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The Mission of Aikido:
To Protect Attackers or Look Inside Ourselves to Create a Better World?

During a seminar in which I had the opportunity of translating for Sunadomari Sensei, a foreign participant asked him:


“Aikido is famous in the west as an art in which we deal with our attackers without hurting them. Yet, during a real physical altercation, how can one go about being able to execute aikido technique without injuring an attacker?”


Sensei’s answer to this question was surprising and is interesting food for thought for those of us who struggle to understand the Founder’s vision of his martial art as a vehicle for harmony and peace. In reply to the participant’s question, Sunadomari Sensei answered:


“In a real interaction, the reality is that anything can happen. As I have explained before, if you are able to manifest kokyu ryoku (literally “breath power”) by completely entrusting yourself to heaven and earth and the point of contact with your attacker, the amount of force that an attacker applies will be instantaneously returned back to him in equal proportion. It is not of your doing, but rather it is the attacker’s decision to attack and his chosen level offorce that will ultimately dictate his own self-destruction.”


After translating Sunadomari Sensei’s answer, I noticed a momentary look of shock and disappointment on the part of the participant. Later, when chatting with him again, I realized that he had either misunderstood my interpretation or had subconsciously chosen to completely disregard Sensei’s answer instead overlaying his own preconception. I must admit that I too was a little startled by Sensei’s answer at first. However, after considering his answer along with my other experiences listening to his talks, I have come to realize what might be a common misconception about Aikido and an improperly used method of description exists in the western Aikido world which fails to convey an important element of kokyu ryoku, the power employed in Aikido.


Assuming that Sunadomari Sensei has managed to grasp a significant part of the Founder’s teachings and that his answer reflects this, how can we reconcile Sunadomari Sensei’s answer (and the hypothetical attacker’s potentially painful fate) with his 60 year devotion to the Founder’s philosophy and his development of Manseikan Aikido as a vehicle to transmit the Founder’s vision of world peace? I believe that the answer lies with examining the aforementioned misconception about the treatment of the attacker in Aikido.


However, before offering an alternative view of the treatment of the attacker within the tenets of Aikido, let me first take a minute to describe my experiences with Sunadomari Sensei’s Aikido in hopes that this may this may shed some light on the physical manifestation of Aikido’s philosophy. Despite being 84 years of age, Sunadomari Sensei has often allowed me to freely grab his arm, finger, or lapels in a static position and “lock down” on him. In doing so he gives me time to both structure and ground myself. Within my grip, Sensei’s arm remains completely relaxed, almost limp, free of any noticeable tension in his elbow, shoulder, or back.


After I lock down, however, in an instant and with virtually no physical movement Sensei can control my body completely as if I were now a part of him. Being on the receiving end of this can sometime feel like a mild electric pulse (for lack of a better description) and involves no pain or discomfort. The force that I apply to Sensei’s arm or other extremity is returned to me simultaneously in equal amount either bouncing or projecting me away or freezing me in place. This power does not inflict pain and an uncontrollable smile will often float across my face upon experiencing it.


Sunadomari Sensei refers to this formless power as “kokyu ryoku” and explains that it can only be manifest when you free your heart from animosity and entrust yourself to the attacker thus absorbing his power and returning it. According to Sensei, the application of kokyu ryoku involves no added force by nage, hence it is uke alone who self-destructs. From a technical standpoint, Sensei is adamant that one does not apply technique. Instead, uke applies it to himself at the instant of contact with nage becoming a sort of instrument for natural law. Sensei further admonishes that the only way to attain this power is to train daily based on the heart and teachings of the Founder. He believes that this mindset is best encapsulated within the “Spirit of Aikido”, a short passage written by the Founder as a mantra for Aikido training just after the World War II.


Every practice in Manseikan Aikido begins with practitioners reciting this passage prior to training, and it is worth examining the contents of this passage to try to understand the Founder’s art and the source of Sunadomari Sensei’s power. The passage begins with the Founder’s infamous “Aiki is love” statement. The Founder then continues with a call for Aikido to be a process of self-reflection that extinguishes animosity within our hearts, and manifests a unity of body and spirit and a connection between heaven and earth. “Love thy neighbor” or even “love thy enemy” yes, but “protect the attacker”, seemingly not. Training in Manseikan Aikido focuses on embodying these words through the removal of physical tension and mental animosity and the creation of harmony within ourselves. Rather than viewing uke as instigator and source of conflict, training is carried out under the premise that the conflict and disharmony can first be found within ourselves.


Returning to the aforementioned passage, the language used to describe Aikido training throughout this mantra is devoid of the concept of resolving a deadly assault with love and kindness. In fact, the goal of “protection of the attacker” emphasized so much in Aikido in the West is actually pretty difficult to locate among the Founder’s other written teachings to my knowledge. The Founder’s written words mostly describe Aikido as an internal process of self reflection and a journey toward self perfection and not necessarily a treatise for the treatment of others. The Founder doesn’t espouse ‘controlling’ someone with the psychology of love or advocate “making a conscious choice not to harm your attacker,” other often cited mischaracterizations of Aikido in the west.


Instead, the Founder’s mantra for practice and Sunadomari Sensei’s teachings point to Aikido being a practice of continuous self-development based on universal laws. This process begins with ridding ourselves of animosity and ultimately aspiring to reach a state of unity with the laws of nature and the divine. As one passes through this process, one’s ability to entrust themselves to their partner and connect with them and become a vehicle for natural law increases accordingly. It is this ability or kokyu power which makes it possible for a little old man to bounce younger and larger men around without pain inspiring us all in the process.


More importantly however, it is the power of the Aikido training process itself (when done in a specific way) to pacify peoples’ hearts and the proliferation of such training that has the potential to foster world peace. In short, the Founder didn’t speak of pacifying a single situation through Aikido, rather he spoke of pacifying the world through the betterment of each individual. The difference is not just in semantics.

Sunadomari Sensei often says that he believes that true peace will not prevail until each and every one of us on earth finds peace in our hearts. Thus, he has based his practice of Aikido on the Founder’s vision and as a result crafted a process designed to help us become a better individual in tune with our natural destiny. The rest, including our hypothetical attacker’s destiny, is up to fate, Allah, Yahweh, God, natural law or the Kami-sama. But try telling this to your friend the next time you are asked “How do you handle an attacker in Aikido?” Perhaps the standard cliché that “we defend ourselves with techniques that don’t injure the attacker” is much easier for them to swallow.

- Dennis Clark  (March 25, 2010)


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