I was introduced to Taoism by Toshikazu Ichimura sensei, who was the national aikido instructor of Sweden at the time. It was in 1974, when I was 20 years old and absolutely mad about aikido. I lived it, I dreamed it, I was a raving fanatic about it.
Tao Te Ching: The Classic about the Way and Virtue
Ichimura sensei was complicated, but most generous. He also gave me my first iaito
, the practice sword for iaido. He had his own timing for those and other gifts, very sensitive to what would trigger my development at that precise moment.
I spend my aikido life trying to repay him, through my own aikido students.
Anyway, one of his gifts was the charming though sometimes far from literal translation of the Tao Te Ching
made by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, illustrated by calligraphic versions of the chapters, as well as grayscale photos with motifs from nature. The book is still around:
Of course, I devoured the book with the same eagerness I had for aikido, and it was love at first sight. Already the first chapter impressed me in a way that was spiritually liberating. Especially these lines:
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
This was the early 1970's, when every adolescent had decided to break free of the paradigms and morals of old. The two lines about desire impressed me because they seemed to make no moral judgment. Desire is not condemned. Instead, it is needed in order to perceive the world. It is one side of the coin.
Adolescence is certainly full of all kinds of desires, so I was quick to embrace the Tao Te Ching approval of sorts.
But that was surely not Ichimura sensei's intention with giving me the book. Reading it in its entirety, I realized that Taoism according to Lao Tzu is very close to the ideas forming the base of aikido. The Tao Te Ching preaches yielding, and acting minutely instead of bombastically. The ideal of wu-wei
, doing nothing, might not be immediately applicable to a martial art, but doing as little as possible is indeed related to the aiki solution.
The soft surpasses the hard in both aikido and the Tao Te Ching. The book argues repeatedly for yielding solutions, for example in its 78th chapter, which uses water as an illustration:
In the whole world,
there is nothing as soft and yielding as water.
Yet, nothing is better against the hard and strong.
Nothing can take its place.
The weak surpasses the strong
The soft surpasses the hard
And in the 76th chapter, the same is said by using other elements in nature:
All growing plants are soft and supple,
at death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the hard and unbendable belongs to death,
while the soft and bendable belongs to life.
I was quickly convinced that Lao Tzu, the legendary writer of the Tao Te Ching, would have approved of Osensei's aikido. They may even have enjoyed each other's company, like sibling souls.
Lao Tzu was as far from the martial arts as can be fathomed, and surely no advocate of war. He expressed it quite bluntly, with words that modern man can easily relate to (chapter 73):
The one with the courage to engage in battle shall perish,
the one with the courage to refrain from battle shall live.
There is courage in both cases, but Heaven prefers one and not the other. Lao Tzu claims not to know why, although it is plain to see: The violent one will not meet a natural death. An aggressive solution causes tragedy, and is often the cause of the next aggression. It goes on and on. Lao Tzu insisted that the conqueror should follow the ritual of funerals, since war is cause for grief, even if it is won. There is only one battle worth winning, and this is well known by practitioners of all the traditional martial arts (chapter 33):
Vanquishing others is strong,
but vanquishing oneself is mighty.
Only the one who does not challenge is without error, and will not meet resistance. That's aikido in a nutshell.
Lao Tzu, the legendary author of Tao Te Ching
But the Tao Te Ching goes on. Avoiding challenge and battle is merely a consequence of living according to the Way. This Way is the true quest. It is the law on which the whole universe is based, the mother of it all. So, if you adjust to it you become one with the universe.
In the Japanese traditions out of which aikido has sprung, the Way, do
, is a personal path for the individual to reach what we in the West would call self-realization. The way to self-cultivation and fulfillment. It is of minor importance what particular way is chosen, but a person who tirelessly pursues it will thereby have an instrument by which to reach mastery. We pursue our ways in order to become as skilled and refined as we possibly can.
But to Lao Tzu the Way is much more. It is the inner essence from which the whole universe has emerged (chapter 25):
There is something out of chaos,
completed before Heaven and Earth.
Quiet and still, pure and deep!
It stands alone, unchanging,
ever-present and inexhaustible.
It may be regarded as the mother of all.
I do not know its name.
I call it Tao.
And in chapter 42 he describes the emergence of the universe as one giving birth to two, giving birth to three, giving birth to all things, which then carry yin and embrace yang. They reach harmony by blending ch'i
So, whatever direction a person chooses in life, the Way is the same. Adapting to it demands the same. Yielding, softness, and reluctance to interfere apply to everything, since those are the foremost characteristics of how the universe was arranged according to the Way.
By accepting this and adapting to it, our lives become easy and delightful. We live according to nature instead of in conflict with it. In chapter 50 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu declares that those who are desperate to fill their lives will hurry toward their death. But the one who knows how to live will walk through the battle without getting struck by any weapon. He has no opening for the blade.
Why is that so?
Death has no room in him.
Not that joining with the Way is an easy lesson to learn, or one that attracts us all (chapter 41):
The foremost student hears about Tao,
practicing it diligently.
The average student hears about Tao,
keeping some and losing some.
The inferior student hears about Tao
and laughs out loud.
Without the laughter it would not be Tao.
Ichimura sensei, who gave me my first copy of the Tao Te Ching, used to say that aikido is for a mere one in a hundred. Judging from the figures of the aikido community, one in a thousand is probably closer to the truth -- at least so far.
And from many others we certainly get that laughter.
Through the years, I have been more and more impregnated by the thoughts of Lao Tzu, in my aikido as well as in my life in general. I can't call myself a Taoist. I don't even know what that would encompass. There's no God to worship, and no church to visit. But I dare say that I have a Taoistic tendency.
I guess it's true for every aikidoka.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido