Can Aikido make you a better Christian?


We must stand on the Floating Bridge even if we can find nothing else. Before God we must give up our ego, freeing our mind of all thoughts and endeavour to be able to execute divine deeds by calming our spirit and returning to God.” - Ueshiba Morihei, Takemusu Aiki, 1976 (trans. S. Pranin, 2012)
It is said that a Christian priest must always have one foot in the grave. What is less often seen is that for the priest, the grave has been harrowed, and its very emptiness is the necessary precondition of infinite and eternal life. To have one foot in the grave is to have one foot in heaven while keeping the other on earth. There is an echo of this sentiment in the Floating Bridge to which O-Sensei refers above, which he elsewhere calls the Ame no Ukihashi, the Bridge between Heaven and Earth.
Custom demands that a candidate for first dan grading in Aikido write an essay on the art in daily life. My daily life, indeed my whole being, is that of a Christian priest, and it would require jarring dissociation for me to abstract my Aikido practice from that reality. It would also be dishonest. This means that I cannot help this essay being to some extent a confessional document: I can only admit my bias.
Perhaps ‘admit’ is too negative a word. I hope that the particularity of my religious perspective might contribute in some small way towards the understanding – especially a Christian understanding - of our martial art. The quote above is enough to show that O-Sensei himself held a deeply spiritual perspective on Aikido: so perhaps the eye of a fellow seeker of the Divine might lighten upon landmarks in his spiritual homeland which the disinterested passer-through would otherwise miss.
Even a cursory reading of materials on O-Sensei shows his spiritual interests. Western Aikidoka tend to respond to them in one of two ways: either by ignoring them or by seeking to assimilate certain aspects. The former is understandably the standard response of skeptics and atheists. But even the latter will tend to skim the overtly Shinto references or demythologise them to find some kernel of a more universal wisdom: an obvious example is to transmute ki from the metaphysical to the purely mechanical plane (the “it’s all just physics” approach).
The attitude of Christian practitioners can fall into either camp, depending partly on the kind of Christianity they profess. Anecdotally and at risk of oversimplification, I find that more Evangelical and conservative Christians, if they practise Aikido at all, can bring themselves to do so only by emptying it of any spiritual content. Those on the more Catholic or liberal spectra may find resonances of Christian doctrine and spiritual practice in the words of O-Sensei. Few will find the time to subject any of this to much systematic thought, however – this author included. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity this essay affords to develop a few very preliminary ideas.
The former option, of walking away from O-Sensei’s spiritual teaching, does not readily present itself to me. Aikido was in fact the catalyst which spurred me towards the Christian faith. Unbaptized as an infant and raised unchurched, I grew up as an ardent atheist, or in the words of my school chaplain, a “militant heathen” – even to the extent of passing time viciously attacking Christianity in my university debating society. It was the practice of Aikido, first in the University of St Andrews Dojo from 2001-2002 and then in Kochi City Prefectural Dojo under Sawamoto Shihan from 2002-2004, that awakened me to wider possibilities than those of a purely material realm. It sounds like a Hollywood movie when I say that in Japan, I trained with a Buddhist monk who helped to open my mind to spiritual realities, but there it is. There were certainly other factors, but I attribute to Aikido that “freeing of the mind of all thought” and “calming of the spirit” exhorted by O-Sensei in the quote above, which ignited within me, one spring morning on my futon, a very sudden and intense moment of religious experience.
O-Sensei describes the nature of that experience better than I can:
I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe” – quoted in Aikido, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, 1985.
At that time, admittedly, I was so inured against Christianity that I did not use the word “God” or “creator.” Instead, I slunk into Buddhist temples to meditate and regain some sense of that moment of transcendent light and peace.
I used to make a sort of pilgrimage, as often as I could afford, from the outback of Kochi Prefecture on the isle of Shikoku to elegant Kyoto, which in those days was home to the nearest Kinokuniya bookshop with a decent English language section. After my experience, I found myself guiltily browsing the Religion Section, as though I was scouring the top shelf at the newsagents. When I eventually found what I was looking for, I think I might have liked to wrap its cover in brown paper: for the first time in my life, I had sought and bought a Bible.
Later I would find in those Holy Scriptures a story which brought to mind my experience, and by extension O-Sensei’s. The ninth book of the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He had been a persecutor of Christians, but suddenly, something changed:
Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’”
After healing from the ensuing blindness, Saul famously became Paul, saint and Apostle to the Gentiles. For O-Sensei, the experience took victory in a sword contest over a naval office; for S Paul, the persecution of Christians by the sword. For me, it seemingly happened with very little preparation, so I am certainly not claiming any parity with either of them: I want only to point out the common points of our experiences of the Divine, as a sudden and devastating light which instantly transform one’s perspective. Nor is this restricted to any favoured few. Such is the experience described by mystical writers and meditators throughout religious and spiritual traditions worldwide.
However, the supposition of any universality to religious experience raises intellectual problems, especially for those who hold to the orthodox Christian belief of the particularity and uniqueness of divine revelation in Christ. At a simplistic level, one might ask, if the experience of divine light can be mediated in a variety of religious or spiritual traditions, then what is the point of Christ? The more philosophically inclined might further question whether there can be any such thing as primal experience, unmediated by culture, language or tradition. Surely these are formative of all our experiences. Are we perhaps guilty of falling prey to a Kantian distinction of form and content belied by postmodernism, indulging in a Western “pic’n’mix” of whatever spiritual elements take our fancy without paying attention to the tradition which gives them context and meaning?
The Japanese have historically been very aware of the Western tendency to colonise, both intellectually and literally. In the decades following the Meiji Restoration of 1867, when Japan was cracked open to the world after three centuries of isolation, the Emperor not only received Western scientists, soldiers and missionaries, but sent missions of his own out to acquire Western learning. In the sphere of religion, this meant an encounter between Japanese Buddhists with the post-Enlightenment academy of European and American Protestants engaged in the work of demythologisation: explaining, or explaining away, any miraculous or supernatural elements of their own religion which conflicted with current scientific ideas. I have written elsewhere about how academics of the True Pure Land school (Jodo Shin-shu), the largest Buddhist sect in Japan, felt compelled to follow suit. Partly, they did so to keep up with their new Western neighbours, and partly to bring their own teaching more into line with that of other Buddhists in solidarity to the incoming Christian missionary tide. This is only one fairly typical example of the general interplay between Japanese and Western learning.
It is this milieu of ambivalent respect for and hostility towards the West into which Ueshiba Morihei was born, and this surely has some bearing on his spirituality. We read, for instance, that when the Japanese Army imposed a Western-style minimum height requirement for its new recruits, the young and diminutive Ueshiba hanged himself from a tree until he had gained the extra inch needed to enlist. To serve Japan he paradoxically had to become more like the gaijin.
Much of what O-Sensei actually taught and wrote is distinctly uncongenial to a Western modernist worldview and, like some of the Shin Buddhist teaching I mentioned above, has therefore been redacted and diluted to make it more palatable to international palates, especially in translation. Stanley Pranin, a Japanese scholar who write for the Aikido Journal, maintains that despite the proliferation of “his” texts in modern publications, Ueshiba actually wrote very little. Most of what we receive is mediated by his family and Ushi-deshi, with their own editorial intent to bear in mind. Pranin studied video and audio footage of O-Sensei teaching, and has concluded that there is only “one published text that faithfully preserves the content and flavor of O-Sensei’s actual speech.” This text is Takemusu Aiki, transcribed from a lecture series Ueshiba gave to the Byakko Shin Kokai sect by an adherent, Hideo Takahashi1. These reveal a complex and specifically Japanese language of esoteric symbolism which might put off Western readers, particularly Christian ones. The cultural specificity of this language, going against the Western drive for scientistic universalism, suggests why O-Sensei’s teachings tend to be glossed both by his later Japanese interpreters and by Western. Both have an interest in sanitising his spirituality for international consumption.
Let me give just three examples of O-Sensei’s teaching to support this argument: first, one which fits universalist aspirations and would be reasonably uncontroversial to many a Christian conscience; secondly, a more difficult one for a Christian to accept; and thirdly, one far more specifically Shinto-Buddhist, with arguably troubling resonances given Japan’s and O-Sensei’s mid-twentieth century history.
First, then, an O-Sensei quote reproduced by Ueshiba Kisshomaru, by John Stevens, and widely elsewhere:
"The source of budo is God's love – the spirit of loving protection for all beings... True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature." – Aikido 1985, Kisshomaru Ueshiba
This is a teaching of O-Sensei which sits neatly with any generally spiritual conscience, and has thereby been granted, if you like, an imprimatur from the Aikikai and subsequently been repeated with approbation by Aikido’s international spokesmen. As a Christian priest, I enjoy the logic of this teaching: the paradox of the Way of the Sword, like the Way of the Cross, is that of a tool designed for maiming and killing undergoing transformation by the grace of divine love into a vehicle of life and peace. It connects with O-Sensei’s teaching on the paradoxical nonduality between the life-giving sword and the life-taking sword. I can see this as a spiritual truth not only compatible with Christian teaching, but with a practical outworking in the dscipline of Aikido. The more proficient one becomes at delivering what can be a lethal art, the more able one becomes to apply it gently and in a way which builds up rather than seeks to conquer one’s uke.
So far, straightforward. A second and more controversial example of O-Sensei’s teaching might be his claim, quoted in John Stevens’ 1987 biography Abundant Peace:
I am the Universe.”
Part of the difficulty with this is that, given O-Sensei’s own rather idiosyncratic borrowing from a variety of Japanese and Chinese spiritual systems, it is very difficult to interpret. To do it justice, one would have to take it in the context of O-Sensei’s wider teaching, but the limited size of his oeuvre, the questionable transmission and editorial influences on what little we have of his teaching, and the lack of any obvious systematic approach in his spiritual thinking compound the difficulty. I can think of various applications of Buddhist teachings of no-self and mutually dependent arising which would make sense of this concept, and could then work intellectually towards a rapprochement with Christian understandings of, say, the divine invitation for the created order to join in the life of the Trinity through Christ – but then I would be wary of my own interpretive lens distorting and ‘colonising’ O-Sensei’s thought for my own ends. I find myself having to resort to my own religious experience of nonduality with both God and creation in the moment of realisation, but left at something of an intellectual impasse.
The third example comes from the set of O-Sensei’s teaching which has less obvious application to spiritual development outside the lineage of his own fairly eccentric and idiosyncratic tradition. This set is most difficult because of its explicit Shinto allusions, which is perhaps why it tends not to make it into the ‘official’ literature of Aikido publications. Let us examine one passage from Chapter 1 of Takemusu Aiki according to Pranin’s 2012 translation.
Aikido is the supreme work of kotodama and the Great Way of Universal Purification (misogi). Those who deeply believe in this Way must serve in the administration of the founding of a Universal Nation.”
This theme runs throughout Takemusu Aiki, and it takes only a little imagination to see why the text has not been more widely translated and distributed among Aikidoka. For a start, anyone with a passing knowledge of O-Sensei’s pre-War history knows of his attempt, with Deguchi Onisaburo of the Ōmoto-kyō sect, to found exactly such a utopian Universal Nation in Mongolia – a coup for which he narrowly escaped execution. His action was only a part of the general Japanese drive endorsed by the military government to colonise Asia. We must recognise that this was a direct response to Western nations doing exactly the same thing. The rationale was that Asian nations should be brought under a “Co-prosperity Sphere” in which Japanese imperialism would shelter them from Western imperialism: hence, the annexation of Korea, Taiwan and eventually Singapore. Japan’s right over other Asian nations was sanctioned by the divinity of the Emperor, and Brian Victoria has shown how her armed forces were motivated by manipulating the Buddhist doctrine of no-self into self-giving service to imperial ambitions. All religions, including Christianity, were placed under state scrutiny and control to make sure that all citizens duly observed Shinto state services. Lip service was paid to the law of religious freedom established under Emperor Meiji by declaring Shinto “not a religion” (mushukyo) - therefore, it was reasoned, there could be no religious objection to these statutory observances. This observation gives something of a chilling undercurrent to O-Sensei’s statement in Takemusu Aiki, made long after the War, that “Aikido is a religion without being a religion.” In the same light, O-Sensei’s further exhortation on misogi, that Aikidoka “purify ourselves, people, nations and the whole world, and advance in the name of God,” sounds downright sinister.
As a Christian priest who practises Aikido, I do find it uncomfortably tempting to pick out the bits of O-Sensei’s teaching that I find immediately palatable and scrape the rest to the side of my plate, but this is ultimately dissatisfying. I think I would rather try to understand his position from his own context: to acknowledge the Western and in some cases Christian influences which pushed Japan to its ambivalent relationship with the West and with her Asian neighbours, and the West’s cultural complicity in the milieu which formed Ueshiba Morihei’s spiritual thinking. We must also understand that his thought, with its optimistic internationalism, is very much of its time, a time when the devastating effects of the twentieth century’s conflicting ideologies of national and international power had not yet been fully realised. O-Sensei did not live to see the full extent of the damage caused by twentieth century attempts to found “Universal Nations.”
From the perspective of a Christian priest, valuable work could be done on shifting the destination of O-Sensei’s teaching from a utopian Universal Nation here on earth towards the Kingdom to which Christians aspire, but which is not bound in space and time or built by human labour. One might argue that this is a more faithful approach to the founder’s intentions than a mere demythologization of Aikido.
In the meantime, among my unsatisfactory and inconclusive thoughts, I intend to continue the practice of Aikido in daily life, standing on the Ame no Ukihashi, the Bridge between Heaven and Earth, in the hope that I may follow the bidding of Takemusu Aiki: “to return to and be unified with God, who is the spiritual source, the Original Parent,” whereby humanity might “purify the whole Universe by becoming Light ourselves.”

1 See http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2012/06/06/o-senseis-spiritual-writings-where-did-they-really-come-from-by-stanley-pranin/)

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