Is Aikido a Martial Art or
a form of personal development?
When one has a chance to discuss amongst practionners of “martial sports”, ranging from boxing to Karate or “vale tudo”, the usual consensus is that Aikido is not really efficient, it has little value as fighting style, and in fact we almost never see people with an Aikido background in the “open” fighting tournaments.
On the other hand, when discussing with seekers of spiritual path, they will often look down to Aikido as a sort of “zen-ish” fighting gymnastics.
So, where does Aikido stand on this spectrum? I would like to analyze deeper the caracteristics of a true martial art, as well as the essence of a personal development path, and see what light this approach will shed on our understanding of Aikido.
First, it should make sense to go at the very fundamental question: What is a Martial Art? The answer is simple and straight forward: A practice that trains one to mortal combat. This is it. Mortal. One where the issue is life or death. Not winning or loosing, not more points than your opponent, not medals, not title, not fame, not glory, not money.. Just life. Or death. Needeless to say, this rules out all the “martial sports” like modern Karaté or Judo. Let us not make a mistake here: My point is not to dismiss the value of those martial sports. They have value. But they are not training their practitionners to handle life or death situation. If I just need to take two examples, I will use Judo and Karaté. In Judo, specially modern Judo (after 1964) the starting position is bent forward, the focus and most of the energy is spent trying to have a better grab on the opponent's “gi” , with the face completely foward and unprotected, giving the eyes and the throat (vital organ) at the mercy of any moderately able housewife who could slit your throat with a kitchen knife in less than a second.
As for Karaté, suffice to look at a competition, and see the combattants making little jumps, high on their toes. This behavior goes against what nature has built in us for six millions years: Any mammal confronted to a survival situation will be in a very low position, the brain shutdown to all but the most survival functions, incapable of speech, on nowhere near being able to do thos little jumps with an elevated body. To illustrate this point, one need only to consider traditional (martial) fencing, with modern (sport) fencing, where this difference in stance will be very obvious. The only true marial art that I know of is the pancrace of ancient Greece, which was an olympic discipline. The end of the combat was when one was dead. This is as marital as it gets.
Now, you saw that I did put an emphasis on the word modern to qualify Karate and Judo. Indeed suffice to look at the traditionnal katas in karate to see that they are usually done with very low posture, in complete opposition to the “sport” karate with the little jumps and high position I was mentioning above. So, to the unaware, it may not make sense to work these low postures. But this is missing the point. They don't have to be worked on! This is exactly how your body will naturally behave whem put in a truly martial, life-or-death situation. As for Judo, we must not forget that the reason why Judo is still in existence today is because it proved its superiority in true combat. We must remember that the strongest early student of Jigoro Kano, named Saigo Shiro, actually killed an opponent in combat. While his teacher was on a trip abroad. Kano Sensei subsequently had to dismiss him, with deep regrets. Incidentally, for the historical side, Saigo shiro was the adopted son
of Saigo Takamori, the “last samurai” who headed the 1867 “satsuma rebeillion”, character nicely romanced in the Hollywood blockbuster “The last Samurai” with Tom Cruise.
Fine, so would Aikido be any different? Yes and no. It can. I can be practiced as a martial art, because in Aikido there are no rules. There is just an implicit agreement based on trust, which is that the practionners are going to adapt to their respective level. A black belt is not going to rush full force on a white belt, and is not going to slam it to the ground so that he cannot stand up. But he is going to come as close as possible to that point, so that their can be prigresss for both of them. By approaching this limit, the feeling is of walking on a fine line of danger. If this feeling of “if I were to go a little faster/stronger you could die” is not present, then indeed Aikido will not be putting the practionners in a position to find in themselves the survival resources that need to be found, and then it would stop from being a martial art.
Aikido needs to foster this feeling of “close to death”, so that the bodies and mind of the practionners can get used to letting the natural, survival behavior resurface. So, of course, we are not litterally killing each other. We are just making ourselves as aware of the possibility as possible. Therefore the need for trust in your opponent. This trust allow people to give everything they have both as Uke and as Nage. So, in Aikido we train to not die. That's all. Quite simple. The problem is that because there are no competitions, no points, no medals, it can become difficult to know how we are faring. The only way to know if we are doing well is to personnally validate how close to death we are. And to be able to evaluate this, one needs to have been very close to death in the first place. After, you know. Therefore, it is very easy to become complacent, dull, and far away from that life-or-death reality. I see so many dojos where students are laughing, talking, commenting. It feels more like a bar than a place where one learns how not to die. Needless to say, these practices of Aikido has nothing to do with a Martial Art.
In order to walk on the path of true Martial Art, one needs to be constantly open to the idea of death. This starts from the entrance on the mat. As one bows to the shomen, one needs to think “am I going to get out alive and in one piece?”. Then, every motion must be done with the obsession of not leaving openings, at any moment, whether as atttacker or defender, Uke or Nage, you need to be able to see if and when you could kill your opponent. This, alone, is a special education that is not given to everyone, but only fostered in the schools that are really walking on the martial path. It reminds me of this part of “The Seven Samurai” (the masterpiece of Akira Kurosawa) where two samurais confront in a duel with bokkens (wooden swords). One of the samurai does not have the lucidity to admit his defeat, and asks for a rematch, this time with real swords. Needless to say, he dies. He had been so poorly trained that he was not even able to recognize a life or death situation.
So, on the other side, people may view Aikido as an “almost spiritual” discipline, I would argue that it is a form of personal development. Does spiritual practice equates personal development? This is a complex question and I am not sure I have a full answer. But I believe that a spirituel search is a component of personal development. Then I will venture to define personal development as a path to become a better human being. In Aikido, as well as other Japanese arts such as Cna no ryu (tea ceremony) or Shodo (calligraphy), we often mention the process of Tanren suru, litterally forging. Because the process of forging implies hitting relentlessly a piece of metal,and at every hit some impurities go away. Hence, with repetitive practice, one becomes progressively purified by a process of cleansing, removing the dirt, loosing.
Indeed, loosing is a very difficult action because, specially when we are young, we are concerned with winning. We do not necessarly grasp the idea that we need to loose in order to grow. But by practicing some form of martial art, we are removing impurities from our body and our mind. We loose our ego, our ambitions, our wilingness to gain something, This is referred to as Mushotoku, practice with no intention of gain. And here the fact that Aikido has no competition is of great help, as competition is essentially an ego booster, and goes against the goal of loosing, by definition.
But why is loosing constantly a good thing? Because loosing allows us to descend down to the bones. Litterally. O Sensei used to say “Aikido is Misogi (purification)”. Misogi, in its true meaning, signifies “loosing layers of flesh”, one could not make it more explicit! Therefore, the more we loose, the closer we get to the core, to the essence of what we do, of what we are. Let's see what could be interesting in loosing:
Loosing tension:Being able to regain our flexibility of babies. Although there is a natural process of aging that reduces the extensibility of the ligaments, thus reducing the articular range of motion, most people can regain a lot of flexibility just by just releasing the tensions in their muscles at the proper time and the proper place.
Loosing strength: There is always an attempt to “muscle up”, specially for men, in a belief that this will make the movement more efficient. All the opposite. One needs to abandon the idea of strenght, and then only rebuild a strenght based on a whole, integral body which will generate power on a more global way. This is well known to tennis or golf players.
Loosing focus. By being overly concerned with the point of action, one looses the big picture. Specially in situations of high stress, one looses peripheral vision, and tend to focus too much on, for example, the place wher they are grabbed, and respond with an effort local to that place, as opposed to recentering themselves and moving in an integral, whole way. The gazes should be going through your opponent, like looking a mountain in the back of your adversary. This allows you to see the whole while not loosing attention to small moves.
Loosing ambition: The common say tells us that a student is ready for black belt the day it stops being important to him. Indeed, ambition means that we intend to accumulate. More techniques, more speed, more efficiency, more, more, more... If one day we can just come to train like we breathe, then we are on the right path. We breathe not because we intend to breeze. We just do it. We don't think about, we don't plan to store oxygen, to have more air than before, etc... We just do it , we know that we die if we don't, but we are not constantly concerned about it.
Loosing ego: This is a hard one. As even in non competitive disciplines, there is always a search for reward. Whether it is waiting for the teacher to compliment our practice, whether it is to hope to have a distinguishing sign to show our progresses, like a colored belt. Who has not been proud one day to show that he was wearing a black belt ? I was. I admit it. Nowadays when I go to seminars, I often wear a white belt. I don't care. Or maybe is it even more ego on my part, thinking that “ I am so good that even with a white belt people wil know that I am a black belt”? It is well known that some of the best Katana blades are not signed by their maker, because they felt that their blades were so good that one would immediately recognize who made them. Like in the “Kill Bill” movie, where one recognizes right away a blade made by Hattori Hanzo just by how it cuts. Sometimes humility is the greatest form of ego.
So as we can see thera are many things worth loosing. Because in that process of purification we become more essential, we come closer to our true nature.
It is my belief that Aikido has all the ingredients to help us loose all I indicated above, and more. Yes, this can also be said from other disciplines, as there is not only one path to personal development. A Zen master once told me “Zazen (sitting meditation” will break you down to your core, and you will get in touch with the universe and the stars. “ I personally never had the courage to push Zazen as far as seeing the universe and the stars, but I know some fellow Aikidoka who did. I went far enough to see that it had the potential for breaking us down, indeed. How impressive can be such a simple exercice as sitting still for hours. It never ceases to amaze me.
So, what makes Aikido so powerful as a way to personal development?
I believe it is the association of the two sides that we have discussed: The martial sid eand the spiritual side.
As we learn how to kill during many years, we then move to the next level: learning how to spare life. This is where Aikido gets very interesting: All the techniques are designed to leave a “window of escape” to the opponent, so that he can get out of it unharmed. This mean that, on a well trained partner, we can use close to 100% of the power to perform the movements. This is very different from other martial arts, such as Karate or TaeKwondo, where one has to hold back all the time, since most of the techniques are designed to break or hurt the opponent. I really question the ability for a practitionner to use a technique at 100% force when he has trained during 20 years to use it at 60%...
The fact of leaving a way to our partner to get away unharmed is really a superior level, but the only one that at the end will kill violence. Otherwise, If I break you, you or your brother will come back to hurt me, then my son will go to hurt your brother, etc... If I use Aikido and that, at best, I don't hurt you, or, at worse, you got hurt by yourself because you didn't see the window of escape I left you, then there is no spirit of vengeance leftover, and no degenerating spiral of violence.
The is the passage from Satsujinken, the sword that kills, to Katsujinken, the sword that give life. This is the litteral meaning of Budo, whose Kanji characer, as a reminder, means “stopping the spear”. Also, as a reminder, in 1933 when Jigoro Kano Sensei, founder of Judo, saw a demonstration of Aikido, he commented “this is my ideal of Budo”, the one he would have liked to create. He wasalready 76 at that time.
Ok, so Aikido helps us to preserve life. So what? This is where the combination between the martial aspects and the loosing aspects takes its power. It helps us to distillate down the two sides to one common essence: Once everything has been removed, once we are down to the core, and once we have walked close to death, what is left: Love. Love and compassion. This is all that is left when everything else is gone. He who has come close to death, and who has removed all the superfluous layers will reach that conclusion. And this makes for human beings that are truly merciful, compassionate, caring for others. These are the highest qualities of human beeings, those of highest standards, those are seeked by all religions, by all means of attaining a higher level. They are the panacea. Yet we all have them. That's the good news. They are only burried under the dust. The dust taht Aikido, as a double tool, a martial art tool and a personal development tool, can help us attain. O Sensei, founder of Aikido, used to say, in his later days “Aikido is love”. From a person who was known as one of the most impressive martial artist of his time, this could be viewed as strange. But I am starting to understand why now. Maybe I am just getting old.
« ok, donc l’aikido nous aide à préserver la vie.