Ueshiba Morihei (1883 – 1969)
Aikido is a classical Japanese martial art, contemporary to Judo, founded by Master Ueshiba Morihei. Its roots are to be found in the 11th century samurai era, during the Heian period of classical Japan. It is known for its fluid, circular and turning motions (tenkan), and for its sharp, angular, entering techniques (irimi), usually followed by solid immobilizing postures.
The forms of Aikido are well-founded in a myriad of throws, joint locks, ground techniques and traumatizing attacks. It is also an integral part of Aikido the training in armed techniques for which the samurai class was notorious for, such as Kenjutsu (swordsmanship), Jojutsu (wooden staff) and Tantodori (knife techniques). At an advanced level, there are techniques that seek to enable the practitioner to evade ambushes, where one is attacked by multiple individuals (randori). In fact, in samurai sword culture, being caught by war adversaries was considered worse than death itself.
The Japanese characters that comprise the word Aikido mean, respectively, aiki (harmony), and do (path), hence, The Way of Harmony is a commonly accepted translation. Due to its historical background on the deadly battlefields of feudal Japan, Aikido is beyond doubt a highly effective form of self-defence. That being said, it is important to understand that the goals of Aikido lie far beyond mere fighting techniques. As any other form of physical discipline, Aikido nurtures physical and psycho-emotional health, developing a sharp sense of concentration and awareness, yet, as one finds in other classical forms of Eastern traditions, the art seeks, in an ultimate level, to endow its practitioners with a broad contemplative perspective of life, pointing to the realization of one deepest sense of identity – oneness with nature – a concept akin to that of Vedanta and Taoism.
One the many enriching aspects of this art is that within the practice of Aikido one has direct experience of classical Japanese culture, which includes the aesthetics of etiquette rules that are found in most traditions of Japan, from tea ceremony to archery.
Thus, one also acquires knowledge of Eastern philosophy and Japanese history, since practice is held within a Dojo environment, the place were traditional Japanese martial arts are practiced.
It is important to notice, nevertheless, that other classical Japanese arts such as calligraphy, flower arrangement schools, as well as archery and Buddhist meditation halls are also called “Dojo”. Hence, a Dojo is a hall for immersive learning and self-growth. The term literally translates to “place of the Way”. At a Dojo, one finds a serene and reverent atmosphere, rather different from the sports-like environment of gyms.
The practice of Aikido can be adapted to one’s individual needs, taking a more intense or gentler approach, be it for health, culture, self-defence, philosophy, spirituality and the like. It is not unusual to find people from all walks of life at an Aikido Dojo, from scholars to law enforcement agents and military personnel, from artists to holistic health practitioners, students, business people, entrepreneurs, spiritual seekers and so forth. Due to its non-competitive nature, Aikido is suitable for everyone, regardless of age or gender.
Morihei Ueshiba (植芝 盛平 14 December 1883 – 26 April 1969), referred to by Aikido practitioners as Ō-sensei, or “Great Teacher”, developed Aikido primarily during the late 1920’s through the 1930’s as a synthesis of the older martial arts he had studied. The core martial art from which Aikido derives from is Daitoryu Aiki-jujutsu, along with a variety of other ancient samurai arts such as Tenjin Shintoryu, Kashima Shinden Jikishinkageryu and Gotoha Yagyu Shinganryu.
Most importantly, undoubtedly, is the influence of Daitoryu Aiki-jujutsu (大東流合気柔術), or simply Daitoryu. The origins of Daitoryu maintain a direct lineage extending approximately 900 years, originating with Prince Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (1045–1127), a samurai descended from the 56th imperial ruler of Japan, Emperor Seiwa.
The samurai clans were highly structured, with various sorts of military divisions. The elite samurai warriors responsible for the safeguard of palaces, castles, and of high profile personnel, such as feudal lords and mainly the Emperor of Japan, developed and practiced the art of Daitoryu, and for this reason it was kept a well-guarded secret for almost 1000 years. Ancient texts refer to it as the “mystical circular art of the palaces”.
One of Japan’s greatest heroes, Minamoto do Yoshitsune, described in the hoary Heike Monogatari, arguably Japan’s most relevant literary work, was in fact directly related to Yoshimitsu.
With the decline of the samurai era (Asakusa to Tokugawa periods), during the transition to modern Japan (Meiji period – 1860 onward), it was feared that these many arts would disappear along with the samurai class, and it was only then, for the sake of its preservation, that the samurai decided to expose their arts to the general public.
Ueshiba sensei was one of the first lay men to receive the ancient secrets of the samurai, which he learned from Sokaku Takeda, one of the masters assigned to spread Daitoryu. Ueshiba was later considered Takeda’s best student. Many claimed that Ueshiba sensei actually became a greater master than Takeda himself.
Still within the historical development of Aikido is the influence of Ueshiba sensei’s spiritual preceptor, Onisaburo Deguchi, the leader of Omotokyo, a branch of the native Japanese religion – Shintoism. Deguchi had a profound impact on Ueshiba sensei’s martial arts philosophy and spirituality.
In the last years of Ueshiba sensei, past the mid 20th century, it was still a major concern if his art would survive the modern world. His close disciples were sent abroad and Aikido was first brought to the rest of the world in 1951, to countries such as France, USA, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Australia.
Up to the early 80’s this concern was still very much alive since Aikido was still rather unknown, till it saw a radical boom in popularity due its appearance in Hollywood movies. Aikido became a “overnight star”, and today, thanks to its mass dissemination on the screens, there are Aikido dojos available across the globe. Its revival has been responsible for the rediscovery and preservation of its origin – Daitoryu.
One peculiarity of Aikido lies in the fact that Ueshiba sensei officially forbade any sort of competitive practices, a trend other arts followed as well during the Allied occupation of Japan during the 2nd World War. As a direct consequence of this ordinance, Aikido managed to preserve and keep alive its ancient philosophy and spirituality, a fact that, most unfortunately, is not true among the overly commercialized modern martial arts of today, but still very much understood in other traditional Japanese martial arts such Kendo and Kyudo.
One can find clear evidence of Aikido’s philosophical and spiritual ideals, for instance, by closely observing one of the core principles of Aikido which is the cultivation of ki (vital force), that reflects in a state of harmony with nature and oneself, blossoming in the deep realization that this vital force is in fact one’s innermost essence and true identity. This concept is widely exposed in diverse philosophical, spiritual and medicinal systems found throughout Asia, rooted mostly in ancient India and China. As a matter of fact, the healing process of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda (traditional medicine from India) revolves purely around the healthy flow of ch’i, pronounced as ki in Japanese.
It is thus not uncommon for the art to be explained within the context of lofty ideals such as non-violence and brotherhood, and in authentic Aikido Dojos, the practice of some sort of meditation is either a part of their routine or encouraged in the least. In truth, not only its philosophy, but Aikido’s practical techniques are frequently described under the perspective of the observation of the patterns of nature, such as the striking force of thunder and lightning, the harmonious, circular, yet very powerful movement of ocean waves, and the spiraling motions of hurricanes and galaxies – a clear influence of Shinto worldview.
Interestingly enough, in modern times, Aikido has been explored within the context of contemporary mathematics, such as the Fibonacci sequence and the Mandelbrot set, which beautifully reveal the spiraling forces found in the nature, from the vastness of the cosmos, down to minute atoms. In fact, a geometrical understanding of Aikido techniques is not a foreign concept for matured practitioners, since the square, the circle and the triangle are well known symbols within the Aikido world.
The founder of Aikido would frequently quote the Kojiki, the “Book of Ancient Matters” of Shintoism, to the point that some breathing and energization techniques practiced in most Aikido Dojos till today, such as torifune, furidama and funakogi, derive directly from the Shugendo tradition of the Yamabushi – the mountain dwelling Shinto monks that belong to an immemorial spiritual tradition that relates back to the Tengu, the mythological entities of pre-Buddhist Japan.
Throughout the ages, martial arts have been held in high esteem for developing the human character, and that is perhaps the greatest treasure that one can acquire from its practice. Self improvement, given within the spectrum of martial arts include physical fitness, a healthy lifestyle, self confidence, improved reflexes, focus and stillness.
On a deeper sense, the practice of martial arts mature one’s understanding of morals and values, which are broadly described in samurai literature, and in different writings of the vast literary corpus of Eastern traditions, which bring to the surface the noble qualities of the human spirit, such as rectitude, justice, courage, benevolence, mercy, politeness, honesty, sincerity, honor, loyalty, character, self-control, perseverance, self-discipline, straightforwardness, non-injury, truthfulness, peacefulness, compassion, gentleness, modesty, radiance, forgiveness, patience, serenity, inner peace and love – qualities that are indeed much needed in the troubled world in which we live in, for they widen and purify one’s perspective of existence, enabling one to live a fulfilling, clear, and self-realized enlightened life.