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Review: John Stevens on Morihei Ueshiba
“The purpose of Aikido is to remind us that we are always in a state of grace”. If any one person embodied that state of grace in recent times, it was Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), perhaps one of the greatest martial artists ever, and a great exponent of Japanese Zen philosophy in the 20th century. Aikido—or more correctly Aiki-do, “The Way of Peace”—is a distinct martial art and system of self-defence created by Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei (the Master) himself. The ‘Way of Peace’ is amazingly non-aggressive as a martial art and teaches that the best way to counter opposition/opponents is to turn the energy of their aggression against themselves. The art embodies not just a simple martial technique or style but a profound set of philosophical and ethical principles which relate directly to the laws of Nature i.e. achieving the ultimate goal of ‘naturalness’, of becoming the ‘natural/perfected being’; of obtaining release from all aspects of duality, in the finest Zen Buddhist tradition. But who, indeed, was the man, O-Sensei, the Master of the Age, who created this Way of Peace? What principles did this ‘warrior of peace’ espouse? And how did the Founder’s own actions, thoughts and movements embody the high standards of humanity that he set out for himself and others?
In Invincible Warrior: A Biography of Morihei Ueshiba (Boston, 1999), author and martial artist John Stevens addresses these questions. The book tells the fascinating story of Morihei Ueshiba whose quest for the true meaning of warriorship led to the eventual creation of Aikido. Ueshiba (whose name means ‘Abundant Peace’) is a phenomenal figure in Japanese martial arts, of quasi-legendary status. His documented (and recorded, actually) ability to disarm any attackers, throw a dozen men simultaneously and down and pin opponents without even touching them is the stuff of legend but in the final analysis, Ueshiba emerges not as some hardened warrior with magical battle prowess, but a frail, birdlike figure, serene and introspective, full of artistic grace and a fine sense of humour—strongly addicted to green tea which he drank copiously and always pressed on visitors and guests, at all times.
The earliest part of Morihei Ueshiba’s life, his early adulthood to early middle age is not particularly well-developed by Stevens in this book, perhaps because O-Sensei’s life is not too well known or documented for this period, and perhaps because it was largely anonymous in the sense of being a life similar to that of many other Japanese martial artists and Zen practitioners in general, in a traditional society which greatly emphasized anonymity, modesty, conformity and ‘restraint’ in the widest possible way. What differentiates Ueshiba from other martial artists is that with age and maturity, he achieved a startling degree of enlightenment and poise, an internal dignity which radiated outwards from his persona to draw attention—let us say—‘naturally’. It is interesting that it was in his early 60s that he began to lay down the unique structure, based on his own experience and philosophical meditations, which we now know as Aikido. This is where Stevens’s biography comes into its own, at a time when the author and a few other privileged Westerners were first allowed to train in O-Sensei’s Dojo (school) and when Ueshiba was already well into his 70s, or even early 80s. According to his contemporaries, this was the time when he was at the peak of his career as a teacher, martial artists and spiritual guide. Well-illustrated with photographs, the book presents Morihei Ueshiba’s achievement in authentic terms, illuminating the man and his message. Stevens describes the people, events and ideas that influenced Ueshiba’s lifelong, evolving quest and the development of Aikido itself, through a series of anecdotes and sayings of the Master, as well as records of conversations carried out with him in which he instructs and guides seekers towards the path of harmony and love, the unification of being and mind, self and others, humans and the universe.
A large number of the photos (of excellent quality) freeze forever in time the amazing life of an amazing man. We see him in training, starting with his early morning meditations, and his initial bow before the dojo shrine; through his subsequent warm-up movements, a series of exercises, postures, pins and throws on the training mat with his students, to the concluding ‘seated breath-power training’. We see him demonstrating his immobilizing wrist grip; explaining the mysteries of Ki (the Chinese Chi, the Vital Life Force) and how to control and channelize it; and much more.
John Stevens is well-qualified to write this work, as he is not only a martial artists and Aikido practitioner himself, but has for quite some time been one of the chief interpreters of Japanese Zen philosophy and practice, in various forms, for the Western world. Along with Mitsugi Saotome, a principal student of O-Sensei, he is one of the two leading authorities on the history, philosophy and practice of Aikido.
Maybe, for most people Aikido and Zen might seem rather arcane, esoteric or even dull and insipid subjects, according to their tastes, inclinations and so on. However, this particular volume at least, is a valuable work for all people seeking a better, fuller life no matter where they are or what they believe in. It is a clear, lucid and inspiring book, and worth reading once. Many will turn to it again and again, I’m sure.
Orig. published in ‘Asian Book Review’, Singapore, 2010