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Home > Columns > "The Grindstone" > April, 2006 - Respect and Idolatry

Respect and Idolatry by "The Grindstone"


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This column was written by Tarik Ghbeish


I have a plastic and ceramic bobble head doll of the Ueshiba Morihei, the Founder of Aikido. I am very aware that there are people who look at the doll and are offended by the irreverence of its manufacture, yet despite sustaining some irreverence, I also look at the doll with fondness and a very real respect.

Budo begins and ends with respect. This saying is attributed to the Founder, and it is the same saying that I encountered in Shotokan Karate and have also heard described in virtually every other traditional martial way I have encountered.

Reiho, reishiki, reigi, these are the "ways, methods, or forms of respect" that are prevalent in budo today. Actual respect is often mistaken for these behaviors of politeness, yet these are merely manners that vary and can be interchanged from culture to culture. True respect is not the form, but the inner attitude that one holds toward others.

It is well understood amongst most practitioners of budo, that respect consists of consideration of the feelings and interests of other parties in a relationship. It immediately follows that to respect others also means to treat their welfare as consequential to the self, yet it this final detail can easily be overlooked in our many pursuits.

I often see and hear the issue of respect discussed in the dojo and throughout the Aikido community, but there are aspects to respect and the abuse of respect that I also have encountered that are ignored, sometimes hushed up, all in deference to the greater cause of apparent instead of real respect.

The simplest form of respect is the high regard offered those who have made a positive impact on our lives or on society, and while important, it is probably the least important of the forms of respect that we must practice.

Deference is the normal method of offering respect, particularly in the situation of respecting those who have gone before us, to whom we cannot interact with and visibly demonstrate out respect.

However, respect does not automatically imply deference. This automatic deference approaches the same emptiness of form that can be seen in students who offer up empty manners without the correct attitude because it is demanded, something we struggle to correct. Yet there is a more insidious form of deference, one that is more easily missed and endangers the real spirit and teachings of Aikido.

Aikido is certainly not a religion, but one of the strengths and appeals of Aikido [and budo in general] is that, like religion it can offer us models of thought and behavior to help us navigate a path through the rapidly changing world that can sometimes be difficult to comprehend. We are offered tools and a way to live that is acceptable and mutually beneficial.

In this sense, Aikido complements religion and, as the Founder was known to say, it completes it in the sense of showing us how to apply universal principles and make them relevant to life today. Herein lays a real danger, however.

In order to defend and preserve the principles offered up by Aikido, the origins are becoming mythologized, and unattainable archetypes are being set up which we must, nonetheless struggle to attain, all the while knowing that we will 'fail'. This is a common human trait, to idealize a system and create a mythology that makes it perfect, unassailable, and thereby protect our own fragility.

As such, we offer deep respect and proper deference to the Founder of Aikido. Such respect is both profound and deserved, but not the idolatry I have sometimes witnessed in the Aikido community.

Ueshiba sensei's feats are legendary, and some or many of them might have been real, but he has been elevated to an 'invincible martial artist' who never lost a challenge. His feats have moved beyond the amazing to the literally impossible for anyone alive today to even begin to contemplate, much less embark on studying.

Instead of truly studying what the Founder had to say, there are many students of Aikido who pay homage to his invincibility and then strive to make Aikido fit their own existing beliefs, ignoring many quotes and actions attributed to the Founder.

Aikido is commonly discussed as a path of non-violence, a way to seek peace. It has even been offered up in published works as the "Art of Peace". Yes, certainly, but in Aikido, in order to understand and choose non-violence, we do engage in a study of violence and attempt to do so in a way that does not create injury or raise the negative aspects of competition to the forefront.

Some students of Aikido remove atemi in some or all forms from their study because "atemi is contrary to the principles of non-violence. Yet from The Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, by Ueshiba Kisshomaru, [The Founder] said, "My technique is 70 percent atemi (striking) and 30 percent nage (throwing)."

It is not uncommon for students of Aikido to describe the invincibility of Ueshiba Sensei, yet in 1924, he was arrested and held prisoner in China, demonstrating that he was as human as the rest of us.

He himself understood that despite his great prowess, no one was invincible and in the Art of Peace, translated by John Stevens, he said, "There are no contests in the Art of Peace. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests with nothing. Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within."

This places the burden of invincibility upon the student, to understand and choose peace themselves. When we understand that the choice of violence is usually one made from a place of emotional instability and anger, by not engaging in such contention within ourselves, it becomes easy to defeat such individuals who are divided within themselves when they face us, whether through physical or verbal technique.

Even the most famous story, the story of his enlightenment in budo after a challenge match, is an archetypal portrayal not at all uncommon in Japanese mythology and not that far removed from experiences many people have had in their everyday lives while seeking understanding of deeper ideals and principles.

These types of stories are the stock in trade told of virtually every founder of a school of martial arts and help to set up the Founder of Aikido as the unattainable ideal that we all seek to emulate.

What is left out or largely ignored are the more revealing stories of his humanity that might teach us more about his path and his philosophy. It is important to remember, however, that Ueshiba Morihei sensei was a human being, with human failings, and human goals and desires. There are stories of his foibles and personal idiosyncrasies that are related in some of the divergent schools. Schools that still honor him and his teachings, but do not elevate his accomplishments above those of mankind.

Idolatry is often assumed to be the worship of graven images and statuary, but idolaters were always more sophisticated and did not believe that their idols were the actual manifestation of their worship. Idolatry is understood in the Torah as being the worship of an idea or even an ideal, elevating it above the worship of God.

In Christianity, Jesus offers a model of behavior that is not followed by most who claim the title "Christian". Instead they worship the teacher and split the religion as early as the 5th century in arguments over the nature of his humanity and divinity and committing what Judaism and Islam consider idolatry.

In Islam, Muhammad offers a model of social problem solving that was abandoned within a few years of his death. Today, some Muslims also make idolatrous worship of Muhammad, through their adherence to the letter of his words, ignoring the meaning of his teachings in favor of the literal adherence, and thereby committing the same idolatry with which they accuse Christianity.

Each fervent practice has its over-zealous adherents. For such adherents, Aikido, while not a religion, has become unconsciously so in its practice, and it is such practice, like the fundamentalist practices of Islam and Christianity, who endanger the art and practice of Aikido.

What Ueshiba Morihei sensei attained is worthy of respect, and worthy of striving to attain, whether in the martial or philosophical aspect. But it is not worthy of idolatry, which is really a false respect that really destroys the value of what he contributed.

It is ironic, in the end, that the existence of a bobble-head doll has invoked the same emotional reaction among some students of Aikido as the caricatures of Muhammad provoked in the Arab world, two cases of idolatry with, thankfully, significantly different magnitudes of reaction. I only thank providence that students of Aikido appear to be somewhat more reasonable in their protestations and by nature, perhaps more willing to examine and defeat their own demons.

"True Budo is done for the sake of 'building peace'. Train every day so as to make peace between this spirit [Budo] and all things manifested on the face of the Earth."

-- Budo Training in Aikido, written by Ueshiba Morihei


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