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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > November, 2004 - Big Mind, Little Mind
by George S. Ledyard

Big Mind, Little Mind by George S. Ledyard

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Aikido is so large that it is often too great for its practitioners to wrap their minds around. Some have suggested that the way in which Aikido Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, expressed himself about this art was too obscure for his students. Well of course it was...

O-Sensei was a Shinto mystic. He wasn't trying to explain Aikido to the world. He was trying to put people on a Path that would eventually lead them to recognition of the true nature of the Universe. This is fundamentally an experiential reality; issues of intellectual understanding or not understanding miss the mark. Aikido, as the Founder saw it, was a means for an individual to purify himself and directly experience the truth of the nature of things. It was meant to be a form of misogi or purification. Technique is the physical expression of the very principles which combine to create the Universe itself

Most traditional peoples have the idea that the rituals which they perform as part of their religious practice on some level create the reality which manifests before them in the Universe. In other words their very actions are important in maintaining the natural order and Man's place in it. So, the idea that our actions shaped the natural order as we know it was fundamental to archaic religious thinking whereas modern man requires multi-million dollar studies to tell him the same thing.

For a mystic like O-Sensei, not only is ones practice a way to investigate and express ones understanding of universal principles but it is also a way of actually creating the world according to these ideal forms. In other words your practice, if it is done in the proper way, contributes to putting the human world into accordance with the natural world. The majority of Asian religions believe that we are essentially in harmony with the nature of things all the time but it is our ignorance which prevents us from seeing this. So we require all sorts of spiritual practices in order to gain the realization that we were all in harmony with the nature of all things all along. O-Sensei's frame of reference is no different.

The Kannagara no Michi or Way of the Kami is eternal and ever present. It is only in our minds that we are separate, controlling our own actions and destinies. For virtually all Asian religions, this illusion of separateness is the fundamental cause of disorder in our lives. For O-Sensei, not only was Aikido supposed to offer a way to discover the natural order of which we are an integral part but it was also a way to move the whole human race towards that realization. Just as in modern physics in which the equations would indicate that every electron in the universe is interactive with every other on some level, the actions of even one individual doing Aikido will shift things in the universe as a whole in a positive direction. This was how O-Sensei could view Aikido as something that could "unite the world".

Some people do not consider themselves to be in the Ueshiba line of Aikido. Others have no real sense of what O-Sensei did or believed and see Aikido as the outer form, the collection of spiral techniques and movements which give the art its distinctive look. From the standpoint of the mystic, this is ok. Just as many religions, even modern ones, have stated that it is not necessary for the practitioner to understand a ritual as long as he does the ritual properly; it will still have the same potency. Aikido is much the same. In order to do a technique properly the practitioner will be forced to align himself with the principles which govern that technique. In this sense, as Tom Read Sensei has often pointed out, the technique pre-exists and the practitioner is on some level bringing himself into accord with it. So whether he is in any sense aware of it, on an energetic level, the Aikido practitioner is creating and re-creating the universe through his technique and this will inevitably shift us all collectively towards that state in which we are in harmony with the Universe or the Kami.

Dogen, one of the great of Buddhist teachers, was famous for elucidating the idea of shikan taza, which literally means "just sit". He pointed out that one doesn't sit (meditate) in order to attain Enlightenment because we are already Enlightened. If the Universe is truly One, then any notion of Enlightened as opposed to un-Enlightened was essentially dualistic, an incorrect way of seeing things. He pointed out that merely by doing the action of "sitting" one was achieving unification without the need for koans, levels of satori, deepening understanding etc. Proper practice was Enlightenment!

O-Sensei's view of Aikido was not different than this I think. On an energetic level merely doing the practice, performing the forms over and over is Enlightenment, it is moving the world closer to that state of Harmony about which he spoke. It doesn't matter if one thinks one is doing a "spiritual practice" or not, the doing of it is creating the energy which will produce the coming together of Man into Harmony with the Way of the Kami. This is why, I believe, that the Founder didn't make more of an effort to inculcate his students with his spiritual beliefs. He believed that continuous practice would both bring not only the practitioner into accord with the Way but also society as a whole.

But what does this say about how we practice our art? If Aikido can be viewed as primarily an energetic practice, how does its form as a martial art relate to that? O-Sensei wasn't the first or the last to note that serious pursuit of the martial arts had benefits beyond mere capability for fighting. Focus on what can be destructive and life denying can cast what is creative and life affirming into high relief. In most Asian societies the Warrior was second only to the Divine Royalty and then Priests in status (the Peasants were often theoretically placed high on the list but in practice were always on the bottom). The recognition that the values of service, courage, self sacrifice, frugality, etc. that went with warrior-hood placed them higher on the scale of people who modeled the society's ideals than artisans and especially the merchants whose livelihood involved personal gain and constant calculation of profit and loss. (It is interesting to note that today's world is dominated by the merchant with the accompanying commoditization of all aspects of society, profit and loss being the essential determinant of value whether of a life or an idea).

So the association with martial practice as spiritual practice is as old as Mankind. Virtually no traditional martial arts, regardless of culture, would be devoid of some religious / spiritual underpinnings that were part and parcel of the practice of the art. It was O-Sensei's genius to see that this went far beyond the values and insights developed as a natural outcome of the warrior lifestyle. He saw that the martial encounter itself was a microcosm for the essential energies of creation and destruction, positive and negative, attraction and repulsion, etc. One could structure the practice in such a way that these energies could be played out without actually having anyone be destroyed. One could change the structure of what had been pure combat and create a form in which all of the energies could play out and find the essential balance which all things naturally gravitate towards.

So not only would Aikido have, in the Founders view, the benefits traditionally associated with warrior (Samurai) values but also it would become a practice that would actually move society towards that essential state of Harmony, of balance which all things naturally tend towards but which seems to elude Mankind generation after generation. This is the energetic level of practice.

But for this to happen, practice needs to be energetically honest. The different energetic principles have to be present for the techniques to really bring those forces into balance. To this end the individual pieces that comprise the art must each stand alone as representing certain kinds of energetic output. For example a strike like shomen uchi has to have the energy of a strike to fulfill its energetic part in the practice. It must manifest the potentially destructive energy of a strike (which it is) to fulfill its part in the balance of the technique. Shomen uchi ikkyo cannot represent the resolution of conflicting forces in a restoration of balance when one of those forces isn't present at all. For the creative and destructive to be resolved and held in balance there has to be the destructive energy in the first place.

In a misguided attempt to do "Spiritual" Aikido many people have tried to remove this from the practice. This destroys Aikido on all levels. First of all the side of Aikido that is Budo, that reveals the moral ethical values disappears because there is no actual conflict taking place that creates the kind of life and death commitment required for something to be considered Budo. This is referred to by many as "wishful thinking Aikido". When Aikido ceases to be a martial art and becomes merely movement or energetic dance it has lost its identity as a form of Budo. I can find no evidence that this was ever advocated by the Founder.

As its guise as an energetic practice which actually shapes the world the same way that ritual properly performed shifts the nature of things, Aikido requires that each of its technical components be energetically pure. Each different attack, each movement, each technique would have been seen in O-Sensei's Spiritual world as representing an energetic principle. Each of these would have a vibration associated with it as well as associated colors, sounds, and even Kami. The position of your hand could express water, fire or earth energy. A shomen uchi that wasn't REALLY a strike would not represent what it was supposed to represent in the energetics of the practice. This would in turn invalidate the technique such as ikkyo which was done as an expression of balancing the energy of that particular attack.


An attack is meant to hold the yang, potentially destructive energy in the partner interaction. This energy can be accepted, modified and returned to the attacker in a variety of forms. Initially, this is a matter of conscious intention on the part of the student. He takes a particular attack and applies particular technique which results in bringing the destructive energy of the attack into a non-destructive balance of forces. Something happens as the practitioners train over the years.


As the attacker (the uke) learns to initiate an attack and then blend with the technique executed by the defender (nage), the nage is doing the same thing. He is learning to blend with the energy of the attack rather than resist it. When two skilled practitioners train together an interesting thing begins to happen. Since each practitioner is blending with the movement / energy of the other, it becomes impossible to say who is controlling the technique. O-Sensei expressed this concept using the phrase Take Musu Aiki. This was the Founder's way of stating that if both of the partners are in harmony with themselves and each other (are in the state of Aiki so to speak) then the techniques arise spontaneously out of their interaction. O-sensei expressed this by saying that the Kami   revealed the techniques to him; he didn't create them or do them himself.

What people often have a hard time understanding is that this mutual creation of technique is not born out of some sort of collusion between the partners. Each partner is doing his assigned job to the utmost. The uke will initiate an attack which he executes to the best of his ability. As nage reacts the uke begins to adjust to both maintain his center and to keep connection so as to continue the attack. He will continue to move towards the nage's center as long as he can, until he is thrown and / or pinned. If he commits to this attack without reservation then the nage moves to accept the attack and then change the energy, not by resisting it but rather by joining his own movement to it. He also attempts to stay centered and balanced as he does this. If both partners achieve this, the result is a technique which spontaneously arises out of the two energies as they come together. Musubi is the term for this coming together. When this occurs properly the result was effortless with neither one of the partners feeling like an actor or acted upon.

This is a true resolution of seemingly conflicting energies brought to their inherent balance. It is not the result of two partners removing the energy of conflict right from the start. If there never was a real attack then there never was a real technique. This kind of practice is energetically false and cannot represent what O-Sensei was doing when he did his Aikido. This does not mean that the partners are "fighting". Real combat involves un-clarity, tricks, surprise, dishonest energy and a desire to destroy. Practice does not have this. The attacker delivers honest commitment at 100% of his ability. He may have the strong intention to hit but he has no desire to injure; he is interested only in manifesting the proper energy for his partner to work with. The defender welcomes this commitment as it represents a gift from the attacker that allows him to manifest his technique and create to new resolution of the conflict that was set up by the two of them. This is practice; it is misogi, a form of purification. It has little to do with fighting although it does serve to show true violent conflict will result in the destruction of one or other of the opponents as long as they hold onto the their violent intentions.

So in the end, I will say that it is often the people who seem most unconcerned with doing "spiritual" Aikido who seem to be generating the kind of energy in their practice which would allow real practice to take place. Many Aikido folks who try to artificially create some sort of spiritual practice end up eviscerating the art rather than developing a practice which follows the principles as outlined by the Founder. I think we should all look at what we are doing and see if we can get to the place in our practice in which these two approaches aren't mutually exclusive. In other words let's strive to find the place in which the martial and the spiritual sides of the art are in balance.

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