Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), to whom Aikido practitioners refer as "O-Sensei," was one of the world's most celebrated martial artists. His gift was to marry effective martial technique with a deep spirituality. A master of many martial arts, he brought out of budo (the martial path) a deep philosophical element. His influence on philosophical thinkers as well as martial artists has been profound.
O-Sensei traveled widely in Japan, perfecting his art by talking with other visionaries and by successfully engaging in physical challenges. His reputation as a man of budo grew.
Many students were drawn to him. Many became has uchi deshi (live-in students). The uchi deshi system was a common Japanese way of learning - similar to, but not exactly the same as, Western apprenticeship. The students lived on the same premises as their teacher and became involved in many aspects of their teacher's daily life.
Aikido is an art of spiritual transmission. Although O-Sensei was a religious man, I do not mean to suggest that what O-Sensei transmitted to his students was a religion, but that he was moved to help people discover deep reference for life and "the spirit of living protection for all creation."
O-Sensei's uchi deshi were expected to tend to his needs twenty-four hours a day. Whether he needed to practice a technique in the middle of the night, to travel to another city to teach, to have someone massage his sore muscles, to welcome a visitor, or to farm, uchi deshi were expected to be ready to help him. In this way, they could see how the principles of Aikido extended into all facets of life. For his students, O-Sensei was a model of Aikido.
Philosophical treatises and abstract philosophy seldom inspire people to act - but human examples of honorable living can instill hope and inspire action. People take as their aims what seems possible and good. If someone lives a virtuous life, others can see that such a life is possible. Mother Teresa and Gandhi are examples of humble and unselfish living, and stories of Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed have helped people throughout the ages to frame their lives so that they can understand how to make them better. In this way, O-Sensei, too, inspires many people.
Many of O-Sensei's students took up the challenge to spread Aikido philosophy. In so doing, they have introduced it to an increasingly international audience. O-Sensei's students are now the leaders of Aikido around the world. But, they are growing older. Their recollections of O-Sensei have been handed down to their students, serving to inspire them. In what has become an oral history, our glimpse of O-Sensei's vision of Aikido comes from the recollections of those who were around him.
O-Sensei's lessons were not always the same for every student. Instead, he matched his lessons to what he perceived as a student's interests and abilities. Accordingly, his live-in students as well as students who trained more briefly under his authority came away with different perspectives of the art and different stories about their teacher.
It is through the many stories of O-sensei that we see how he interacted with the world, how he behaved off the mat when he was with friends and family, how he was as a teacher, and as a public spokesman, how he handled responsibility, what angered him, and what he thought was important. This kind of portrait of O-Sensei provides a more realistic understanding of his vision and of his art.
Aikido is a transformative art. Seeing Aikido's martial techniques through the broader perspective of O-Sensei's life reveals the art's principles and how they apply to everyday life. The application of these principles is what O-sensei demonstrated for his live-in students.
One of the things that caught their attention is that O-Sensei was about a compassionate and kind teacher as well as a powerful and ferocious martial artist. It is this combination of contradictory qualities that makes O-sensei a fascinating and inspiring person.
Another thing that they realized is that to learn the deeper lessons of Aikido is to transform one's self into a person with a larger and more powerful capacity for living well. O-Sensei presented his students with the model of the person who lived with courage, sensitivity, and virtue.