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Aikido’s mystical path to peace on Earth

by Anna Kunnecke

Anyone who turns to this lovely volume hoping to learn how to perform some of aikido’s legendary techniques will be disappointed. But for those disciples of the practice who wish to delve more deeply into the philosophical and religious underpinnings of its founder’s cosmology, this tiny book is a gem.

THE HEART OF AIKIDO: The Philosophy of Takemusu Aiki, by Morihei Ueshiba. Translated by John Stevens. Kodansha International, 2010, 144 pp., $19.95 (hardcover)

With its sober green cover, soft cream paper, cloth bookmark and diminutive size, this book feels designed to be carried around and studied like a sacred text. For it is indeed a spiritual manual rather than a technical one, a collection of lectures given by the founding father of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, to members of the religious group Byakko Shinko Kai.

John Stevens arranged, translated and edited the transcripts of these lectures, excising the more religious aspects to focus on what he considers the “universal human values” of aikido.

Ueshiba cautions his followers in the following way: “I can explain and explain aikido, but in order to understand what I am saying, a person needs to practice, to experience aikido. Practice first, and then listen to explanations.”

We must assume then that the contents of this book are to be taken in only after a great deal of practice, for without context or explanation, Ueshiba’s words must indeed remain in the realm of sacred mystery.

To someone unfamiliar with the terminology and spiritual teachings of aikido, the lectures were luminous but baffling. These are obviously advanced teachings given to an already-loyal following, not an introduction to the practice or philosophy. This is compounded by Stevens’ choice to leave many of the key terms untranslated, directing the reader to the glossary at the back for their meaning. Since the central phrase takemusu aiki, for example, requires a paragraph of definition, including meanings varying in subtlety from “the life-generating force capable of unlimited transformations” to “the boldest and most creative life possible,” the potential interpretations of each teaching can spin out into the realm of the infinite.

But the heart of the founder shines through clearly. He is convinced that aikido “came into being in order to foster and promote peaceful co-existence. From now on, I believe that we should use the principle of Love to wage our battles.” This goes right to the heart of what differentiates aikido from other martial arts, for it has no matches, no competitions, and its ultimate aim is to disarm an aggressor, never to be used for aggression itself.

This peaceful mission is the beacon that draws students of aikido from around the world and ignites in them a distinctive loyalty and passion.

I do wonder, however, whether practitioners of other martial arts might not take umbrage at Ueshiba’s claim that “takemusu aiki incorporates and at the same time transcends all those [other] martial arts.” But Ueshiba makes no bones about the fact that he believes that aikido is the one true way to bring peace upon Earth, and that he himself is a literal incarnation of a Shinto god. Such certainty may seem like arrogance, but he has inspired such worshipful devotion in his followers that in the introduction Stevens compares him to the Dalai Lama.

Ueshiba speaks clearly for peace, recalling his own part in the military administration and how seeing men sent to slaughter was part of the impetus to start aikido. But he states that the transformation of the world must begin with an internal practice of harmony and peace. Often he emphasizes the need for misogi, or purification — the ritual cleansing of the body and mind through practice, water, breathing and meditation.

He is an eloquent philosopher-scientist. His assertion that the world started from a “single seed” has striking similarities to the Big Bang theory, and when he speaks of the “strings of creation” called kototama, it is as though he is echoing string theory. It all sounds remarkably like a mystical version of quantum physics.

This spiritual view of the world is the basis for his claim that aikido will bring peace and harmony to humanity. “We are children of God, each one of us is a living shrine. We are never separated from the divine, and never can be. To be divine, we must not engage in fighting or contention. We are here to clean things up, not make a mess of things. We need to work together, and not rely on the aggressive attitudes and violent methods of the past.”

Certainly not for the uninitiated, this challenging and luminous work will be sure to inspire even greater devotion and love in students of aikido, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the thought process of a man who was a peacemaker, visionary and self-proclaimed incarnation of the divine.