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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > February, 2005 - O-Sensei's Aikido

O-Sensei's Aikido by George S. Ledyard


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Very few people understand Aikido in the way that the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, understood the art. He was a Shinto mystic, a follower of a modern Japanese cult called the Omotokyo. Only a very small number of O-Sensei's students had anything like the spiritual underpinning which created his world view. Inoue Sensei, the Founder's nephew and co-religionist, is thought by many to have been the closest in technique to the Founder, himself. He was a life long follower of the Omotokyo faith. Sunadomari Sensei also followed the Omotokyo and Hikitsuchi Sensei was a Shinto Priest and therefore had much of the classical Shinto education which O-Sensei had.

The majority of the students training under the Founder found him to be almost incomprehensible and, while deeply effected by the man and his delivery, the message itself was not understood the way the Founder himself viewed things. Some basically ignored O-Sensei's spiritual teachings, preferring to devote themselves to mastering the physical technique of the new art he had developed. Others like Saotome Sensei, took the message very seriously but felt that the esoteric Shinto world view of the Founder was too obscure for modern people, Japanese or foreign. These teachers have attempted to translate the teachings into modern idiom using terminology which would be more accessible to contemporary students of the art.

What I would like to do is offer the beginning student of Aikido a simple introduction to the spiritual underpinnings of the art. If it turns out that this is helpful and of interest the student can proceed to the works of Koichi Tohei Sensei, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei and William Gleason Sensei all of whom have written extensively in English.

In almost all Asian religions there is supposed to have been a time when the Universe was in a unified and undifferentiated state. At some instant in time, something, and this varies from culture to culture, triggered the manifestation of the first principles, Yin and Yang (In Yo in Japanese). As the universe proceeded to manifest itself, the energetic components of the whole were created, each produced from the opposites created in the first instant.

The Chinese provide a picture of this Universe in the I Ching, the Book of Change. In it the various building blocks of the universe can be symbolized by a system of yin and yang lines which first create a set of trigrams. There are eight possible combinations of yin and yang lines which yields the eight trigrams: heaven; earth; water (moon); fire (the sun); thunder; wind; mountain and marsh. If one combines two trigrams one gets a hexagram. There are sixty four possible hexagrams, each representing some energetic or material principle.

Everything in the Universe can be described using some combination of these hexagrams. Multiple commentaries have been written about each hexagram and combination of hexagrams. These commentaries are incorporated into the I Ching itself. While the book is known primarily in its use as a text for divination, the concepts and principles contained in the I Ching form the foundation for all of Chinese cosmology.

The concept of the Kototama, or the power of sound, can be found all over the world. The most sophisticated and well developed version of these concepts are in Tibetan Buddhism which was spread all through China, Mongolia, and across the China sea to Japan. In Japan these practices became known as Mikkyo or Esoteric Buddhism and they influenced the development of Shinto as it evolved into the modern world from its archaic shamanistic origins. The final result of this development was the Kototama, a system which could describe all of the various energetic elements of the universe in terms of sound or vibration.

The Kototama has the same essential concepts as the I Ching but it is more complex. The fundamental building blocks of the universe are sounds which manifested from the original stillness of the undifferentiated as vibrations (each sound having a different energetic signature or wave length). Every vibration has a corresponding color, physical characteristics, psychological / emotional aspects etc. Even the various Shinto deities are associated with certain energetic characteristics determined by the Kototama sounds with whom they are associated.

If one reads William Gleason Sensei's book The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido one can see just how complex this system is. But it is not necessary to master the details of the Kototama system to be able to comprehend the most important implications of Kototama theory for our practice of Aikido. Even a consideration of the most basic concepts offers a profound set of insights with regard to the practice of the art, especially if one aspires to some level of understanding on par with the Founder.

In the world of the I Ching or the Kototama, EVERYTHING is in a state of flux, nothing is static. The universe is composed of a myriad set of elements constantly combining and recombining. In any given instant something is being created and something is passing out of existence yet even here this is really an illusion since "passing out of existence" is merely a recombining of elements into some new form and "creation" is just the emergence of a new form from the old. In this world the only constant is change and yet this is not Chaos.

Even in a universe of constant movement and change there is an overall balance. Things don't happen randomly but rather according to a set of principles. In Shinto this is the Kannagara no Michi, the Way of the Kami. For the Founder of Aikido, nothing was more important than to discern the Will of the Gods, so to speak and to act in accordance with that will. In order to be able to accomplish this, a man must engage in a set of practices, purification exercises called misogi. It is man's ignorance, his mistaken perception that he has some sort of lasting and separate existence apart from everything else in the universe that causes all of man's suffering. Misogi practice is designed to purify the practitioner, removing those elements of ego based thinking which lead to the incorrect perception of separation. Through misogi practice one gradually removes those elements which stand in the way of correct perception thereby allowing one to discern the natural order of things, the Kannagara no Michi.

Misogi practice is normally a set of exercises, meditation, chanting, sitting under water falls, etc but the Founder considered the practice of Aikido itself to be a form of misogi. It was O-Sensei's great realization that the principles that governed the techniques he had learned in his study of the martial arts, and primarily Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, were the same principles which governed the Universe as a whole. The principles of the Kototama were the same principles which governed the martial arts. He created Aikido to be a unique martial art whose primary purpose was to use a study of martial principles and interactions to reveal the true nature of the universe to the practitioner. Aikido practice is a form of misogi or purification.

One of the most important things to happen in Aikido training, when it is done correctly, is that the practitioner gradually loses any investment in a particular outcome of a martial interaction. He (or she) has trained long enough to have incorporated many different techniques into his movement repertoire. Every one of those movements or techniques embodies a set of energetic characteristics or principles. By combining those movements in an infinite set of possible combinations one can meet any kind of conflict in such a way that that conflict is neutralized. In fact at a certain point ones perception begins to become clearer and it becomes evident that the idea of conflict itself is an illusion. The nature of the universe is such that the only place at which conflict truly exists is in the mind of the unenlightened person who insists on trying to act according to his own selfish and ignorant perceptions. Since there is no fundamental separation between the Mind, the Body and the Spirit, the study of a physical art like Aikido will necessarily accomplish a set of changes over time as the Body discovers the correct movements which govern the techniques of the art. Ones perceptions begin to change, ones fundamental reactions to stress and conflict get reprogrammed from contraction and tension to expansion and flexibility. At first this happens in ones physical technique but after many years of practice the person as a whole begins to see that this is a way of interacting with the world which works. The "whole person" begins to embody these principles of non-resistance. At least that is what O-Sensei envisioned as the purpose of training in the art.

Take Musu Aiki is one of the fundamental concepts of Aikido yet very few students can actually tell you what it means. "Take" is an alternative pronunciation of "Bu" as in Budo, the way of the Warrior. It refers to things martial including technique. "Musu" is the musu of musubi. One of the main meanings of musubi is connection but musu by itself has a creative / procreative meaning and can be read as "gives birth to". "Aiki" is usually translated as Harmony but in this context it really refers to the state of essential balance that exists within the eternal movement and change of the universe.

So Take Musu Aiki means that the techniques of the martial arts arise spontaneously out of (or are given birth by) the state of aiki. Since the world of the Kototama associates these various energetic elements with specific divine beings or Kami, O-Sensei's way of describing this process was that the Kami "revealed" techniques to him. He stated that he had not created the techniques of Aikido but rather he referred to them as "Divine Techniques" given to him by the Gods.

This is a pretty radical notion for most practitioners of the art. Shinto as a religion doesn't travel well. It's fairly obscure even for most modern Japanese and pretty much incomprehensible

to foreigners. This fact causes most Aikido practitioners to ignore the spiritual side of the art in favor of focus on the physical application of the technique. This is exactly the opposite of what O-Sensei said he intended for the art.

Without getting into the details of Shinto or Omotokyo world view one can experience the sense of mystery which governs Aikido by contemplating an Aikido Koan (like the Zen questions used by Roshis to assist their students towards Enlightenment):

If defender (the nage) in Aikido is blending with the energy of the attacker (the uke), and the attacker (the uke) is blending with the energy of the defender (nage), then who is it that controls the technique?

According to the Founder, there is no attacker and defender. The notion that we are separate individuals with independent existence is foreign to Asian religion in general. In the I Ching or in the Kototama theory the various elements of the manifest world are inextricably connected. To the extent that they exist, their existence is co-dependent. It is impossible to consider any element of the whole as having separate existence apart from the whole. One simply cannot have positive without negative, yin without yang, etc. The instant you have one, you have the other.

In the Founder's world conflict is caused by acting as if the elements of the whole, in this case our selves, have separate existence. O-Sensei over and over pointed out that this was a mistaken point of view. We are all part of the One so to speak. To attack someone else is to attack oneself. Suffering in this world occurs because people attempt to act as if they are separate when they are not. The Kannagara no Michi or Path of the Kami was O-Sensei's way of describing the natural flow of the elements within the whole as they move and change according to the principles which govern the whole.

Aikido practice was meant to be a way of experiencing this fundamental connection between the pieces of the Great Whole. It wasn't intended as a "fighting system", in fact the practice of the art was meant to eliminate fighting since violence occurs only as a misunderstanding of the true nature of the world and Aikido practice was meant of be a path of realization which illuminated rather than obscured this truth.

So in O-Sensei's Aikido the statement "masakatsu agatsu" is meant to reinforce this truth. "True victory is Self Victory" is another one of the core Aikido concepts. The concept of winning or losing relative to some other misses the essential truth of our connectedness. What prevents us from understanding the nature of this connectedness is our own stubborn insistence on hanging onto a false notion of our own individual existence, separate from everything else around us. True victory is to use ones Aikido to bring oneself into accord with the natural flow of the universe. By achieving victory over false notions of the self one achieves "true victory".

So what is going on when we practice Aikido with all its attacks and defensive techniques, changing of roles as attacker and defender, etc? The idea that "what is in here, is out there" is fundamental in Asian religions. In other words the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. The interaction between the two partners functions according to the same principles which govern the entire Universe. Aikido movements, according to the Founder, are the fundamental movements of the Universe as a whole. When we set up different interactions between the partners, one initiating as uke and the other joining with the energy of that initial movement we are making a study of the different energetic principles which govern all existence. We artificially set up different types of interactions (various strikes, different grabs, highly energetic moving attacks, more physical static type attacks, single attackers, multiple attackers, etc.) and practice how the fundamental movements of Aikido technique allow us to maintain an essential balance no matter what kinds of change takes place and how rapidly that change occurs. The balance that exists between the partners in Aikido practice is the same balance that exists in the impossibly vast universe with its virtually countless elements making up the whole. But for most people the concepts as they exist in their Universal form are simply too huge to wrap our minds around. So in our practice we focus on the microcosm of our interaction with the partner and our own internal interactions as we train.

It is certainly possible to do "Aikido" without worrying about these considerations. It can be a sport; it can be a fighting system. It can be a system of movement done for health reasons. But it is my own belief that Aikido may be all of those things, and different teachers have emphasized each of these aspects in the many styles of Aikido which have been created but if these concepts are largely absent from an Aikido practice, then that is not O-Sensei's Aikido. O-Sensei's spiritual experiences were not widely shared by his own students. Many focused only on his seemingly invincible martial skill and didn't care to understand the nature of its underlying spirituality. Some have taken the approach that, yes, Aikido is meant to be a means of personal development, but the Founder's Shinto mysticism was too archaic for wide understanding in the modern world. So what is being passed down is a simpler, secularized version which is primarily a physical practice with an attached ethical system but lacking in the elements of true insight which supplied the Founder with his realizations.

It is my own belief that the Founder was another in a long line of teachers who managed to attain a unique level of insight into the nature of the Universe and what it means to be an alive being within it. His insights were based on thousands of years of human spiritual development and contained no fundamental new Truth that hadn't been noted before in the teachings of those that went before. Yet he managed to take a new view of these insights and create a unique practice which did not exist before him. This was his great achievement. To me, the only Aikido which is worth the sacrifices entailed in devoting ones life to the training is O-Sensei's vision of the art as a spiritual practice. It was this vision which spoke to me from the first time I saw Aikido and heard my teacher talk about the Founder. It is this Aikido which calls to me; maybe it is the one that calls to you.


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