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On Form and Essence in Aikido

Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

For me, there is an inner tradition in aikido which has very little to do with such outer concerns as how techniques look or which formalities we observe. I mean no disregard in not mentioning the many other great aikido sensei, but as the art has come down to me through O Sensei, Koichi Tohei, and Rod Kobayashi, what I see is a continuity of innovation. Each of these gifted individuals found his own unique voice by going beyond the traditions that had been transmitted to them. In so doing, they added to and enriched the tradition rather than detracted from it.

O Sensei's genius was to find love as the center from which proper martial motivation should spring, and to be able to synthesize an art which would encapsulate this principle. His statement that aikido is the "art of loving protection for all things" reminds us that all experience needs to be transformed into something benign in order to best preserve our own well-being as well as that of the world around us.

Tohei's gift was to elaborate on the essential role of ki (energy) in aikido. While O'Sensei's transmission of this concept was reportedly vague and esoteric, Tohei was able to systematize methods for making ki training accessible to everyone.

Kobayashi further developed the role of ki, but insisted that the idea of ki could be over-emphasized. Rather, the "wise use of ki" (ki no myoyo o tadashiku) is necessary to have balanced aiki (harmonious energy).

Each of these men were innovators in their own fashion. If we are to follow in this tradition, it is necessary to take the art as it has been given to us, and to make it our own as if we were its originators. We cannot do aikido by imitating O'Sensei, except in the sense that we, like him, must invent aikido from our own experiences, from our own centers.

Now, all three of these men also emphasized the necessity of making aikido useful in all situations, not merely in physical confrontations. This is the do in aikido, the way or the path which one directs their life toward. In western terminology, aikido is a gnostic discipline, or a path of self-knowlege. Self-knowlege should lead to an enhanced ability to make changes in the nature of experience. In this sense, aikido is also alchemical in nature in that it allows a means of transforming the self and the experience of the world. Qualities in ourselves and encounters with the world which seem detrimental can be assimilated and integrated harmoniously in ways that are ultimately empowering.

I believe this is the central aim and the progression of aikido shugyo, or discipline. In recreating the art from the deepest part ourselves, we become transformed in the process. In recreating ourselves through the discovery of the unity of self and world, we recreate the world to some degree. When we unite ourselves with others, many who are also undergoing the same process, then global change becomes a realistic possibility.

At this point, we can see the fulfillment of self-defense as service to others, the attempt to create a better world. In the end, this can only lead to an environment that is life-enhancing, and therefore favorable to that self which began the process. In learning to protect ourselves from without, we must first work from deep within.

As for the outer form of aikido, certainly the movements are beautiful, and the rituals definitely do serve to place us in a state conducive for the discipline. But consider this. All of the aiki waza (technique) have as their aim three basic skills:

1) to get your partner to sit
2) to get your partner to lay down
3) to get your partner to roll over.

Surely we seek something more profound than a trained poodle act. Hidden inside this set of simple skills, is a deep and complex organic structure which can communicate with us in a language whose grammar is based on movements of the universal.

Still, the inner, or essential nature of aikido depends on the outer form, in much the same way that communal wine needs a glass to contain it. With no container, the sacrament is unobtainable. With no essence, we may have a beautiful glass, but it will be empty of the possibility for communion.

The formalisms, or the outer parts of tradition are backward-looking in nature, as they are a means of continuance of past practices. Inner tradition is forward-looking in nature, as it is the means of propagation from a point of origin toward future enculturation. Both are necessary. Where innovation becomes tradition, there is continuity. Where there is tradition without innovation, there is no growth, no life.

If aikido were a living being, then its innermost essence would be its spirit, outer form would be its body. Where then is the mind that directs it?

You and I, practicing together with intelligence, will, compassion, and wholeheartedness (isshin), this is the mind of aikido.

1995