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Ends and Means: Why are we training?

by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #109 (Fall/Winter 1996)

The telephone just rang and a young man launched into a detailed inquiry about aikido. How did it stack up against other martial arts? How long did it take to learn? What if I was challenged by a black belt in another style? and so on. It was the classical catalog of concerns that seem to torment many aspiring martial artists, and when I could not prevent myself from laughing, there was a pained silence at the other end of the telephone line.

I apologized for my involuntary mirth, then reversed his questions and asked whether he had recently been attacked by a karate expert? How long he thought it took to learn anything, such as the piano, and why exactly he was in such urgent need of personal invincibility?

Of course, it is not only newcomers to aikido who entertain these concerns, and one not infrequently encounters aikidoka of long experience sneaking off to learn more “effective” martial arts to cover themselves against the perceived “weak points” of aikido. Then there are the fanatics who overcompensate for their deep insecurity by becoming crunchers, proving themselves and the “reality” of their approach every time they smash some unfortunate uke’s head into the mat or crank on a sankyo that leaves someone in pain for days or weeks afterwards.

At the other extreme are these who quote O-Sensei on “love” and “harmony,” without, of course, sharing his depth of insight, and proceed to deny that aikido is a martial art at all.

It is almost as if O-Sensei suffered from a Multiple Personality Disorder in which he was Arnold Schwarzenegger one moment and Mother Teresa the next, leaving a legacy of polarized followers, each ready to quote the Grand Master’s words or deeds to support their opposing views.

Like most normal aikidoka, I suppose, I tend to wobble between the extremes at times, but strive to find a path of reconciliation for myself consistent with the realities around me. I am thankful to have the leisure to contemplate this problem, which is not to be trivialized, since we must as human beings find an answer to violence, or face extinction. In the microcosm of the aikido world we grapple with questions that, carried to their ultimate expression, threaten all life on this planet. Consider the nuclear question for a moment.

Nuclear Free N.Z

New Zealand’s nuclear free policy has turned out to have been ahead of its time, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the removal thereby of the main threat which was supposed to justify the Western powers’ strategy of nuclear deterrence. When we became a nuclear-free nation by law, ten years ago, and incurred the wrath of the United States by refusing to accept visits by its warships when they would “neither confirm nor deny” they were carrying nuclear weapons, we were the subject of ridicule and bullying from all sides.

The attempt was made, unsuccessfully I am pleased to say, to force New Zealand to accept the very kind of international totalitarianism that we were supposed to be ready to defend ourselves against. That “might was right” was simply taken for granted in the same way that there is seen to be no question, in some people’s minds, that one should strive for combat-effective aikido, regardless of other factors.

Are Warriors Really Noble?

Congenitally more of a worrier than a warrior, I mean no disrespect for the latter when I say that I do not see the fighting man as the epitome of civilization. I am quite sure that if, mistaking his centuries, a samurai should suddenly leap out on the footpath in front of me, I would either cross the road or be instantly demolished.

Call me a wimp or a realist, I do not expect my grab-bag full of aikido dan grades would save me from an ignominious drubbing or premature demise in such a scenario. Yet I do not lie awake at night wrestling with my inadequacies as a martial artist, and feel thankful, rather, that we live in fairly civilized times where it is not necessary to defend oneself from physical attack every minute.

Perhaps the nobility of the warrior meant something in pre-gunpowder days, and training with a view to developing that sort of spirit may be quite worthwhile, but I see absolutely nothing to be proud of in merely seeking to attain technical skill in fighting or killing.

It may seem extreme to compare budo with “the Bomb,” but I feel this is the logical conclusion when one develops a fixation on effectiveness. Even if it were possible to compare one form of budo with another, without considering the question of individual skill, which is hard to imagine, the hunt for the most effective form can only lead towards greater conflict, whereas aikido should take us in the opposite direction.

When David Lange, our Prime Minister at the height of the nuclear free debate mentioned above was asked what would happen if the USSR dropped an atomic bomb on a New Zealand that did not have the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, he answered immediately: “We would fry.”

Obviously, in a nuclear war everyone would fry, and it is surely vital that countries, like individuals, must find alternatives to ever-escalating violence that can only end in a lose-lose situation. Aikido is one way of tackling this problem on an individual level, and it is only when we can find peace in ourselves that we shall be able to create it in society at large.

Beware the Humorless

I do not mean to be entirely frivolous or offensive to serious martial artists when I say that my motto is “The Penis Mightier than the Sword,” but I think there are still far too many aikidoka who have their priorities confused when they argue intensely about the martial effectiveness of aikido techniques, and postpone any attempt to understand the philosophy of “The Art of Peace,” in the meantime.

By the way, I hope readers will forgive any misprints that may appear in my articles. And I trust no one will protest that my occasional attempts at humor lend undue levity to subjects that are supposed to be deadly serious, or seriously deadly. At the same time, it strikes me that one of the measures of a truly misguided martial artist is the lack of a sense of humor.

Of course, words can be misleading, and it is difficult to write freely when one must be always on the lookout for possible misunderstandings, breaches of etiquette and political correctness, not to mention cross-cultural confusion.

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