II. “The role of the hero,” by Charles A. McCarty

“Heroism has been accorded to those valiant in battle,
noble in their aims and chivalrous in their actions.”

Central to mythology is the hero. The hero is the figure who represents both history and example. The stories in which the hero plays his part depict events the way they happened, or more likely, the way they should have happened. History is served by an approximation of events, while the function of exemplar is served by the idealization of those events. Myths are a teaching aid for future generations, without the shortcomings of their predecessors.

The hero figure has a powerful influence on the daily lives of each of us. Consciously or unconsciously, we have a tendency to mold our lives and pattern our actions after a past or living (but usually distant) individual. The unspoken desire is that of becoming a hero ourselves. The myths in which heroes slay dragons and acquire the love of beautiful maidens along with the power of a kingdom express a secret desire for recognition and acknowledgment for the difficult task of simply living. That it seems unlikely that you or I, as individuals, shall ever be enshrined as heroes, as examples for the ages, is a source of frustration, disguised by cynicism and black humor. (Check yourself. Is one of the first images that comes to mind as a hero a comic view of being dragged down by a monstrously large “hero” medal? It was mine.)

This sort of external view of heroism is indeed doomed to produce frustration, for the genuine and lasting heroes are rare, and the candidates great in number. It seems in fact that we are doomed to be no more than “players strutting and fretting” as our lives dwindle away. The small acts of good, evil and indifferent nature which characterize daily life fade as the years pass, as perishable as the yellowing newsprint on which the more noble or notorious of our actions may briefly be graven.

But what does it mean to be a hero? They have been regarded as of superhuman strength and favored by the gods in early Japanese culture. In more recent centuries, heroism has been accorded to those valiant in battle, noble in their aims and chivalrous in their actions.(5)

It appears that the trend has been from gods and god-like creatures toward noble, but more accessible, humans. They retain the role of problem resolution through myth and allegorical fable, or idealized history as myth in the case of the more modern figures.

The observation of trends can be of value, whether as market indicators or as suggestions for likely value in human affairs of body and spirit. It may well be that individual and societal circumstances now demand, or at the least would benefit from the personalization of the qualities of the hero; the evolution of the individual as an heroic figure.

Though the term may seem alien to a quest which speaks of master, gurus and disciples, it may not be inappropriate to refer to the hero as central to the spiritual path. This is particularly fitting when the path follows martial metaphors or action, for the concept of hero is particularly well suited to those whose deeds, as well as their souls, are impeccable.

The point is that in a guru-disciple or master-student relationship, and as well in an unstructured or self-led quest, there is an ideal figure, living or dead, that the individual seeks to emulate in every way possible. If Jesus practiced love and forbearance, then his followers attempt to; if Uyeshiba spoke of time and space as non-existent for him, then aikidoists everywhere train in hopes that this will come to pass for them as well.

Nonetheless the ideal remains separate, and we remain flawed and incomplete when measured against such standards. Original sin reduces Christians to bargaining for salvation and, though the movements sometimes seem to flow spontaneously and effortlessly, the structure of time and space invariably limit physical martial technique. The limiting factor of distance and separateness from the hero figure must be overcome; the hero must be personalized. You and I must become heroes.

Part of what it may take to become a hero is the choice of appropriate figures for emulation; that is, heroes whose bearing, abilities and actions are something we can reasonably at least strive for through our own lives. (I consider both of the examples just mentioned as worthy in this respect.)

The founder of Aikido, the principal focus of this study, followed many paths, as will be demonstrated at length; but he seems to have had two primary hero figures form the native Shinto religion. These were the mythical tengu, bird-like warriors; and Susano, the Storm god. Much more will be said about these, but of importance to the immediate discussion is that the tengu and Susano typified in their actions both good and evil. At their best, they were noble and chivalrous; at their worst, mischievous and unpredictable.

They seem to reflect ambivalence, or perhaps the term is balance, regarding good and evil. The Buddhist doctrine of the Middle Path, to which Uyeshiba was exposed during his youth, may not have been responsible for such a choice of heroes, but will serve to illuminate it.

The Middle Path stresses a balance of good and evil, consistent with the Taoist and other Eastern concepts of the balance of duality. There is an acknowledgment in Eastern thought of the presence of evil and suffering as well as joy and good. There is no cause to turn away from death any more than from life. To concentrate only on the positive aspects of life is to throw off the balance, allowing evil to fester unseen, and trigger an eventual, inevitable shift to the dominance of evil.(6)

The implication is not that one should commit an evil act in order to balance every good one; for Buddhism stresses that there should be an inclination to good, and a disinclination to bad.(7) That which should be striven for is a constant awareness of and sensitivity to evil, such that it may always be recognized.

This may be the source and value of the attention given by Uyeshiba to hero figures of such ambivalent nature as the tengu and Susano. (There is precedent; consider the many weaknesses of the Greek gods.) They demonstrate both ideal and fault, qualities inescapably part of the universe.

Uyeshiba constituted both mythical figure and hero to many of his followers long before his death in 1969. The legends and anecdotal half-truths which follow heroic status have proliferated as the years have gone by. It is clear, however, that Uyeshiba’s life involved him in both good and evil, albeit unwittingly. Concurrent with the realizations about the impact of his actions, he began molding his art into a system which embodied the balance of duality as a conscious and fully aware source of self-knowledge.

This system constitutes a moving metaphor for the existence of good and evil in the world, and trains in the resolution of evil intent by the application of love and the spirit of service. In a sense, as Uyeshiba was and is mythical, the movement of Aikido is myth (the resolution of the tension of opposites within symbol and metaphor) and each practitioner is a hero. Essential to this is the recreation with genuine spirit of the roles of good and evil, positive and negative. There is heroism in the willingness to do this, to live both roles, and to be as proficient in one as the other. In fact, the traditional training regimen requires that a person emphasize the attacking (evil) role for years before he developed fully the defensive (good) role, a pattern which we will see characterized the life of Uyeshiba himself.

In the course of that life Uyeshiba was exposed to and emulated heroes (and perhaps antiheroes) drawn from the myths and religions of his native land and from among the people of his own generation. We shall do well to keep in mind, however, that it was his own heroic qualities which he uncovered in this manner.

(5) Juliet Piggott, Japanese Mythology (New York: Hamlyn Publishing, 1969), p. 85
(6) Heinrich Dumoulin, ed., and John C. Maraldo, assoc ed., Buddhism in the Modern World (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1976), p/ 14
(7) Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), p. 16

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  1. Everybody can and should be a hero. Hagakure advises that in times of peace it is difficult to find a suitable role model, so we should seek individuals who have particularly admirable qualities and try to manifest those qualities ourselves. Peggy Noonan wrote this morning about the everyday heroes whose awareness and alacrity led to the capture of the Times Square bomber.

  2. …our media is averse to publishing the stories of the many martial heroes who defend themselves daily. they would rather talk about the poor criminals who were tragically slain while in pursuit of their nefarious activities…

  3. “…the concept of hero is particularly well suited to those whose deeds, as well as their souls, are impeccable.”

    Most people despise those who seem “better” or “cleaner.” Perhaps enduring such social difficulty makes a hero a hero. Then again, maybe most people don’t give a shit about honoring “heroes” these days.

    There is a song called “Jerusalem,” by the German synth-pop group Alphaville. For those who care to listen, YouTube has many video clips from the “Little America” concert; it was their first in the States, in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have the DVD (limited edition), and they sound fantastic. Anyway, a lyric in “Jerusalem” is, “New assassins, new messiahs: keepers of a balanced law.” This might lean toward the Taoist perspective.

  4. The incredible song, “Big in Japan,” by Alphaville is about “hero”in “e” usage in Berlin. It is about how the drug can cause daydreaming of being in foreign lands such as Japan. “I’ll be waiting for my man tonight / It’s easy when your big – when you’re big in Japan.” The euphoria of this potent opiate (which was engineered to ease morphine addiction, only to be much more addictive itself), may coincide with grandiose delusions. Also, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, obtaining the drug could be cheaper with either same-sex or opposite-sex prostitution. A simultaneous meaning could be that songs that fail in the West may be embraced by the Japanese.

    The point being that chemical highs certainly outweigh believing in heroes in the attitudes of many people. Not to trivialize, but I believe that only “heroes” believe in “heroes.” This represents approximately 2% of the population. It is not that 98% use illicit narcotics, but so many insecure people find it painful to look up to others. They have become their own gods, and looking up to others would mean looking down upon themselves.

  5. As far as my first comment, people living in extremes actually does not seem Taoist. I was thinking about the Taoist yin/yang and balance. I believe Taoism is more about living in the middle ground, in fact with no extremes. I wish to clarify that, and I hope more people comment here.

  6. Brandon Clapp says:

    A few words were missing due to an typographical error which word press was viewing as code instead of text. I fixed this chapter and the rest will be corrected before they are posted. (Which will be every Friday)

  7. Chuck McCarty says:

    Just a note to clarify to the readers the nature and origin of this manuscript, which Aikido Journal is kindly publishing serially. It was originally written in 1980 to fulfill the thesis requirements for my Masters Degree at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, CA, at a time when I had been training in Aikido for about 5 and one half years, and about 6 months before I tested for Shodan. Nearly 30 years later, still actively studying and teaching the art, I revisited the manuscript and cleaned it up a bit, but changed nothing substantive. The problem with the missing words that Brandon mentioned was created because I enclosed the edited words and phrases in brackets that created the problem, and I have now done my best to eliminate those from the text.

    I thank the readers for their comments, and hope you will continue to read and comment on the subsequent chapters. If any of you make it to the San Juan Islands in Washington state, look me up. Just ask the local Sheriffs Office. (Not because I am notorious, but that’s where I work.)

    Chuck McCarty

  8. Chuck,

    I just find it mildly humorous that I probably live, except for the Florida Keys, in the farthest possible place in the States from where you are: Miami. That doesn’t mean we won’t meet somewhere on this planet.


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