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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 lotus.

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?

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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

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