The spiritual foundations of aikido
by William Gleeson
In the forward Mitsugi Saotome states “Gleeson shows no interest in the martial arts as they are commonly practised and portrayed, this book goes beyond the superficial stereotype and delves into aikido as a Budo” (the martial way). I have to concur with Saotome shihan, this book is a gold mine for the heart of anyone interested in the deeper aspects of the martial way, particularly aikido.
Gleeson himself states, “it is my intention in the Spiritual foundations of aikido to situate aikido within its true Budo heritage and to establish its value as a spiritual discipline”.
This book goes to the heart of aikido as a Budo, tying it to Shinto in their common foundation with the kototama principle. To understand the principles of aikido requires us to dig to the roots of Japanese culture and its underlying cosmology, for O-sensei was a deeply spiritual being and in the creation of aikido he was influenced more than anything else by his understanding of what it is to be human in the universe.
Gleeson has spent many years immersed in the Japanese culture, studying not only aikido but the cultural influences that created this Budo. He sits aikido squarely on the foundation of the kototama principle of One spirit, Four souls, Three origins, and Eight powers. This Shinto expression for the kototama principle O-sensei said was at the heart of aikido and that if we departed from this principle we were missing aikido altogether.
So to understand aikido we must understand the kototama principle. In spiritual foundations of aikido, Gleeson aims directly at this understanding, taking us on a detailed exploration of the order of the universe according to Japanese cosmology.
O-sensei taught that the purpose of aikido training is to bring out our true nature. To this end Gleeson states that aikido is an intuitive study of human life, in other words, it goes beyond intellectual concepts to the direct somatic understanding of the human being. To train in aikido is to train in the art of being human, allowing the body to directly express our true nature. In Gleeson’s words “Aikido is the experience of human uniqueness. It is a direct intuition, an inductive process within which conceptual understanding must follow the actual experience”. This way of seeing aikido training sits perfectly with my own beliefs and experience, in this i find enormous resonance with the book.
Exploration of the kototama principle is the essence of spiritual foundations of aikido. Gleeson goes into great detail and put many aspects of the kototama into context, laying out a mode of practise and the connections between technique and particular kototama sounds. He unfolds the history and significance of the triangle, circle, square symbology as he places the expression of aikido movement into a spiritual context. Gleeson gives a clear explanation of the moral codes of the Budo, going far beyond the usual explanations offered in aikido books.
In summary the Budo saying that Gleeson quotes on page 107 “ko no sen” (moving first after your partner moves) bring to mind what the real essence of why we train. In this saying we are asked to follow the path of the human being to it’s most noble destination. In this saying we find the paradox that gives life meaning.