. Religion and Philosophy

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by Peter Goldsbury

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Part One: The Footsteps of the Master…

The title of this essay has been chosen mainly for aesthetic reasons and does not really give an accurate indication of the contents. I propose to consider aikido in opposition to religion and philosophy only in a very broad sense and do not imply that they are mutually exclusive. However, there are some issues here. Many claims have been made for the efficacy of aikido and not just as a system of self-defence. Practice is supposed to have a dimension that can be called spiritual. But some questions have to be posed. Can the practice of aikido help one to be a good Christian, or Muslim, or agnostic, or even atheist, and if so, how? In what sense can aikido practice be said to ‘complete’ the spiritual and moral life of a practising Christian, for example. Are there any relationships between aikido as a spiritual pursuit and mysticism? In what sense could aikido be called ‘sacramental’? In other words, does aikido practice automatically lead to desirable spiritual results? Does it make sense to talk of aikido as a philosophy, or philosophical system? If not, what is the difference?

The Founder was deeply religious and thought that this aspect was the most important aspect of aikido. Here, for example, is one of his sayings taken at random from a contemporary aikido magazine:

“Budo is a divine path established by the gods that leads to truth, goodness and beauty; it is a spiritual path, reflecting the unlimited, absolute nature of the universe and the ultimate grand design of creation.”1

This seems pretty uncompromisingly spiritual, even religious, but this aspect seems to have received little emphasis after the Founder’s death. Practice is certainly supposed to be ‘good’ for one and we sometimes hear phrases like ‘self-realisation’, or ‘realising one’s potential’, but the suggestion is rarely made that aikido demands a certain specific spiritual commitment. In some countries aikido is practised in sports centres, or fitness centres. So the connection between ‘having a good workout’ and ‘having a good practice’ is easily made, but is this all there is to it? ‘No,’ you will probably answer, but what is lacking in a ‘good workout’ that a ‘good practice’ supplies?

What was the the religion of Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of aikido? It was an amalgam of Shinto/Buddhist beliefs and meditation practices as interpreted by the Omoto religion. Some of Morihei Ueshiba’s disciples suggest that he preferred Shinto to Zen, for example, but this does not necessarily mean that he can be called a Shintoist.2 His ‘bible’ was the Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki, collections of ancient Japanese myths and legends, and the extraordinary collection of speculative tales put together by Onisaburo Deguchi, known as Reikai Monogatari (‘Tales of the Spirit World’). During practice the Founder used to discourse at great length about ‘spiritual matters’, but almost none of his disciples claimed to know anything about the content of these discourses, or even remember them. Thus, these disciples have tended to separate the things they were familar with, their daily practice on the tatami, from the things they were not, such as the Shintoist mythology and kotodama doctrines. But the Founder did not separate them and seems to have become increasingly preoccupied with them. After the Second World War, when the Aikikai Hombu moved back to Tokyo from Iwama, the Founder seems to have spent most of his time there or in Iwama, or visiting his disciples around Japan (with one visit abroad, to Hawaii). He seems to have played very little part in the actual development of postwar aikido and seems rather to have become a kind of aikido icon. The usual explanation given is that the Founder was engaged in his own ‘spiritual pursuits’, the implication being that these pursuits do not concern us, and that the ‘real’ business of teaching and spreading aikido as a postwar art was left to his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba. The suggestion has even been made that the Founder’s aikido is quite different from that of other people. In one sense this is true, but trivial; in another sense the suggestion, if true, would have major implications for aikido and its development.3 Thus, at least one has to ask the question: how necessary are the Founder’s spiritual pursuits to proficiency in aikido, understood in a broad sense?4 The Founder seems to have spent his later years telling everybody about these pursuits, but no one seems to have listened to him, or understood him. Is this a problem for people like ourselves, who never knew him?

Several books by John Stevens and various articles in Aikido Tankyu (‘Aikido Research’), the twice-yearly publication from the Aikikai Hombu, provided the major stimulus for this essay. Stevens has produced a biography of the Founder and at least three books on what might be called the Founder’s religious and philosophical ‘system’. Aikido Tankyu is a rich source of material that deserves a wider audience. I have also taught a university course for many years on ancient creation myths and have studied the Kojiki and the Bible in connection with this.5 (The ironies of a foreigner teaching Japanese traditional culture to the Japanese were not lost on some of my Japanese university colleagues, who all shamefacedly confessed that they had never actually read the Kojiki.) This essay discusses a variety of topics involving aikido and religion, some of which are quite controversial, from the standpoint of someone who is at the other end of the spectrum: a Christian believer (Catholic, in my own case), brought up in a western intellectual and spiritual tradition. No conclusions are drawn, my general assumption being that the practice of carefully discussing topics and raising questions is as valuable as finding answers. Others, believers and non-believers alike, might be stimulated to agree or, more preferably, disagree with the points expressed here.

The apparent differences between aikido as the Founder himself conceived it and aikido as practised by his son Kisshomaru Ueshiba constitute an interesting problem in itself and, apart from length, is one reason why I have divided this essay into two parts. The primary focus of Part One is the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Part Two, to follow later, deals more with his son Kisshomaru Ueshiba and with general questions of aikido as a philosophy.

Faces of the Divine

In the Hombu Dojo there was a kamidana (altar for household deities), where the god of military arts Take-mika-zuchi-no-kami used to be worshipped.6 However, after aikido became known internationally and non-Japanese came to practise at the Hombu in increasing numbers, this practice of worship was discontinued.

What was so objectionable about the practice of worshipping household deities at the kamidana that it was abandoned? If the reason was to avoid giving the impression to non-Japanese that aikido was a religion or that some kind of religious belief was necessary for practice, there is a paradox here. The Founder of aikido conceived of the art of aikido as a religious activity and spent much of his life communing with the various deities he worshipped, yet the ‘internationalising’ of aikido appears to have caused the abandonment of what seems a crucial part of this practice at the central dojo. Does this matter? Perhaps not, but this paradox should at least encourage among aikido practitioners the re-examination of deeply held and long-cherished concepts of the divine. 7

Before going any further, we need to expand on the quotation given above and become a little clearer about how the Founder conceived of God or the divine, for the Japanese conception of the divine is very unusual. There are at least four ways of considering the concept of God and theism: (1) traditional theism, (2) pantheism, (3) panentheism, and (4) the beliefs called Shinto, the Way of the Gods. (1) Traditional theism (choetsu-shinron: ‘transcendent theism’, in Japanese) assumes the existence of an eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful God, who is ontologically separate from the world He has created. Belief in such a God is exclusionary, in the sense that it is not possible also to believe in other gods. Nevertheless, there are some differences in the way believers in such a God conceive His relationship with the world and with human beings. Some Christians, for example, believe in a personal relationship entirely based on faith, while others believe in a sacramental system, with ceremonies mediating a much closer personal relationship (through the doctrine of Grace) than one merely based on faith. The Catholic ceremony of Mass and Holy Communion is one example of a sacramental relationship. Thus, the fact that God is ontologically separate from the world does not entail at all that God has no relationship with human beings. Most Christians believe that He does and that this relationship is mutual love.

(2) Pantheism (hanshinron in Japanese) assumes that God and the world are somehow the same in some abstract sense. Thus the Universe and its laws are given a divine dimension and human beings have the goal of achieving harmony with the universe in some way. Pantheism has a longer history than monotheism and takes many forms, from ancient Greek philosophy to the Buddhist religion to the philosophical systems of philosophers like Spinoza. In this case, there is no believing in some one or more entities called God.

(3) Panentheism (ban’yu-shinron: all-creation theism, in Japanese) assumes that all creation is divine in some way, in the way that primitive mankind did not distinguish between a god in heaven and god in all natural things. This form of theism allows for belief in the existence of a variety of gods and assumes that believers will perform various activities in accordance with these beliefs.

(4) Shinto (kannagara-no-michi, in Japanese) assumes that God is both outside the world and inside it. In some sense Shinto encompasses all three of the above ways of thinking. God is at the same time separate from all things and at the same time within all things as their centre. Thus Shinto appears to have the best of both worlds. The problem is that the term ‘God’ is a recent translation for the Japanese term ‘kami’ and is not really adequate. In Japanese, the term ‘kami’ covers an unusually wide category: the deities who populate the Kojiki and who were responsible for the creation of the world; deities who are thought to inhabit persons, places, even types of activity. Incidentally, kami are not the only inhabitants of the spirit world who have power over human beings. The souls of the dead, even animals like foxes and dogs, or snakes, are all thought to have certain spiritual powers. Inari-sama, a fox, is worshipped as a deity. Here, as with panentheism, this form of theism assumes a belief in a huge pantheon of deities and other spiritual beings, and also assumes that believers will need to perform various activities in order to commune with these beings.8 There is also a belief that such communion can be achieved by certain people who have undergone some kind of special training.

It should be clear from this brief sketch that someone who believes in Shinto has a view of the divine that is quite different from that of a practising Christian, for example. To take the example of Catholicism, with which I am most familiar, the Catholic Christian believes in one God, although triune, and the content of this belief has been refined through the ages by Christian theology. It can be expressed in the form of a creed and the implication is that those who do not assent to the creed cannot be called Catholic. In addition, this belief carries with it certain obligations. The Catholic Christian must endeavour to lead a moral life, which means a life in some form of imitation of Christ, and this life also includes prayer and participation in certain rituals. Monks and others have sought to go beyond the norm and achieve mystical union with God, but all have stressed that this can never be achieved by human effort alone: it is purely a gift and it is not restricted to people who have undergone special training. It should also be stressed that Catholicism has a certain exclusivity: being a Catholic believer seems to rule out other forms of theism. Thus, it would seem to follow that a Catholic should find it very difficult to practise aikido if this is understood as the outward form of a religion.

Notice that a Catholic Christian is not forced to see the world as ‘evil’ in some way. Because of the ontological separation of God from creation and the events recorded in the Book of Genesis, it is sometimes thought that the world is essentially evil. Our ancestors committed a grave sin and creation was damaged as a result. It is true that Genesis records many changes as the result of the Fall: death and the ‘pain’ of childbirth are examples. However, the Manichean view of nature assumes more than the Biblical evidence warrants and the difference between Japanese and Christian views of nature which some Japanese have suggested does not have a strong foundation. It is often stressed in aikido that we have to harmonise ourselves with Nature, or ‘the Universe’, and it might be thought that this formidable undertaking is more difficult for someone who believes in the Fall and Original Sin. I do not think this is true.9

The Shinto Roots of Modern Japan

I have suggested above that the contents of the Kojiki are unknown to most contemporary Japanese, but there are many powerful vestiges of Shinto in contemporary Japan. The problem here, however, is that the native Japanese religion was mixed with the Buddhism which was brought over from China in the 6th century and so it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the two. The process of syncretisation means, as I stated above, that in most Japanese households there is a Shinto kamidana and also a Buddhist butsudan and this is not thought to be unusual.10 Thus, the emphasis on Shinto and the Kojiki in this essay in some sense reflects the fact that the Founder made extensive use of the Kojiki when he gave explanations about aikido and is not intended to be exclusive.

I once asked the students in my university class how many deities there were. There was some hurried consultation and the entire class agreed on the answer: there were 8,000,000 deities. I resisted the temptation to ask how the person who counted them arrived at this figure, for the question would have made no sense. The number of deities is thought to be uncountable and 8,000,000 is a traditional figure.11

Most Japanese eat special food during the New Year and try to visit a Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day. Many in Tokyo go to the Meiji Shrine in Shinjuku, where the Emperor Meiji is enshrined. In other words the Emperor is worshipped as a deity at the shrine. Apart from the visit on New Year’s Day, this shrine is often visited by people who pray for a successful delivery in childbirth, or for success in school and university examinations. Whether the Emperor Meiji has any special powers in these two respects is probably something that the visitors never stop to consider. Similarly, a festival is held in April every year at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama, where the Founder of Aikido is also worshipped as a kami of the shrine.

Throughout the year there are festivals organised by the local shrines, some of which are very boisterous. In one local festival in Okayama, crowds of young men dressed only in loin cloths fight to gain possession of a sacred ball, the whole point of the festival being to entertain the deities of the shrine, in order that they will use their special ‘powers’ for the good of the community. Some of these festivals have an explicitly phallic nature and it used to be common for large replicas of the male and female genitalia to be paraded through the streets. The Kanamara Shrine near Kawasaki, for example, is one of about 40 shrines devoted to deities of sex and fertility. The shrine deity is Kana-yama-biko-no-kami and, together with his female partner, was created out of the vomit of Izanami as she gave birth to the fire god and the pair are also traditionally believed to have tried to nurse her back to health afterwards.12 The sexual allusions in the Kojiki will be made clearer below.

The spring rice-planting festivals and autumn harvest festivals are separated by a mid-summer festival in August. This annual Bon festival causes highy-organised chaos on Japan’s transportation systems as people return to their ancestral homes. Why do they do this? They do it because their dead ancestors will make the journey from the spirit world to their ‘homes’ and need to be entertained by their living descendants. Thus in more traditional parts of Japan, lanterns are set up to guide the spirits on their way and Bon festivals are organised to entertain them. These and other festivals are highly ‘alcoholic’ affairs and were probably looked forward to in the past as a welcome excuse from the drudgery of daily work.

Making objective cross-cultural comparisons is very difficult, but the religious sense of contemporary Japanese does not contain a firm doctrinal element. Nor will one religion be embraced at the expense of another. Young Japanese intending to marry will normally use a wedding hall, with ceremony and reception as one (very expensive) package. The ceremony can be Shinto, Buddhist or Christian, but one should not thereby conclude that they actually believe in the religion according to which their marriage vows are made. There are many reasons for this, but one important reason is that no world religion has ever been allowed to take root in Japan. The Japanese shogunate is renowned for encouraging martial arts to flourish, and was happy for the samurai to practise Zen, but the shogunate ruled by military force. It had a great fear of the potentially destabilising effects of a religion controlled from outside the country and never allowed Buddhism or Christianity to take root as a ‘national’ religion.

It should not be thought that this flexibility in belief is some kind of flippancy. Dealing with the divine is a serious business for Japanese and non-Japanese alike and one’s religious beliefs and attitudes are not the result of some arbitrary choice. For example, when I reached the age of 41, a colleague of mine, who is actually a Christian, strongly urged me to visit a (Shinto) shrine to prepare for yaku-doshi, the traditionally unlucky year for Japanese males. I took her advice and, though I am not Japanese, reached the age of 42 unscathed.

Some Shinto Texts

Most Japanese aikidoists are aware that the Founder embraced Shinto, 13 but they do not usually have any clue about what these beliefs were. The Founder regarded aikido as a martial art based on love (‘love’ in Japanese is also read as ‘ai’, but is a different character from ‘ai’ in ‘aikido’) and in his explanations of this he tended to use the early parts of the Kojiki. For those who are unlikely ever to read the Kojiki, here is a brief summary of these opening chapters.Several deities came into being in the ‘high plain of heaven’ and two of these were known as Izanagi-no-Kami and his spouse Izanami-no-Kami. The two deities were commanded by their colleagues to “complete and solidify this drifting land” (the land had been created earlier but it was drifting like a jellyfish in a kind of oily brine). They were given a ‘heavenly jeweled spear’. They stood on the ‘heavenly floating bridge’ (over which divine beings travelled between heaven and earth) and stirred the brine and lifted up the spear. The brine dripping from the tip of the spear solidified and became an island called Onogoro.

Izanagi and Izanami then descended to the island and built a sacred pillar and a palace. They circled around the pillar in a kind of courtship ritual and eventually had intercourse. They were unsuccessful the first time (because Izanami, the female deity, began the courtship ritual and not Izanagi) and had to repeat the operation, but they eventually gave birth to many islands. After the birth of the islands deities of natural phenomena were also created, including fire, but Izanami became ill and died as a result of giving birth to this deity. Izanagi killed the fire deity with a huge sword and numerous deities came into being from the blood which was shed and also from the remains of the fire deity.

Izanagi descended to the underworld, the land of Yomi, and met his wife. He was told not to look upon her, but did so and defiled himself. Izanagi had to purify himself by bathing very carefully in a stream. Many deities were created in this process, including Ama-terasu (Goddess of the Sun) and Susa-no-wo (God of Storms). These two deities gradually take over the story. Susa-no-wo misbehaved himself in various ways and Ama-terasu withdrew into a cave. The other deities organised a festival and used a mirror and a lewd dance to entice Ama-terasu out of the cave. The disgraced Susa-no-wo redeemed himself by killing an eight-tailed dragon with a sword. He broke his sword cutting the dragon’s tail but another sword appeared, which he gave to Ama-terasu. Susa-no-wo eventually married and he and his descendants undertook titanic feats of procreation. One of his descendants, for example, was O-kuni-no-nushi, who had eighty brothers.

What are we to make of all this? Several things stand out, both in the accounts themselves and in the use the Founder made of them. One very striking feature is the nature of creation itself. The Book of Genesis begins with the simple and very powerful statement that, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Throughout the Genesis account God is portrayed as being totally separate from the process itself. He simply causes it all to happen (but still spends a day recovering!). Creation in the Kojiki is well summed up by the Founder as John Stevens interprets him: “There was no heaven, no earth, just empty space. In this vast emptiness, a single point suddenly manifests itself. From that point steam, smoke, and mist spiralled forth in a luminous sphere and the kotodama SU was born. As SU expanded circularly up and down, left and right, nature and breath began clear and uncontaminated. Breath developed into life and sound appeared. SU is the “Word” mentioned in the Christian Bible.”14

To avoid any misunderstandings, the actual words spoken by the Founder (transcribed from the original Japanese) are given below: “Kirisuto ga ‘hajme ni kotoba ariki’ to itta sono kotodama ga SU de arimasu. Sore ga kotodama no hajimari de aru.” (‘In the beginning was the Word’, spoken by Christ [i.e., in the Christian Bible] is this kotodama SU. This is the origin of kotodama.)15

The accounts in the Kojiki bear comparison with other mythological accounts of creation, and are primitive only in the sense that many of the deities are divine personifications of natural objects and phenomena. Izanagi and Izanami stand for the Male and Female, respectively, and perform their acts of creation literally, by means of procreation. In Genesis, by comparison, Adam and Eve are completely overshadowed by the otherness of Yahweh and their procreation of the human species is not given much prominence and of the offspring they actually bear, one, Cain, does not acquit himself very well. Another noteworthy feature of the Kojiki is the use of weapons like the spear and the sword, which clearly reflect a primitive martial culture, but which were also sometimes given a phallic symbolism. Like the early books of the Bible, these accounts are written narratives of much more ancient oral traditions and were designed to give explanations of certain crucial events in terms that would be understood by their contemporary readers. They also have a ‘political’ flavour. For example, Susa-no-wo is thought to be a deity of the Izumo clan and he usually misbehaves himself only in the presence of Yamato deities. When he is alone, he is usually brave and kind. There are three other points of comparison between these early parts of the Kojiki and texts like the Bible, for example, and these are of some relevance to aikido. First, they are sacred texts and were studied as the basis of a personal religion. The Kojiki has received much attention from scholars like Motoori Norinaga, but I think the Founder used these narratives more as meditation texts, rather like a practising Christian might use the Gospel of St John. I also think he took the stories quite literally. The collection of doka known as ‘Songs of the Way’ are a personal meditation on lessons the Founder drew from the Kojiki. For example, he used to explain that the jewels on the spear symbolised love and mercy and though the deities used the spear, which was the instrument of control, the control was achieved by means of love and mercy. The Founder also believed himself to be the ‘heavenly floating bridge’, and to transmit the ‘divine’ techniques of aikido. He also thought we should follow his example.

The second point of comparison is that the kami in the Kojiki are morally neutral and so, when the Founder declared that aikido was a martial art based on love and pointed to the Kojiki to illustrate his point, he was giving his own interpretation here. Christians usually regard their God as a God of love and there is a vast amount of theology which argues that God is to be equated with Goodness and Truth. None of this is evident in the Kojiki, for example. Kami can manifest themselves as benign or destructive according to the treatment they receive. “Treat him correctly with the proper worship and cult attention and with the right and appropriate offerings, and the kami can reasonably be expected to bless, protect and succour the village, to see that the harvest ripens, to ward off floods and drought, to forestall fire and pest. Offend him, on the other hand, either by neglect or by exposure to the pollutions of blood and death, and at once his benevolence wil turn to rage which will smite with fire, sterility and sickness.”16

The third point of comparison is that parts of the Kojiki were written in a certain type of language and the interpretation of this language, known as kotodama, was an art in itself. When kotodama is discussed comparison is often made with such western texts as the ‘logos’ passages at the beginning of the Gospel of John. I do not think the comparison is entirely valid, for reasons that will be discussed below.

The Omoto Religion

I stated earlier that the Founder’s religion was an amalgam of Shinto/Buddhist beliefs and meditation practices further enriched with Omoto practices. What was the influence of the Omoto-kyo on the Founder’s religious outlook? This question is not easy to answer, but, in any case, further explanation of the background is in order.

First, the brief sketch of Shinto given earlier made no mention of the points of contact between the world of humans and the world of the divine. The deities used the ‘floating bridge of heaven’, to descend, but there is no mention of any recognised means of travel in the other direction. For Catholic Christians the ‘official’ point of contact between God and the world is the priest, but priests are not required to have any special personal powers to make baptism, for example, effective as a sacrament.

The Founder’s religious outlook was rather different. To begin with, Shinto imposes no restrictions on the ways in which deities and humans could interact and the Founder came from an area of Japan especially renowned for such interaction. The Kumano district had a special importance in Shinto, while the monastery complex on Mt. Koya is still a major centre of Japanese Buddhism. The area was populated by yamabushi and shamans, both of whom were credited with special links to the divine. Nao Deguchi, for example, the founder of Omoto-kyo, was a shaman and believed that a deity, Ushitora-no-Konjin, spoke through her. Reikai Monogatari, Onisaburo Deguchi’s massive ‘Tales of the Spirit World’, are supposed to be the records of an actual spiritual journey made during a trance-like state.17

The general belief underlying all this was that certain persons, after undergoing special preparation, usually severe ascetic training, could use special rituals to cause the kami to come from their world to that of humans (that is, if the kami themselves did not arrive uninvited, which they often did), or themselves escape from the constraints of the body and visit the spirit world.18 I think that Christians would accept all this with varying degrees of discomfort, depending on their affiliation. Spiritualism is not alien to Christianity, but revelation from God is considered too important a matter to be put in the hands of random individuals. Moreover, because of their belief in the incarnation of Christ, I think that Catholic Christians would find it difficult to accept visions or prophecies which revealed things of importance to anyone except the visionary or prophet.

Secondly, Omoto was one of Japan’s ‘new religions’. Just as people like shamans were able to have special relationships with the deities in which they believed, relationships which included reincarnation or special revelations from the deities, there was a corresponding tendency for these intense relationships to result in a new religion. This tendency was due, I believe, to the clannishness which is characteristic of Japanese culture. Thus Nao Deguchi was originally a member of Konkokyo, a religion centred around a deity known as Konjin, but after her growing fame began to attract disciples, she eventually left this religion to found Omoto-kyo. This religion became a major spiritual movement with the arrival of Onisaburo Deguchi and although it is no longer the force it used to be, there are aikido acquaintances of mine here in Hiroshima who are Omoto believers and practise its rituals.

It is also not particularly surprising that in the turbulent times following the Meiji restoration and Japan’s expansion as a military power, ‘new’ religions like Omoto tended to preach utopianism: the imminent arrival of a new golden age, which would put an end to the wicked past and present. Thus a cardinal feature of Omoto was an idea to unite all religions in a universal brotherhood. This was the “overarching concept” behind Onisaburo Deguchi’s World Religious Federation, which met in 1925. “Onisaburo maintained that all religions stemmed from the same divine impulse, there being but one God. But that impulse might fall in highly diverse cultural milieux at epochs in history quite remote from each other, thus producing religions of great contrast. No matter how different they might seem, however, by virtue of their common origin, all religions are brothers and sisters and should honour and respect one another. In fact, we should esteem variation in the garden of religion. Who wants flowers to be all the same colour?” Deguchi was also a great believer in the use of Esperanto, a “universal language to help transcend the imbroglio of languages already in existence”, which would be the vehicle for this “sacred religion of love and brotherhood”.19

There is a certain naivety about all this. First, it is simply false that a manufactured pseudo-language like Esperanto could ever replace the language cultures that have evolved over millennia, let alone ‘transcend’ them, whatever this means. Language does not work like this. Secondly, the idea of ‘uniting’ all religions is a pipe dream. Religions tend to be closely bound up with the cultures in which they are embedded and Shinto is certainly no exception. The suggestion that religions as diverse as Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam would unite under the leadership of the writer of a collection of tales like Reikai Monogatari is not one to take seriously. I do not think the average Catholic Christian or Muslim regards his religion like one among many species of flower. Thirdly, assuming that the idea of ‘uniting’ religions under one head has any sense at all, Omoto-kyo is a singularly bad example to choose as the head. Omoto itself was a spin-off from Konkokyo and also spawned other offshoots like Seicho-no-ie.20

It is sometimes said that aikido is not itself a religion but that aikido practice ‘completes’ or ‘complements’ religious beliefs and practice. I wonder whether this typically Japanese way of thinking does not bear traces of the Omoto-kyo idea described above. The idea that aikido practice complements one’s religious activities is harmless enough, but this is quite different from the notion that a religion like Christianity, for example, or Islam is somehow ‘incomplete’ and that a martial art, albeit one based on love, will somehow bring it to perfection. I would not expect the average Christian or Muslim to take kindly to this way of thinking. There is also a problem of terminology. It might well be true that aikido is not a religion in the strict sense of a body of people united by the same beliefs about the divine, but the Founder clearly considered that he was engaged in an activity which was, to all intents and purposes, religious.

‘Touching’ the Divine

There is one more important matter to consider in any examination of the Founder’s religious practices and their relevance for aikido: the general use he made of what we might loosely call meditation, techniques such as chinkon-kishin, and the role of language, or sounds, in meditation. This latter is commonly called kotodama (‘word-spirit’) and is thought to play a major role in the Founder’s spiritual scheme of things. Chinkon-kishin is usually practised before aikido training in the form of funa-kogi (‘boat-rowing’) and furitama (‘shaking the spirit’) and as a calming exercise afterwards, but I have found very little evidence of kotodama practice in present-day aikido.

A Christian soon becomes aware of the importance of prayer. Right from the time when I was very young, I was taught by my parents to kneel down and say my prayers before going to bed every night and I am sure others have had similar experiences. When I grew older, I became aware that most prayers were formulaic and that repeated invocations of the formula had an effect which was over and above the significance of the words themselves. The rosary is a good example of this. Later still I came to realise the value of mental prayer, which does not use words at all. The term meditation has sometimes been used both for the invocation or incantation of prayer formulas and for the type of mental prayer called contemplation. It is also used for what one might call a ‘heightened state of consciousness’. However, there are important differences which need to be made clear.

Let us start with the general question of the relationship between words and the world. In the quotation given above, the Founder identified the kotodama sound SU with the ‘Word’ in the Bible. The ‘Word’ referred to is, of course the term used by the writer of the fourth gospel, but St John wrote in Greek and so the term is usually referred to as ‘Logos’. This word has a cultural context and the writer of the fourth gospel not only understood this context but also gave the term a specific meaning in his gospel. Logos is the noun from the Greek verb lego (to say) and it is very curious that the noun has a wider range of meanings in Greek than the verb. ‘Logos’ was used by the philosopher Heraclitus (c.500 B.C.) as the title of his discourse but even in his time the term had been extended to mean words, discourse, the logic or reason behind the discourse, and reason in itself. In the first few sentences of the fourth gospel, the Latin text of which is probably still remembered by Catholics of my generation, St John is trying to explain the Trinity. The Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. … And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”21

There is no reference at all in these verses to creation, though it is referred to later and is also the work of the ‘Word’. In the verses quoted above, John is attempting to capture in words the process of self-knowledge and self-love which resulted in Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Of course, in one broad sense ‘logos’ can be seen as kotodama because the Gospel is believed to be the Word of God, but in that case the entire Bible is kotodama and not merely ‘logos’.

There are two problems to be faced by any westerner trying to come to grips with the kotodama doctrine. One is the cultural assumptions of Shinto discussed earlier. In Shinto there are no restrictions placed on the kami as to the manner in which they may appear to human beings. Thus, it is quite reasonable that a kami could manifest itself in words. Of course, the converse, that words chanted in a particular way necessarily indicated the presence of a kami, does not follow.

The second point relates to the matter of meaning and this is where I must respectfully disagree with John Stevens. The question whether words carry their meanings intrinsically, so to speak, is a very old one. In Plato’s dialogue Cratylus, one of the points of discussion is whether a word, ‘word’, for example, carries its meaning because it has properties uniquely suited to the concept it stands for, or simply because of convention. After a laborious argument Plato eventually chooses the latter alternative and he was followed by Aristotle and his successors. In other words, ‘logos’, ‘verbum’, ‘word’, ‘mot’, ‘tod’, ‘kotoba’, etc have no special powers at all merely because they stand for a particular range of concepts and thus uttering the words will not put one in touch with the divine simply in virtue of the meaning the words have.22

The same thing holds true of Japanese but this is more difficult to grasp because of the special features of the Japanese language. In Japanese there are no pure consonant sounds, apart from ‘n’, and so every syllable is either a pure vowel or a vowel preceded by a consonant. Thus uttering virtually any Japanese syllable requires an exhalation of breath. Added to which each single syllable usually has a wide range of meanings. For example, the sound SO can be written in 128 different ways, that is, in 128 different Chinese characters and each of these characters represents a different meaning.23 It is thus possible not only to compose Japanese utterances which have only vowels, 24 but also to compose utterances the individual parts of which also have their own individual meanings. For these reasons I do not think it is possible to replicate kotodama theory without the appropriate Shinto theology and in a language unlike Japanese. The Founder believed in kotodama because of his beliefs about the kami and also because he was Japanese. John Stevens thinks the Founder was mistaken, but I myself tend to support the Founder here.25

Of course, one cannot deny that words have a special power, as anyone who listens to opera will attest, and I have vivid memories of the mesmerising effect of chanting the divine office in Latin plainsong. Some form of chanting usually accompanies meditation and I will conclude the first part of this essay by examining this topic.

Nao Deguchi composed her fudesaki writings as the result of a trance-like state and Onisaburo Deguchi is said to have received the experiences recorded in Reikai Monogatari as a result of a similar state. Kyotaro Deguchi explains in The Great Onisaburo Deguchi that there are two types of Shinto religious practices: “The first type, kensai, consists of formal rituals and offerings made before a deity enshrined in a particular shrine: formal ceremonies performed before the gods.”

The Founder spent much of his later life engaged in such practices and a practising Christian does the same in an analogous fashion. The second type is more intriguing: “The other, yusai, is the practice of attuning one’s soul to the spirit of the divinity without any fixed ceremonial, fixed place or fixed time. The latter includes the process of chinkon (quieting the soul) and kishin (opening a channel of communication with the divine). These are techniques to bring man into contact with deity, and are in turn divided into many categories and subdivisions. I will not go into further detail on the subject here, except to say that altogether there are 362 of these techniques, which can be performed for the benefit of oneself or others.” 26

This should cause some concern for the Christian, for there is nothing to show that such exercises do in fact put one in contact with God. To explain this point in more detail, I need to give some brief autobiographical details.

Before I took up aikido I spent a number of years in a religious order, a monastery, for want of a better word. 27 The training was very severe and we were taught that the ‘awareness of the presence of God’, so to speak, was a 24-hour activity. (From what I understand about the life of an uchideshi under the Founder, there are many points of comparison.) For example, for most of each day we had to maintain silence and any necessary conversation had to be in Latin. There were, of course, many meditation sessions and in such a situation one very quickly progresses beyond simple vocal prayer and reaches a stage that can be called contemplation. Of course, we had to read spiritual texts and in the Christian tradition there is a vast wealth of literature.28 There is also a vast wealth of information and advice on meditation postures and other ascetical and spiritual exercises all designed to ‘put one in the presence of God’. We knew about Zen, of course, because many Christian monks have visited Buddhist monasteries and benefited from the practice of Zazen.29 Thus questions of breathing and posture became very relevant and the Christian mystics also give much advice on the role of breathing in meditation, for example. However, I also found very early on, even when I was a novice, that there is also a constant preoccupation in the spiritual literature with the unavoidable fact that such experience of the divine is God’s own gift, and thus can be freely given or withheld, and also with the unavoidable consequence that self-delusion is a much more likely possibility than enlightenment.

In particular we were taught that so-called ‘enhanced states of consciousness’, brought on by special breathing and posture could never be identified with ‘the presence of God’. In my own experience I have found it very attractive to pretend that sitting in a particular posture, or breathing in a particular way, will more easily put one in contact with the divine than simply sitting in a chair or breathing normally. But I was always reminded very sharply by my spiritual master that matters like posture or breathing meant absolutely nothing. They were ascetic exercises and nothing more. In fact, a constant theme of Christian mystical writing can be summed up in the phrase ‘dark night of the soul’, which means utter spiritual desolation, but there seems very little evidence of this in the material I have been able to research for this essay. Of course, mental prayer is exactly what it says: a mental conversation with God, but it does not have to be a special or ‘mystical’ experience.

Of course, I do not wish to deny that the Founder actually had experiences of the divine, but Morihei Ueshiba was also very much a man of his time and lived at one of those ‘crisis points’ in Japan’s history. However, he did not separate his aikido practice from his religious experiences and I think that to understand both requires a serious study of Japanese culture. On the other hand, I think one cannot deny the striking gap between these religious practices and present-day aikido and this gap is more often perceived by ‘westerners’, for want of a better term, than by Japanese practitioners. Perhaps the latter are too immersed in their own contemporary culture to notice the gap. It should be a matter of concern to the serious ‘western’ aikidoist whether and how he or she can ‘relive’ the Founder’s spiritual experiences, albeit in the language and concepts of his/her own culture. It might be that the Founder regarded his spiritual pursuits as his own exclusive preoccupation and did not expect his disciples to follow him. It has been suggested that the Founder saw aikido as a Divine Art, whereas his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, saw aikido as a Universal Art. Whether there is a difference and, if so, what this is, is something to be considered in the second part of this essay.


1. This quotation occurs on p.25 of Aikido Today Magazine, #74 (March/April ’01).

2. I am doubtful whether the beliefs of a Shintoist, one who supposedly believes in something called Shinto, can be considered in exactly the same way as the beliefs of a Christian, for example. I think that neither the object nor the manner of belief is comparable and I hope to make this clear as I proceed.

3. In fact, this can be understood in three senses: (1) The trivial sense is that the Founder’s practice is different from that of other people in the sense that your actions are essentially different from mine simply because we are different people. (2) The important sense is that the Founder’s practice is different from everyone else’s because he was the Founder, i.e., he himself created the art and no one else could ever practise at the same level. Thus, practising like the Founder did is something we cannot even aspire to. This might be so but it is still true that after years of practice we do in fact develop our ‘own’ aikido and this is something we are encouraged to do. (3) There is another sense in that aikido as a martial art is regarded as the property of the Ueshiba family.

4. Clearly, intensive practice, like any physical training, will bring proficiency at the level of physical skill, but this is not usually considered sufficient.

5. The books by John Stevens referred to are: The Secrets of Aikido (1995), Invincible Warrior (1997), both published by Shambala; The Essence of Aikido (1993), The Philosophy of Aikido (2001), both published by Kodansha International. These works are all extremely stimulating, but are liable to be misunderstood without some understanding of the culture which the Founder lived and breathed. This essay is intended as a contribution to such understanding. I have used the Japanese edition of the Kojiki edited by A. Ogihara and K. Konosu, published by Kogakukan in 1973, and the English translation by Donald Philippi, first published in 1968 by Tokyo University Press. It is regrettable that Philippi’s edition is the only scholarly treatment of the Kojiki in English. There are no such editions of the Nihon-Shoki, which is why I have not mentioned it here.

6. The kamidana (Shinto family altar) or butsudan (Buddhist family altar) are important features of Japanese households and the fact that they are both found is not without some significance. Take-mika-zuchi-no-kami (‘valiant (male) deity of awesome spirit’) is probably the deity whch features prominently in the earlier part of the Kojiki. The deity came into existence after Izanagi killed the fire deity, the birth of which caused the death of Izanami, his wife, and played a major role in ‘subduing the land’ (i.e., Japan). A cardinal feature of this deity is that he carried a sword and appears to have used it to subdue an entire region of Japan.

7. This account owes much to an article in Issue 19 of Aikido Tankyu written by Okumura Shigenobu Shihan and entitled Shinwa ni tsuite (Myths). Okumura Shihan provides a chart giving the relation between God and mankind in each of the four ways of regarding theism. The effect of my discussion will be to blur somewhat the distinctions made by Okumura Shihan.

8. Some Japanese colleagues of mine think that ‘god’ is not a good translation of the Japanese word ‘kami’ because ‘God’ has Christian theological overtones which ‘kami’ does not possess. I am not certain about this. The Latin ‘deus’ is a derivation of the Greek ‘theos’, which was, of course, used to denote the various gods of the Greeks, who seemed to share many (human!?) characteristics with the Japanese kami. The Bible had no problem with using these words to denote Yahweh and Christ.

9. I am thinking here of Isamu Kurita, in a book entitled Setsu-Getsu-Ka-no-Kokoro, published in 1987 by the Fujitsu Institute of Management. The title means ‘Spirit of the Sun, Moon and Flowers’. The English translation of the book has the title, Japanese Identity.

10. In fact, the butsudan became a familar item in the Japanese household because of an order made by the Tokugawa shogunate requiring people to register with a local Buddhist temple. The order was an attempt to eradicate Christianity.

11. The figure appears in a quotation from the Founder given on p.13 of John Stevens’ book, The Essence of Aikido. It is very unfortunate that Mr Stevens does not identify the source of this and other quotations from the Founder.

12. In fact, the official name of this shrine is the Kanayama Shrine and the deities were formerly worshipped by local blacksmiths, who until the Edo period used to forge swords. It is curious that the deities of this shrine should also be regarded as fertility deities and strongly suggests that quite early on a close relation was assumed in popular imagination between the sword and the phallus. Chapter 6 of Nicholas Bornoff’s Pink Samurai, published by Harper-Collins in 1991, gives a detailed account of Japanese fertility festivals.

13. Since World War II Shinto, with its cognate concept of Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, has had a bad reputation. At some point in Japan’s history the collection of myths and folk beliefs known as Shinto were hijacked and made into a state doctrine which stressed the importance of ‘Japaneseness’: Yamato-damashi. The words have been altered somewhat, but the preoccupation still remains among older politicians and causes much irritation to Japan’s Asian neighbours. It is true that the Kojiki was compiled at the orders of the Yamato clan as a means of claiming its legitimacy over other clans, but some parts of the Bible also had this kind of function. I should make clear that in this essay I do not consider Shinto as a political instrument of the state, but I do believe that the Founder saw Shinto as an affirmation of Yamato-damashi.

14. The statement, with no source identified, appears on p.17 of John Stevens’ The Secrets of Aikido. The biblical account of creation is in Chapters 1 - 3 of the Book of Genesis, where two separate accounts of creation are woven together into one elegant whole. However, the Founder is clearly referring to the beginning of St. John’s Gospel.

15. The quoted words in Japanese appear on p.86 of Takemusu-Aiki: Aikido-Kaiso-Ueshiba-Morihei-Sensei-Kojutsu, edited by Hideo Takahashi, first published in 1976. The English translation is my own. Of course, I have no wish to impugn the credentials or good faith of Mr Stevens. However, so many statements have been attributed ‘directly’ to the Founder at various times by various people that in scholarly works such as his, which reach a wide audience, I think it is necessary to give the Founder’s own words and the actual sources.

I should add here that some of Takemusu Aiki has been translated into English by Sonoko Tanaka and published in Aikido Journal (#116 - #119). For those who know no Japanese, these installments are a valuable resource. Ms. Tanaka has made a valiant effort to put the Founder’s words into reasonable English, but there are so many allusions to the Kojiki that it would make sense for the serious student of the Founder’s views on religion and kotodama to study this text first. I also think this is one reason why the serious student of the Founder’s aikido needs to study Japanese.

16. Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan, London, Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition, 1986), p. 41.

17. Carmen Blacker gives a brief account of Onisaburo Deguchi’s visionary journey in The Catalpa Bow (pp.202-207). I think that Blacker’s book is indispensable for understanding the Omoto religion and its influence on Morihei Ueshiba.

18. Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow, Ch.1.

19. The phrases and extended quotation are taken from “The Religion Called Omoto”, in The Great Onisaburo Deguchi, by Kyotaro Deguchi, Tokyo, Aiki News, 1998, p.x. It is important to add that the statements are those of William Gilkey, former editor of Omoto International and not Kyotaru Deguchi himself.

20. The details are given in Yoshiro Tamura, Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History, Tokyo, Kosei Publishing Co., 2000, pp. 197-200. See also “Shinto”, Chapter 9 of On Understanding Japanese Religion, by Joseph Kitagawa, Princeton University Press, 1987.

21. St John’s Gospel, Ch.1, Verses 1, 2, 14. The translation is the 1611 King James version.

22. The belief that words have magical powers is very old and forms the basis of religious rituals. The oldest oracles always spoke in riddles, but it took a culture like the Greeks, with their emphasis on dialectic, to hit upon the distinction between langue and parole: between utterances and the conventions used to express these.

23. The 128 different ways are listed on p.1349 of The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, published by Charles Tuttle in 1997.

24. One example is ‘Ooo,oooo,oo ooo’, which means, ‘The courageous king conceals his tail when he goes out’ and, for those of you who think that I am making this up, this and other examples appear on p.51 of The Japanese Brain, by Tadanobu Tsunoda, Tokyo, Taishukan, 1985.

25. John Stevens gives his arguments on pp.15-20 of The Secrets of Aikido.

26. The two quotations are from The Great Onisaburo Deguchi, p.20.

27. The religious order was the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.

28. The texts with which I am most familiar are the Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous mediaeval English mystic, the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, and the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

29. That such fruitful exchange is possible is evident from a book entitled Mystics and Zen Masters, by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (first published in 1961 by Farrar Strauss and Giroux, New York). In two chapters, “Zen Buddhist Monasticism” and “The Zen Koan” (pp.215-254), Merton gives a succinct and elegant account of the major differences between Zen and Christian monasticism.