How does one define a life? By what standards does a life leave the ordinary and become something different, even extraordinary? Do we view an extraordinary life through rose-colored glasses and create a hagiography about that life? Or, do we go the other way, and view this life with brutal honesty, Cromwell-like, who told his portrait painter to including everything, “warts and all?”
Today there are hundreds of thousand of Aikidoka around the world. There are many different schools of Aikido. Like the blind trying to grasp what an elephant is by touch, each school takes an aspect (although most would probably disagree with this) of O Sensei’s teaching and legacy and claim, “This is what he is. This is what he taught.”
This writer has had the honor of training under a number of O Sensei’s direct students. They all agree that he was a unique individual with who sometimes exhibited almost supernatural abilities. And reading the various biographies about O Sensei, it is clear he fully embraced the reality that he had a divine mission in life. And Aikido was the expression of this gift from the gods that he had received.
Yet, Moriheil Ueshiba was a man. He was a husband and father. He was also a failed businessman, a farmer, a visionary, a deeply spiritual seeker and also a man who pushed his body to extremes. He had little care about money, often (according to a number of biographies) leaving his family without money for food. And many ways, he was just like you and me, juggling, balancing life’s many facets including living day to day.
But there’s that “something” that happened to him, yes, that “something,” Illumination is not common but it does happen. For those who have read Richard Maurice Burke’s excellent book about this phenomenon, “Cosmic Consciousness,” or William James’ “The Varieties of Mystical Experience,” this moment of encountering the transcendental is, well, to be it mildly, a game changer. And this is what happened to O Sensei.
For those who have studied how such an event such as this changes the person, it is clear there is a “before” and an “after.” Yet, the person, the human being remains. And so those who knew O Sensei also include stories such as when the American students gave him a surprise birthday party- an event that he apparently enjoyed with great relish. Or, there is the fact that he welcomed women to train, something that was not the norm in Japan. There are early photographs showing O Sensei with female students. And when O Sensei was ill with cancer at the end of his life, he said, “The gods are calling me.” There is the story of his frail body being helped to the mat but once he was on the mat casting his young able bodied students aside like matchsticks and moving with the power and agility of someone years younger.
In celebrating this life today, perhaps the most important gift he gave us was a vision of peace. That peace can work. That conflict can find a harmonious resolution. He embodied this in his life’s work and in the expression of Aikido. And even with all the changes, twists and turns over the years the Art has undergone, no matter where you are in the world, when you step on the mat, something changes. You are in his world, his universe. Change becomes possible. Perhaps this is his greatest legacy: showing us what is possible. That Budo is indeed, love.
Recommended: “A Life in Aikido – The Biography of Founder Morihei Ueshiba” by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Preface by Moriteru Ueshiba, Translated by Kei Izawa and Mary Fuller, published by Kodansha International, Ltd., 2008 US$35.00 ISBN 978-4-7700-2617-0