Aug
24

“O-Sensei: Concretizing the Myth,” by Stanley Pranin

Every movement attaining the significance and manifesting the size and vitality of Aikido must have some charismatic individual or core group as its focal point. Aikido is of course no exception as the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was a man of extraordinary dimensions. Recently, I have been reflecting on the complex attraction that 0-Sensei holds for most Aikidoists who have been exposed to his accomplishments.

Although I am not equipped to provide an in-depth psychological portrait of O-Sensei, it is clear from even a cursory reading of his biography that he was a man who was driven. Small and weak as a boy and an only son, he felt a need to prove himself from an early age. His feelings of inferiority supplied the drive and tenacity with which he was to pursue his every goal. Despite the fact that the early focus of his energies was on becoming strong and acquiring technical prowess, he later explored with equal intensity the realm of the spirit which eventually left an indelible stamp of humanity on his Aikido a mark which was to lift the concept of martial arts to new ethical heights.

As we contemplate his genius, however, what concretely constitutes the object of our fascination with the man? Let me offer my impressions. First, there was O-Sensei’s ability to dominate the physical reality characterizing the attack-defense sequence. This is naturally not meant to imply that mental or spiritual elements were absent in the application of his technique; indeed they were present. Yet, what is most patently obvious is that a seemingly impotent little old man was able to control and direct the energy of his powerful young attackers. And as if this were not remarkable enough, he succeeded in exercising his mastery without inflicting injury on his opponent. His techniques were round and flowing and his philosophy imbued with love. His debt to the martial figures who preceded him was unquestionable and yet his art contained something fundamentally new. It offered a glimmer of a new possibility, a new solution to the “zero-sum” game played by man from time immemorial. A refusal to do battle while emerging unscathed from the battlefield.

For those who believe martial arts require brute force, he demonstrated the gentle irresistibility of his technique. For those who imply they are too old to train and improve he moved with child-like grace and energy into his eighties.

O-Sensei was a man of passion who achieved a state of serenity. There was an aura of mystery enveloping his art, something perceived as unattainable by those who view him as a god while offering great promise for those who view him as a man.

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Comments

  1. Great article about the founder. It’s great to see more and more people catching on to the ideals and principles his wonderful art teaches.

  2. Nev Sagiba says:

    Stan,

    You’ve been saving your best :) as your recent articles reveal. In this one you’ve encapsulated in a nutshell what would take lesser writer a long winded dissertation, yet said it all. Exemplary writing!

    I notice your style of writing as with web presentation have transformed remarkably.I can only infer that your Aikido skills have also ascended.

    For years I’ve noticed that everything else one does will be enhanced, and when that aikidoka goes back to the dojo, so does their Aikido improve. Aikido must have relevance to the skill aspects of the mind in a remarkable way. Whether one gets into a fight or not is irrelevant in the face of this remarkable potency of Aikido to transform the individual into something better if not greater than their previous self.

    What about fighting? What about it? Aikido is un-fighting, creative and restorative and vivifies the harmonising, constructive, creative, artistic and all others skills a person can bring forth.
    That’s the secret power of Aikido, everything else you do will be enhanced, and when you go back to the dojo so will your Aikido. (I can feel another blog coming on)

    You can be no exception to this predisposition. When are we going to get some footage of you on the mat?

    Whoever Ueshiba was, he left a great gift to the world. How we use it is now up to us.

    Best regards,

    Nev

  3. Anna Sanner says:

    Thank you Stan,

    I think this is a very clear assessment of O-Sensei’s status and role. I especially like your last sentence, as it seems to suggest that it is ultimately up to us whether we view O-Sensei’s skills as divine and unattainable – which could stem either from a reverential or a defeatist emotion – or whether to see our founder as an exemplary human being whose relentless drive and efforts we can all emulate while hoping to move towards a similar state of mind and body.

  4. Dan Dease says:

    It seems to me that while the Founder is certainly the patriarch of the art, my day-to-day training on the path revolves more around my direct teachers and their respective ideologies. Osensei, at least to me, is seen as a legendary figure that set the path in place for his students, but it was his own path. Few have endeavored to follow him literally. While most of the uchideshi today will credit the Founder as their teacher, how many of them display technique, or even philosophical rhetoric, that is recognizably his?

    The more you learn about the man the more you realize he was very difficult to pin down with regards to his teachings. As you have revealed through your diligent research, many – if not most – of the Founder’s students understood very little of what he espoused. So it’s reasonable to assume that much of the “spiritual” aspect of Aikido today comes from either their interpretations of his teaching, or their own philosophical contributions. While there does exist a significant amount of the Founder’s writings on his art, the context of his words (and particularly their relevance to actual practice the art) remain a mystery.

    There is a very small percentage of Aikido-ka out there who have received direct teaching from students of the Founder. Just as the Bible is the written word of Jesus, the church has continued to teach (and interpret) its content for thousands of years. I’m not placing Morihei Ueshiba on the same level as Jesus Christ. My point is that the dissemination of their teachings has been thoroughly interpreted and re-taught over time.

    Much of Aikido’s philosophy (and history) has been re-written for general consumption. In some cases, it has been reinterpreted by those who may have been merely speculating. These points reiterate the need for the research and educational material found on Aikido Journal. By understanding the life of Osensei and events that shaped the creation of the art, each of us can determine their significance and what his contributions meant to our own practice of Aikido. Keep up the good work!

  5. Stan, possibly I question that aikido is particularly humane in an unstructured situation. Yes, broken wrists and arms might be less common than with other waza, but how about fractured skulls and subdural hematoma?

    Simply surviving aikido training is not a trivial skill. Falling learned in wrestling is inadequate. Even judo falling is inferior. How long do we spend as beginners working up to withstanding fairly fast and fairly hard techniques? At least these days, how much time do we spend with beginners helping them to achieve that skill intact?

    Was ukemi the “ura” of O Sensei’s “omote”? Certainly ukemi is the door to aikido kaeshi waza. What WAS O Sensei teaching with the spontaneous and unstructured waza of his old age?

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