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O-Sensei: Concretizing the Myth

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #55 (June 1983)

Every movement attaining the significance and manifesting the size and vitality of Aikido must have some charismatic individual or core group as its focal point. Aikido is of course no exception as the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was a man of extraordinary dimensions. Recently, I have been reflecting on the complex attraction that 0-Sensei holds for most Aikidoists who have been exposed to his accomplishments.

Although I am not equipped to provide an in-depth psychological portrait of O-Sensei, it is clear from even a cursory reading of his biography that he was a man who was driven. Small and weak as a boy and an only son, he felt a need to prove himself from an early age. His feelings of inferiority supplied the drive and tenacity with which he was to pursue his every goal. Despite the fact that the early focus of his energies was on becoming strong and acquiring technical prowess, he later explored with equal intensity the realm of the spirit which eventually left an indelible stamp of humanity on his Aikido a mark which was to lift the concept of martial arts to new ethical heights.

As we contemplate his genius, however, what concretely constitutes the object of our fascination with the man? Let me offer my impressions. First, there was 0-Sensei’s ability to dominate the physical reality characterizing the attack-defense sequence. This is naturally not meant to imply that mental or spiritual elements were absent in the application of his technique; indeed they were present. Yet, what is most patently obvious is that a seemingly impotent little old man was able to control and direct the energy of his powerful young attackers. And as if this were not remarkable enough, he succeeded in exercising his mastery without inflicting injury on his opponent. His techniques were round and flowing and his philosophy imbued with love. His debt to the martial figures who preceded him was unquestionable and yet his art contained something fundamentally new. It offered a glimmer of a new possibility, a new solution to the “zero-sum” game played by man from time immemorial. A refusal to do battle while emerging unscathed from the battlefield.

For those who believe martial arts require brute force, he demonstrated the gentle irresistibility of his technique. For those who imply they are too old to train and improve he moved with child-like grace and energy into his eighties.

O-Sensei was a man of passion who achieved a state of serenity. There was an aura of mystery enveloping his art, something perceived as unattainable by those who view him as a god while offering great promise for those who view him as a man.