The Founder of Aikido
Morihei Ueshiba (1883 - 1969)Morihei Ueshiba was born in Japan in 1883, the only son of a prosperous farmer and local politician. On both sides of his family, there were strong affiliations to martial arts and the samurai tradition. Morihei was born prematurely and as a child was rather frail and sickly and nervous. This he overcame by engaging in sumo wrestling, running, swimming and other physical activities. Morihei was well educated, although more interested in esoterica than established curriculum.
He was attracted to Shingon Buddhism and the Shinto Gods, from which much of his later teachings can be traced. At 18, Morihei established a business in Tokyo, but was not by nature a merchant and did not last very long at this occupation. He married at 19 a distant relative, Hatsu ltogawa.
The following year he was called to serve in the army of the expansionist Japan. Morihei did not meet the minimum height requirements of the army (five feet two inches) and was rejected. He was very disappointed and determinedly set about to rectify his lack of height by hanging from trees for hours with weights attached to his legs. The following year he had gained the necessary half inch and was accepted into the army.
He gained notoriety in the army for his physical feats and toughness. These included being able to keep up with mounted officers during 25 mile marches, sumo wresting, bayonet fighting and a thick skull. Morihei over the previous years had toughened his skull by pounding it against a stone slab a 100 times each day.
Morihei was in Manchuria for 18 months but apparently never saw action. He left the army when he returned to Japan. While in the army, Morihei had trained in Yagyu Ryu jujutsu and was awarded a teaching license in 1908. After he left the army he also trained in judo and engaged in ascetic practices such as fasts, days alone in the mountains, purifying himself in icy waterfalls and stormy seas. He would swing his sword for hours and hours.
"Budo (the Martial Way) is not felling the opponent by our force, nor is it a tool to lead
the world into destruction with arms. True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe,
keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect,
and cultivate all things in nature."
It was during this time that Morihei met Sokaku Takeda, a ferocious warrior and master of Daito Ryu Aikijutsu. He was a wandering fighter, travelling the country, defeating masters of all sorts of fighting arts and teaching his art. Morihei became his student and built a dojo for Sokaku on his property. The teachings of this man were very influential on Morihei's development as a martial artist, although he was frustrated by the pugnacious, violent temperament of the man. In 1919, Morihei left Hokkaido.
In 1920, Morihei and his family (which by now consisted of his wife and three children of whom two died that year) moved to join Omoto-kyo. He devoted himself to farming, study and martial arts training. He became the body-guard and confidante of Onisaburo. The philosophy of Aikido has its roots in the spiritual teachings of this man.
In 1925, forty-two year old Morihei was transformed by a divine vision. "One day a naval officer visiting Ayabe decided to challenge Morihei to a kendo match. Morihei consented, but remained unarmed. The officer, a high-ranking swordsman, was naturally offended at this affront to his ability and lashed out at Morihei furiously. Morihei easily escaped the officer's repeated blows and thrusts. When the exhausted officer finally conceded defeat, he asked Morihei his secret. "Just prior to your attacks, a beam of light flashed before my eyes, revealing the intended direction."
Following the contest, Morihei went out to his garden to draw water from the well to wash the sweat from his face and hands. Suddenly Morihei started to tremble and then felt immobilised. The ground beneath his feet began to shake and he was bathed with rays of pure light streaming down from heaven. A golden mist engulfed his body, causing his petty conceit to vanish and he himself assumed the form of a Golden Being. Morihei perceived the inner workings of the cosmos and further perceived that "I am the Universe." The barrier between the material, hidden and divine worlds crumbled, simultaneously Morihei verified that the heart of budo was not contention but rather love, a love that fosters and protects all things.'
After this experience, Morihei reportedly performed amazing feats. He could leap over attackers, move huge boulders and dodge bullets. The many challengers could not defeat him to his supremacy as a martial artist. He gained many admirers and students and a large dojo was built for him. He taught also at the Toyama Academy, the Naval Academy, the Military Staff College, and the Military Police Academy.
He established a group of dedicated group of live-in disciples. There were 5 hours of training each day and they were expected to be alert every hour of the day, whatever their activity. Morihei's art was continually evolving and he experimented with many new forms. At this stage it was known as aiki-budo. Morihei was also influential politically, counselling the emperor and Prime ministers; he was even commissioned to try to negotiate a peace settlement with China. However in 1942, he retired from public life, no longer able to support the path of Japan's leaders. As he said, "The military is dominated by reckless fools ignorant of statesmanship and religious ideals that slaughter innocent citizens indiscriminately and destroy everything in their path. They act in total contradiction to God's will and they will surely come to a sorry end. True budo is to nourish life and foster peace, love and respect, not to blast the world to pieces with weapons."
Made ill by the carnage, Morihei retired from all his positions to a farm, about a hundred miles north of Tokyo. During the war, he constructed the Aiki Shrine. It was dedicated to the forty-two guardian deities of the universe, each one personifying one of the elemental forces that sustain the cosmos - for example, energy, light, water, fire and of course, love ..... Ideally, one who approaches the Aiki Shrine becomes aware of the presence of such forces and, by extension, realises what truly constitutes existence."
After the war, the American Occupation authorities banned the practice of martial arts, however in 1948, permission was granted to teach Aikido as "a martial art dedicated to the fostering of international peace and justice. It was gradually spread over Japan and introduced overseas. Koichi Tohei was one of those who became a student after the war.
As Morihei grew older, he concentrated more on spiritual pondering, spending most of his time praying, farming and reading. He left the running of his organisation to his son, Kisshomaru. He wrote, "By secluding myself in Iwama and reducing my involvement with worldly affairs, I have been able to attain a deeper sense of oneness with the universe. I rise every morning at four, purify myself with misogi and then step outdoors to greet the rising sun. I link myself with the cosmos through aiki and commune with all things - I feel as if I am transformed into the universe itself, breathing in all phenomena. Standing before the altar of heaven and earth, I am in perfect harmony with the Divine. Then I bow in the four directions and pray and meditate before the Aiki Shrine for an hour and a half."
In March 1969, Morihei led his last practice session. He had liver cancer. On April 26, 1969, at the age of eighty-six, Morihei Ueshiba died. Stories of the astounding power of Morihei Ueshiba abound. He is believed by many to be the greatest martial artist who ever lived. He studied and mastered many martial arts and from this training created Aikido, 'a totally new and revolutionary system, independently created with a special set of principles and ideals.
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