Morihei Ueshiba: The Saint Kicks Butt
By Herb Borkland
The romance between martial arts and the esoteric is a global cliché.
Philosophic tramps like Kwai Chang Caine or the Bulletproof Monk wander
through the world’s popular imagination. Kung-fu cinema stars flying
Zen masters whose chi can knock down walls. Anime is full of spry and
spiritual old warriors modeled on Morihei Ueshiba; and Yoda, staff-bearing
and wearing a Shaolin robe, is Bodhidharma in outer space.
Unless, considering how sawed-off Yoda is, even the Jedi Master himself
was modeled on 5” 2’ Morihei Ueshiba. Unique among all the
fictional characters worthy of his skills, O-Sensei was very real. The
founder of aikido, “The Art of Peace,” was a pre-Modern Japanese
(1883-1969) whose name, Ueshiba, means “abundant peace,” and
who lived to fit in gracefully with the peace/love obsessed Nineteen-Sixties.
Martial artists, of course, can stay in sensational shape well into their
late sixties and beyond. It’s nearly a job requirement because martial
arts instructors are the only coaches in the world who are not only supposed
to be able to outplay every man on their team, they’re expected
to do so better and faster the older they become. Mostly, that’s
a myth out of Jackie Chan flicks, but O-Sensei, for one, could actually
bring it off.
Watch the archival footage of 80-year-old Morihei Ueshiba effortlessly
throwing around twenty-ish instructors. It misses the point to dwell on
how enthusiastically those instructors are cooperating with their grandmaster.
After all, they risked serious injury if they did not; however, this,
too, is moot. Great Teacher’s age has no importance. What these
treasured films show is aikido’s ideal being demonstrated by how
much the old man’s power over the instructors is technical, the
perfection of form, not muscular.
Morihei was a fortunate son whose respectable late 19th century family
expected much of him. As a child, he witnessed goons beating up his politician
father. Later, although his people cherished their samurai roots, the
teenager’s way of shining, his martial destiny, dismayed more than
it impressed dad.
Young Morihei studied under gifted teachers and was eventually able to
show skills which left famous masters like judo-founder Jigoro Kano muttering
to themselves through clenched jaws. It might be observed that besting
father figures became a motif in Morihei’s psychology; and O-Sensei’s
implied rebuke to his dad became “Say what you like about Budo,
sir, but those goons could never have beaten me up.”
During the early nineteen-hundreds, the infinitely competitive Morihei
fell under the influence of a last and greatest father figure, Onisaburo
Deguchi, leader of the shamanistic-agricultural Omoto sect. Leader of
hundreds of thousands, Onisaburo experienced divine trances and believed
himself destined for the worldwide spiritual prominence to which Morihei
beat him. And today, for us, what magnetizes Morihei was his enlightenment.
The closest to successfully dramatizing enlightenment happening to a martial
artist comes in Akira Kurosawa's first movie, Sanshiro Sugata (1943),
called “Judo Story” in American theaters, when a judo student,
up to his waist in a pond, achieves satori staring at a single perfect
One afternoon, after a display of invulnerability performed unarmed and
without ever having touched his champion challenger, forty-something Morihei
left the humiliated opponent to compose himself while O-Sensei went outside
to wash his face at the well and sit alone in the garden. Suddenly…
"I felt that the universe suddenly quaked and that the golden spirit
sprang up from the ground, veiled my body and changed it into a golden
one. At the same time, my mind and body became light. I was able to understand
God, the Creator of the universe. At that moment I was enlightened. The
source of Budo (martial arts) is God's love, the spirit of loving protection
for all beings. Endless tears of Joy streamed down my cheeks.”
Those tears perhaps also signaled great psychological relief. At one
stroke, the must-always-win weight of half a lifetime lifted off the now
middle-aged master. No more challenges would be accepted. Personally,
for Morihei, his days of competing with father figures were, at last,
formally brought to a close. Now he was father.
O-Sensei’s beatific vision revealed martial arts as a work of God,
trumping historical claims for the arts’ worth based soley on their
antiquity and wisdom. The achievements of the second half of Morihei’s
life followed with that apparent simple inevitability which only genius
can bring off – his framing of aikido as a way of harmony which
paradoxically wins by refusing to compete, the serene wisdom of his best
writings and, finally, a vigorous and radiant old age.
So, those well-nigh supernatural warrior priests of Cantonese movies and
“sequential art” (comic books) may not be such silly pulp
fantasies, after all. Cage fighters probably won’t care, but the
implications for the rest of us are staggering. After studying the life
of O-Sensei, how can anybody doubt that here and now, even today, there
does truly exist a martial arts path to supreme reality?
About The Author:
Washington, D.C. native Herb Borkland has been called "a
martial arts pioneer" because he was an original student at the first
taekwondo school in the United States. After taking his degree at The
University of Virginia, Herb went on to become a closed-door student of
the legendary Robert W. Smith, author of the first English-language book
about tai chi. An Inside Kung-Fu Hall of Fame writer, he was the first
journalist ever invited to train in SCARS, the Navy SEALs fighting system.
Herb scripted "Honor&Glory" for Cynthia Rothrock, featured
on HBO, as well as winning the first-place Gold Award at the Houston International
Film Festival for his Medal of Honor soldier screenplay "God of War."
For three years he hosted the national half-hour Black Belts cable-TV
show. Herb and his wife, the Cuban-American painter Elena Maza, live in
Columbia, Maryland. He is also a regular columnist for FightingArts.com.