Saturday, February 26, 2011

Takemusu Aiki

I have just finished reading "the Heart of Aikido" and it was an amazing and timely read for me. This book is written by Morihei Ueshiba on the philosophy of "Takemusu Aiki", and translated by John Stevens. Perhaps even you experienced and well-read aikidoka are hearing about this book for the first time here, because it only came out late last year in English.

When I first came to Japan, I had just started practicing aikido and was talking with one of my greatest friends and coworkers in Japan who is part of the "Peace Prayer Society" (Byakko Shinko Kai), which is group started by the late Goi Sensei after WWII, and is an international association for spreading peace around the world. In the later years of Ueshiba's life, he came in contact with Goi Sensei and considered him a great friend. While Goi Sensei was no martial artist, the two shared the same ideas in spirituality concerning peace, unity, and personal expression. After talking for a while about aikido and the Peace Prayer Society, my fellow teacher here at school gave me this book in its original Japanese form for me to translate and read, but I never got through more than a few pages of it.

Remarkably one day, I was looking for books about aikido on the internet, and that very day I came across the English version which apparently had just been released only a short time earlier. That very day by coincidence, my teacher later came up to me and told me that the book had been translated into English and that I should get it immediately. After the conversation I returned immediately to the computer to order the book from Amazon. Ever since returning from a trip back home to the States in August, I have been constantly reading about Buddhism and other religions in Japan and aikido, and have been training in aikido more than I ever have before, and I'm happy to have come to this point and read this book now on top of this experience instead of reading it at some earlier time. Especially, just before this, I finished the biography of Morihei Ueshiba written by his son, Kisshomaru, which was invaluable to better understanding the founder of this art I practice, and understanding more about his life before diving into more of his writings.

(If you are planning to read this book very soon and want to read it without any knowledge of its contents, maybe you should stop reading this blog entry here as the rest may be just a bit of a spoiler.)

Anyway, what is Takemusu Aiki mean anyway?

Well, in the introduction written by Morihei's grandson, Moriteru, he explains:

"Takemusu Aiki is a presentation of the essential teachings of the Founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba. Much of the material in this book is a summary of talks given by the Founder to members of the Byakko Shinko Kai, a group headed by Masahisa Goi, a good friend of the Founder. The trasncripts of those talks were edited by Hideo Takahashi and published in Japanese under the title 'Takemusu Aiki'."

Well, that's what the book is ... but what is Takemusu Aiki exactly? At the end of the book, Morihei Ueshiba writes:

"The mission of Aikido is to make the world a better place. The practice of Aikido will help purge the world of filth and corruption, but first of all you must set yourself aright. To be sincere and upright is the reason human beings exist in the world. Each one of us is a living shrine. In whatever endeavor, no matter where you find yourself, practice the pure techniques of the Way of Harmony and the Art of Peace. This is takemusu aiki."

What is budo? What are martial arts? Is there "martial arts" and "not-martial arts"? This is a question every "martial artist" must answer for themself, and many interesting debates concerning this issue can be found in martial arts media abound. In fact, by asking any martial artist this question, you will have most likely found the easiest way possible to send one into a lengthy rant. Many say nothing is important but the technique itself. Many say technique is the least important part of martial arts. There are young UFC competitors aggressively challenging each other in the cage calling themselves martial artists, and there are people with no interest in fighting at all practicing tai chi chuan in health clinics calling themselves martial artists. Is "martial" the key word in "martial arts", or is it "arts"?

When I began martial arts, I'd say it was primarily to find a new way to work out, maybe learn some self defense, and indulge the desire to somehow live the imaginative images I had of martial arts from Bruce Lee and Mortal Kombat. Unlike many others, I was not drawn to the martial arts because I wanted to defend myself against bullies or win competitions, so I've personally always leaned towards the philosophy of martial arts over other common rationale. I've been lucky enough to have practiced consistently since I began training, and have met many excellent practically-minded teachers, and so I've been able to support my philosophical desire while attempting legitimate technique. Before I came to Japan, I knew of aikido, and even wanted specifically to find an aikido dojo, but I was greatly skeptical of its more philosophical and "peaceful" inclinations it's famed for. I didn't want to come to the land of budo, just to talk about how we shouldn't hurt each other. Well, I found an aikido dojo, one that heavily focuses on technique and spends little time elaborating on philosophical ideals (though I probably wouldn't understand much of it in Japanese anyway). Since I've started, I've had a hard time reading about the peaceful ideologies of aikido, because they seemed empty and too generously exaggerated. I couldn't read more than a page about "ki" or "defeating an enemy without touching them" without closing the book with an up-turned nose of disdain. But time had passed, I have actually begun to internalize aiki movement, have had elaborated talks with my sensei, and thought extensively on my own on the nature of budo, that now as I read the biography of Ueshiba Sensei, and this book, "the Heart of Aikido", I am rediscovering with genuine belief the philosophies that generated my interest in the martial arts in the firstplace, and am finding something "real" in the martial arts. When reading this book, I can understand somehow that the peaceful philosophies are dependent on the techniques of martial arts. That martial arts is a symbiotic relationship between the seemingly contradicting dichotomies, and the result is something that can be beautiful and practical for the genuine practitioner.

That was a bit of a digression, but in order to process my report on the book, perhaps you would benefit from my personal bias.

Basically, for anyone interested in the question of transcendence over brute technique in the martial arts, or anyone interested in peace or aikido philosophy, I would highly recommend this short but incredibly dense and enlightening read. Maybe here I can share a few of my quotes.

"... , if something is putrid on earth, insects will eventually consume it and make the area pure again. All the creatures of the world - insects, fish, birds, animals - have means of dealing with impurities. In this manner, each and every human being is entrusted with the divine mission to purge the environment of filth and impurities. This is the aim of Aikido. That is what we all pray for. However, empty prayers are of no avail. Make that prayer a reality."

This gives me a great feeling of reality and responsibility in my life and with martial arts. Should I or should I commit this act that may hurt this person? Am I just waving my hands around in the air and calling it martial arts? Is there any "purpose" to these martial arts? I'm trying to make prayers, and not make them empty.

" 'Employ the divine to bring forth infinitely varied techniques.' This marvelous skill is derived from pure emptiness, an emptiness that nevertheless evolves into the essence and the form of a technique, a technique that can be seen and felt."

Real technique, philosophical emptiness, honest expression.

Below however, is the only part of the book where I felt uneasy, and would disagree with O'Sensei:

"Our country never developed Western-style competitive sports, but these days there are those among us who are glad that martial arts are becoming sports. That, however, is a gross misunderstanding of the true nature of budo. Sports are games and a form of play. They are games played in physical entities, not matters of the spirit. In other words, they involve mere comptetition. Budo, however, is a means to maintain and promote harmony; it is combat in the spiritual realm, ruled by Love. Budo helps make the world prosper."

I agree that there are differences between sports and true budo, but I don't see how sports and competition are inherently not practicing budo. In fact, I think competition can be a great tool to understanding budo. I believe budo is separate from other physical activities because of the intent put into it, but that doesn't mean sports can't have it. It's this kind of discussion that leaves me in the end confessing "there really isn't anything different martial arts and other physical activities, I just like it better." But that's just my deal.

"Aikido has functioned throughout history, right from the Age of the Gods to the present. Aiki is the principle behind all activity, spiritual and material. It is what we call nobility of creation. All of these truths reside in our very bodies; past, present, and future are within each and every person. This knowledge generates divine techniques."

Belief in the "supernatural" was a big part of O'Sensei's life and discussions, and I think we should seek to understand what he meant and felt if we are to benefit from his writings.

"Loyalty and devotion should be established quickly. Our mission encompasses every living being - animals, birds, fish, and insects. Our goal is to put all people at ease, and to reassure them of the goodness of life. We want to nourish all beings; we want to work together with everyone in accordance with universal principles."

Ah finally! A rationale for terms like "loyalty" and "devotion" and "service" that I have been looking for for so long in stacks of budo literature. This is may be my number one ultimate search in studying budo, trying to rationalize service and chivalry, and I think this hits on it a little bit. I also like the parts about animals, birds, fish, and insects. Imagining O'Sensei talking about this makes me laugh.

"Up to now, old-time martial arts required years and years of practice before one could begin to understand the true purpose of budo. In contrast, the Aikido I have developed is a means to make this realization come quickly. That is the difference between old-style martial arts and Aikido. Those who are sensitive to the flow of energy, and in tune with their surroundings, are the ones that must take the lead by acting nobly and with determination. That is Aikido - to set a goal and to improve day by day."

YES! Here is rationality in the martial arts. I don't believe in any inherent need to keep things "secret" or limited to those who "haven't devoted their entire lives blindly to this art." Give students infinity, and they'll grasp what they can. O'Sensei remarks several times his work at the end of explanations something to the effect of, "Anyone can ask me anytime about this, I'll tell anyone anywhere. This is no secret." Also, "to set a goal and to improve day by day." We could all benefit from this small piece of wisdom I think.

"The universe appeared as a living shrine. Human beings are living shrines. If gods are found in shrines human beings build of wood, surely they are found in human beings themselves. Thus we are all children of the divine."

And there's some rationality in spirituality! I especially liked this quote. And the next one:

"Religious leaders always talk about calming the soul and returning to God, but too much emphasis on the spiritual side of things is no good. Your body is the temple of the spirit, it is the medium in which your true nature is housed. Take good care of it."

And probably the coolest quote from the book:

"Enter into your opponent's mind and guide him along the path heaven and earth have indicated to you. Regardless of what arises, even if you are staring death in the face, strike like thunder, and fly more quickly than lightning."

That's some good powerful imagery I can mull around in my head for a few days.

If you're looking to find the direct words of a legendary figure like Morihei Ueshiba, I believe you'll be led to two works: this book, and "the Art of Peace." I'd say "the Art of Peace" is as close to the core as you'll get to O'Sensei's genius, but for more explanations and linear discussions, this book will greatly help any martial arts philosopher along the Path.

Here I will end with one of O'Sensei's poems which is presented at the very end of "Takemusu Aiki":

"True Harmony -

A path so difficult

To comprehend

Yet as simple as

The natural flow of heaven."

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