In my teens I was a pacifist. I registered for the draft when I turned 18. But it was a stalling tactic. The Vietnam War raged and I had decided I would escape to Canada rather than fight in a war I didn’t believe in. I applied for conscientious objector status. My father had served in World War II and he believed it was important for America to fight the spread of communism. He didn’t agree with my anti-war beliefs, but he wrote a letter to the draft board supporting my request to be classified a conscientious objector anyway.
As time went by, I began to question whether pacifism could always be effective. Martin Luther King’s pacifist approach, appealing to the humanity and morality of all Americans, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Gandhi’s brave pacifism, resisting the British by absorbing violence no matter the cost to self, had a lot to do with India gaining its independence.
But what about the Nazis? The question, asked so often that it has become cliché, is valid: “Could pacifism have stopped the Nazis?” It seems unlikely.
My father died when I was 44. Shortly after his death, I had a dream about him. In the dream, I told him that of course America had to enter the war to stop the Nazis.
“War is never justified,” he said.
We had swapped places.
There has been much criticism of Gandhi’s letter to Hitler, which begins, “Dear Friend,” and goes on to compare British Imperialism to Nazism. I think the criticism is wrong. Gandhi was appealing to Hitler’s better nature and not condoning his acts, which in the same letter he called “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity”. Gandhi believed that even Hitler had a moral side he could appeal to. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Gandhi’s appeal did nothing to stop Hitler. What was required to stop the Nazis, apparently, was a great deal of violence.
What hope is there for humanity if our only option is using violence to oppose violence?
As he witnessed the first detonation of an atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
70 years after this first test of an atomic bomb, I visited the Bradbury Science Museum at the Los Alamos Laboratory. There were technical displays of physics and chemistry, and displays of the history of Los Alamos, which was a boys’ ranch school before the scientists arrived and vacated the residents.
I saw replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I watched videos presenting the ongoing development of nuclear weapons told with a benevolent, even cheerful, slant. I found myself wondering, “Just who is being naive here? How can this lead to anything besides the destruction of worlds?”
Oddly, the place had a guest book. Before signing my name, I quoted from a song by Sting:
“How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”
The desire to overcome violence is no longer a Pollyannish dream, but an existential necessity. If humans are to survive, we have to find a solution to our violent nature.
Soon after I began practicing aikido, I realized that it is a third way, a path different from either pacifism or violence.
Unlike pacifism, aikido recognizes that aggression and violence are inherent in humanity, are components of our evolutionary success. Aikido recognizes our warrior nature and embraces it, and uses the tactics of aggression to neutralize aggression.
The other day, when I was handing out jo (wooden staffs) in kids’ class, a boy of 9 asked, “If aikido is nonviolent, why do we practice with weapons?”
It was a question I’d often asked myself. Why do we learn these weapon kata (choreographed forms)?
I knew several answers: we are preserving the traditions of the samurai; the movements we practice in empty-hand aikido are amplified in the movements done with staff or sword; it’s another way to learn to focus the mind, to remain in the present; kata are fun to learn…
“That’s a great question,” I told him. “There’s a Japanese concept called ‘katsujinken’. It means ‘the life-giving sword’. How can a sword give life? It could protect your family from the bad guys. Or you could use it to cut up vegetables for dinner. But these are just a couple of my answers. You should think about it and decide for yourself why we use weapons as a means to promote nonviolence.”
The gospel song goes:
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside, down by the riverside
Down by the riverside Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
And study war no more
It’s important for us to recognize the breadth that humans encompass. We can be unspeakably cruel and selflessly compassionate.
Aikido teaches us to see from the point of view of our enemy, to blend with his attack and redirect it to a mutually benevolent conclusion, to protect our attacker as well as ourselves, to use the techniques of aggression to neutralize aggression.
Instead of beating our swords into plowshares, we’re making them out of wood and studying the tactics and the mentality of aggression in order to overcome it.
How do we translate the lessons of aikido to the national stage? Another difficult question. I feel that, after all these years, I am only just beginning to understand how to use aikido in my interpersonal relationships.
Could the philosophy of aikido have been used to resist the Nazis? I don’t have an answer yet. But I think that the answer may come if we keep asking the question. O-Sensei named his art “aikido” in 1942. The philosophy of aikido arose out of the destruction of World War II and it came from Japan, the Nazi’s most powerful ally. It was an attempt to take the culture of the samurai and turn it in a new direction, away from aggression and into the service of peaceful resolution.
As I was writing this, the phrase “fierce compassion” came to me. I thought I had made it up, but a google search showed me that the words had already been put together by others. In a dharma talk by Cheri Maples1 , she relates the concept of fierce compassion to “truly understanding our interconnection with others.”*
It occurs to me that what O-Sensei was doing through aikido was turning from the local to the universal, changing the focus of the samurai from the protection of their liege lord to the protection of all beings.
As a result, aikido brings us the teaching of fierce compassion, a path that just may save us from our destructive selves.