Aikido: The Quaker Martial Art

The Way of Peace

The principle object of aikido is to build a paradise on Earth by creating harmony in the world and making friends. Let us make friends so there will be no enemies. This is the principle of nonresistance.
—Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido

The peaceable ways of Quakers may seem to be opposite to martial ways. However, the same spirit that is at the heart of Quaker faith and practice is also at the heart of aikido. The word aikido (pronounced "eye-key-dough") actually means "the way of harmonizing with universal spiritual energy" or "the way of peace."

Aikido’s Founder

Aikido is a modern martial art that originated in Japan between the First and the Second World Wars. Its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was a renowned martial artist who studied and mastered many forms of combat. Around the age of 42, he underwent a profound enlightenment experience that changed the way he viewed conflict and defeat. The story goes that one day he was challenged to a duel by a sword master and decided to face this man empty-handed. The sword master attacked him repeatedly and Morihei responded by blending with and moving out of the way of each attack. Eventually, his attacker fell to the ground exhausted, defeated by himself. Afterwards, Morihei went alone into a garden; he said of his experience:

I felt that the universe suddenly quaked, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time, my mind and body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the Creator of this universe. At that moment, I was enlightened: the source of budo [martial discipline] is God’s love—the spirit of loving protection for all beings. Endless tears of joy streamed down my cheeks. . . . I understood: budo 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 beings in Nature. The training of budo is to take God’s love . . . and assimilate it and utilize it in our own mind and body.

Morihei now saw a way to defeat an enemy without using aggression. Later, he said that he forgot all of the techniques that he had previously learned and saw aikido techniques as being given to him by God. Ueshiba was never defeated in his lifetime, although he was challenged by other martial artists, boxers, sumo wrestlers, and sometimes attacked unexpectedly by those who hoped to catch him off-guard. They never could. Even as an old man, he could not be harmed, and easily threw or disarmed as many opponents as attacked him. In this way he earned the name of "O’Sensei" or "great teacher."

Aikido and Religion

The practice of aikido is an act of faith, a belief in the power of nonviolence. It is not a type of rigid discipline or empty asceticism. It is a path that follows the principles of nature, principles that must apply to daily living.
—Morihei Ueshiba

Aikido is not a religion, but the founder saw it as the perfect complement to any religion. As he said, "My true budo principles enlighten religions and lead them to completion. It is a path for realizing and manifesting the principles of religion." He also saw aikido as a path to world peace. As he said, "Understand aikido first as budo and then as a way of service to construct the world family. Aikido is not for a single country or anyone in particular. Its only purpose is to perform the work of God." He also said, "Spiritually, there are no strangers or borders. Everyone is part of a family. The aim of aiki is to banish fighting, warfare, and violence." These are certainly religious principles. (Aiki is the act of uniting with universal spiritual energy, or a spiritually receptive and alert state of mind without a blind side, slackness, evil intention, or fear.)

The Martial Way

A warrior is charged with bringing a halt to all contention and strife.

Aikido is definitely a martial art. Applied correctly, its techniques can quickly subdue an opponent. Used without care, they could easily injure or even kill. However, that is never the aim. The founder said, "To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the art of peace." In aikido, students learn to blend with physical attacks in order to deflect or redirect them. Many techniques are circular in form, so that the energy is spun around a controlled center. The defender joins with the attacker’s energy so that the attack becomes like a dance. An attack, which is initiated in disharmony, is transformed into something harmonious. If there is one attacker, the individual is usually brought under control through a joint lock or pin. These locks might be painful if resisted, but they do not harm the individual. If there is more than one attacker, then opponents are thrown away from the defender. Techniques also allow armed attackers to be disarmed.

In Quaker history, there are examples of individuals using a gentle way of dealing with physical attack. George Fox described one such example in his Journal:

A cruel persecutor of Friends lit upon a young man about 18 or 19 years old that had been at a mill with a loaded horse or two. And the young man could not get the loaded horses soon enough out of his way, upon which he beat him with his cane, and the young man took it out of his hand and laid it down by him; and then he took out his pistols, and the young man took them out of his hands also, and laid them down by him, the way being narrow; and then he drew his rapier at him, and he took it out of his hand also, and laid it down by him.

In this case, the would-be aggressor was peacefully disarmed so that he could not inflict injury with his weapons. Another example of proactive intervention was described by George Whitehead, one of the early Friends. This incident took place while he and several other Friends were in prison, where they were often treated badly by both the jailor and other prisoners:

This abusive prisoner . . . being furiously drunk . . . resolved to kill one or other of us that night. . . . Seeing him thus murderously resolved, it immediately came upon me with great weight, as I believed from the Lord, "Let us not see murder committed in our presence"; whereupon I said to my fellow sufferers, "Let us seize him, and hold him hand and foot, till he will be quiet"; and they presently took hold of him, laid him gently upon his back, and held him fast, hand and foot . . . above an hour’s time, in which he made a roaring noise. . . . We prevented the intended murder, by holding the drunkard’s hands and feet, ’til he was quiet and went to sleep.

The Way of Nonresistance

The art of peace is the principle of nonresistance. Because it is nonresistant, it is victorious from the beginning. Those with evil intentions or contentious thoughts are instantly vanquished. The art of peace is invincible because it contends with nothing.

Aikido techniques are purely defensive. If there is no attack, then there are no techniques to deliver. As O’Sensei said, "In aikido, we never attack. An attack is proof that one is out of control. Never try to run away from any kind of challenge, but do not try to suppress or control an opponent unnaturally." In aikido training, there are no competitions; there is only cooperation. Students take turns "attacking" each other to allow the other person to practice the techniques. In order to keep practice harmonious, the founder said, "We ceaselessly pray that fights should not occur. For this reason we strictly prohibit matches in aikido. Aikido’s spirit is that of loving attack and that of peaceful reconciliation. In this aim we bind and unite the opponents with the willpower of love. By love we are able to purify others."

I watch an old black-and-white video of Morihei Ueshiba from 1935. In the film, he demonstrates defences against many types of attacks. Then he demonstrates responses to multiple attackers both with and without weapons. It does not seem to matter how many people attack him; he handles them all masterfully and with minimal effort. Then, a group of about ten men surround him, pressing against him so that only one hand and the tip of his arm can be seen above the sea of bodies. Suddenly, he emits one shout and all of the attackers collapse on the floor, even though he did not administer any physical techniques. It may seem unbelievable . . . but it happened.

In the New Testament, we see Jesus accomplish something similar. When a detachment of troops and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees came to arrest him in the garden with lanterns, torches, and weapons, Jesus knew that they were intending to arrest his followers as well, using violence. The unforgettable sequence unfolds in John’s words:

Jesus therefore, knowing all things that would come upon him, went forward and said to them, "Whom are you seeking?" They answered him, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus said to them, "I am he." And Judas, who betrayed him, also stood with them. Now when he said to them, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground. Then he asked them again, "Whom are you seeking?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus answered, "I have told you that I am he. Therefore, if you seek me, let these go their way," that the saying might be fulfilled which he spoke, "Of those whom you gave me I have lost none." (John 18:4-9)

What a remarkable occurrence! An entire detachment of armed adults falls to the ground after Jesus says, "I am he." Here, he displays his power to disarm without even laying a hand on his enemies. This is God’s way, the way of peace.

The Way of Harmony

The way of a warrior, the way of peace, is to stop trouble before it starts. It consists in defeating your adversaries spiritually by making them realize the folly of their actions. The way of a warrior is to establish harmony.

Although aikido teaches techniques for dealing with physical attack, there is a higher way. This way of harmony attempts to dissipate attacks before they happen. There are many examples of this type of harmonizing in the annals of early Friends. George Whitehead spoke about a man with a group of others who began attacking Friends physically while the Quaker stood on a stool preaching to a crowd. He described how he brought harmony to the situation:

The furious man still striving to come at me, took up a stool by the feet, and heaving it up to strike such as were in his way, a Friend standing by, caught hold of the stool as he was making his blow, to prevent it. . . . The man’s fury and rage seemed to be chiefly against me, and his struggle to get at me; and rather than he should do more mischief, I desired the meeting to make way, that he might come to me, for I was above the fear of any hurt he or they could do to me. Then he and his company came and violently pulled me down, and when I was in their hands I felt much ease in my spirit, being sensible the Lord, who stood by me, was secretly pleading my cause with them, so that their fury was immediately abated, and their spirits down, and they were restrained from doing me harm. They haled me out of the meeting . . . and then let me go.

George Whitehead ended the conflict by offering himself meekly to the people, as Christ had taught: "I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (Matt. 5:39)

Similarly, George Fox wrote about a situation that had great potential for violence. In this case, a large group of Friends were meeting to worship when an unruly crowd came among them:

And there came about 200 people from Halifax, and many rude people and butchers. And several of them had bound themselves with an oath before they came out to have killed me; and one man of them, a butcher, had killed a man and a woman. And they came in a very rude manner . . . and yelled and made such a noise . . . and thrust Friends up and down; and Friends being peaceable the Lord’s power came over them all. . . . And at last I was moved of the Lord to say that if they would discourse of the things of God let them come up to me one by one . . . and then they were all silent and had nothing to say, and the Lord’s power came over them all and reached the witness of God in them that they were all bound by the power of God.

These firsthand accounts are powerful examples of God’s way of bringing peace and harmony into situations of discord.

The Inner Way

The "Way" means to be one with the will of God and practice it. If we are even slightly apart from it, it is no longer the Way.

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to Life, and there are few who find it.
—Matt. 7:13-14

Students of aikido learn techniques for managing physical attack, but are also learning ways to deal with conflict, whether it be verbal, psychological, or emotional. Daily, we experience conflict both outwardly (between ourselves and others) and inwardly (in our own heart and mind and spirit). The latter is where the true battleground lies. Christ reminded us of this when he said, "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies." (Matt. 15:19) As O’Sensei said, "Winning means winning over the mind of discord in yourself. This is to accomplish your bestowed mission." The spirit of disharmony must be overcome in individuals if it is to be overcome in nations and in the world.

In aikido, we are always physically centered and balanced. Similarly, we must seek to be spiritually centered. O’Sensei provided some guidance on how to accomplish this:

How can you straighten your warped mind, purify your heart, and be harmonized with the activities of all things in nature? You should first make God’s heart yours. It is a great love, omnipresent in all quarters and in all times of the universe. "There is no discord in love. There is no enemy of love." A mind of discord, thinking of the existence of an enemy, is no longer consistent with the will of God.

He said that we must unite with God’s Spirit: "The art of peace is medicine for a sick world. There is evil and disorder in the world because people have forgotten that all things emanate from one source. Return to that source and leave behind all self-centered thoughts, petty desires, and anger." George Fox used similar expressions to describe the victorious inner path:

Dwell in the measure of the Spirit of God, and to it take heed, that in it ye may grow, for the true and lasting love proceeds from God, who is eternal. And abiding in the measure of Life, ye will have peace and love, that never changeth. If from the measure ye turn, iniquity gets up and the love waxeth cold, and in that lodge the evil thoughts, jealousies, evil will, and murmurings. Wait in the Light, which is of God, that ye may all witness the Son of God.

This has ever been the Quaker way. The way to God, the way to salvation through Christ, the Inner Guide to peace.

Further information about aikido may be found on the World Wide Web. The World headquarters is located in Tokyo, Japan, and the organization is known as the "Aikikai." There are national aikido organizations in many countries in the world. There are also many books written about aikido, as well as several international aikido magazines.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Friends Quarterly, Jan. 2005.