‘True Budo Is a Work of Love’

TenkanThe title of this post is a quote from the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, usually referred to as O Sensei. The word “budo” means the way of war, or warriorship, and Aikido is a martial art built on very traditional Japanese budo.

Many of the open-hand techniques of Aikido are adapted from sword work, and weapons training is a useful way to study the principles. Unlike many other martial arts, Aikido is not taught as a sport, and, as with all fighting arts, many of the techniques have deadly potential. Why then, when violence against others is a significant problem in the world today, do I say a martial art gives me hope that humans will one day become civilized?

It has to do with the underlying principles of Aikido. My teacher, Mitsugi Saotome, says O Sensei combined his extensive training in many martial arts with his spiritual search and created something entirely new. In his book, The Principles of Aikido, Saotome says of O Sensei:

He elevated the killing techniques of battle into a method of purifying human beings so that they might harmoniously co-exist and prosper.

Saotome, who was a direct student of O Sensei for many years, points out that Aikido is a “practical philosophy,” one grounded in reality. One of the key elements of Aikido training is that you primarily train with a partner, so that while you’re trying to make yourself a better person – a core principle of training – you’re working with somebody else.

Sitting meditation, yoga, Qigong, and other practices done on one’s own can be challenging, but you only have to deal with yourself while you’re trying to master them. In Aikido, you have to deal with other people – just as you do in daily life. And that other person can sometimes be a real pain in the ass.

One basic response to an attack is to enter and take control of the center line. Assume a person is attacking with a punch to the face. You move forward, turning slightly to the side, so that the strike goes harmlessly past you. But you must move at just the right time: too early, and the attacker will follow you; too late, and you’ll get hit. Furthermore, if you come in too aggressively, you will end up in conflict with your attacker, but if you come in too passively or try to back away, your attacker will run over you. The goal is to take charge of the situation without provoking the attacker into escalating.

One of the principles of traditional Japanese budo was ai uchi, or mutual destruction. As Saotome describes it, a fighter “had to have a commitment to his purpose that was so great that his own life was of no value in comparison. He would willingly sacrifice his own life to achieve his enemy’s death.” But, as Saotome goes on to explain, this “is still a philosophy geared toward destruction and death.”

The higher goal is ai nuke, or mutual preservation of life. Saotome says:

This concept of budo, the possession of a love of all life so great that it allows you to love your enemy and the spiritual strength to put that love into practice, lies at the philosophical heart of Aikido.

If the art of war can be turned into love, I find hope for the human race.

Note: This essay is adapted from part of an essay that appeared in The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 3.

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