The Uniqueness Of Aikido
Among the dozens if not hundreds of martial arts forms, Aikido is unique in its concern for universal well-being: for the safety of the attacker no less than for the person being attacked. How is it that a martial art rooted in an uncompromisingly pacifist philosophy can actually be effective? As we’ll see, the answer to this question has much to do with Aikido’s resonance with basic principles of Taoist philosophy and practice.
Aikido: Etymological Explorations - “Tao” & “Do”
Like most Chinese words, Tao has numerous over-lapping and mutually-enhancing meanings. Its specific meaning depends largely upon the context in which it is used. In relation to Taoist practice, it tends to be translated as “way” or a “path” -- where the walking of the path (a specific refinement or cultivation process) and its destination or goal are understood to be mutually-arising and inter-dependent. Each step along the path is, simultaneously, the destination.
In relation to our topic at hand -- viz. the Japanese martial art form known as Aikido -- it’s interesting to note that the Japanese kanji “do” is associated with the same character as the Chinese “Tao,” though pronounced in a slightly different way, when it appears in the context of words such as: chado (“the way of tea,” i.e. Japanese tea ceremony using matcha); shodo (“the way of writing,” i.e. the contemplative art of calligraphy); kado (“the way of flowers,” i.e. meditative flower-arranging); kodo (“the way of incense”); and, of course, Aikido.
In all of these words, the kanji “do” -- like “Tao” -- refers to a way or path. Rounding out the word “Aikido” are two other kanji: “ai” which translates as unifying, joining or combining; and “ki” (equivalent to the Chinese qi/chi) which is rendered as energy, spirit, mood or force (as in electricity or magnetism). Putting these three together, we arrive at what perhaps is the most literal English translation of Aikido as “the way of unifying with life-energy.”
Joining, Blending, Redirecting: Aikido’s Basic Techniques
This name points to the basic “blending and adaptation” techniques so characteristic of Aikido. Instead of directly opposing an attack, an Aikido practitioner joins with and then skillfully redirects the force of his/her opponent’s aggression. The energy of the attack is re-directed, so that its momentum is turned back against the attacker, in a way which (ideally) defuses the attack with both parties remaining unharmed.
The various empty-handed throws and joint-locks (drawn largely from Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu) that comprise the technical “nuts and bolts” of Aikido require relatively little physical strength to effectively execute -- making the form accessible to people with a wide range of physical capacities. Aikido’s particular training regimen typically involves two partners together practicing a kata (a pre-arranged form) -- one partner playing the role of attacker, with the other practicing a specific Aikido technique as a defense against / transformation of the attack.
The History Of Aikido
Aikido was developed in the late 1920’s and 1930‘s by Morihei Ueshiba, as a combination of the martial skills of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu (which he had practiced for many years) and the spiritual principles of a Shinto-derived religion called Omoto-kyo, which emphasized the possibility of a kind of “Heaven on Earth,” i.e. of enjoying the fruits of spiritual realization within ones very lifetime. As such, the practice of Aikido came to be rooted firmly in a philosophy of Universal Peace and harmonious reconciliation of conflict: of skillfully transforming energy in a way which allows all involved parties to benefit from the encounter, and collectively move forward in the direction of a mutual betterment of human life.
Staring Death In The Face: The Art Of Peace
Part and parcel with Aikido’s philosophical and spiritual outlook, is the mental training that is essential to success in its practice. A practitioner cultivates the capacity to enter into and maintain a state of “relaxed alertness” -- a kind of receptive openness in which perception and response-ability become ever more subtle. In such a state, body and mind both can respond most effectively -- with greatest skill and confidence, in a spontaneously ease-full way -- to the energy of an attack.
The ability of an Aikido practitioner to “enter into” the energy of an attack, in order then to “blend” and “adapt” that energy, requires a kind of courage rooted in great calmness and clarity. As recorded in his book, The Art Of Peace (translated by John Stevens), Morihei Ueshiba has said that the Aikido practitioner "must be willing to receive 99% of an opponent's attack and stare death in the face" in order to execute Aikido techniques properly, without doubt or hesitation.
The mystery of how Aikido’s fluid circular movements, and pacifist philosophy, can result in a martial art form that is not only beautiful, but also powerfully effective, is addressed by the Taoist sage Lao Tzu in verse 78 of the Tao Te Ching (translated here by Stephen Mitchell):
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
The Aikido practitioner is someone who does indeed put these principles into practice ....