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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > June, 2004 - Lack of Spirituality
by George S. Ledyard

Lack of Spirituality by George S. Ledyard


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I was inspired by Malcolm Anderson post on the aikiweb forum discussion about the Lack of Spirituality in Aikido to write this.

I think that this is the area in which current Aikido most diverges from what the Founder did in his own life and what he had in mind for his followers. If you look at what most of us are doing in our Aikido, it is largely focused on technique. People argue endlessly about all the different styles of Aikido practice but seldom are they talking about philosophy or other practices. No, it's technique which occupies the attention of most of us.

For those truly interested in trying to develop a practice which would potentially offer the type of insight which the Founder developed through his training it is important to understand just how the Founder actually spent his time and what he focused.

I have one friend, Rev Koichi Barrish, who I think has tried the very unusual approach of attempting to duplicate the Founder's Path as closely as possible. To this end he has complimented his Aikido training with a serious study of Shinto. He has taken this far enough to become the only American Shrine Shinto priest. While this approach seems to work for him, I think it may be too arcane for many non-Japanese. Shinto doesn't "travel" as well as some other Asian spiritual systems, in my opinion. While it worked for many of O-Sensei's students like Hikitsuchi Sensei for example, it's very complex and many of its concepts seem uniquely Japanese, making it difficult for those not in Japan to understand. So I think this may be a possible Path but it would be for the few.

A more accessible choice, one taken by a number Aikido teachers is pursuing a meditation practice along with their Aikido. Zen is the logical choice, having a long history of association with the samurai traditions and it is spare enough in its philosophy that it has traveled well all over the world. There is quite a lot of top quality Zen practice available in the US. William Gleason Sensei, a friend and an inspiration for me, has taken this path and has a long association with a Zen Center in NY State. He even teaches Aikido at a Zen / Aikido retreat they offer. Mary Heiny Sensei, on the other hand, is actively practicing Tibetan Buddhism (as of course is Steven Seagal Sensei). It informs every aspect of her person at this point and it shows in her Aikido. I have other Aikido friends who find this works for them.

The question, for many, is do you need to have some ancillary practice that augments your Aikido training if you wish to follow the Path laid out by O-Sensei? In my opinion, I would say yes, definitely. I believe that O-sensei attained his high level of insight through a unique combination of spiritual practices combined with total dedication to his martial training.

O-Sensei's personal practice had three pillars upon which it was based: misogi, martial arts, and farming. His personal misogi practices were based on the Omotokyo religious system which he studied under his spiritual mentor, Onisaburo Deguchi. This system was difficult for even Japanese students to understand and many did not make the effort, certainly few at least after the 1930's, participated in the Faith with him (Sunadomari Sensei, who just published the new book, Enlightenment Through Aikido, would be a notable exception). But from all accounts, in terms of personal time and effort, O-Sensei's misogi practice was at least of equal duration each day as compared with his martial practice.

Actually, it is probably artificial, when talking about O-sensei's practice to separate misogi from martial practice. Once O-Sensei had had his seminal spiritual experience(s) and began to transform his martial practice into what became Aikido, he repeatedly stated that doing Aikido was a form of misogi. It wasn't a separate thing in his mind, only another form of the same thing.

The history of O-Sensei's martial development, while murky in its early years, is still probably much better understood by the average student Aikido than his other spiritual practices. Everyone knows that his main stylistic influence was Sokaku Takeda's Daito Ryu Aikijiujutsu. Suffice it to say that, the Founder's dedication to training stood out, even amongst a group of people who were used to training hard in the martial arts.

The final pillar upon which O-Sensei's own practice rested was farming. Throughout much of his adult life, the Founder engaged in farming, whether because he had to for sustenance or because he simply felt it was an important part of his practice. O-Sensei's writings are full of exhortations to foster a connection with nature. I think O-Sensei saw farming as the perfect way in which a man could connect with nature, acting in just such a "caretaking" role as he was teaching we should all have towards the world around us. It is clear from his writings that he did not view farming as separate from his practice but just a different form of practice.

I think this is one place in which the modern world of Aikido is, for the majority of students, drastically different from what O-Sensei pursued himself. With the spread of Aikido world wide in the post war years, dojos tend to be in urban and suburban areas, often situated in retail store fronts, malls or industrial parks. The majority of the students work in regular jobs in an urban environment. For most the connection between their Aikido and a direct experience of nature is tenuous if not absent.

People fortunate enough to train in Japan with some of the older Sensei's might have experienced traveling around to various Shinto holy sites to do misogi practice. Many of the old shrine / dojos were situated in areas of great, and stirring natural beauty. Certainly in Iwama, the connection with nature was easier to promote with actual outside training taking place, something not available to everyone in general.

In the States, one can run into dojos which are exceptional in that they are in the country, or located someplace in which the natural environment is present to enough of an extent that it shapes how the practice feels. Training at the Aiki-shrine in Florida in the dojo which Saotome has constructed, open to the outside in three sides, situated in a place in which the lush vegetation and abundant wildlife, is a wonderful experience. But for most of us it is a once a year trip.

There are certainly other people striving to make the connection between their Aikido technical practice and the natural world. Tom Read Sensei hosts a couple Aiki Bojutsu wilderness retreats which are fantastic. Darryl Blum Sensei has an Aikido / Wilderness survival skills workshop each year. I think it is this type of activity which can be important to establishing the kind of connection between the natural world and ones Aikido practice which O-Sensei assumed when he talked about Aikido. But for the average dojo, just going to the park for class a few times during the summer for outside training or doing an Aikido camping trip once in a while can go a long way towards reviving this connection for those who think it is important.

It is my opinion that Aikido practice itself is unlikely to result in "kensho" or some such insight. Rather it is a way to express ones current understanding. To really duplicate what the Founder did on a spiritual level one needs to expand ones practice to include some sort of internal solo practice and to connect ones whole practice to some sort of regular experience of nature, however one might do that. Then I think that ones Aikido practice might start to reflect the kinds of values and insights which O-sensei put forth in his teaching.


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