Budo and Aikido: Finding the Source
Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba O’Sensei, watched the world as he knew it undergo enormous change. In adulthood, he stood with one foot planted in a history of ancestral samurai and the other foot in the dawning of a new age of modernization - the one we live in today. From the Code of the Warrior to Weekend Warrior - well, yes, some things have definitely changed.
We contemplate Sensei’s skill and prescience, hoping that we will one day understand that which he understood. Is it even possible? The search goes on…
Boulder Aikikai, under the direction of Hiroshi Ikeda sensei, hosted Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies 2006 for continued exploration of the budo roots of aikido.
An excerpt from their flyer follows:
“For this year, we choose the character “Genten,” signifying the aspiration of rediscovering the source of Aikido and O’Sensei’s teaching. The aikido we see and practice today reflects inevitable evolution. But let us wonder at O’Sensei’s original “magic” - the source of his power and of true Budo. We may deeply and openly seek this essence by learning from every possible means - even those beyond Aikido.
The collaborative teaching of aikido and karate master instructors at the 2006 Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies gives us just such an opportunity. Under the expert guidance of our instructors, prepare to challenge the familiar! Prepare to challenge yourself physically and mentally! Let’s open our eyes to the possibilities!”
Prior to the 2006 Summer Camp in the Rockies, each of the four featured instructors was invited to contribute an essay on the camp’s theme, Genten, or Origin, for inclusion in the camp handbook. The essays are reprinted here with kind permission from the authors and translators:
By Mitsugi Saotome shihan, Chief Instructor, Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, Myakka City, Florida, USA
Translated by Neville Nason
Within nature we can discern universal principles that are common to all life in its myriad shapes and forms. Seeking to discover the essence and origin of these principles leads to an acknowledgement of the simple yet profound truth that we all participate in a shared existence on our planet, itself participating in the context of the universe at large.
Within both the microcosm of human society and the infinite sweep of the natural world, the reality imposed by this shared origin is ever-present and unquestionable.
All creatures and all creation, visible and the invisible, whose workings and meaning are beyond human knowing, exist in accord with the laws of the natural world. By seeing clearly into these phenomena, we can begin to perceive the true meaning of budo. That is, we can realize that our own life is a gift of the workings of nature, and strive to understand and embody a spirit of loving protection for all things.
The form and function of all life that exists in harmony with nature implies an inevitability and appropriateness of form, appearance, and being that in the East has been given the name “Tao” or “Do”.
In the realm of our chosen art of Aikido, the founder Ueshiba Morihei O’Sensei strove to convey this message by encouraging us to always “unify our heart with the path of the Gods.”
By finding harmony with these universal principles and with the workings of nature, and through our efforts to give them concrete expression in the techniques of budo, we become open to enlightenment of both body and spirit.
The path of Aikido, like the Japanese spirit from the most ancient times, has no place for the aggrandizement of the ego. Through the realization that our own life and consciousness springs from the infinite consciousness of the universe, we open to live our humanity to the fullest measure. This realization is at once the deepest teaching of budo, and the reason that in true budo there is no enemy.
Genten - Origin - Source
By Frank Doran Shihan, Chief Instructor of Aikido West, Redwood City, CA, USA
To rediscover the source is to go back in time. Certain “truths” survive the passing of time. What truths or principles about budo have been passed on to our generation by past masters and what truths do we have an obligation to pass on to the next generation?
Most students of aikido have been exposed to numerous quotes from Morihei Ueshiba O’Sensei. We have some idea of his history, those who influenced his thinking, his personal training, and the path he set for us to follow.
It is widely accepted that O’Sensei was an extraordinary martial artist, and many feel he was a creative genius. What principals do we see clearly demonstrated in his aikido, principals that might also be traced back in time to those sensei who came before him? O’Sensei had a teacher … who had a teacher … who had a teacher. What have the great masters left for us as a guide to shape our thinking and our training?
One example is from YAGYU JUBEI, A famous Edo period sword master. He said:
There are two paths to progress;
One may enter through the path of principle ….
One may enter through the path of technique.”
“Principle and Technique are firmly tied together. At the very heart of every technique lies a basic principle. Look beyond technique and discover the principle that gives it life.”
“Technique is the hammer that drives the principle into our consciousness. Without technique - the principle has no way to express itself - it is just an idea.”
Taking Yagyu Jubei’s words to heart, what are these fundamental principles demonstrated through technique that we should stress in our own training and pass on to the next generation? Of the many principles, a few stand out in my limited understanding as essential.
Principle number one - AIKI
Our origin is traced to Aikijutsu. Legend has it that while meditating in his garden on a winter day, a master observed the snow falling on the trees. He further observed that branches of the oak, known for its unyielding strength, broke under the weight of the snow. The branches of the willow tree, however, would bend to the weight of the snow and spring back unharmed. His enlightenment was in the discovery that in yielding is true strength.
Principle number two - KUZUSHI
Without a clear understanding of Kuzushi (balance breaking) the judoka or aikidoka will have little or no success in throwing an opponent. To break your partner’s balance, particularly at the initial moment of contact, is essential.
Principle number three - SHISEI
Shisei (posture) goes hand in hand with kuzushi - to break your partner’s balance while at the same time maintaining your own. Good posture is structurally strong, functional - not just for good looks.
The above principles are just a few that have passed the test of time. Hopefully during our week of training together, we can explore these and other principles more fully. I leave you with another thought from another master from the past:
The famed swordsman MIYAMOTO MUSASHI
“The purpose of today’s training … is to defeat yesterday’s understanding.”
By Kenji Ushiro shihan, Okinawan Shindo-ryu Karate, Osaka, Japan
Translated by Neville Nason
Our consideration of “origins” in budo must be rooted unconditionally in the essence of martial technique, the purpose of which is to determine life or death in battle. Above and beyond this, our training should be guided by a deep understanding of the lives, thoughts, personalities, and spirit of the founders of the traditions we inherit.
Through the techniques that comprise our budo heritage, we have the opportunity, and at the same time the obligation, to seek answers to the same questions as did the founders. I believe that vitalizing this essence in the context of our life today embodies the meaning of budo origins.
At the same time, our keiko offers us the opportunity to transcend dualities and to develop the physical body in a context of absolutes. We are challenged to polish our spirit, and strive to unify the physical and spiritual in order to transcend our limitations.
Losing sight of this origin, and subsequently drifting away from the essence of our quest, leads inevitably to the decline - and ultimate extinction of the path. Sadly, by the time we notice the beginnings of such a decline, we may have already passed a point of no return. Budo, because it is an intangible cultural asset passed directly from teacher to student, is particularly susceptible to this fate.
Today, we can see an increasing “hollowing out” of the practice of martial arts. Whether the discipline allows competition or not, the trend is increasingly towards budo as a sports activity.
As a result, the repetition of technique, which provides the foundation of all budo, becomes more and more superficial, while vital aspects such as breath and ki energy become topics for study in word only.
The Essence of Bujutsu: Unification
Today’s contemporary karate styles focus primarily on developing abilities in striking, kicking and sparring. Thus, although they share a common name, contemporary sports karate and bujutsu karate are entirely different endeavors.
Relative to striking, undisputed as a core skill in karate, we sometimes hear the term “to kill with one strike.” The meaning of the words of course refers to an exceptionally effective offensive attack. However, the essential nature of such a strike differs dramatically between sports karate and bujutsu karate.
In sports karate, “kill with one strike” refers to delivering a powerful blow to an opponent. In contrast, in bujutsu karate, entering into the opponent - while at the same time removing the option for them to attack or defend - is our primary concern. Given this, the approach to training between the two is entirely different.
Because sports karate focuses on strikes and kicks, the mainstay of training involves work with punching bags or makiwara. In contrast, bujutsu karate - while this may appear to be a contradiction in terms - is concerned primarily with non-striking control. As such, physical training by punching a stationary target is not of primary concern. Certainly this kind of training can serve as a helpful means of measuring progress, normal keiko does not give great weight to it.
While striking blows involve the shock of a collision, non-strikes do not transmit any shock at all. In the latter, you find embodied the essence of unification that underlies true bujutsu karate.
This unification arises paradoxically from the power of a strong attack, or the potential of a strong impact. Unification or harmonization itself is not primary in this case. Rather, it is the absolute control of distance and timing that allows you to validate both yourself and your opponent. Kata practice in karate presents a particularly effective means to research these principles.
In the same way that you only truly appreciate the utility and enjoyment of riding a bicycle once you have mastered it, it is only when you are able to freely use the techniques contained within kata that you come to appreciate the profound nature of the kata themselves. However, unlike our bicycle analogy, because the kata are not purely physical constructs they are substantially more difficult to internalize.
If the kata themselves could be used “as is,” their effectiveness would be unquestioned. However, as can be seen with most contemporary kata that have deviated from their origins in Okinawan schools, progressive transformation into a purely sports-oriented approach has rendered them less and less serviceable as martial technique. Consequently, whether or not kata can actually be used depends foremost on whether the teacher has been able to concretize the principles they embody. In other words, the teacher becomes the essence of the kata.
Just as the multiplication tables form the foundation of basic arithmetic, kata form the foundation of bujutsu and budo. Only through repeated practice of these foundational elements can we arrive at an understanding of their essence. In turn, it is only from that point that we can begin to explore concrete applications. At the same time, it is equally important in our daily lives to strive to embody the principles of unification that form the heart of true bujutsu.
Finally, even though we may have mastered specific techniques, true application remains an elusive goal. Therefore, it is critical to our progress to focus on the essence of technique. Only through mastery of this essence is it possible to transform technique into an appropriate response in a dynamic situation. Thus it is in this very sense that a return to essentials is so strongly called for.
By Hiroshi Ikeda shihan, Chief Instructor, Boulder Aikikai, Boulder, CO, USA
Translated by Jane Nason
Genten is the origin of all things. As a foundation, it is the place from which all things are nurtured. In the case of Aikido, its foundation is the spiritual and philosophical inquiry, and the technical art of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba.
When we speak of ‘budo’, what is its basic principle? The primary requisite is that budo is an art concerned with how to protect oneself in any circumstance. Add to that elements of spirituality, etiquette, philosophy and we have ‘bushido’ (the spirit of the samurai). This is the foundation of budo and of bushido.
When studying a martial art, of course learning techniques is important; however, along with that, it is important to develop mental, energetic, and breath power through training and application. The attitude of many people studying martial arts seems to be that it is enough to train only techniques and not the fundamental martial spirit that vitalizes them.
When a large number of techniques and movements are understood only intellectually, the application of those techniques is diminished. Budo that is informed by purely cerebral understanding has a tendency to become a ‘fantasy’ budo. With this tendency, the future of budo will lead farther and farther away from an understanding rooted in the body. I think we can say that if we don’t do budo with our bodies, then we are doing something quite different from the original meaning of budo - something totally separate from the fundamental martial spirit of protection of oneself.
If we take for example, the fact that as we age our muscle strength wanes, this raises the question of whether or not we could deal with someone possessing greater physical strength despite any age difference. The underlying principle of budo is that no matter how old one gets, one should be able to deal with a person of greater strength using the techniques and spiritual mastery one develops through training. The fact that the budo we are practicing does not lead in that direction or prepare us for when we get older tells us we are practicing something very different from the original martial arts.
Why did the samurai of old possess a refined physique and spirit, and remain able to preserve their strength even as they aged? I have doubts about whether we could develop that kind of strength within the context of our current practice.
By going back to the source of budo, reflecting deeply on what that source is, and reintegrating it into our training, our current practice can evolve. I’d like you to try to find a daily practice that is much more substantial and complete.
This is our second year to have Ushiro Shihan, master of Okinawan traditional style Karate. visit us from Japan. I am seeking to learn about the source of this Okinawan style of Karate. This year again my goal is to study the fundamental spirit of Karate, which is to say in turn, the source of budo. Aikido, Karate and all martial arts share this common source. If we don’t comprehend this, we may misunderstand budo altogether.
If Japanese martial arts are like the trunk of one tree. then we could say the limbs of that tree are the various styles of different arts. Everyday we look at our own limb but rarely, if at all, do we examine the trunk of this tree. I’d like you to re-examine the trunk - “the source” - of this tree.
Saotome Shihan was chosen by O’Sensei out of many other Aikido shihan to serve as an uchi deshi and study closely under him for many years. He had daily training at the source. Saotome Shihan’s movements, his waza, are the movements of the source of Aikido. When watching him, whether you can grasp this or not depends on your approach and attitude toward aikido.
Frank Doran Shihan began his training with judo and later changed to Aikido, coming to Japan and training with O’Sensei. He is one of the few non-Japanese Aikido instructors to have done so. Doran Sensei has also held high positions of responsibility in the military and in police work for many years. He is a teacher with many years of experience at the source of leadership training.
During this summer camp, I hope that everyone will train keeping in mind this examination of your understanding of the source of Aikido, and indeed the source of all budo. If you can discover this, your concept of Aikido will change and you will get one step closer to a renewed understanding of our art. I sincerely hope this will happen.