Some Thoughts on Aikido and Budo by Walther von Krenner

Every time I look at an Aikido dojo webpage or dojo advertising, I see O-Sensei’s sayings and ideas quoted, in most cases, out of context and without understanding of the real meaning. Since I was there and had sixty years to train and practice in this art, I feel entitled to an opinion and would like to add a few words about my understanding of those words and today’s condition of Aikido.

For one, today there are too many Aikido organizations and factions and there is much discord and ego competition. Every Shodan believes he/she is a Sensei. Such people even sign their name with the title Sensei added! Shodan means first step, a beginning. When I trained at O-Sensei’s Hombu Dojo Shimizu Kenji (Sensei) told me that after fifteen years one gains a slight understanding! If Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei was still alive and teaching, there was not so much conflict in Aikido as there is today. With the exception of Shioda Sensei’s Yoshinkan and Tomiki Sensei’s style, there were no splinter groups and discontented dojos. Aikido was one and O-Sensei Ueshiba Morihei was Aikido.

Some internal politics and friction existed, of course, on the higher levels, of course a small part of that is inherent in human nature and all human endeavors, but this did not ever reach the mat and influence our training in any way. We were students and martial artists, there to learn and nothing else. Today, every beginner feels entitled to make rash conclusion about other teachers and schools and voices his opinion about Budo and Aikido.

After O-Sensei died and I left Japan for Hawaii, the power games and shuffling for the top began. Tohei Sensei separated himself from Hombu; he had many reasons and his leaving was justified. (Tohei Sensei was one of my teachers at the time, a 10th dan and chief instructor of Hombu). Kisshomaru, Waka Sensei during my stay, became the second Doshu and things should have been as they were before. But that was not to be.

Many Sempai students left Hombu and came to America and Europe to start their own organizations, some were loosely attached to Hombu and some were not. As a result of this there are now over fifty different Aikido organizations. All claim Aikido supposed to create harmony, but Aikido today has turned into a very disharmonious group of people each group claiming to be better and more authentic then the other. By cutting off everybody’s head, no one will become taller.

O-Sensei meanwhile, since there are very few of us left who had known him, is becoming a worship symbol or a cult object. Very few new Aikidoka today are trying to understand his words and give them meaning in their own life. Most of his sayings have become intellectual quotes to be reiterated to sound wise and extraordinary.

Since there is no genuine physical competition in Aikido, like in Judo for example, all sorts of people can operate in this safe environment. There is a lot of vicious competition on a political, non-Budo level where individuals so inclined can work safely in the shadows. This gives politicians, rather than proficient Aikidoka, an unchallenged chance to rise to the top take control and become “important.” Even though there are some technically, highly proficient people in Aikido today, there is also an unusually large number of people that could not survive in any other martial art.

There is also the strange belief held by most European students that a person or teacher must be great because this person is Japanese. Consequently, all Japanese Sensei are virtually worshipped like some rare being from another planet. There is no reason why a European martial artist could not be equal or better. Anton Geesink has proven this point when he became world champion in Judo in 1961 and 1965. Believe me, I have seen a lot of second-rate Aikido performed by Japanese teachers! The real great ones are rare even in Japan. To think otherwise is a form of racially prejudiced thinking.

And there begins the paradox of Aikido. The students who train hard, become technically proficient can then concern themselves with the spiritual and philosophical part of the art. Others who do not reach this level or do not want to make the sacrifices it requires to go there, walk around, and talk about peace, harmony, nonviolent conflict resolution, and other matters they know nothing about and are not entitled to speak about.

The way of nonviolence or being a pacifist is a choice one has to be able to make from a position of power. You are not a pacifist or peaceful person if you have no other choice. If you have to avoid a confrontation because you could not do anything about it, you are not a pacifist. If I could win a violent confrontation or situation but choose not to act violent and find a peaceful resolution, you are a pacifist or a man of peace. How many people pretend they are choosing the way of harmony but really could not do anything else?

Is not the attraction of any martial art (at least in the beginning) to be a stronger person, a warrior, and somebody that can take care of oneself; not to be intimidated by an aggressive bully? Are not all martial art demonstrations and dojo advertisings specifying the point that they can handle a variety of attacks and hostile situations? Do they not claim they are teaching “Self Defense!?”

Be very careful about your own motives; there is nothing wrong with feeling vulnerable and trying to become strong, but do not lie to yourself and pretend you are doing it for other and more noble reasons. If you do this, you have become a martial art play-actor and have left the “Do” of real practice. After a long time of training, you will forget why you have originally started, and you will train for the sake of training. This training then has a purity and sincerity to it that in itself is beautiful, a real part of your life and nothing else. Choose your teachers by those standards – the one with the most followers and the largest headlines is not necessarily the best teacher. The great teachers in any field in the past have always tried to avoid public fame and its pitfalls. A good teacher should have the qualities of a good Chawan tea bowl.

The Japanese have a special word to describe the bittersweet taste of an unripe persimmon. This taste, which they call Shibui, has a meaning far beyond taste. Shibui has long be associated with an intimate understanding of the natural essence and simple beauty that exists at the heart of all classic Japanese arts.

Those of us who train to transcend ourselves and sincerely practice Aikido not only as a physical martial art but as a vehicle toward a deeper understanding must cultivate a familiarity with this concept so that we may grow in our understanding and not be fooled by flamboyant and artificial things and persons. We can use a great tea bowl to illustrate this quality. The utensils of Cha-no-yu and, in particular, the tea bowls were chosen for their ability to reflect the quality of Shibui. The best have always been thought to be those whose feeling and look do induce an atmosphere of calm serenity that will aid in the self-isolation from negative influences of the outside world. Those aesthetics of the tea bowl can help us to define our own path in our training. Those qualities and elements which give the bowl its Shibui are the things we seek within our teachers and our own Do of the training.

Those attributes are: simplicity, implicitness, humility, tranquility, naturalness, normality, coarseness, strength, and emptiness. When we examine the objectives of the Do, we find there, too, perfection can be measured by those standards. One need only to study the great teachers and Budo practitioners of the past to realize that their lifestyles paralleled those qualities.

They are known through their simple but exquisite tastes and ways, shunning publicity, preferring to be plain. They are implicit, stressing inner meaning in themselves as well as recognizing the “suchness” of all things in the universe. They are known through their modesty, never seeking credit or position despite their helpfulness to others. They prefer silence and tranquility, finding these in a world where serenity is difficult to locate. They lean toward natural things, making them spontaneous people who do not live their lives mechanically. They are normal in that they are content while moving about commonplace without affectation.

They tend to be at times rough yet, are refined and having imperfections like some cracks in a tea bowl. Finally, they are filled with that wondrous emptiness that enables them to absorb their world with an awareness that invites you to follow them. They are warriors because they have beaten themselves and, in doing so, have no need for further battles.

As to the meaning and concept of Budo, O-Sensei Ueshiba Morihei stated over and over again that Aikido is Budo, first and foremost.

There is a lot of ambiguity concerning the word Budo and Bujin. I feel we should try to understand the word, concept and its historical meaning so we can fit it into our training. This is strictly a discussion of the term and what it stood for. In most cases, it does not fit into modern lifestyles, but since we call our art a martial art, we should be aware how and when to use this term.

The meaning of the word “martial” in our language, in general, has to do with military and war, as in “martial law” and “martial state.” The dictionary defines the word as “military or warlike.” The source or root of the word is to be found in Mars (the planet). Mars was a Roman God, the God of war and military action. In martial art, as in other arts, artist is defined as a person who performs or exhibits certain skills or disciplines. An artist can be a variety of things, but in each case the artist will perform or exhibit a specific talent.

In Japanese, old style combat arts or systems are called Bu-jitsu, Heiho or Koryu. The kanji character Bu in this word consists of a person deflecting a spear, clearly a combat activity. The word Bu is also used in Bushi a word with an alternate reading of Samurai. Jitsu in general means skill or art. Therefore, a Bushi (or martial artist, in Western terms) is a person of Bu, armed or unarmed combat.

Arts that end with “Do” (path, road, way) as in Aikido, Judo, Kendo, and Iaido, are actually not considered Koryu. The word “Do,” adds a spiritual or supposedly higher ideal to the discipline besides the simple elementary expertise of war and defeating one’s opponent in a life and death situation. However, it should be remembered that all old Koryu styles had this same spiritual goals and moral ideals as the “Do” of more modern arts. There is a hazy line between “Do” arts and Koryu arts, since the techniques are in most cases identical and perform the same function. Also, the term Budo has a “Do,” the way of the warrior was defined as Bushido with many ideals inherited by “Do” arts.

Since the founder of Aikido considered his art a Budo, I believe he meant it to be an effectual and efficient martial art first, and a spiritual path to a higher level after the martial and technical part was truly understood and mastered. His own life and the evolution of Aikido would confirm this.

Intellectual understanding is not sufficient, and it is useless, only by Shugyo – hard and sincere training – can we hope to achieve this goal. Shugyo should be a way to train the body, develop the spirit and setting the mind correct. If your training is lax, the results will be negative. The proper attitude is essential, train hard for the reason of training and no other artificial reason, and all the petty stuff will fall away. Your priorities will be correct. Your competence in other parts of your life will improve and you will spend less time and effort on irrelevant things.

Now, isn’t that better than soccer, baseball or a stupid video game?

The way we train is the way we live,

The way we live is the way we train

These are not two separate things, they are one.

Walther G. von Krenner, Shidosha

Sandokan Aikido

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.


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