The Way out of the Way
The sword is an absolute: it is absolutely best to be out of its way. It's an old weapon, some would say outdated, but in the martial arts it serves the purpose of showing one basic principle with clarity and precision: that of the wisdom of the taisabaki evasive step.
Sometimes at demonstrations, I make a very obvious argument by letting my uke strike shomenuchi in slow motion with a bokken, while I stand on the spot and block it with a karatedo style jodanuke, the lower arm block over the head. That usually amuses the audience.
Of course, next I allow uke to attack in full speed, and I evade it with a taisabaki movement.
That's simple enough -- well, at least with a cooperating uke. Doing it against a shinken is another thing, but the wisdom of that principle is not dependent on my skill, or lack of it.
Defeated by winning
The taisabaki evasive step is so much at the core of aikido, that our martial art could be called The Way out of the Way. Any technique must begin with that movement out of the attacking line.
That's not only a strategic choice in aikido, although indeed a wise one, but also the consequence of the aiki joining-of-forces principle. If the attack is blocked or pushed aside, then there is no joining, but the very opposite.
A forced stop or diversion of the attack means opposing it. Through the course of the technique, an attitude of opposition makes it difficult to tell the defender apart from the attacker. They tend to become the same. Well, that's a joining of sorts, too, but one on the terms of the attacker. If the defender has to become like the attacker, in order to avoid defeat, then the attacker has really won. So, such a course unavoidably leads to defeat.
In aikido, we try to transform the situation. The attack not only becomes futile, but it evaporates during the process of the aikido technique. What's left is an attacker in loss of the attacking spirit and resolve. The attacker has become like the defender. That means genuine victory for the latter, but it's shared since both end with the same mentality and sentiment. So, there are two winners.
The aiki approach is not only commenced by the taisabaki evasion of the attack, but also immediately accomplished by it. It is at the very moment of the meeting that we decide. With taisabaki we accept the charge and thereby open the possibility to transform it. The transformation takes place at that very instant. The rest is a dance of sorts, just to make the attacker aware of what has already happened.
It is a choice that the defender makes, a choice of principle, ideology, and conviction. It becomes a statement, as firm as a declaration. What approaches will be treated as if beneficial and friendly, whatever its original intent might have been. Thereby it becomes just that.
Aggression needs a victim, or it must disappear. When there is no resistance, the aggression loses its aim. Remaining aggressive without an aim is like getting angry at nothing.
Resistance is like a closed door. That's easy enough to angrily bang on. The taisabaki movement is swinging that door open. Ideally, the door opens right before the aggressive intent reaches it. Then the aggression floods through the gap, emptying the attacker.
But it can't be done as a trick, a technical thing with the purpose of winning. Neither the timing nor the spirit of it will be correct, because there is resistance hiding behind such an approach. It has to be done sincerely, wholeheartedly, with the honest intent of doing away with aggression. It should have nothing at all to do with defeating the attacker, nor with making sure to avoid getting hurt by the attack. It's a way of accepting the attack by not standing in its way.
So, taisabaki is a way of not being in the way. When done wholeheartedly, by opening that door at the right moment, it's a way of showing the way.
I'm sure that I don't need to point out the many applications this has on everyday life outside the dojo.
By the way, here is a short video of me as a young "freshman" of aikido, many years ago, nervously practicing the taisabaki step with our teacher at that time, Ichimura sensei, who was also 6 dan Renshi in iaido, so he knew how to swing that bokken -- and how to increase the thrill of the exercise:
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