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I teach in a community where religion plays a major role in the lives of many of its residents. As a result, I've been forced to consider the relationship between religion and Aikido on a level where I'd rather not have had to go. Still, it's been an interesting journey.
I left a dojo years ago partly because of the emphasis they placed on Zen training. A lot of people argue about whether Zen is religion, but Zen is rooted in Buddhism and Buddhism is religion even if it isn't in the same vain as some other religions. It isn't that I have a problem with Zen, but I don't subscribe to it and it isn't what Aikido is about to me.
Later, in a discussion on Aikido-L I discovered I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the whole Zen-Aikido connection some people feel compelled to make.
In addition, there have been way too many discussions on the forums here about Aikido and religion. So I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. More than I wanted to.
So, the issue comes down to two things in my experience:
1) Is Aikido Religion. This one is easy for me to answer. No. But the issue of the spirituality of Aikido eventually surfaces. To me, the short answer is that your faith must be a factor in your training, but I, as a teacher, cannot impose my faith on you. If I had established the dojo as a faith-based dojo things would be different. But it's a secular dojo, so your religion is your business as far as I'm concerned.
2) Idolatry. The Shomen looks like an idol being worshipped to many religious people. This is not so easily addressed. For one thing, I've known people in Aikido who are every bit as guilty of that sort of idolatry as the religious types are concerned about. So I can't say it never happens.
But, is that what I encourage?
Even the picture of O'Sensei isn't about worship. It is about respect and gratitude. Maybe part of the discipline learned in Aikido is learning to be respectful and grateful without being worshipful.
The question always gets asked, "What about the bowing in ceremony?"
It's just a promise. A promise to train in sincerity. To follow the rules of etiquette and safety. To help fellow students train in sincerity and safety. To learn and help others learn. It is a solemn and important promise, but it's just a promise after all. The shomen provides a focus, but it isn't the object of the promise. The instructor and your fellow students are the object of the promise.
It's interesting how sensitive some of the most deeply religious people can be about this. But, not all of them, or even most of them are. Some of those who are very sensitive on this subject seem unsure of their own faith. I don't know how to help them, or even if I should try.