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Touching the Absolute: Aikido vs. Religion and Philosophy (2)

by Peter Goldsbury

Aikido Journal #121

Part Two: Following in the Footsteps

This is the second part of a three-part essay which discusses the martial art of aikido in connection with religion and philosophy. The first part dealt in some detail with the spiritual pursuits of Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of aikido, and posed the general question of what these spiritual pursuits were and how much they should concern us, members of an increasingly multicultural aikido community. It is clear from his writings that the Founder regarded aikido primarily as a contemplation of the divine as he saw it and he never compromised on this point. Of course, it is possible to discern a marked development as the Founder separated himself from Sokaku Takeda and the more traditional aspects of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, which was also contemporaneous with his increasing adherence to the Omoto religion, but it also true that right until the end of his life, Morihei Ueshiba presented aikido as a ‘seamless garment’ so to speak: a martial art certainly, but a martial art which left practice and the contemplation of the divine largely undifferentiated.

The main concern of the second part of this essay is to consider the same problems of the first part relating to religion and philosophy, but this time as they are involved in the transmission of the art. It has been stated that aikido is, and is not, a religion and does, and does not, have a philosophy and perhaps it is easier to focus these questions more sharply with Kisshomaru Ueshiba than it is with his father. In particular, I will examine to what extent and in what way Kisshomaru Ueshiba inherited and developed an established living tradition. Elsewhere I have argued that there are particular problems involved in inheriting, preserving, developing and transmitting the ‘charismatic’ aspects of something like a martial art when the ‘charisma’ is wholly contained within one person. The charisma has to be transmitted, otherwise the art will die or cease to be authentic, but this depends on to the extent to which the charisma can be found in the successor. The saintly and extremely charismatic Pope John XXIII was once asked how best one could follow someone with great charisma. His reply was, “Do not imitate him.” Whatever else he did, Kisshomaru Ueshiba certainly took this advice and it is this which makes his own contribution to aikido and its development all the more interesting.

Father and Son: A Study in Contrasts

The problems touched upon in the last paragraph can be seen in much sharper perspective if we put Morihei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba side by side. There are many similarities, but the constrasts are more striking. We can consider the contrasts in several ways, first in terms of chronology.

(1) Morihei Ueshiba can be considered a Meiji or Taisho figure. He was born in 1883, or the 16th year of the Meiji era. This was only a dozen or so years after the conflicts surrounding the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of power to the Emperor. Morihei Ueshiba went to Hokkaido in 1912 to help colonise Japan’s northern territories and there he met Sokaku Takeda, one of the last of the ‘Wandering Samurai’, who felt he could not enter a house in safety or eat food put before him without having it checked for poison. In 1919, the 8th year of the reign of the strange Emperor Taisho, Morihei Ueshiba met Onisaburo Deguchi in Ayabe, whilst returning to Tanabe to see his dying father. The meeting with Deguchi was epoch-making and from then on the future course of aikido was set, with the establishment of the Ueshiba-Juku in Ayabe (1920) and the move to Tokyo and establishment of the Kobukan in Ushigome (1931). There was a gradual separation from the organisation of Omoto-kyo and the Founder was relatively unscathed by the 2nd Omoto Incident in 1935. Ueshiba’s art was designated as “aikido” in 1942, which was the year that the Founder retired to Iwama. Here, a shrine, and dojo were constructed. Thus the martial art created by Morihei Ueshiba received its present name a mere 27 years before the Founder’s death at the age of 86. Although Morihei Ueshiba never ceased refining the art he had created, if we can say with confidence that aikido is the product of the fusing together of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu and Omoto religious beliefs, then Ueshiba planted the seeds of its origin and growth in the Meiji and Taisho eras. This cannot be said of his son Kisshomaru Ueshiba.

Though the Ushigome dojo resumed operations after the war and became the Aikikai Hombu, Morihei Ueshiba did not play a major part in its development. He spent his time in Iwama, or travelling to his favourite places, like Shingu (with Michio Hikitsuchi), Osaka (with Bansen Tanaka and Seiseki Abe), and Kyushu (with the Sunadomaris). Visits to the Tokyo Hombu also became increasingly frequent and on one occasion only the Founder set foot overseas through the efforts of Koichi Tohei, one of his most able and favoured, students. But the essentially religious tenor of his life did not change and in postwar Japan, his preoccupation with his beloved Shinto deities marked Morihei Ueshiba out as a relic of the past: a very important cultural relic, but a relic nevertheless. To say that he lived out the remainder of his life quietly would be an exaggeration, for he attracted many of his most able disciples when he was in his sixties and seventies, but he was clearly in a world of his own, which virtually none of these disciples shared.

Though Kisshomaru Ueshiba was born in 1921 (the 10th year of the Taisho era), he is definitely a Showa figure. He started aikido training around 1935, when the Emperor Showa was firmly on his throne and was preparing the events which led to World War II. As these preparations led to the outbreak of the Pacific War, and the Founder retired to Iwama, Kisshomaru was left in charge of the old Kobukan Dojo while still at university. After the war, Kisshomaru Ueshiba became Dojo-cho (dojo head) of the Kobukan in 1948 and this dojo resumed regular operations in 1949. As has been stated, the Founder spent most of his time in Iwama, travelling around Japan, or, of course, often visiting the Tokyo Hombu. But it was left to Kisshomaru to run the fledgling organisation and also to be the regular teacher in the Hombu Dojo. As the organisation grew stronger and extended its reach, Kisshomaru Ueshiba carefully balanced his activities between home and overseas, in keeping with Japan’s new international role as a developing ‘western’ democracy. He presided over an enormous and rapid expansion of aikido overseas, while keeping the more conservative elements happy in Japan.

(2) However, the contrast between Morihei Ueshiba (Meiji) and his son Kisshomaru (Showa) is not merely a matter of chronology; it is also a matter of what we might call cultural attitudes. Kisshomaru was entering his teens when Japan entered on the course of nationalistic aggression which was to end with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was able to begin operations in the Hombu Dojo only as a result of the good graces of General MacArthur and the GHQ. He succeeded his father just as the oil shock of the early seventies gave rise to the economic boom of the eighties, when instant gratification, preferably abroad, took the place of the hard years of thrift and gaman of the thirties and forties. Aikido also was quietly transformed from its origins as a severely martial Way of communing with the kami, as seen through the eyes of Omoto-kyo and open only to a favoured few, to a Way of general spiritual solace, wherein the severely martial aspects had to coexist with the more general spiritual requirements of world peace, available to the masses in a materialistic age and presented as a solution of the ills this materialistic age brought. But aikido also became an internationally recognised art and also, with the creation of the IAF, an internationally recognised organisation. In some ways, the transformation of aikido from Meiji to Showa is a mirror image of the transformation of Japan as a whole during the same period.

I think it is hard to overstate the importance of these differences and their importance for aikido as a martial art. Several factors crucial to the martial arts have their focus in the transfer of power from Morihei to Kisshomaru. We will look at these factors in some detail. One is the nature of the transfer.

(2a) Although Morihei looked around widely for possible successors, the method would be the iemoto system, by adoption into the Ueshiba family. After his third and sole surviving son grew to maturity and began regular training, thoughts of adoption faded and Kisshomaru became the heir apparent. However, the potential flaw in the iemoto system is that nature does not always respect genetics regarding martial expertise and virtue. The vertical structure of the Japanese martial arts means that the Master imparts his skills to those disciples whom he considers suitable and differences in both what is imparted and how it is understood become apparent almost immediately. Those who are not favoured can still claim a share in the inheritance. I am not saying for one moment that Kisshomaru was not fully able to pass on his father’s inheritence. What I am saying is that certain constraints were imposed by the system and the other disciples had to make a choice: to accept the fact that the new Doshu was the sole ultimate repository of the art, or to leave. We will consider this question further, below.

(2b) The second, absolutely crucial, factor is the outbreak of the Second World War. Morihei Ueshiba began instructing members of the Japanese military class almost as soon as he opened his Ueshiba Juku in 1920. This should not come as a surprise. Japan has been ruled by military governments for much of its recorded history and the whole ‘myth’ of the samurai and their unique brand of martial virtue was born and nurtured during successive military dictatorships. The Founder’s association with the military, including some very right-wing elements therein, appears to have progressively increased with the inauguration of the Kobukan in 1931 and continued at least until 1942, until he retired to Iwama. The reason for the flight to Iwama is sometimes given as the Founder’s dissatisfaction with the military’s subversion of an essentially ‘peaceful’ martial art. My scepticism about this is based on the many references in Ueshiba’s published writings to the importance of aikido in building yamato-damashii (the essence, or soul, of the nation of Japanese people). My point, which is probably not fashionable to emphasise in presentday aikido circles, is that the Founder was a firm believer in the ‘Imperial Way’, with all that this implies about Japan’s ‘divine’ role in Asia. The fact that he might not have shared the government’s enthusiasm to impose this Way on the people of Asia by military force is immaterial. The Founder firmly believed in the importance of yamato-damashii and the role that aikido could play. Fortunately or unfortunately, Japan lost the war and the work of building yamato-damashii suffered a major setback.

(2c) The change of attitudes among the Japanese people as a result of Japan’s defeat in World War II also extends to a very important sphere, which is a major theme of this essay. The Founder was steeped in Shingon Buddhism and also in what we might call ‘folk Shinto’, as interpreted by the Omoto religion. It is somewhat different from the ‘state Shinto’ endorsed by the Japanese military government, but was certainly included in the general disenchantment with the latter, as a result of Japan’s defeat and the subsequent purges by the GHQ. It is curious that ‘budo’ and ‘bushido’ differ by only one Chinese character, but have quite different connotations. Nevertheless, to proclaim aikido as a martial art based on Shinto and yamato-damashii would not have gone down very well with those who were responsible for deciding whether to enforce or lift the ban on martial arts. Thus it should come as no surprise to find that there is virtually no mention whatever of Shinto and its trappings in aikido after practice was resumed in 1949; what is more surprising is that this situation has continued for the last fifty years, despite the general reawakening of Japanese nationalism.

(2d) The third issue is the rapid diffusion of aikido after the war and, again, this was a major change. It is said that the old koryu schools are dying out because, in an effort to guarantee quality, they restrict numbers and enforce excessive conformity with kata forms. The new budo, like judo, applied supposedly scientific methods to the old koryu and in the process have become westernised sports. Aikido is in a kind of limbo. It is not a koryu and is not dependent on kata, but, at least in most forms, eschews competition. Even where competition is allowed, this is never the sole raison d’etre. The point is that diffusion of the art has not led to a diminution of quality of technique and this is reverse side of the iemoto coin. There is only one Founder and unless there is only one disciple, the diversification of the Founder’s teaching is inevitable, given the vertical structure of the art. If the Founder’s successor is flexible, as Kisshomaru actually was in many ways, this is a source of strength. If he is rigid, as Kisshomaru was with Koichi Tohei, this is a source of fragmentation. However even in this case, the results of the fragmentation are not necessarily detrimental to the art.

(3) Finally, the contrast between Morihei Ueshiba (Meiji) and Kisshomaru Ueshiba (Showa) can perhaps be seen at the human level, common to all families. However, the differences cannot simply be ascribed to a difference in epoch. In Taisho Japan fathers had very little contact with their children and were fearsome figures. There is an old saying that Japanese hold four things in greatest dread: jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji (earthquakes, thunder, fires, fathers). However, in the Ueshiba family, Morihei was clearly an unusual and a dominant figure. Whereas Yoroku appears to have been a kind and considerate father, anxious to allow his extraordinary son to follow the path he wanted, we do not know if Morihei followed in his father’s footsteps in regard to his own son. Kisshomaru attended a regular high school and went on to graduate in Economics from Waseda University, one of Japan’s two most prestigious private universities (Keio being the other). A comment in the biography Aikido Kaiso Ueshiba Morihei Den suggests very strongly that Morihei Ueshiba was a father in the traditional Taisho style. Kisshomaru Ueshiba is commenting on his father’s reaction to the completion of the new Hombu Dojo. Having gazed at the building, with a look of “deep emotion”, he turned to his son and said “Yo yatta no”, a loose translation of which would be “You did well, Son”. Kisshomaru adds that it was the first and only time he had ever received words of praise from his father and they clearly made a deep impression on him. Morihei Ueshiba’s two sons both died in infancy and he dearly wanted a male heir to whom he could entrust the art he had created. Perhaps the sole comment is a poignant suggestion that a father could love his son in ways which seem inexplicable to us.

So far we have compared Morihei Ueshiba with his son Kisshomaru—largely how the son differed from the father, in the general context of Japanese history and the survival of aikido as a martial art. It is now time to examine in more detail what those changes consisted in and then to look at them from the viewpoint of the son, notably as it is expressed in some of Kisshimaru Ueshiba’s writings.

Entering a Different World

“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. However, after aikido became known internationally and non-Japanese came to practise at the Hombu in increasing numbers, this practice of worship was discontinued.” The source for this quotation from the first part of this essay was Shigenobu Okumura, a long-time disciple of the Founder who began aikido in Manchuria before the war. Okumura Shihan is stating what we might call the omote aspect of the momentous change which affected Japanese budo after the war. The ura aspect could be expressed rather differently. Such were the devastating effects of the war both physically and on the national psyche that a clean break had to be seen to be made with the militaristic apparatus of the past, including budo such as aikido (in fact, especially with budo such as aikido). To appreciate the magnitude of the changes, let us do some ‘imaginative reconstruction’ and put ourselves in the position of three prospective aiki(bu)do deshi, who began their practice at 30-year intervals: in 1935, in 1965, and in 1995.

1935

In 1935, aiki-budo is confined to a relatively small group of disciples who have had to present letters of introduction to the Founder even to set foot inside the dojo, which is seen as a place where ‘divine’ things are accomplished. Practice is always very demanding and there are no names for techniques. Everything is seen either in terms of the potential attacker, and also as a dynamic kotodama in tune with certain Japanese kami. The Founder is relatively young and is very fast and strong. He is clearly a magnetic figure. Nevertheless, he is still working out what he is actually doing. Training is rather rough-edged, but is very closely tied to certain spiritual experiences he has undergone. Insofar as any descriptions at all are given of the art, the Founder uses vocabulary based almost exclusively on ancient Japanese folktales and texts such as the Man’yoshu, Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki, with the further refinement that they are seen through the eyes of Shingon Buddhism and the Omoto religion: a heady mixture. Some disciples are Omoto believers and actually understand something of what he is talking about. Others have no clue at all and concentrate on the techniques. But all are left in no doubt that the Founder makes no distinction between his spiritual practices and his aikido training. In other words, he takes great pains to explain his own relations with the various kami of whom he believes he is the reincarnation and always explains aiki-budo, even the techniques, in these terms. However, the Founder never explicitly demands that his disciples share his own religious outlook and in some sense this would have been impossible. He believes that each person’s relationship with the kami is unique and has to be created by that individual. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Morihei Ueshiba could have demanded that all his disciples share his Omoto-tinged beliefs, given the increasing antipathy towards this religious group among the military and police, from which came many of his disciples

An important point to consider is that the Kobukan was opened in 1931 and the general context of training was Japan’s preparation for waging a major war in China and the Pacific. I think it is not difficult to conceive of an aiki-budo dojo run as part of a war effort, but the Takeda Dojo, or the dojo attached to the Toyama spy school, perhaps offers a closer parallel. The Kobukan is usually thought of as a kind of aiki-budo hothouse, where exotic seeds are grown into plants and brought to full bloom. But we should also consider all the people who trained at the Kobukan sporadically and for relatively short periods: in fact just like people train in dojos today). There is also the undoubted fact that the Founder was very active in teaching his art in military establishments and there is more than a hint that the training had too religious a tinge and not enough of the blood and guts suitable for soldiers about to fight a major war.

1965

By 1965 the Founder’s art has been given the name aikido and is firmly established throughout Japan. It is also on the verge of a major expansion abroad. The main location of practice is the dojo in Wakamatsu-cho and training is guided by three major figures, who incidentally have different approaches to the art: Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, and Kisaburo Osawa. The prospective deshi is one of a sizeable number of special students, either living in the dojo and being looked after by Kisshomaru and his wife, after the manner of a sumo oyakata, or within easy commuting distance. The economy is recovering from the dire conditions obtaining immediately after the war and this is reflected in the conditions in the dojo. The Iwama shrine and dojo is also flourishing under the direction of Morihiro Saito. Practice there was never interrupted by the war, but the headquarters eventually moved back to Tokyo. The Founder is now ‘above the clouds’ and divides his time between Iwama and Tokyo, but also travels around Japan to visit his earlier disciples who have established dojo and also organisations of their own. He plays little part in the actual organisation, but nevertheless, a deshi entering the Aikikai Dojo or Iwama Dojo in 1965 still has enough personal contact with the Founder himself to warrant the claim that he is a deshi of the Founder, even though his training is actually guided in Iwama mainly by Morihiro Saito and in Tokyo by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Kisaburo Osawa, and increasingly by the other senior students like Seigo Yamaguchi, Sadateru Arikawa and Hiroshi Tada. The techniques have been systematised and given names, but virtually all the disciples were quietly creating their own teaching systems and these would eventually include weapons like the bokken, jo, and tanto. Though the older disciples remember the Founder’s younger days and probably understand his esoteric lectures more than their younger colleagues, there is no general emphasis whatever on the mythology lying behind texts like the Kojiki and people are left to make whatever connection they can between aikido and religion; and they might do this by talking with the older disciples. Aikido is firmly in the ‘postwar age’ and is proclaimed less as a way of communing with the divine spirits of Japan than as a way of healthy communing with fellow humans. Thus, religion and aikido has become a purely private matter and the strictly martial aspect is emphasised only by those disciples who have had experience of other martial arts and/or who have chosen to emphasise this aspect of the Founder’s training. Aikido training is also seen as a solution to the problems affecting the nuclear age. In a real sense aikido is presented as a sort of cameo of the ‘new’ postwar Japan, which sees itself as a harmonious blend of old and new traditions.

1995

In 1995, Kisshomaru Ueshiba is still in charge, but is ailing. The regular training schedule is the same as before, with classes taught by a wide range of instructors. ‘Postwar age’ concepts have become somewhat stale, in keeping with the collapse of Japan’s ‘bubble’ economy. Much of the direction of aikido has fallen to his son Moriteru, but firmly under the guidance of the older disciples of the Founder. Thus a prospective deshi entering the Hombu is taught by Kisshomaru in his progressively infrequent regular classes, but is also guided by Moriteru and the younger deshi of Kisshomaru, such as Nobuyuki Watanabe, Shoji Seki and Masatoshi Yasuno. There is also another upcoming generation of deshi whose allegiance is primarily to Moriteru Ueshiba. Religion has even less of a place here than it had in the 1960s, since the ranks of the older disciples are gradually thinning and the younger disciples have no knowledge of the texts from which the Founder drew his inspiration. There is much more of an international flavour in the dojo and foreigners are regarded less as exotic creatures from another planet who can practise almost as well as the Japanese. The reverse side of this new internationalism is that the deshi will almost certainly be sent to teach aikido abroad, to cater for the increasing demand for teachers directly connected to the Hombu. However, the practice of sending Japanese instructors to reside abroad and earn their living by teaching aikido in their chosen country has all but stopped. A consequence of this international dimension is that aikido is presented as something essentially Japanese, but also valid for any culture. It is also presented in such a way as to avoid any risk of offending people with different religious beliefs to the Japanese. In fact, this presents a false comparison, for the postwar Japanese pride themselves on their religious tolerance. Within their own culture they can happily embrace the various strands of Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity all in the same breath without seeing any contradiction. Thus the aikido practised in 1995 is guaranteed to make no demands on the religious aspirations of practitioners. Of course, the aiki-budo practised in 1935 makes no such demands either, but this is far less obvious, given the Founder’s own spiritual pursuits.

We should now consider the transition from Morihei Ueshiba to his son Kisshomaru more from the latter’s viewpoint. We will look once more at his situation as one of the Founder’s disciples and then consider his own writings about aikido, always keeping in mind the general question of aikido vs. religion.

‘Carrying On the Business’: First Among Equals?

A very important matter to consider in relation to Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s contribution to aikido is the fact that, whereas Morihei was a genuine pioneer and ‘made things up as he went along’, Kisshomaru entered the world of aikido very much as one among many other students. In particular, there is no question of Morihei imparting to him special secrets of the art merely because he was his own son and would eventually follow in his footsteps. As a boy Kisshomaru watched the training in the Ueshiba-Juku in Ayabe and saw his father’s participation in Omoto activities. After the move to Tokyo, he began to train and cut his teeth in the Kobukan. He had many sempai, and it is important to note that in a very real sense they remained sempai all his life. In his writings Kisshomaru is reticent about the teaching he received from his father, but he records that he was encouraged to practise Kashima Shinto-ryu and there are many photographs of Kisshomaru in the role of partner during sword training and of taking ukemi from his father. He would also have come into contact with a whole group of figures such as Hajime Iwata, Rinjiro Shirata. He would also have had some contact with three ‘titans’ of early aiki-budo, Kenji Tomiki, Minoru Mochizuki, and Gozo Shioda. But as he progressed in the art, he cannot fail to have been made aware by his father in many subtle ways that he was the heir—and of what this involved.

Now is it a curious fact that all three ‘titans of early aiki-budo’ formed their own own organisations, with the blessing, or otherwise, of the Founder. I think it is putting it too strongly to state that this centrifugal tendency was a reaction to the clear signs in 1942 that Kisshomaru was the designated heir. A more likely explanation is that the Founder had decided that Kisshomaru should be the heir to his art, but had not made any fixed decisions about the content of the art or its organisation. In any case, he positively encouraged his early disciples to go off and follow their own inclinations. They came to him as ‘fully-formed’ martial arts experts in their various ways, but learned from the Founder what it was to be a real budoka, in his sense of the term. But this also means that very early on there were splits in the world of aikido. Nevertheless, at the time that Kisshomaru began the practice of aikido, the art was still very closely tied to the Omoto religion. Like his sempai and ani-deshi, he would have heard at first hand his father’s accounts of his transactions with the spirit world and so the fact that Kisshomaru Ueshiba began aikido with no experience of the martial arts other than high school judo and kendo and learned it from others besides his father has no real bearing on the matter of his religious outlook.

Some Texts

Unlike that of his father, Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s literary output was prolific. At least three works which can be called minor masterpieces have come down to us under his name: Aikido, published in 1956 and translated into English with the same title in 1973; Aikido-no-Kokoro, published in 1981 and translated into English as The Spirit of Aikido (published in 1984); and Aikido Shintai, a lavishly produced work published in 1986. This is now virtually out of print and unlikely ever to be published in English (if only for reasons of cost). If we examine these texts in more details, several striking features become evident.

The Japanese text Aikido is probably the first text on aikido to issue from the Aikikai Hombu since the Budo text of 1938. Morihei Ueshiba is the joint author and is referred to as Doshu. Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Koichi Tohei are Hombu Dojo-cho and Shihan-bucho (chief instructor), respectively. There are lengthy preliminary sections devoted to the Founder’s life and these are followed by a detailed explanation of basic taisabaki (body movements) and the core basic techniques. All these techniques are explained in terms of irimi and tenkan movements, which are equated with omote and ura, respectively. The emphasis is clearly on verbal explanations and diagrams at the expense of photographs (perhaps for reasons of economy) and the book concludes with an interview with the Founder, together with some remarks on aikido from the viewpoint of a foreigner written by Andre Nocquet. In the English version the Founder’s biography is considerably shortened and the concluding interview has been removed, as have the Nocquet remarks. The main focus of the book is the section on techniques, which have been expanded. There are many more photographs and the book is clearly a training manual in the Budo mold, rather than an extended treatment of the principles of aikido. However, here, as in the Japanese original, there is very little indication of the Founder’s religious pursuits as expounded in the doka, dobun and the Takemusu Aiki lectures.

The treatment of the so-called principles of aikido comes in Aikido-no-kokoro and Aikido Shintai. The former has been translated into English, but the extended treatment of the concept of ki is very subtle and deserves some detailed analysis, which we will do in the next section. The discussion in Aikido-no-Kokoro is broadly similar to that in Aikido Shintai, which is discussed in a later section.

The Ki of the Universe

As stated above, one of the central concepts explained in Aikido Shintai is ki and Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s explanation relates the concept to its common expressions in Japanese. It is more difficult to do this for non-Japanese and in The Spirit of Aikido, Kisshomaru focuses more on how the concept is likely to be understood and misunderstood by westerners.

The core explanation can be found in the first chapter, entitled “The Ki of the Universe and Individual Ki”. The strategy espoused in this chapter is actually quite subtle and it takes repeated readings to realise the subtleties. What Doshu does is to present aikido as an all-embracing activity based on the concept of ki. The chapter is rather diffuse in character, written in a Japanese style. After a preamble on why aikido can never be a competitive art, Kisshomaru tackles the subject of ki head-on:

In recent years interest in the ancient principle of ki has increased enormously, but most accounts neglect its philosophical roots. Briefly, the essence of ki is both personal and impersonal, concrete and universal; it is the basic, creative energy or force in life, transcending time and space.

Having defined it thus Kisshomaru explains the resurgence of interest in ki by reference to the “hollowness of the human spirit”, which lies behind the growing “advances in scientific knowledge and technology, as well as the attendant economic prosperity”.

We see in the midst of material abundance, artificial comforts and the massive bureaucratisation of life, a growing dissatisfaction and frustration underscoring the malaise that is spreading throughout the world. More than ever in history, we need to recover what it means to be truly human and to be truly caring.

This frustration is the reason for growing interest in ki and as a consequence in ai-ki-do. Kisshomaru then adds a none-too-subtle piece of autobiography:

For those of us who have dedicated ourselves to the cultivation of aikido, quietly, without fanfare or publicity, it brings great joy to hear of its acceptance on an international scale.

For someone who quietly lived in his father’s shadow, played a major role in ‘running the shop’ in the war years, and then, as his father stayed in Iwama, struggled to rebuild the Tokyo dojo in the way that he felt his father would have wished, this quiet statement about the international acceptance of aikido is the vindication of a cherished viewpoint. But there are dangers:

One of our major concerns is that aikido, because of its unique qualities rooted in Japanese spirituality, tends to invite misunderstandings. This tendency increases as aikido is introduced to people of different cultures and lifestyles, not only among beginners who have unrealistic expectations, but also among advanced students who may miss its subtle principles and may misrepresent them.

This problem is not one of technique:

As far as aikido techniques are concerned, there may be only minor problems, but the philosophical and spiritual basis of aikido presents an entirely different challenge. Real problems may arise unless we return to the original teaching of the Founder and clarify the essential meaning of aikido as fundamentally a matter of the spirit.

Kisshomaru Doshu defines this aspect of aikido in terms of ki.

At the heart of aikido as a spiritual way is ki: the world-forming energy which lies at the core of each human being, waiting to be realised and actualised.

(The full article is available for subscribers.)

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