Once, and not so long ago, an old man spoke of a martial art based on love.
Such a proposition would strike most people as preposterous. But the old man went even further. He proclaimed that love is the basis, the underlying root purpose, of all true budo. By implication, any martial art or military science that is not rooted in love, is neither true, nor martial, nor art.
You know the quote. It is written that Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, said this:
"True budo is a work of love. It is a work of giving life to all beings, and not killing or struggling with each other. Love is the guardian deity of everything. Nothing can exist without it. Aikido is the realization of love."
"Budo is not felling the opponent by our force; nor is it a tool to lead the world into destruction with arms. True budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in Nature."
Such statements are indeed outrageous. Normal people would do well to dismiss them as idealistic at best, or more likely, the delusional grandiosity of a brilliant but megalomaniacal old man.
And yet... if you are one of the unusual ones, if you are willing to take the proposition at face value -- not because it's been proven, but because it bears investigating -- you might just abandon everything and devote your whole life to an overwhelmingly compelling possibility. Poor you.
How can the way of war be also the way of love? Is not war by definition a path of destruction, a means to conquer, an inevitable expression of the survival of the fittest? All current and historical evidence points to this, but of course there is more to it than surface appearances. Despite greed, power lust, and unbridled imperialism, there is the legitimate need to defend hearth and home, family, community, nation, and culture. The emphasis here is on protection. The goal is the avoidance of destruction, not the magnification or extension of it.
I did an aikido demonstration recently for a small audience. Afterward one of my students asked what I thought the audience had gotten from it. I said I had no way of knowing. The student asked if I thought the audience had seen anything [italics on] martial.[italics off] I said I had no idea.
On the supposition that aikido is true budo, and if we let it be given that true budo is the art of reconciliation, and furthermore if we suppose that modern media and all the historical record are nothing but portrayals of a failed and degenerate form of a budo that has lost its way, we might ask ourselves how on earth would anyone recognize true budo if they saw it? Have we lost our ability to recognize it, or even imagine it? What then, can a demonstration show?
To make matters worse, I believe that all people are motivated by love, but that not all love is wisely directed. Love of power over others, love of personal gain at the expense of others, love of materiality without substance, love of idleness that does not renew, love of activity that does not serve -- countless are the ways to love without enacting love. Most people are constrained to self-love even when they believe they sincerely love another. When we say "I love you," too often we really mean "I love what you do for me," or "I love the feeling of being around you." This is innocent enough and quite healthy to a degree, but when we mistake our own self-satisfaction for the kind of love that truly enriches another, then we do err indeed.
I ask you, do you love aikido? Think carefully before you answer. You may be quick to say that you enjoy it immeasurably. You may prefer it over all other activities. You may praise it for its health-giving properties, its fun, its rich depth of mystery and profound stimulation of the imagination. And of course these are all legitimate sentiments, but by themselves they are not love.
You love aikido if you promote it, spread it, help it grow. You love aikido by continuing to refine it and make it better. You love aikido by taking it to the streets, by enacting it in everyday life.
You love aikido when you protect others. Protect their interests, protect their feelings, protect their standing. You love aikido when you give up thoughts of throwing or pinning your adversaries, and instead seek balance for everyone. You love not just when there are pleasant emotions, but when you do things for others that nourish, enliven, and enrich.
Isn't it enough just to show up and train? I would say a lot depends on the quality of your training. Can you just show up at work and go through the motions, and claim that you have loved your job, your coworkers, your boss? Can you just show up in your relationship and never serve the needs of your partners, your friends, your family?
Isn't it enough that you pay your fees? If you think aikido is a commodity that can be bought and owned, then I'd say you're missing something. If money is what you have to best express your love, then by all means, be a patron and let none criticize you for it. But if you mean to be a student and devotee of aikido, then you must do more. Could you pay your tuition at a university and get an education if you do no homework, no research, no lab studies, no exercises outside of class? What would you have gotten for your money that would be of use to others? Yes, your tuition helps to sustain an institution, but very little to further knowledge.
I ask you, do you love your teacher, the one who arranges his or her life to best bequeath aikido to you? I'm asking you to look past your respect and admiration and even your gratitude... I ask you, are you doing anything to make life better for this person? Do you examine why or if they actually want you in class, or do they simply tolerate you? Do they look forward to seeing you, or is your presence part of their own grim determination to a disciplined approach to training? If this is the well you drink from, will you take action to protect it? Will you look past the enormous energy you spend, and see whether what you are doing is actually having an effect?
Do you love your dojo and its community? Do you gladly show up early to help set up, and stay long enough to see that everything that needs to be done is done? Do you take turns training with your partner, or do you serve you partner regardless of your role, and make that your training? Can you take directions, can you take corrections, can you take instruction and allow someone else to help you become better? Can you give guidance in a way that brings others up rather than elevates your own status? Can you serve? I ask you again, can you serve?
Which is more important to you, your teacher or the principles s/he transmits? Again, be careful how you answer. If you say your teacher is everything, and you would follow them no matter what they taught, then you may be constructing a cult of personality. If you say the teacher does not matter except as a conduit for the principles, then you are damned to a life of abstraction devoid of human love. What do principles serve, if they are allowed to become more important than human individuals?
Do you love your dojo's style of aikido more, or do you simply love aikido? If you genuinely step up and serve your chosen affiliation, I admire you. Most people just wear the patch and perpetuate the dogmas of their particular tribe. But now, if you serve your organization, what does your organization serve? Does it serve its members well? Does it serve those outside of it? If you simply enjoy aikido for aikido's sake, and have no commitment to dojo, to community, or a particular style, if you're happy to wander from dojo to dojo, then you debase aikido, you relegate it to the status of a convenience store. No doubt you are wise to see beyond the trappings, the politics, the limited world view of those stuck in hierarchies, formalities, and tradition. Your are wise in one way, but you foolishly miss the depth of aikido's true calling, which requires loyalty, devotion, and a glad submission to the service of others.
Love is an action, not an abstraction. Love is energy in motion, not just an emotion (though certain feelings can motivate). Love is doing, not just energy spent, but work achieved.
Christian lore relates that Jesus once asked Peter, do you love me? Peter replies emphatically that he loves his master, but Jesus repeats the question three times, each time answering that Peter must "feed my sheep." The feeling is not enough. Peter must serve his master. Serving his master is not enough. Peter must serve what his master serves.
Love violence if you must. Love conquest and victory over others. Love the circus spectacle that is much of modern budo. Love what you will, because you can't escape loving something. As such, it's worth examining what you serve, what you foster, and what kind of a world you create for yourself and others. While you exist, you cannot escape creating the world.
Love yourself as selfishly as you want. When you look deeply at your own needs, you cannot escape the depth and complexity of all that must be sustained in order for you to thrive. Follow the logic through, and loving protection for all things is the only logical, inevitable conclusion.
But if you're one of the odd ones, you will see that there is no contradiction in love as the truest form of self defense. If you love your own life, you must love the air that you breathe, and not just love the breathing. You must love the water that you drink, and not just the drinking, You must love your food, and so the farmers and truckers and grocers who bring it to you. If you love your family, then you must nurture the infrastructure that sustains community schools, hospitals, and roads. You must love imperfect governments with imperfect laws, and you must work to better them rather than undermine them. You must love your enemies and the enemies of your country, for if you murder them, they will only multiply. You must love an imperfect military and those that serve, and you must be realistic about what is possible while at the same time standing ready to prove that there can be a better way.
When we interact, you and I, I will do my best to attend to your needs. I will do my best to be respectful. I will serve you if I can. But if you appeal to me for short-sighted agendas of self gain, self promotion, and self aggrandizement, if your needs are not tied directly to the necessity of better serving others, then don't expect much indulgence from me, and don't be surprised if I wish you well and go my own way.
In the end, the company of true lovers is always rare. Plain as day is the secret they share, and they each have learned the difference between caring, and giving care.
No wonder then, that even one of my own most advance students worried that people would not recognize the martial in my art. My aikido is more about lifting people up than knocking them down, more about extending their freedom rather than pinning them down, more about letting them think what they want and go where they will, rather than trying to control them, even with love.
Love is not just eternal, it is endless. Love, being infinite, is infinitely elusive. Being infinitely elusive is the nature of true budo.