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Aikido and Spirituality

Book Summary:

From the Publisher: Among the modern martial arts most often mentioned in relation to "spirituality" is the Japanese martial art aikido, created by Morihei Ueshiba (1883 -1969) in the 1940s. He described aikido as an art of peace and viewed its practice as a spiritual endeavour. Academic observers, however, have cast doubt on the authenticity of spiritual content in the martial arts while others consider that spirituality is not possible outside the confines of established religion. This book refutes these arguments by exploring in detail aikido's relationship to Japan's spiritual traditions. Drawing extensively on Ueshiba's discourses and writings, it compares the aikido world view and practice methods with those of four belief systems influential in Japan - Daoism, Zen Buddhism, Shingon Mikkyo and Shinto. The book shows how Ueshiba pierced the meaning of these traditions and was able thereby to synthesise their spiritual practices creatively. It also sheds light on various sources of confusion surrounding spiritual aspects of the martial arts and should interest martial arts' practitioners and anyone concerned more widely with new forms of spirituality.

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Review by: Mourad Bousalem

This is an invaluable book for anyone interested in aikido practice as technique of spiritual development. It was originally an academic research project by an aikido practitioner and is very well documented. Although an academic work, it’s easy to read and really gets to grips with the issue of spirituality, providing a clear definition as a starting point which many books on spirituality in the martial arts don’t do. It’s extremely thought-provoking and provides answers to lots of questions I’ve heard asked about aikido.

The book explores in detail the relationship of O’Sensei’s aikido to the outlook and practices of four belief systems influential in Japan: Shinto (especially the Shintoist religion Omoto), Shingon Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Taoism. The first chapter looks at the meaning of spirituality and explains some of the reasons why spirituality in the martial arts is often not well appreciated (such as confusion over the meaning of budo or the Western division of activity into sacred and secular). It then identifies the main themes of Japan’s spiritual traditions, showing how they interrelate and have influenced each other over time. The next chapter looks at O’Sensei’s life, giving a short account of the main influences on his thought and a useful analysis of the key ideas that emerge from his writings. A chapter is then devoted to each of the four Japanese spiritual traditions being examined and their relationship to aikido. The conclusion summarises O’Sensei’s achievement, describing its particular relevance as spiritual practice in the present age.

The book draws on evidence from O’Sensei’s writings and observations about him and aikido by past and present leading aikido practitioners in three languages (Japanese, English and French). It also uses as points of reference numerous world authority sources of information on Japanese and wider East Asian philosophy, religion and culture. The author argues that because O’Sensei understood instinctively the meaning behind the practices of several East Asian spiritual traditions he was able to synthesise them into a form of spiritual practice which is independent of adherence to any particular religion.

It gives many important insights – for instance, about the compatibility of many of East Asia’s spiritual development techniques, or on ways in which misunderstandings about the relationship of Zen Buddhism to the martial arts were conveyed in the West – and goes some way towards setting in context O’Sensei’s references to Shinto and Buddhist terms and mythology. It looks at the history of Shingon Buddhism, showing its Indian heritage, and sheds light on the history of Taoism in Japan which is not often written about in any context, let alone in relation to aikido. It explores the East Asian view of the body-mind relation and the concept of ki in East Asian thought. Although just 152 pages, it is packed with detail and extensive footnotes and bibliography which lead on to other sources of information, including useful internet sites. The listing of O’Sensei’s writings in the bibliography is in itself a helpful compilation.

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