Aug
21

“Why has Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei had so little impact on the development of Aikido?” by Stanley Pranin

morihei-ueshiba-color-crop

“The art’s finest exponent, and the man who conceived of the system of ethics that underpins the art, is not a major factor in discussions of aikido, be they of a technical or philosophical nature.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninI realize that the title of this blog will elicit disbelief in many quarters. Isn’t the opposite the case?

Why did I choose such a title and why do I believe this statement to be true? I’ll explain my reasoning.

By the time aikido began to spread in the postwar era in Japan and abroad, the Founder was already an anachronism. He was elderly, selfish, cantankerous, spoke at times incomprehensibly, and moved in ways that only the most astute observer could follow. He was too much trouble to deal with, and he was consequently marginalized in the dojo he had built.

So what happened? Morihei’s words were edited and “prettified,” and made to sound like a sage. When rendered into English and other languages, what we have are “free” translations that are not identified as such. We are at least two levels removed from his original words. O-Sensei’s techniques that were poorly explained and too hard to learn were eschewed in favor of the approaches of the Founder’s son, Kisshomaru and Koichi Tohei, in particular. His weapon studies were judged to be amateurish and incomplete, and thus irrelevant to the art.

Where does that leave us?

It means that the Founder of aikido, perhaps the art’s finest exponent, and the man who conceived of the system of ethics that underpins the art, is not a major factor in discussions of aikido, be they of a technical or philosophical nature. O-Sensei’s influence is akin to a far off echo, weak and distorted. As a result, aikido has been impoverished.

To end on a positive note, if Morihei Ueshiba’s ideas were ever to be understood and widely discussed, the art’s potential as a martial art and a powerful social force would be greatly magnified.

Further reading

Is O-Sensei Really the Father of Modern Aikido?, by Stanley Pranin
O-Sensei’s Spiritual Writings: Where did they really come from? by Stanley Pranin
Exploring the Founder’s Aikido by Stanley Pranin

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Comments

  1. To the extent that we engage in apologetics and reconciling and justifying the words and deeds of an historical figure is the extent to which we have entered the domain of religion. We are easily able to separate the mathematical and scientific work of Isaac Newton without allowing his personal interest in astrology or Biblical prophecy to stain his contribution.

    Nor do we believe that Newton must forever be held as the pinnacle of mathematical achievement when today there are many college students and probably a few high school students who surpass his mathematical understanding. Newton will always be held in high esteem, but if the mathematical world forever deferred the top seat to Newton we would stifle the advancement of science on every front.

    Perhaps we should view the person of Morihei Ueshiba more in this light lest we blunder into the murky water of religion with all its potentials for intellectual debilitation and psychological and physical abuse – which is the very lament echoing through much of the aikido world. Ueshiba’s notions of compassion, forgiveness and service to humanity are certainly not original. What was perhaps original (although I’m sure this is infinitely debatable) was his way transforming budo to express these ethical notions.

    Everyone who trains in aikido traces the steps of O Sensei in some small way just as all math students at some point follow the path of Newton/Leibniz. They blazed an important trail that remains to this day. But I don’t see these important figures as the either the bounds or the extent of our pursuit.

    • Editor says:

      “There are many college students and probably a few high school students who surpass his mathematical understanding…”

      I, for one, would be most interested in discovering the equivalent to these young mathematical geniuses in the aikido word.

      • Tino says:

        Perhaps mathematics was not necessarily the right analogy. In philosophy, we often look to Socrates, as the founder of modern philosophy. When looking at arguments in philosophy, we either see agreements with his statements, with changes in emphasis (as with Plato or Aristotle) or we see contradictions (as with Machiavelli or Kant). Without Socrates having existed, none of these philosophers would have had the formalized logic used to add, subtract, or outright deny his statements. No one dared comparing a philosopher to Socrates level of intelligence for over several life times. Just as it would not only be rude but downright wrong to compare any Aikido practitioner to O’sensei’s level of skill. Training under any of O’sensei’s students will give you the same concepts he taught and, more often than naught, loosely the same technique. The only real difference is the emphasis. In the end, we should always look to O’sensei as the foundational point of reference.

      • If you’re asking me to name names then it’s a little like asking me to step in front of a firing squad – I’m sure many in the aikido community would waste little time in pulling out their torches and pitchforks and having a stab. And please understand that I’m not suggesting that I’m anywhere near being on such a list. I’ll let others be the judge of what constitutes “genius.” Mozart was also a creative genius, but please let’s not say that his music has not been surpassed. If we up hold Mozart as the fixed standard against which the quality of all subsequent music is compared then by definition no one will ever surpass Mozart – because nobody can ever be as Mozart as Mozart was. And worse, if we exalt Mozart in this way it would effectively kill music. Go to Google Trends and type in the word “aikido” – take a look at that plummeting graph line – there you have it. Saying that nobody is better at being O Sensei than O Sensei is like saying nobody will ever be a better skater than Peggy Fleming was. That would be the death of figure skating just like the O Sensei cult is the death of aikido.

      • mamelouk says:

        I’m sure that if teaching aikido became as widespread as teaching mathematic, we would see such geniuses appear. In sports, soccer geniuses like Pelé, Zidane and Messi would appear maybe once in a century if it wasn’t a worldwide practiced sport.

        • Editor says:

          Philip, we are in agreement on most points. My argument is that we remain largely ignorant as to his technique, training and teaching methods. It’s all rather vague, but can be painstakingly reconstructed using materials such as the Daito-ryu curriculum, “Budo Renshu,” “Budo,” the Noma Dojo photos, “Soden,” etc. The same with his ethical system. It’s very hard to interpret and no one has done a serious job of it so far.

          So, in my view, O-Sensei has not yet been “discovered.” Let’s shine the light on him the way we have for Plato, Aristotle, Mozart, etc. I’m saying let’s “discover” him, and see where it leads and if there is something that will be of use in our own training.

          • Yes – absolutely. I’d never make a case for ignorance. We should always strive for a more complete understanding, and I’m grateful for your painstaking work without which the aikido world would be significantly poorer.

            One good thing that inevitably comes from learning more about historical figures is that they are brought down from the clouds to become human again. We both remember from our early days in aikido how O Sensei was regarded as a nearly supernatural figure. These old stories still get peddled out even today. The stories were great for capturing the imagination of teenage boys, but remember what Joseph Campbell said: “If the myths are literally true then they are irrelevant.” If the truth of aikido hinges on the extraordinary physical or psychic abilities of a single person then it is as weak as the literalization of a virgin birth or the Garden of Eden. The truth of aikido must be a story that can be taken up by anyone with the desire to make the journey. The truth of aikido is bigger than O Sensei.

  2. Chuck Warren says:

    Perhaps the Founder’s legacy is best taken as a validation of old wisdom (“The Way is in training” – Musashi ) with a somewhat modern cover. We’re all human. O Sensei, too. And if we are well intended, we do what we can. Musashi also had the bit about how the flower is given more value than the fruit. If you need to “pay the rent”, therefore, consider selling flowers. In general, martial arts offer diminishing returns in fighting skills. Somebody with a few quick and dirty tricks and in good physical condition has probably gained the most cost-effective edge in a fight. Given that, as Kano Sensei said, “On any day, anyone may win”, the additional advantage of advanced training… well, if that’s what you want to do anyway. And that comes down to it. Those of us who are in aikido for life, whether we know it right away or not, are practicing misogi. I came in to be a better fighter. In the process I probably am, but may also actually be a better person. Old lessons, again, “Today is victory over yourself of yesterday” – Musashi. Perhaps O Sensei hoped the victory would be over the whole spirit of conflict. I wonder, watching him carefully, to what extent he achieved victory and to what extent he simply harnessed the power of that spirit?

  3. Corb says:

    If I’m not mistaken Sokaku Takeda claimed his art was very easy to learn, and perhaps Morihei Ueshiba thought the same of his art and left the bulk of learning up to the student. Koichi Tohei seems to have preferred it that way as he said he paid more attention to what the founder did than to what he said.

    Further, the founder claimed to be a baby in an art that was forever changing and creating in each moment. As such maybe he was akin to Bruce Lee in that he didn’t want to crystalize aikido.

  4. Moniq says:

    Dear Mr Pranin,

    Provocative title indeed, especially if one misses out the word “development” and focuses exclusively on “Aikido” :) Only by keeping up with your older, so informative and valuable posts where you write about Aikido’s history one gets the point you’re making, I think.

    Thank you very much for your excellent work in this field, we are all much obliged to you.

    Please allow me to, a sort of, hijack this entry and ask what’s your take on the issue I’ve been wondering about for quite some time now.

    Being a rooky in Aikikai Aikido of Tissier line myself, but with theoretical interest in Ki and Takemusu branches, I cannot own to any substantial knowledge in the matters Aikido. However, the little I’ve read about it, and being rather meticulous in browsing through the Aikido Journal archive, I’ve come to thinking that nowadays, there might be a tiny misunderstanding as regards Aikido’s religio-spiritual basis.

    Now that you mention the hiatus between O-Sensei’s Aikido and the post-war Aikido fueled by the Second Doshu, Tohei, Shioda, Tomiki, to name but a few, I wonder, is the up-to-date emphasis on Buddhism and more or less complete oblivion of Shintoism in Aikido a symptom of such a hiatus, too? Surely Buddhism did have an influence on the later development of Shintoism, yet as far as I could gather O-Sensei’s devotion and rituals he was so diligent in observing, were of a pure Shinto descendant, I believe. I am aware that in his youth he studied Zen Buddhism, though. In fact, I can hardly understand a word Morihei Ueshiba says if I don’t take into account Shinto animism, all those kami that help us become one with the Universe and thus transform us in kami as well. Another thing, there is an evident societal bond in O-Sensei’s Aikido. Again, I see it as a Shinto imprint and, even more so, a hallmark of Omoto. Milleniarism, so typical for the Omoto religion, has been transformed in O-Sensei’s Aikido into his novel understanding of Budo – the way to make all peoples one family. Perhaps a misunderstanding, but as far as I can tell this cannot be equated with the Buddhistic conceptions, since the unity, the family he mentiones, is a guardian of variety. Actually, the only distinct Buddhistic characteristic I recognise in O-Sensei’s Aikido is the attitude with which one executes a technic – 100% focus.

    Can’t speak of others, but if we look at Koichi Tohei and his Aikido with Ki, what we see is Aikido deprived of the spiritual flavour of its Founder and filled instead with the doctrine of Ki that came from Tempu Nakamura’s Shin Shin Toitsu Do. Nakamura was big in yoga research, coming from the so-called Western, scientific point of view (i.e. verification), but also adhering to Eastern view (moving meditation). I practiced for a while Shin Shin Toitsu Do, and as far as I could discern and from what I read about it, it is distinctly (Zen) Buddhistic, never did I hear a word about the original Japanise religion, Shintoism, less so of Omoto. We’ve learnt from your historical research that Tohei, along with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, was the main line of transmision of Aikido to the West. Also, Buddhism, as it is, has gained huge acceptance among the secular-minded people in the West, so it was a small step for those interested in Aikido to embrance its Buddhistic references and put Shinto and Omoto emphases aside.

    So what do you think, Mr Pranin, is there a hiatus in this regard as well, or is this too strong a word to use? Thank you in advance for your insights.

    Best regards,
    Monika

    • Editor says:

      Dear Monika,

      Thank you for bringing up an interesting point. It’s clear that O-Sensei’s Shinto antecedents are not well recognized, especially in the west. As to the success of the spread of ki through the activities of Koichi Tohei Sensei, I don’t think too much of the Buddhist roots via Shin Shin Toitsu Do are evident. Ki is definitely the focus.

      I was clearly told by Kisshomaru Sensei that O-Sensei did not particularly like Zen Buddhism. He was really devoted to the Omoto doctrine until the end of his life and maintained his links to the organization as I stressed yesterday in my post about his business card.

      You’re right to point out that some aikidoka have embraced Buddhism and attempted to couple it to aikido. There is even a book titled “Zen and Aikido” in our catalog. Of course, the general aikido population doesn’t really understand what that implies.

      In conclusion, if one really wants to get involved in a serious study of O-Sensei’s odyssey, it is obligatory to have at least an acquaintance with the history of the Omoto religion.

      • Peta Goodman says:

        One must remember that O’Sensei was like most Japanese people -Buddhist when young but closer to Shinto when nearing death. This is how the two major religions work together for most people in Japan. So understanding O’Sensei will always be difficult if we use a single belief system.
        Yours in Aikido
        Peta Goodman

    • Editor says:

      Dear Monika,

      Thank you for bringing up an interesting point. It’s clear that O-Sensei’s Shinto antecedents are not well recognized, especially in the west. As to the success of the spread of ki through the activities of Koichi Tohei Sensei, I don’t think too much of the Buddhist roots via Shin Shin Toitsu Do are evident. Ki is definitely the focus.

      I was clearly told by Kisshomaru Sensei that O-Sensei did not particularly like Zen Buddhism. He was really devoted to the Omoto doctrine until the end of his life and maintained his links to the organization as I stressed yesterday in my post about his business card.

      You’re right to point out that some aikidoka have embraced Buddhism and attempted to couple it to aikido. There is even a book titled “Zen and Aikido” in our catalog. Of course, the general aikido population doesn’t really understand what that implies.

      In conclusion, if one really wants to get involved in a serious study of O-Sensei’s odyssey, it is obligatory to have at least an acquaintance with the history of the Omoto religion.

      • Mark DeFillo says:

        Any Buddhist influence on O Sensei’s thought is by far most likely to come from the Shingon Buddhism that he studied in his youth, rather than Zen. Shingon is essentially Japan’s equivalent to Tibetan Buddhism, in particular Mantrayana. That is to say, a variety of Buddhism emphasizing mantra and other practices – some of that is very compatible with the practices of Omoto-kyo Shinto. For example, kototama is analogous to mantra, especially the monosyllabic ‘bija” or “seed” mantras. O Sensei certainly refers to ‘AUN’, which is the Japanese pronunciation/spelling of the paramount bija-mantra “Om” or “Aum”. Similarly, Shinto misogi practices are analogous in principle and sometimes in form to Indian ascetic purification methods known as “tapasya”. This concept is more integral to Aikido than some might suspect, because at times the Founder defined Aikido practice itself as a form of misogi.

        Zen and Shingon are quite different in some respects – almost at opposite ends of the spectrum of Japanese Buddhism. As a very rough and imperfect analogy, it might be a little like the difference between the Eastern Orthodox and Quaker sects of Christianity, with Quaker corresponding to Zen.

        That being said, Omoto is overwhelmingly the main element in O Sensei’s esoteric teachings; some Shingon influence seems apparent, but it’s mostly Omoto. It also seems possible that when he referred to teachings of other schools of thought, he might simply have been trying to be more understandable to a wider audience, knowing that most his students were not Omoto-kyo followers – but there I can only speculate.

  5. Tom Militello says:

    In my personal opinion: After WWII, people were tired of war and conflict. Japan was a nation who had lost a major war and whose people were in need of reinventing themselves? So too, with The Founder’s Aiki Arts, it needed to be reinvented. The physical confrontations of individuals on the battlefield, armed only with steel and bare arms were supplanted during the world war with weapons almost beyond imagination. Firearms, canons, flamethrowers, bombs, nerve gas, biological and chemical weapons in addition to atomic weapons proved too much for the antiquated dictates of a cranky old man, and a war weary world.

    Doshu and Tohei Sensei reinvented O’Sensei’s Samurai arts in a way that were not militaristic and showed a kindly sage who flourished using non-lethal traditional martial arts, wrapped in an aura of mysticism. A necessary balm for the times, which helped by the Occupation Troops spread to America and beyond. Modern Aikido used the techniques of the Founder and a philosophy more suited for the post WWII age. Americans, and the ‘beat’ and later ‘hippie’ movement enabled a devastating martial art to be clothed in pseudo pacifist philosophy and lingo. A martial art for a new age was born. This deployment of philosophy and technique brought Aikido to the forefront of ‘in’ physical activities for the culture of the post war societies, both Japanese an American. The Founder never envisioned what his art would become.

  6. Xavier says:

    As you were talking about music, I was thinking about JS Bach. Without Bach and his studies on the piano, Mozart would have been a poor boy trying to play with his family.

    What I am trying to say is that our comprehension of the art depend on the work of the elders. As for the level of a genius it’s clear that Bach was a giant and it’s difficult to find someone who can surpass his comprehension of the music. I see O Sensei a little like this. Takeda Sensei did have a lot of students, but no one could attain quite the level of Morihei.

    As a matter of fact, Takeda Sensei is the reformer of the Daito Ryu and we aikidoka profit from the technical skills he taught to Ueshiba Sensei.

    I think Corb is fully right, when he says that it’s up to the students to learn how to use the techniques they were taught. The ancient system of densho (transmission scrolls) is nothing but a listing of the techniques you were taught.

    The problem is that we changed the system to adopt the Shinbudo system of dan-rankings (in 1940 as adaptation for the requirements of the Butokukai). In the mind of O Sensei, he was still delivering the rankings according to what he believed was corresponding to the ancient system of the densho (see the conversion of the scrolls detained from Mochizuki Minoru and Tomiki Kenji in an 8th dan in 1940). So he was still giving the ranks on what he thought his students had understood from the teaching.

    Nowadays the rankings are given also according external factors like the age, the number of years of teaching, etc. It is perfectly normal, given the point that the art of aikido has hugely expanded worldwide since the time of O Sensei.

    As the music is evoluting, the art of aikido might evolute too. But the same as for learning the piano it’s better to learn first the studies of Bach, it seems that it’s also the reference to learn the basics of aikido as O Sensei did they teach them.

    Now I understand that Stanley is trying to say to us that we don’t know O Senseis teaching. For the spiritual part, it seems that John Stevens was writing a very good book on this topic. Stanley, you mentioned already the technical references, so it’s no need to recall them.
    WE have the responsibility of increasing the level of practice. It is how I see that.

  7. Absolutely love this article!

  8. John Hillson says:

    I have no reason to doubt the facts of what you have said. You have presented this information many times, and your research is thorough. When I showed this to a group at our dojo, people were angry. Not denying the facts, but put off by the tone. This is a much more blunt statement than you have given in the past it seems?

    • Editor says:

      People have limited time. You need to catch their attention within a few seconds. Judging from the level of comments, there is considerable interest in this subject.

  9. Roland says:

    Stan
    It’s in the training. The way we train, going back and forth all the time changing between the role of uke and tori, in each and every execution changing from aggressive/dominant to accepting/submissive and back again. And it’s in the techniques, the way they are laid out and can be done in the most basic style to the most baroque and still remain the same. This is O Sensei’s legacy. This is what changes people. Train hard and you will see.

    Robert Nadeau says: Why aren’t we seeing more O Senseis after all this time? Well, there was one Jesus, one Mohammed, one Siddhartha. People like that are extremely rare. They are catalists, capable of an extreme way of focusing energy.

    It’s not about an O Sensei cult. You don’t have to worship him. It is enough to practice his stuff. It’s also irrelevant if that came out of Daito Ryu or Gobbledygook out of the Japanese or Chinese past. History is important, but it is irrelevant for the effect the system that O Sensei designed has on humans. And it shows and remains in its effect intact in all “styles”: Soft-core Aikikai Kisshomaru Aikido as well as hardcore Yoseikan, energy-magic Aikido as well as crystal clear Iwama. It’s all just layers of the same onion. That is O Sensei’s immortal legacy.

    So it is important that students of O Sensei like his son, Koichi Tohei and Morihiro Saito sacrificed their lives to make certain aspects of O Sensei’s onion teachable. What is not ok but obviously hard to avoid is that some people take their layer of choice for the whole onion.

    Ah well. Don’t like onions? Try atoms and their building blocks or suns and planets. It’s all the same.

    Train hard!

  10. Peter Howie says:

    Dear Stanley,

    There is a linguistic slippage occurring here, and elsewhere that, I believe, contributes to some of the important dilemmas you are discussing. I think you may have raised this elsewhere but I notice it in these responses here as well.

    That is the area of calling all the training and teaching ‘Aikido’, when in fact, and by your accounts, it was Daito-ryu Jiu Jitsu – that is what Tomiki and the other folks learned and that is what O’Sensei was licensed to teach, and did. The renaming of the method Aikido in post-war years somehow seems to include everything that was ever taught and this is incorrect.

    The effect of this slippage is, I believe, to inadvertently unify all the diverse methods and this creates a kind of cognitive dissonance, where some things cannot be adequately assessed.

    It’s a small point but I notice the effect it has on me.

    Cheers and thanks for your work

    Peter

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