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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > January, 2007 - Restoring Harmony
by Ross Robertson

Restoring Harmony by Ross Robertson

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Although the word "aikido" is frequently translated as "the way of harmony with nature (or energy)," debate has arisen as to whether "harmony" is an accurate representation of the Japanese "ai."

"Au" (the verb form of "ai") means to meet, to match, to join, to fit. It is therefore reasonable to argue that aikido indicates a correct fitting together of pieces. "Harmony" is seen as an added implication, favored by those who seek a moral or esthetic interpretation of what is really a pragmatic term.

And yet, if you look up the word "harmony" in a good Japanese/English dictionary (like Jeffrey's Japanese<->English Dictionary Server at http://www.df.lth.se/cgi-bin/j-e/dict), you'll get many returns, several of which include the same kanji for "ai." So I think we have to allow that there is justification for including "harmony" as an equally valid interpretation.

Part of the problem may be context. Words have meanings that can change somewhat according to usage. Situational inflections come into play. If we are talking about a mechanical fitting together of parts (as may occur in a hand-to-hand combat encounter), then "aiki" denotes the meeting, joining, or coming together in an appropriate way. But in such an encounter, there is more at work than just body parts. There is also the coming together of force vectors, of perceptions, intent, and timing. Patterns are created and evolve, and the correct matching of one pattern with another is a process of harmonization.

It may be that those who would like to avoid the term altogether are turned off by its "New Age" connotation. This is understandable, but I would caution against throwing the baby out with the bath water. While aikido is certainly about meeting, matching, and joining, a particular quality is implied. We are really seeking proper fit, a proper match, a right coming together. We can talk about an ill fit or a mismatch, but when we speak of elements that are in harmony, we know that everything is in the right place at the right time. All things in the system are balanced and working together.

The writings of O-Sensei leave little doubt that harmony was an important consideration in his view of aikido. I mention this only in passing, because there will always be those who will debate that we can't know what he really meant, or that the aikido that we do is not bound by the Founder's views. Fair enough, but again, I don't think these are things that should be entirely discounted either.

The easiest argument to take here is simply that these terms or interpretations are not mutually exclusive. I'm going to take a slightly stronger stance -- that they actually necessitate one another. Although you can meet without harmony, you cannot have a proper fit or match without it. And the idea of harmony itself involves a combining of elements in a certain way.

Words like "ai," "ki," "match," "balance," "harmonize," are simple enough. But they represent complex concepts and usage in different contexts is not simple. Therefore we should not expect any short, simplistic interpretation of "aikido" to be satisfactory. We could wish that the dictionaries would define the term in a way that covers a broader spectrum of nuance, and that our teachers would likewise be flexible in what they transmit.

As for me, I like to say aikido is the way of combined forces, the way of synergy, and yes, the way of harmony. But I'm just as likely to come up with something new on the spot depending on who I'm talking to.

Oh, and speaking of dictionaries, you might do well to run "harmony" through a thesaurus. I'll leave that one up to you to make of it what you will. But I will say this: the origin of the word comes from the Greek "harmos," meaning "joint."

See how well it all comes together?

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, TX, USA

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