“Building a Bridge between Heaven and Earth,” by Alister Gillies

West Meets East

“The farthest west is but the farthest east.” Henry Thoreau

At the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century the writing was on the wall for all to see. While the destructive force of war and the emergence of new political alliances, with even greater potential for annihilation, highlighted the need for a new spirit of the age, it was to be an age marked by uncertainty.

Throughout history humanity has faced similar situations. Whole civilisations have come and gone, often leaving barely a trace behind. But what is different about our modern age is the sense of helplessness that we all feel in the face of rapid change on a global scale. Our dilemma is that while we are highly conscious of what is happening, we seem to be powerless to do anything about it. As we get smarter, we are not getting any wiser.

We are incredibly well informed about the problems that we all face, but this does little to assuage the collective and individual anxiety that we all experience. Often we describe our problems in objective terms as something that can be managed: ‘the environment’, ‘pollution’, ‘economic situation’, or even indeed, the ‘pace of change’ itself. What we all too often fail to recognise is the source of the problem – ourselves.

Buddhism advocates a radical approach that is built upon three pillars. From an ostensibly static beginning – a seated position – one learns to regulate and develop one’s breathing, posture and faculty of attention so that unity of mind and body becomes habitual. From this simple beginning one can learn the right way to live.

In the Aikido that Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) developed, the principles of unification and harmony are contained in the kata (forms) derived from both armed and unarmed arts (Budo), and applied in a dynamic situation as a way of training. While it is true that the Founder of Aikido was not formally a Buddhist, he inherited a form of Shinto that was itself the result of an earlier synthesis of Buddhist theology and Shinto beliefs. There are many elements in Aikido that are common to both belief systems, particularly in relation to the insubstantial nature of the self.

The aim in Aikido is not to develop fighters, but to develop a fully rounded individual that can make a productive contribution to society. In the societal realm, this contributes to social and interpersonal harmony (wa).

In the personal realm, development can continue as a way of spiritual training or misogi, a way of purification. How far one wishes to move in this direction is a matter of individual choice and responsibility.

Morihei Ueshiba’s Aikido, which continued to evolve throughout his lifetime, was a vehicle for his own personal development. While others could follow, this did not guarantee that they would find anything. For many people, however, it has proved to be a worthwhile staring point. For the founder of Aikido, the challenge facing humanity in the twentieth century was essentially spiritual. The responsibility for personal transformation, however, rests solely with the individual. The starting point in both Aikido and Zen is one’s self.

The spread of Aikido (a Japanese form of Budo or martial art) and Zen Buddhism to the west in the mid-1950’s, first to the US and then to Europe, was the result of a combination of social, economic and cultural factors that heralded the beginning of a new era. As nation states set about the business of post-war restoration and modernisation, it was a task framed against the back drop of a world that was deeply divided.

Morihei Ueshiba regarded the spirit of Aiki (love and harmony) as an essential ingredient for the reunification of the Japanese people in the post-war years. He spoke of Aiki as “a golden bridge uniting the Japanese people.”

In later years, after the successful introduction of Aikido to the West, he was to talk of Aiki as a “silver bridge uniting the people of the world.” But it was to be sometime before his vision of Aikido as a new form of ‘true Budo’ could be realised in his country of birth.

In Japan, a heroic reconstruction was underway, fueled by massive US investment and the need to provide a bulwark in the Pacific against Sino-Soviet interests. It was a recovery that was to bring the Japanese nation from near extinction to become a major economic super power, dominating the economy of the Pacific Basin for many years.

Immediately after the war, however, there was widespread disaffection among the Japanese population with all things connected to its militaristic past. In the eyes of the Japanese people, the leadership and values of the past were viewed with some misgivings. This naturally included the activities and beliefs of traditional Budo and Zen Buddhism, whose ideals had been appropriated to support an ill-fated policy of Japanese nationalist expansionism. Budo was also a proscribed activity by the MacArthur led allied occupation, and it was to be some years before restrictions were relaxed.

In any event, the mass of the Japanese people were too preoccupied with day-to-day survival to be concerned about Zen or Budo. Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, the home of Aikido, served more as a hostel for the displaced and homeless in the years immediately following the war, than as a martial arts training establishment.

Many years of hardship were to follow, and it was not until the late 1950’s that the hard work of the Aikido founder’s son and successor, Kisshomaru Ueshiba (1921-1999), and other committed Aikido teachers started to pay off as Aikido’s popularity began to grow in Japan. In the interim, Aikido instructors had already been sent to the US and Europe by the forward thinking Japanese.

Japan now looked to the West – to the US in particular – for economic support and direction. In the West there had been considerable interest in Japanese culture prior to the war, which began to resurface when hostilities ended. This provided Japan with an opportunity to show that the Japanese people had a gentler, more humane aspect, and they were keen to share this with the world. By the early 1950s, a period of cultural exchange was underway.

Japonisme was back in fashion, an echo of its seminal influence on the Impressionist, Cubist and Art Noveau movements before the war. Interest re-emerged in the wood block prints of Bertha Lum (1869-1954), an American artist who had learned carving and printing techniques from Japanese master craftsmen as early as 1907.

The philosophical writings of Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966) and Karlfried Graf Dürckheim (1896-1988), who was imprisoned by the Americans in Japan just after the war, helped explain many of the ideas underpinning Japanese culture and spiritual belief.

Translations of Haiku poetry from Japanese into English by the British academic R.H. Blyth (1898-1964), helped popularise Japanese literary forms in the early 1950s, and influenced the poetic writing of a whole generation in the US and Europe.

The Italian academic, writer, photographer, ethnologist and mountaineer, Fosco Maraini (1912-2004), interned by the Japanese authorities for the last two years of the war, revisited his adopted Japanese home with obvious affection in a book published in 1955, “Meeting with Japan.” In his book Maraini provides one of the most well informed, insightful and sympathetic accounts of Japanese life and culture to be written by a European.

In 2002, Maraini was honoured by an award from the Japanese Photographic Society recognising his achievements and contribution to fine-art photography, the ethnology of the Ainu of Hokkaido, and his efforts to strengthen ties between Japan and Italy spanning some sixty years. Italy still retains strong cultural links with Japan to this day and has a thriving Aikido community. By the mid-fifties, Japanese teachers of Budo and Zen began arriving in America and Europe. And in Japan, Western students turned up on the doorsteps of Zen monasteries and martial arts’ Dojos.

Early encounters were awkward and fumbling at first as neither side really understood the other, and imitation often took the place of understanding. But this was to change as the enthusiasm and passion of foreign students became evident to their Japanese teachers. Japanese Aikido teachers were already instructing in Europe as early as 1951. In France, Minoru Mochizuki introduced Aikido to French Judo students, and began laying the groundwork for Tadashi Abe who was to succeed him in 1952.

In 1955, the eclectic Budo Master Kenshiro Abe took up an instructor’s post at the invitation of the London Judo Society. He taught many Budo arts, including Aikido, and was to remain in Britain until 1966, when – apart from a brief visit – he returned to live permanently in Japan. In May 1959, Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), a Soto Zen teacher, arrived in San Francisco. Zen had come to the West to take up permanent residence.

During this time Europe was also recovering from the effects of war and undergoing a period of rapid change and development. The economy of Europe began to improve, and by the mid- to late-1950’s, particularly in Britain, there were signs of increased prosperity – the “never had it so good” era of Harold Macmillan.

This was not just political rhetoric. The mass of the British population had never been healthier. Education, housing, health care, employment and income had all improved throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Slums were cleared, national service was mandatory, and people had increased leisure time and access to more financial resources than ever before.

A youth culture began to emerge in Britain for the first time. Traditional values buckled under the pressure of new and powerful social forces. Demobilised men from the services finding their way in civilian life, rebellious ‘angry young men’, street gangs, counter-culture groups and protest movements on both sides of the Atlantic all attested to the state of flux and uncertainty of the times.

Intellectuals rediscovered romantic naturalism and mysticism in the writings of Blake, Henry Thoreau, R.W. Emerson and Thomas Merton. The modernist poetry of Pound and Eliot, though influenced by East Asian religious thought, inspired a reaction by the poets and writers of the ‘Beat Generation’ against their objectivist tendencies.

Freedom and spontaneity were the watchwords of the new subjectivism of the Beat movement. ‘Beat Zen’ became a fashionable, though transient phenomenon in the Bohemian circles of Paris, London and New York. The literary gurus of the day included the American writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs. For them, personal freedom came first – the ‘me’ generation was born.

They were a highly influential group and inspired the ‘confessional’ writing of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and many others. But there was a self-destructive element to the movement that led some commentators to describe them as the ‘Lost Generation’. Many had been inspired by the work of Wilhelm, Jung and R.H Blyth, but their connection with Eastern religion and philosophy was a tenuous one at best.

Alan Watts (1915-1973), a writer and philosopher that had connections with both the Beat Generation and the academic establishment, did a great deal to promote Eastern thought and Zen Buddhism. But, like so many of his contemporaries, the attraction of Zen appeared to lie in the message of liberation rather than the practice.

Towards the end of his short life, however, Watts placed less emphasis on the significance of self-realisation and saw the tumultuous changes that were sweeping through society as evidence of a cosmological Zen principle – the dynamic of change itself was Zen in action. Accordingly, his interests centred on the psychology of man’s alienation from nature and its effects on man’s social and environmental quality of life.

The rise of secularism and the decline of religious faith, taken together with powerful forces of social change, set against the backdrop of the cold war and the omnipresent threat of a nuclear holocaust, brought everything into question. The future of mankind was itself in question.

In Paris, arguably the intellectual and cultural capital of Europe in the sixties, the existentialists gloomily pronounced that life was devoid of meaning and that the only true morality was action. A spiritual chasm opened that intellectual materialism was unable to bridge, and which traditional forms of Christian religious belief were unable to counter. Church congregations dwindled in numbers and young people began to look elsewhere for spiritual alternatives.

Many found relief in socialist inspired movements, which saw unparalleled growth during the 1950s and 60s; others looked to alternative religions and messianic prophecies promising a new age; and yet others explored alternative lifestyles and experimented with various ‘mind altering’ substances. The times were ‘a-changin’.

Aikido and Zen proved to be especially popular in France. While the existential materialism of Sartre offered a doctrine of individual freedom through choice and action, it had a hard edged quality to it that reinforced feelings of emptiness and isolation. Zen used similar language and talked of emptiness, freedom and action as well, but it cut off the head of the isolated self at a stroke. Self was an illusion. According to Zen Buddhism mankind is not other than nature, but part of an interconnected, dynamic whole.

The association between the French and the Japanese has always been closer than that of other occidental nations. Fosco Maraini, writing in 1955, commented on the special nature of that connection:

“ I should say, in fact, that French and Japanese approach each other with the fewest mental reservations, the most open mutual humanity; that is why they achieve understanding.”

It is not by accident that there are more people practicing Aikido in France today than in any other country, including Japan.

In the philosophy of Zen and Aikido, the relationship between emptiness and form represents a vibrant, creative principle in which emptiness and fullness are not mutually exclusive concepts – full is empty, and empty is full. For the Zen Buddhist being and non-being are equally illusory.

Within the extremes of existence and non-existence human beings are free to live in a spirited way that is both meaningful and rewarding. Both Zen and Aikido provide a practical, rather than an intellectual way to understand this:

“As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualise it. As soon as you intellectualise something, it is no longer what you saw.” (Shunryu Suzuki)

When Japanese teachers of Budo and Zen arrived in the west, they found fertile soil for what they had to teach. What they had to offer, in terms of spiritual training, struck a chord for those individuals whose search for meaning in life needed something that was both practical and spiritual. They offered a way of life that addressed mankind’s fundamental need for balance in the inner and outer dimensions of existence.

Those teachers came, not with definitions and philosophical complexities, but with a heartfelt desire to spread the ‘Way’ (Way of the Universe) in whatever discipline they happened to be teaching. They taught a way of harmony.

They didn’t come to replace or contest a system of belief or faith, but to provide an antidote to the worst excesses of a rationalist world view that had succeeded in reducing mankind to an endangered species.

They came from a country that had come perilously close to the edge of extinction, not to teach us to fight with one another, but how to take better care of ourselves. They came to teach us how to build a bridge between heaven and earth.


  1. Andrew Bedford says:

    They came, they saw and they conquered right!
    Well not quite. What about now, what about today!

    Yesterday I came to the heartbreaking decision of closing my dojo. The reasons are simple ones, nobody wants to hear it, see it for what it is or no longer has the stomach for persistent, consistent daily discipline, that does not involve rearranging someones face.

    Competition rules and the blood thirsty seem to be winning, just take a look at the mess the world is in. Everyone is screaming for peace. With roughly 7 billion people on the planet covering 196 countries. Do you see it?

    The keys to peace are in the hands of 196 head of state/prime minister/kings/presidents, etc. None of them seems to have the stomach for daily consistent persistent discipline to achieve what they were put there for in the first place: PEACE. So we suffer the worst in human degredation, War!

    Since the end of WW2, there has only been one year which, was in the fifties, where a member of the British armed services was not killed in operations abroad. You would think we would learn something but it seems heads of state truly have no stomach to achieve real peace and harmony, I wonder if that is because there is not much profit in making peace.

    In closing, the very need to end our self aggrandizement and “total competetion/total war” within humanity I believe has to be essential to move on spiritually.

    If this does not happen something or somebody will snap, and this will inevitably be some small pushed out country that has access to the most abhorrent weapons we have created. And use them probably as an act of desperation, for what have you got lose when you have nothing left to lose.


    Andy B

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