In Search of Martial Kindness

Published January 15, 2017

This is an extract of the book “In Search of Martial Kindness”. You can order via Amazon.


Aikido, martial art of kindness

There is a controversy in the world of aikido concerning the heritage of Morihei Ueshiba. Some tell us that he had a deeply religious and spiritual vision that was entirely unique and Japanese.

This vision, as such, couldn’t pretend to become universal. The Japanese themselves admit that they had difficulty grasping the Founder’s way of thinking[1]. If Kishomaru Ueshiba, his son, had not formalized aikido by structuring the practice—separating, along the way, everything related to this line of thought—it is likely that aikido would not have experienced the development that it is seeing today.

Ueshiba’s heirs, those students who had the privilege of following his teaching, carried on his memory, or at least what they grasped and made an impression on them. While practicing, each of them was seeking answers to personal questions, so it is normal that they all found different answers. When observing as a whole the schools or styles of aikido that followed in the footsteps of the Founder’s direct students[2] we find the elements of the philosophy that Morihei Ueshiba wanted to pass on because the spirit of aikido is inseparable from its practice. Chase it out the door and it comes back in through the window.

Those who focus mainly on the technical practice of aikido are often ill at ease when facing the challenge of joining the spirit to the movement. They prefer to argue that there is no aikido without the perfect mastery of movement and that it is itself an endless path. Just because the path of technical progress is long does not mean that it has no end.

We are limited by our physical ability, which evolves following a bell curve: we progress in technical mastery and physical condition until a peak, around the age of thirty or forty, then our abilities naturally decrease over the years. We can adapt our aikido practice to our physical condition and thus be able to practice for a long time. Although we can be delighted about this, we cannot hope to reach our golden years without experiencing its effects.

The myth of eternal youth still has a bright future ahead of it, especially when it is perpetuated by the advocates of our consumer society. One can consequently wonder if this sort of aikidoka isn’t on a quest for some Holy Grail of perfect movement and nothing else. Most will stop along the way because of weariness or after the accumulation of small injuries and sprains or the consequences of thousands of falls they have taken during their long career on the mats.

It is surprising that we can talk so much about the virtues of peace, harmony, and nonviolence in aikido. However, these qualities appear very little in our behavior. Obviously, the very act of practicing does not inevitably bring the virtues of peace and harmony that everyone sees in aikido.

As a result, there is a strong temptation to take refuge in a form of practice that has lost its martial qualities and retains only the spirit. There again the result will not materialize. By cutting off aikido from its physical dimension, you take away what makes it special, that is, the embodiment of a philosophy. The answer is to be found in the joining of the two aspects that make up the essence of aikido: movement and meaning, body and mind.

I often illustrate this with the metaphor of two-part adhesive that is used, for example, to repair kayaks. These glues are made of two tubes containing products which, taken separately, cannot glue anything at all. However, once they are combined and applied together they have exceptional adhesive characteristics. It is the same for aikido: movement without meaning is simply gymnastics, meaning without movement is just useless talk .

While the physical dimension has been the subject of a precise formalization and worldwide consensus[3], we must wonder about the meaning of aikido practice. What do we mean when we talk about the meaning of aikido?

The primacy of physical practice has often reduced the spirit of aikido to a few slogans that are repeated in dojo advertisements. To avoid clichés and fancy words, it is necessary to look at the message that Morihei Ueshiba wanted to give to us and to separate what belongs to the esoteric Buddhism that moved Ueshiba, from the universal aspects that could touch every human being.

The Martial Kindness of Aiki

“In my opinion, it [aikido] can be said to be the true martial art. The reason for this is that it is a martial art based on universal truth. This Universe is composed of many different parts, and yet the Universe as a whole is united as a family and symbolizes the ultimate state of peace. Holding such a view of the Universe, aikido cannot be anything but a martial art of love. It cannot be a martial art of violence.[4]

Aiki is the power of harmony,
Of all beings, all things working together.
Relentlessly train yourself—Followers of the Way.
Morihei Ueshiba[5]

What distinguishes aikido from all the other martial arts is its philosophy, which aims at restoring harmony in combat situations. In concrete terms, the aikidoka will lead the attacker, the uke, in a circular movement that will neutralize the attack and thus render it pointless. The goal is therefore not to destroy or injure the attacker, but to lead him toward a new situation. Born from the synthesis of combat martial arts whose goal was to be able to vanquish adversaries who were physically stronger, aikido developed by applying the principle inherited from jiu-jitsu according to which the soft person controls the stiff and the flexible person conquers the rigid. The aikidoka is in the center of the movement, this immobile space that connects him to the universe and allows him to develop the harmony of the body and spirit in accord with “the truth of the universe[6].” Aikido practice is more than the search for mere personal balance. To take on its full magnitude, it ought to be part of a more universal balance.

“Nen[7] is never concerned with winning or losing, and it grows by becoming properly connected to the ki of the universe. ”[8]

Aikido as it was conceived of by Morihei Ueshiba truly proposes a martial ethic: the aikidoka trains for combat but from a perspective of kindness. That is to say, he is always aware that victory is attained through peace and harmony.

The true challenge of the aikidoka is therefore not technical mastery with the intent of assuring him supremacy in combat, but the mastery of himself, of his emotions, and of his desire to resort to violence as a response to his opponent’s attack.

“The state of mind of the Aikidoka must be peaceful and totally nonviolent. That is to say, that special state of mind which brings violence into a state of harmony. And this I think is the true spirit of Japanese martial arts. We have been given this earth to transform into a heaven on earth. Warlike activity is totally out of place.”[9]


[1] Aside from two or three older students who are no longer with us, the direct students of Ueshiba were young Japanese, around twenty years old, who had difficulty understanding his speech and focused on the practice of techniques (according to the eyewitness account of Seishiro Endo, current technical director of the Tokyo Aikikai, during seminars that he has led in Belgium.)

[2] Traditionally, a master’s students (deshi) who lived in his house (uchi) were known as uchi-deshi.

[3] The quarrels between schools come more from questions of style and variations than from disagreements on the fundamentals.

[4] Excerpt from an interview with Morihei Ueshiba and his son Kisshomaru by two anonymous journalists, and published in Japanese under the title “Aikido” by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Tokyo Kowado 1957. Japanese translation by Stanley Pranin for the periodical Aiki News No. 18, August 1976.

[5] Kisshomaru Ueshiba quoting Morihei Ueshiba in The Spirit of Aikido, page 31.

[6] 36.

[7] Nen is a Japanese term that is difficult to translate. According to Kisshomaru Ueshiba, it evokes the concentration of the spirit in the search for a certain form of unity of order in the universe. It is, for this reason, the heart of aikido practice. It is the principle of true practice. Without nen, practice cannot hope to go beyond the simple stage of technical prowess and could even lead to tragic consequences that can lead to destruction.

[8] Ibid., pp. 36-37.

[9] The Spirit of Aikido by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Tokyo, Kowado, 1957, pages 198-219.