Don J. Modesto
Hope this finds you well.
Surprised we don't here more about Hardacre and Ooms and Teeuwen and Rambelli and the rest when so many folk seem interested in aikido spirituality. I personally found that Abe's Weaving the Mantra put a lot of the decontextualized stuff about Osensei and Shinto in a context we greatly helped me understand what was going on. Rambelli's article on Honji Suijaku at Work was also useful. Despite my jaundiced comment about him, Stevens is useful, I must admit, but so limited, like trying to understand music by looking at Picasso's Man with a Guitar.
I like your analogy of looking at the Picasso... The real problem is that your analogy applies to virtually anything involving a purely intellectual understanding of the Founder.
Although I find the well researched historical analysis of various authors to be useful in developing a larger context for the development of our art it's pretty much useless for understanding the Founder's art itself.
I think it is virtually impossible to understand what O-Sensei thought, said, or wrote about his art without actually doing the training. My preference in reading materials is towards authors who have actually done Aikido practice. Then, on top of that, they must have a direct experience of Omotokyo, Kotodama, Shinto, etc for their experience to have much to do with how the Founder perceived what he was doing.The field is fairly small, at least in English. Even on the mat, the number of teachers who learned their technique within this context of larger spiritual practice is fairly small. That's one of the reasons there is so much discussion about the art and its "reson detre". For most folks Aikido is simply a physical practice, devoid of the underlying spiritual meaning which it had for the Founder. If you can find teachers that trained with Hikitsuchi Sensei, any of the teachers who trained with Abe Sensei or Sundomari Sensei you can train with someone whose on the mat experience was informed by the type of spiritual practice actually done by the Founder. John Stevens and William Gleason both express their understanding of their technique in philosophical / spiritual terms and their understanding comes from actual experience with the types of practice done by the Founder.
In terms of teachers who can assist with understanding the Founder's technical skills the sources for us are quite a bit broader but still, one must either be lucky enough to stumble upon one of them or go out of ones way to seek them out. We can learn a lot about how the Founder could do what he did technically by training with folks from both within and without the Aikido community. The amount of interchange today is vastly different than when I started in Aikido. Just here on AikiWeb one can connect with teachers like Dan Hardin, Mike Sigman, Akazawa Sensei, Howard Popkin, etc. In the old days the chances of folks from within the Aikido community ever encountering folks like this was small.
I am in the middle of reading Ushiro Kenji's newest book, Karate and Ki: The Origin of Ki - The Depth of Thought. This book is an attempt at explaining what cannot be explained. For someone who has no experience training with a teacher or teachers who function at the highest level, I think the whole book will be incomprehensible. It may function to inspire some small number of practitioners to seek out instruction at that higher level but for those that aren't interested, what understanding they think they have of what is written in the book will really be an illusion. For those folks who are already training with teachers functioning on the top levels, the book provides a more detailed conceptual framework for ones practice than one likely had from our own teachers.
Anyway, I think that virtually all intellectual understanding of the Founder and his art is simply inadequate without direct experience of the practice itself, both in the martial sense and the spiritual sense. The words only have real meaning for you when you understand them in the full body / mind/ spirit aspect. If any of those pieces is missing, then the meaning really escapes us. So, in that sense, we are all looking at the Picasso trying to understand music. Each of us may have some understanding of various pieces but really comprehending the Founder's Aikido requires seeing the whole picture at once. I think the best most of us can do is to develop a sense of what he intended practice of our art to be and strive for that. That's why I despair when I see considerations of the Founder disappearing from Aikido. With him there is no Aikido... that's my opinion. And as difficult as it is to understand him, the effort will keep our training on track. It will lead us to find the teachers who can show us what we need and will keep us from being distracted by concerns that are unimportant or irrelevant. But we are all stuck with looking at the picture try to understand something much larger.