When is Aikido Not Aikido?

Arguments about the “martial effectiveness” of aikido are a popular feature of Internet bulletin boards. Unfortunately, many posts show an abysmal ignorance of the premises on which the art was founded by making comparisons with various systems of fighting.

Aikido is not a system of fighting, but a way of not fighting, intended not to protect or enhance the ego but, potentially, to eradicate it. Its value lies in promoting qualities diametrically opposed to those advocated for use “in the street.”

Speaking for myself, the day I have to face a life and death situation will be soon enough to prove the effectiveness, or otherwise, of my aikido. I have never had to use the physical techniques outside the dojo in 40 years of training, so I am not going to lose any sleep over that.

Certainly one should strive for improvement, and it is always a challenge to try and perform the techniques with a bit more smoothness and elan, but what is the point of raving on about the inadequacies of aikido, versus kickboxing, college wrestling and street fighting? There is quite enough material to work with in aikido as it stands, without resorting to cross-training, or worrying about which schools have lost the plot and left us with some watered down, ineffectual version. There is only so much you can learn from others, anyway, so you can’t blame the system for your own shortcomings.

Effectiveness is bought at a price and the more I see of those who claim to have achieved it in aikido, or in other areas of life, the more empathy I feel with ordinary people who have no great ambition to be superefficient or effective. At best this attitude is irrelevant, at worst downright destructive and depressing.

To be appreciated, aikido needs “space,” i.e., spirituality, psychological depth, aesthetics, compassion and enjoyment. Not to mention love! (There seems to be a tacit agreement not to mention love in the martial effectiveness arguments, which is curious in view of the importance O-Sensei placed on this, and his insistence that love was the essence of aikido.)

Not that aikido’s “spiritual effectiveness” is any easier to prove objectively than any of the technical arguments are. There are no guarantees, anyway. I am not convinced, however, that someone’s inability to perform a technique from, say, a strong Iwama-style morotedori grip testifies to a lack of spiritual development. The link between spirit, mind and body is more complicated than that.

The learning curve is a broad one, and one may reasonably expect to spend a lifetime working on oneself without being able to boast of full enlightenment, aikido or no aikido. This is no reason to abandon the effort, and practicing aikido with a spiritual goal in mind, rather than technical effectiveness alone, is a good start.

Meanwhile, the health benefits, mental as well as physical, amply justify serious, regular training, without the need to be fixated on martial effectiveness or intimidated by those who are. Since aikido is an individual pursuit, the school you choose is important only to the extent that it suits you and it is pointless attempting to pit one against another.

For myself, exposure to the contrasting teaching methods of Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Gozo Shioda, Kenji Shimizu and others during my prolonged sojourn in Japan virtually forced me to seek whatever common principles I could find. I have tried to keep the door open to new knowledge, without falling into parochialism or sectarianism.

But knowledge is not wisdom. Knowledge is derived by means of the senses, which cannot and were never intended to tell us anything about the truth of the universe. Chasing after more and more technical knowledge is likely to take one further from the goal of aikido, rather than closer to it.

I used to get a bit annoyed when I overheard people say that one or other of the various styles I was practicing was “not aikido.” (This seemed to be a common term of derision bandied around in Japan.) While I was willing to admit my own interpretation might leave much to be desired, it seemed incredibly arrogant for anyone to write off major Japanese aikido schools with this sort of flippant remark.

The major schools were established, after all, by masters who had each served a long apprenticeship under the founder, and who had devoted their lives to aikido. It became obvious to me after a while that the comment, “that is not aikido” was shallow and meaningless, and by the time I had heard it applied to every one of the major schools, it no longer bothered me.

Nevertheless, such a statement can easily discourage new students struggling to understand a particular version of the art, so I suggest they turn to O-Sensei’s words for advice on this:

“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something. Be grateful even for hardships, setbacks and bad people. Dealing with such obstacles is an essential part of training.” (From, “The Art of Peace,” by John Stevens.)

In relation to O-Sensei’s own definition of aikido, it is probably true that what we are practicing is “not aikido,” irrespective of what system of training we follow. In this respect we are all in the same boat; we all have a long way to go, as is obvious from O-Sensei’s words (quoting again from John Stevens’ book):

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but only one summit – love.”

“As soon as you concern yourself with the good and bad of your fellows you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others will weaken and defeat you.”

“You are here for no other purpose than to realize your own inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.”

Senior aikidoka continue to criticize their fellows in other schools and to claim theirs is the only way to the top of the mountain, despite clearly not having reached the summit themselves.

by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #120

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