From "Aikido: The Compassionate Martial Way"
A Presentation for the "Friends of Ishval" (a charity), 7 December 2003
Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Japan has a long history of martial arts, and of warriors with exceptional spirit and technique. Samuri families passed down their own "schools" of secret knowledge of the use of weapons and of battle strategy. The totality of these techniques are Bujitsu, techniques of war. To live one's life by these principles, is to follow Budo, the way of war. There are many of these different martial disciplines being practised today, all over the world – judo, kendo, karate, jujitsu – iaido (sword) and kyudo (archery).
My intent with the Aikido presentation for the Friends of Ishval, given in December 2003, was to show something which has grown out of this Japanse history of Budo, by absorbing it and fashioning it into something new, which I feel has surpassed traditional Budo, by changing the nature of its heart.
This change was brought about by one man, Morihei Ueshiba. He was born on December 14, 1883, in an area of Japan associated with ancient Japanese mysticism, containing many Shinto shrines. His father was a farmer and local politician and both his parents were from samuri families. Morihei was very small, even for a Japanese – just over 5 ft tall as an adult. He was weak and sickly as a child, but had a sharp mind and liked to read. At the age of seven he went to a temple school, where he was introduced to the Chinese classics and Buddhist meditation and chanting. Morihei also believed in the gods of Japan's national religion, Shinto, and spent his free time roaming the mountains, exploring the holy shrines.
Because he was small and not very strong, Morihei's father encouraged him in running, swimming and sumo wrestling to build up his strength. When he was still quite small, the house was broken into by local ruffians who attacked his father, and Morihei himself was too young to help. This spurred him on further, and he continued to train. He washed himself daily with ice cold water, a Japanese purification practice, to toughen himself up, gradually building up his strength.
In 1901, aged about 18, Morihei started to practice jujitsu, and later other martial arts and weapons schools. He applied to join the army in 1903, but was rejected because he was too small. Bitterly disappointed, he went to the mountains and trained hard, stretching his spine by hanging from trees for hours, with weights on his legs. The next year he was accepted into the army. He was fiercely competitive, to make up for his size, and could run so fast he kept up with the horses on marches. Morihei was nicknamed "the King of Soldiers" for his skill with the bayonet, and his honest, hardworking character.
Moriehei left the army in 1907 and went home to work on the family farm and take part in local politics. At this time he appears to have been disturbed and depressed. His father cleared a barn to make a dojo and engaged a judo teacher for him. Morihei made great progress in Kodokan judo and also in Yagyu-ryu jujutsu. His strength was by now formidable, but he was in spiritual torment, uncommunicative to his family, taking himself off for long periods into the mountains, fasting, training, and undergoing misogi, or purification practices, standing under waterfalls or in the sea every day.
During his life, Morihei met many remarkable men who inspired him. In 1912, at the suggestion of the scholar Minakata Kumagusu, he answered a government invitation for volunteers to settle in the underdeveloped island of Hokkaido, in the north of Japan. He moved there with his wife and daughter and 52 families, to live and farm. Nothing was ready when they arrived, it was very tough, very cold, and there were highwaymen. Morihei worked incredibly hard, farming, logging and uprooting trees with his bare hands. He was even said to have calmed a marauding bear and shared his lunch with it. Morihei was obsessed with physical strength and endurance. In Hokkaido, he met Sokaku Takeda, one of the last old-style warriors of Japan, who taught him Daito Ryu Aikijustu. Morihei trained as much as he could, becoming a formidable martial artist. In 1919 however, Morihei heard that his father was ill, and he left Hokkaido, giving his house and many of his possessions to Sokaku.
Morihei did not get home before his father died. On his way, he met Onisaburo Deguchi, an eccentric but gifted poet, artist, clairvoyant, and the co-founder of the Omoto-Kyo religion. Morihei was so inspired that he moved to Ayabe to join the Omoto religion, and took up calligraphy, poetry and organic farming. Onisaburo, who had been in touch with various like-minded groups abroad, and had ideas about setting up a centre of world religion, was invited to China. Morihei went with him, but the trip was a disaster; they were attacked and later arrested and sent back to Japan. During one of the attacks Morihei found he could dodge bullets – he saw beams of light where they were flying and was able to avoid them.
On return to Japan Morihei became more considerate towards others, but intensified his training, fasting and practising in the mountains. It could be said that at this time he was "interiorising" his martial arts techniques.
In the early 20th century, as in earlier centuries, it was still dangerous to be involved in the martial arts. There were feuds, rivalries, challenges and even deaths. In 1925, a high ranking naval officer who was also a teacher of Japanese sword, challenged Morihei to a contest. Morihei agreed, but took no weapon. The officer was annoyed by this apparent insult to his ability, and attacked him with a wooden sword. Morihei won the match by repeatedly evading the blows, until the officer was exhausted. Accepting defeat, the officer asked Morihei his secret; Morihei said, a beam of light had flashed just prior to each attack, revealing the intended direction. As with the flying bullets, Morihei could see his opponent's moves before they were executed.
As he went to the well to wash, after the contest, Morihei began to shake and became immobilised. The ground shook, and he was engulfed in golden light like a mist. He felt that barriers between the material and spiritual worlds dissolved, and he lost his ego-identification and became unified with the divine. It was from this experience, at the age of 42, that Morihei stated that the heart of Budo was not contention, but love, a love that cherishes and protects all things.
This realisation is what makes Aikido different, from other martial arts. In its highest form it does not seek to defeat enemies, but to protect, develop and educate beings.
Morihei continued to teach and develop Aikido for the rest of his life. He was Chief Instructor of the Omoto-Kyo "Society for the Promotion of Japanese Martial Arts". He taught at the Naval Academy, Military Staff College and Military Police Academy. He had his own dojo in Tokyo with "uchideshi" or live-in students at his dojo. Interestingly, he taught women on the same footing as men.
However, during the Second World War, Morihei, pleading ill-health, stopped teaching the military, and retired to Iwama, farming and training. There he built a shrine to "The Great Spirit of Aiki". At this time he formally adopted the term "Aikido" (the Way of Harmony) for his art. After the war, the Occupation Forces banned the practice of martial arts, apart from Karate, but Morihei continued to practice, quietly at Iwama.
We may not be aware of Morihei's reasons for retiring at this point, but in later years his students said that he did not like teaching the military. He complained to his son "The military is dominated by reckless fools ignorant of statesmanship and religious ideals who slaughter innocent citizens indiscriminately and destroy everything in their path. They act in total contradiction to God's will, and they will surely come to a sorry end. True budo is to nourish life and foster peace, love, and respect, not to blast the world to pieces with weapons".
In 1948 Morihei was granted permission by the Occupation forces and the Japanese Ministry of Education, to organise an Aiki foundation to promote Aikido, "a martial way dedicated to the fostering of international peace and justice".
In his later years, Morihei had achieved a sense of peace and deep spirituality, and spent his time praying, farming and reading. He taught less, and talked more – emphasising the spiritual significance of Aikido. His philosophy was very complex and he talked for hours, but many of his students had difficulty understanding him.
Morihei continued to do instruction tours, although he was reluctant to give public demonstrations, as he thought his techniques might be stolen. However, he gave his first public demonstration in 1956, for the spread of Aikido. He also had his first foreign students in that year. He made his first film, with an American crew, in 1958, and made a 40 day tour of Hawaii, his first outside Japan, in 1961.
Morihei gave his final demonstration in January 1969. He said "Aikido is for the entire world. It is not for selfish or destructive purposes. Train unceasingly for the good of all." He died three months later on 26 April, aged 85.
Many thanks to my helpers in the presentation: my friends in the Lancashire Aikikai: Nick Alderson, 1st Dan, from my home club in Altrincham (Trafford Aikido); Graham Harrison, 5th Dan and Cathy O'Shea, 1st Kyu, from the Bury Club; and my friend Wellington Tsang, 1st Dan, from the British Aikikai.
"The Spirit of Aikido", Kisshomaru Ueshiba
"Abundant Peace", The Biography of Morihei Ueshiba, John Stevens, Shambala 1987
"Aikido, The Way of Harmony", John Stevens and Shirato Rinjiro, Shambala 1985
"The Essence of Aikido", Spiritual Teachings of Morihei Ueshiba, compiled by John Stevens, Kodansha International 1993
"The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido", William Gleason, Destiny Books 1995