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Aikido: A Restatement of Universal Truths

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #119 (2000)

It will come as no news to long-time readers of Aikido Journal that we make a constant effort to keep alive and vibrant the figure of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba. One of the reasons for this is simply a fascination with the events of his adventure-filled life—a life that lends itself to endless inspection from a multitude of perspectives. Another reason is the fact that, to my knowledge, no other rigorous, ongoing effort is being made to preserve and disseminate the life and work of Morihei Ueshiba. This is all the more surprising when you think of how successful aikido has been internationally.

As the founder’s philosophy embodies universal principles, it is not surprising to find expressions of similar concepts in diverse contexts. This happened recently when in the course of a couple of days I happened across two statements of one of the fundamental principles of aikido while doing some legal research. The first was a biblical reference to Matthew 5:25 that reads, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” (Since I am writing this while in Japan, I did not have a Bible at hand yet was able to retrieve the exact passage from the Internet in about two minutes. Awesome technology, wouldn’t you agree!) This is an excellent example of the application of aikido principles to the field of law.

The second statement came to me via an e-mail from an acquaintance who has practiced aikido. This gentleman provides legal counsel and has a remarkable track record in court litigation. Commenting on the secret of his success he wrote, “We have followed the principles of aikido to accomplish our task. First, we prepare ourselves by study, meditation and application. Then we study the opposition recognizing their qualities and adapting our performance, always maintaining correct principles. Then when under attack, we recognize the force and energy of the attack with respect and blend our energy with it to subtly direct the combined force in the direction that will give the opponent the greatest education of the realities at hand until he is subdued into recognition of the inevitable.” This statement reveals a profound understanding of the principles of engagement in the resolution of disputes.

These passages of course closely parallel the aikido principle of blending with the attack of the adversary, thereby unbalancing him and rendering his attack harmless with the result that neither he nor you suffers injury. This simple, yet profound, concept is perhaps the crowning jewel of O-Sensei’s philosophy and has served to inspire millions to begin and persevere in their study of aikido.

Although this lofty concept is not difficult to grasp in the abstract, the preparation and training required to acquire the skills to produce such a felicitous outcome come only with long, diligent study. O-Sensei himself emphasized precisely this point—often quoted by Morihiro Saito Sensei—when he would say, “This old man has been training for 60 years! What do you think you can accomplish in such a short time?” or words to that effect. I believe this point cannot be overly stressed. It is altogether too easy to parrot such ideals and attempt to apply them intellectually only to find oneself paralyzed in the face of a violent attack whether it be physical, verbal or of whatever nature.

In our recent piece on Shindo Yoshin-ryu jujutsu appearing in Aikido Journal 117, Yukiyoshi Takamura eloquently expresses a similar concept when commenting on pacifism: “A pacifist is not really a pacifist if he is unable to make a choice between violence and non-violence. A true pacifist is able to kill or maim in the blink of an eye, but at the moment of impending destruction of the enemy he chooses non-violence.” The point is that an individual must be in full possession of the necessary skills to produce the desired outcome rather than delude himself via an intellectual process into thinking that he will be capable of performing under duress without having undergone rigorous training. There is simply no substitute for purposeful study over a protracted period to reach a high level of competency in any discipline.

To return to my initial point, if the pinnacle of Morihei Ueshiba’s contribution lies in the rediscovery and application of certain universal principles observed by others before and after him, what then is original about his aikido? For my part, I would say O-Sensei succeeded in creating a martial discipline of tremendous beauty and depth that embodies such principles, not only spiritually, but in a tangible, physically discernible manner. The beauty and effectiveness of the movements of aikido can be appreciated through direct participation in practice or even through observation by keen eyes. There are certainly other arts—martial and otherwise—that tap into universal principles and are impressive to behold. Partnered dance forms from numerous different cultures and t’ai chi ch’uan from China come immediately to mind as examples. Yet aikido has a tremendous universality and appeal due not only to the power and grace of its movements, but also to its emphasis on the moral responsibility of the user of its techniques.

This having been said, what role is left to the present generation insofar as its contribution to causing aikido to evolve to meet the exigencies of a new age? Will our contribution be limited to preserving and disseminating the technical curriculum formulated by the founder and his direct students? Will we devise new techniques to provide defenses against new kinds of attacks and weapons? Surely our efforts must insure that these goals are met. But even more, I submit our generation can discover new and profound ways of extending the aikido philosophy and morality to all levels of our lives.

To cite just one example I have long thought about, what about developing a course in “verbal aikido” that provides training in handling “word attacks” using aikido principles? A text could be created containing numerous examples of verbal aggression with sample replies that tend to deflect and defuse the attack. Techniques could be borrowed and adapted to these ends from such disciplines as psychology and hypnosis. Workshops could be held that give people a chance to hone their verbal skills, body language, etc. to successfully deal with social aggression.

It was Japanese culture out of which aikido emerged, but it is likely to be the West that will take the initiative in extending the art into new domains such as this. These are areas of deep personal interest to me and I hope to channel part of our resources and energies into these kinds of activities in the future.