The Shambhala Guide To Aikido, by John Stevens
Martial arts are quite interesting in the way that they focus on different elements of conduct and behavior, and this particular book does a good job at pointing out how Japanese martial arts have related to the larger interest in Buddhist and New Age spirituality. Now, I think the author assumes that the reader is going to be in support of these trends, which is not the case for me, but I have found in my reading that people are considerably more candid when they believe that they are writing for allies than when they are writing for those they know to be skeptical to hostile to their worldview. To be sure, the author does at least make some points that there are aspects of Aikido that are compatible with Christian views of purification as well as restraint and self-control, and that certainly is a great deal more of interest than the author’s New Age speculation or his attempt to elevate the incoherent statements of Aikido’s founder to some sort of profound if paradoxical wisdom. As is often the case, though, attempts to place Aikido as a pivotally important martial art require elevating its founder beyond his modest attainments and crippling lack of education.
This particular book is a short one, at less than 150 pages, and it is divided into only four chapters. The book begins with a preface and acknowledgements. After that there is a chapter on the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, which discusses his itinerant lifestyle and the way that he had a hard time settling down in careers as well as with regards to mentors in the noble tradition of Japanese martial arts, and even discusses his efforts to encourage martial arts and a lack of competition among followers. After that there is a chapter which takes up considerable time on the art of Aikido, which includes a lot of photos of dojos as well as various techniques used in the martial art. Then there is a discussion of the philosophy of Aikido, which shows how the art relates to the broader tradition of Japanese Buddhist thinking as well as martial arts practice. After this the author discusses very briefly the various schools and styles of Aikido that demonstrate how eclectic the martial art has been in blending various approaches from the Japanese martial arts traditions as a whole rather than being a heavily doctrinally bound practice itself, after which there are resources, glossary, credits, and an index.
What can we take from Aikido as far as its worth is concerned? Well, it is not so much that the style is primarily worthwhile for fighting, although some people clearly learn it for self-defense purposes as is the case with many other martial arts. The book itself looks at Aikido as more of a spiritual discipline, with focuses on breathing as well as learning how to gracefully fall and to blend one’s own movements with those of others to help bring peace and harmony to the universe. The art has been full of peace advocates who have sometimes faced persecution in Japan itself (before and during World War II, for example) because of their distinct lack of militarism. It is somewhat paradoxical to think of martial arts being pacifist in nature, but that is the way that Aikido operates, and while this will be paradoxical if not completely hypocritical to some, it will also be appealing to others who will seek in martial arts development greater personal strength as well as attempts at harmonizing with the outside world as a whole. I can think of at least some people and groups of people who will find this book and this martial arts rather appealing.