Unending Possibilities of Harmony

an interview with George Leonard
from Aikido Talks by Perry and Rubins

Sensei, what first attracted you to Aikido?

When I first saw movies of O-Sensei, I thought I'd do aikido forever simply for the sheer beauty of it. It's not just visual; it's kinesthetic. To be able to feel someone come into your space, to make a tiny move, and then to see the person flying - or to blend with someone and help them swing around a couple of times and out into orbit - it's like the movement of the planets. The beauty of aikido is transcendent.

One of the wonderful things about aikido is that, more than any other art I can think of, it demonstrates the virtue of long-term patience and diligent practice. I don't know of human qualities that are more needed in the world today than patience and diligence. Long-term practice - that's where the magic is. Three easy lessons are not magic. If you have good instruction and really stick to something, if you're willing to stay on plateaus for long periods, you'll accomplish a great deal before you know it. It's truly magic.

Another thing I love about aikido is its emphasis on balancing and centering. I am a rather high-strung person. Aikido is good for me, and I think it would be good for almost everyone. If you enjoy the act of walking or of washing the dishes from a balanced, centered perspective, these activities can become wonderful meditations.

The movements of aikido are like something out of a beautiful dream. God knows, I don't get it right all the time. But those moments when I don't have to think at all, when I'm just there in the eternal present and everything is harmony, are truly transformative.

Do you see violence as on of the major problems in the world today?

No question about that. Now we live in a culture that glorifies violence. For example, a recent article in the New York Times showed how the GI Joe doll has mutated. It used to look like a normal guy, which is to say one of our understated unsung heros of World War II. But now the Extreme GI Joe has huge, incredible, overblown muscles. Such a creature would last about two days in a real combat situation. These Extreme GI Joe dolls are actually grotesque. They have cruel looks on their faces - really vicious, cruel looks. Surely this can't continue.

Do you remember the scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies? A warrior with two menacing blades threatens Jones by doing a spectacular kata with his swords. Indiana jones just shrugs his shoulders, takes out his pistol, and shoots him. Maybe you could accept that as a fairly harmless spoof. But movie and television violence in general has become more and more realistic and compelling and truly horrible. We can understand, of course, that producers and directors want to attract as many people to their movies as possible, and people will gather to see a fight. These movie people also want to be the coolest dudes in town, which is to say the ones who break the most taboos against showing the ugly, the gristly, the shocking.

But isn't there a streak of cowardice beneath all of this? Maybe the filmmakers just don't have the courage to do the kind of good writing and directing that reveals the intrinsic drama of every moment of life - the complex interactions that go on between spouses, for instance, the struggle we all face to realize our potential and create something good in the world. Movies that do this are great; we remember them forever. But it's so easy just to have another bloody fight, another explosion.

How can aikido help?

Aikido offers alternatives to violence, alternatives that are strong and effective and at the same time non-aggressive. Many, perhaps most young men feel deep inside that only through violence can they assert their manhood. That's very sad. In most cases, violence only produces more violence. In one of his more revolutionary statements, O-Sensei defined aikido's spirit as that of loving attack and of peaceful reconciliation. He even suggested that we protect the attacker from harm as much as possible and practical.

O-Sensei told us that aikido is a work of love and that we should always practice with a spirit of joy. We should bear in mind that there's great power in love and joy. Aikido isn't in any way passive or defensive. At best it's lovingly and joyfully active and powerful. Because of this, it could change the way we live and point the way to world peace.

Are people violent by nature?

I believe that we all have the potential for violence, but for violence to be realized it has to be taught, modeled, and nurtured. From earliest childhood, Serbs are taught to hate Albanians and vice versa, members of one ethnic group to hate members of another, one religious group to hate another. A father who uses violence on his son is teaching the son to use violence on his son, and so on down through decades, centuries.

In the early stages of human evolution, when people lived out in the wild, horrible acts of violence didn't happen very often. Among small bands of primitive hunters and gatherers, contrary to popular opinion, there was very little warfare and very few died as victims of predators. The kind of life our species evolved in was, despite many deaths from accidents or infection, a pretty good life. From all the evidence we can gather (including studies of present-day hunting and gathering groups), primitive people seem to be genuinely caring and cooperative.

Freud has mislead us by saying that it took civilization to repress destructive tendencies - that, without civilization, we would revert to what he called the primal horde in which brothers would gang up to kill their father so that they could rape their mother. Anthropologists are a pretty quarrelsome lot, but one thing they agree on is that there is no such thing as Freud's primal horde in primitive groups. If you can find that anywhere, it's in civilization. Civilization inculcates aggression and violence. Check it out. The 20th century has seen more violence than any other period in the history of our species. But I don't believe we're doomed to this level of violence. We can create a better world. Aikido can help...

Do you think we have been spoiled by so much peace?

We are terribly spoiled in this country. We don't realize what it is like elsewhere. Everyday I am thankful to God that I live here, in the US. To me, it is a great miracle that I get to live the way I do, when so many people are living so badly.

I feel that in recent actions, such as the NATO action against the Serbs in Kosovo, we've been a bit too careful with our own planes. We want to have total control - to be able to ensure that not even one of our pilots gets killed in combat. That's admirable, but not realistic.

I felt that the allied forces could have stopped the Serbs earlier in Kosovo if they had used A-10's immediately for precise, if rather dangerous, low level attacks. I'm prejudiced because I flew the A-20, a precursor to the A-10. We had six forward-firing machine guns and bombs that we carried on the wings and in the bomb bay, and we flew as low and as fast as we could. At the beginning of the Kosovo conflict, I kept saying, "Get those A-10's in there. I wish I could fly one of them myself!" The important thing was to stop the ethnic cleansing as quickly as possible, even if we lost some planes.

Imagine somebody coming to your house, taking your man away, taking away your male children, raping you, burning your house down, taking your papers and your car. You would have nothing; you would become a non-person.

Americans were not outraged enough by what happened. I think that average people went numb to it.

Here I am, an Aikidoist who believes in blending and all it entails. And yet I say in all my workshops and books and AIkido classes, "You don't have to blend all the time." Blending is an option, and in most cases a very, very effective one. I give several examples in The Way of AIkido. But there are some cases where you have to go ahead and strike - as with a Hitler or a Milosovic.

Many people think that, to be peaceful, we must rid ourselves of all aggression...

That's a great idea, but sometimes it isn't possible. A certain amount of aggression is natural. But it can be channeled into nondestructive, nonviolent directions. Some nice people I know marched against American involvement in the Kosovo conflict. "We must stop the bombing," they said. "That's war." But how about what was happening to the Albanians, for God's sake? War is truly horrible, more horrible than you can imagine, but, as I've pointed out, sometimes the alternative is worse.

Like other martial arts, Aikido has a high turnover rate. Does that surprise you?

Jerold Walker published an article in Scientific American in which he compared the physics of various martial arts. When he got to Aikido, he wrote, "Aikido is the most difficult martial art to learn. In terms of skill, grace and timing, it rivals classical ballet."

If we realize from the beginning that Aikido is difficult, we understand why some people quit. It takes time to learn, and we've got to realize that.

I say this to my new students: "Promise me you won't try to make progress for at least a month." Most people quit because they want to see progress. I say, "I will thank you not to make any progress. Just stay on the mat, work with your partners, enjoy the moment, enjoy being out here with these nice folks."

What do you see in the future for Aikido?

Some people have suggested that Aikido should be made easier, so that more people can practice it. Others suggest that it should be combined with other martial arts, or with other kinds of exercise. Many people are making money by commercializing martial arts.

While I understand these people, I feel strongly that physical Aikido - what we might call "on the mat Aikido" - should maintain its integrity. If we attempted to water it down, to combine it with other things or to make it easier, it would lose too much.

There's a transcendent beauty and symmetry in AIkido that requires long-term practice. we must keep that even if we attract fewer people than would a more popularized version of the art. I would hate to see the basic integrity of Aikido compromised in any way.

We should all learn kihon waza, the basic techniques - iikyo, nikyo, kokyunage, shihonage - which are very profound. The techniques on the early kyu tests are really the most advanced. You could say that jiuwaza (free style) and randori (free style with multiple attackers) express the essence of the art, giving you the opportunity of staying calm, centered, and relaxed under great pressure, no matter what's coming at you. I love it and teach it a lot. But if you want to see where somebody's AIkido really is, have them do ikkyo. Kihon waza is the foundation.

The role of the teacher, the sensei, is crucially important. I think it's very important for senseis to think of themselves not as dominating and showing off but as serving. (The word "samurai" comes from the word "to serve.") Of course, all senseis like to show off good techniques, and that's fine. But we should do it with a laugh, with a little self-awareness. When I see senseis presenting themselves as perfect I get a l ittle worried.

One time, I asked Terry Dobson, "Why is it that, within this beautiful art, there's so much discord? Why are people fighting and arguing?" In his usual enigmatic way Terry said, "Because AIkido is based on Harmony." I interpreted this to mean that all of us have flaws. If we present ourselves as perfect we say, Aikido is harmony, and I will show you what harmony is," then we're all in trouble.

As Carl Jung said, each of us has a shadow side. If we don't acknowledge it, it will eventually trip us up. By acknowledging out shadow and using its energy, we can make of it something good.

You have been talking about on-the-mat-Aikido. Do you think that there is also a place for Aikido off the mat and outside the dojo?

YEs, we should promulgate the Aikido spirit and philosophy in every responsible way we can, in writings, workshops, and consulting. But you can't just step off the mat and start giving nonphysical Aikido workshops. You have to spend quite a bit of time working out ways to translate principles that are expressed physically to principles that work in a verbal or psychological way.It would be nice if we had classes in how to teach Aikido principles in a nonphysical way. I've been giving workshops based on Aikido since 1972, and I can say that the core ideas of AIkido are well received by people in many lines of work. I feel grateful that I've the opportunity to teach people, to present them with alternatives that lead away from conflict and toward a more centered and balanced world.

Do you think that Aikido has a philosophy that can be taught off the mat?

The Aikido philosophy teaches principles such as the interconnectedness and the aliveness of all that exists, the primacy of love, and the unending possibilities of harmony. Heraclitus said that the finest harmony arises from opposites. Summer and Winter, Day and night, smooth and rough - we can see harmony in all sorts of places where we might think it's impossible. Aikido provides very practical advice and also the theoretical apprehension and understanding of the concept.

Most of Western philosophy has not been based on direct experience. For the Ancient Greeks, the medievals, and other moderns like Descartes, direct experience is not important, just theoretical apprehension. But, in Aikidophilosophy, direct experience is of the essence, and the heart of it is love. I feel that the most important of O-Sensei's sayings is this one:

"True Budo is a work of love. It is a work giving life to all beings, and not killing or struggling with each other. Love is a guardian deity of everything. Nothing can exist without it. Aikido is the realization of love."

And this is true, you know. If love suddenly disappeared from our society, from the world, how long would it be before everything dissolved into chaos? A month? A week? A day?

So, Aikido philosophy is not just theoretical. As much as possible, every Aikidoka - each of us - must walk our talk, walk on the Aikido path, and let it into our own lives. If we can let Aikido into our lives, it's bound to radiate out into the world.

Let's take "tenkan." When I turn tenkan, I like to say that "I am looking at a situation from the attacker's viewpoint, without losing my own." This last part is important. People seem to think that, when they see things from another person's point of view, they've lost. No, you don't lose your own point of view. You stay centered, extended.

Once you can do this, you see how many options you have. Somebody once told me that a Japanese admiral tried to categorize all the techniques and variations in Aikido. He stopped at 10,000. If you consider all the possible variations, including counters and variations to counters, the art is infinite. So now we've gone very quickly from three possibilities in a conflict (stalemate, overcome, submit) to practically an infinite number of options. You can escape. You can control. You can reconcile. You are in a wonderful position to flip your hand out with a nice little kokyu gesture, put that hand around the other person's shoulder, draw the person close to you, and embrace. You can lead them out of the situation. If absolutely necessary, you can strike, kick, foot-sweep, throw. There are so many possibilities! So, that little thing, tenkan, is in itself very profound. Having seen it physically, we can begin to practice it verbally and psychologically.

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