BOOK REVIEW: Budō by Morihei Ueshiba and Kisshōmaru Ueshiba

Budo: Teachings of the Founder of AikidoBudo: Teachings of the Founder of Aikido by Morihei Ueshiba
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is really three separate booklets bound into one. In this case, I believe the three parts work together quite well, and it doesn’t feel like a trick of padding to make a pamphlet into a salable book. I only mention this to point out that the three sections are quite different on several levels (i.e. authorship, subject, and content), and to put the reader on notice of it.

The first part is an “Introduction” by Kisshōmaru Ueshiba. The reason I put introduction in quotes is that it’s really a brief biography of Morihei Ueshiba (often called Ōsensei by practitioners of his art.) At 16 pages, it would be somewhat long for an introduction to the (130pg) book, but it introduces the martial arts master who founded the martial art of aikidō and who wrote the second part of the book nicely. The bio is a good use of space. Morihei Ueshiba wasn’t only an accomplished martial arts master, but he led an interesting life as well. I found this biography to be intriguing, and it made me want to read a full biography of the man. I must point out that there are a couple spots that will trigger the BS-meter of any rational skeptic (i.e. comments about Ueshiba being bulletproof or invincible.) Even though I don’t believe for a minute that the man was either bullet-proof or invincible, I think that most of this biography is true, and even that which isn’t gives one insight into the man as a combat veteran (and it certainly says something that some of his students literally deified him.) In addition to biographical text, this part includes various photos from both inside and outside the dōjō.

The second part is the beating heart of the book. This is a manual on martial arts written by Morihei Ueshiba, himself. It features prose, photos, technique descriptions, and even poems. While the bulk of the section consists of descriptions of techniques along with illustrative photos, there’s some philosophy of martial arts in both the early text and poems at the beginning and ending of the section. This section is almost 50 pages long, and the translator provides explanatory end-notes that help to make sense of the text for non-specialists.

The last section is technically the longest. However, it contains almost no text other than a translator’s introduction and technique names. It’s a series of technique sequence photos. The photos were taken in 1936 and were taken at the behest of the president of Kodansha Ltd. at the time, Seiji Noma—hence, they’re referred to as the “Noma Dōjō Techniques.” The shots of the sequences are tight enough that one can follow the flow of Ueshiba’s movement. For me, this section wasn’t particularly valuable. However, for practitioners of Aikidō, I can imagine how it could be invaluable. In other words, if one is familiar with the techniques, one might spot something that would give one a new insight. For the rest of us, this section just gives a crude taste of the nature of Aikidō.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’d recommend it not only for aikidō practitioners, but for those interested in the martial arts more generally. There is certainly insight to be gained from this phenomenal martial arts master.

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BOOK REVIEW: Legends of the Martial Arts Masters by Susan Lynn Peterson

Legends of the Martial Arts MastersLegends of the Martial Arts Masters by Susan Lynn Peterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book consists of 21 short stories from the lives of martial arts masters: some modern, some historical, and some anonymous folktales with unknown origins. The majority of the stories are about Japanese or Okinawan martial artists, but Chinese, Thai, American, and Koreans are also represented.

These stories can be roughly grouped by theme (though they aren’t organized in that way in the book and some stories cut across more than one of the themes.) The first theme is peacefulness, non-violence, or minimization of violence. This idea is central to the stories featuring Tsukahara Bokuden and his school of “no sword,” Yasutsune Itosu who invites an attacker for tea, Hisamori Takenouchi who is taught the folly of war by an old man, and Gichin Funokoshi who gives robbers cake.

The second theme is the power of an immovable mindset. This can be seen in the story of the sumo wrestler Onami who had to overcome a stint of choking, the parable of the tea master who is challenged to a duel and is advised by a swordsmanship teacher to take up the sword with the mindset with which he takes up his tea utensils, and the tale of the unbreakable prisoner Gogen Yamaguchi. There are also stories about the ability to win by preventing the opponent from achieving this mindset. This was most famously achieved by Miyamoto Musashi (on several occasions,) but it’s also seen in the story about an archer who is unable to make a shot from a perilous position even though the shot wouldn’t be a hard one for him from stable ground.

The third theme is the importance of the student/teacher relationship and the value of a teacher’s wisdom. This can be seen in the stories about American Karate founder Robert Trias and his experience with the master who wanted to trade him Hsing-I lessons for his own boxing lessons, about Morihei Ueshiba’s demystification of mysteries that perplexed his students, and about Chatan Yara’s reversal of a would-be student’s tactic.

The final story theme deals with the virtue of being diligent in one’s training. These include the amazing feats of the likes of Sokon Matsumura (an Okinawan fighter who fought a bull), Nai Khanom Tom (a Muay Thai legend who defeated twelve of Burma’s best fighters in rapid succession), and Mas Oyama who sentenced himself to training exile for what most would consider a minute infraction. There are other tales in this category such as how Duk Ki Song and other Korean students practiced secretly under a martial arts prohibition or how Yim Wing Chun got out of an arranged marriage to a cad through her diligent training.

This is a short book (about 120 pages) and most stories are only 4 to 6 pages. If you are a long-time practitioner of martial arts, you’ll probably have heard some of these stories, but you’re also likely to come across something new. There are obscure tales intertwined with one so popular it’s been made into multiple movies (e.g. Mu-lan.)

It should be noted that this is more of a collection of morality tales than historical accounts. One shouldn’t take these stories as established history as opposed to mythology or folktales. To her credit, Peterson leaves tales like the parable of the tea master and the tale of the three sons anonymous. Famous martial artists, like Miyamoto Musashi, are often cast into these stories either because people read a fictional account that borrowed from folktales, to lend more power to the story, or because the facts have become muddled in retelling. However, for example, the chapter on the Bodhidharma is most likely wrong. (The consensus view among historians is that Bodhidharma didn’t introduce martial arts to the Shaolin temple as is popularly thought, and that the popular myth is the result of revisionist history.) That doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have virtue—it’s got great hang time for some reason.

I’d recommend this book for martial artists who are interested in the philosophy and ethos of the martial arts. It’s a quick and easy read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba and John Stevens

The Art of PeaceThe Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The edition of The Art of Peace that I read is divided into three parts. Part I is a brief biography of Morihei Ueshiba, who was known as Ō-sensei to Aikidō practitioners and other admirers. Part II contrasts the art of war to Ueshiba’s art of peace. Part III is a collection of aphorisms and brief statements outlining the art of peace.

Ueshiba is the founder of Aikidō, a martial art that was derived in part from Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, but which is distinct from that art in many ways. (e.g. the lack of set forms and emphasis on randori.) Along with Jigorō Kanō, Gichin Funakoshi, and a few others, Ueshiba is one of the pioneers of gendai budō, modern Japanese martial arts that take as their primary aim non-bellicose objectives like sport and self-defense. This is in contrast to the koryū budō (kobudō) which evolved primarily for war fighting. In contrast to Kanō’s Judō, which was first and foremost a competitive sport, Ueshiba’s Aikidō offered a particular approach to self-defense that was purely defensive and in which movement was harmonized to the opponent’s actions so as to perpetrate the least violence possible.

The biographic portion of the book is intriguing, but on a few occasions drifts from biography to hagiography. I feel that the suggestion of supernatural abilities does a disservice in the telling of Ueshiba’s story. By all accounts, Ueshiba was an accomplished and highly skilled martial artist, and I would like to read a full biography of his life (a biography exists, but I can’t comment on how well written it is yet.) Given Ueshiba’s pacifistic views, it would be easy to dismiss him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist who had no idea of the realities of the world. I don’t believe that is the case. However, when the biography tells stories of god-like superpowers, it makes it hard to take the man seriously as a martial artist. Either Ueshiba was skilled as an illusionist / mentalist (a distinct possibility) or some of the stories were embellished to deify the man. The story that comes to mind is one in which Ueshiba voluntarily faced a firing squad and emerged unharmed due to either ninja-like or Hollywood vampire movie style actions. This story is attributed to one of his students, Gozo Shioda, who passed away in the 1990’s.

We may get an indication of the roots of this appeal to the supernatural in an early statement about Ueshiba’s childhood fascination with individuals like En no Gyoja and Kukai who are themselves attributed supernatural abilities in stories. Ueshiba is clearly a man of faith. He suggests life should be lived on basis of 70 percent faith and 30 percent science. Full disclosure: I’m more skeptical than Descartes, and obviously favor an outlook more firmly rooted in science and rationality.

Part two includes extensive quotes from Ueshiba himself. It contrasts the arts of war with Aikidō in mental and physical aspects. A core theme of the book is that the martial arts shouldn’t be about learning to die, but rather learning to live. Ueshiba criticizes the past Shoguns who used the art of war to control people. Ueshiba’s views on the purpose of martial arts are stated in this part. From a physical point of view, Ueshiba emphasizes the lack of forms in Aikidō (Bruce Lee echoed similar sentiments on this subject.) There is an interesting comparison of Ueshiba to swordsman and Zen master Tesshu Yamaoka (about whom John Stevens also wrote a biography.)

Part three reads like the work of an ancient yogi in places, and, in other places, offers the stern admonitions to train hard that one would expect from a martial arts teacher. A recurring theme is that the martial artist should purge himself of pettiness, be it in the form of being judgmental, materialistic, fearful, selfish, or malicious. He goes as far as to say, “Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people.”

Another theme is that one should strive to be natural and to make one’s movement natural. Ueshiba’s advice in this book is about virtue and the mind, and rarely strays into the subject of physical tactics. It does offer a little advice about types of distancing, where one should place one’s gaze, the power of circular movement, as well as discussing technique in the abstract. This is not a criticism. There are other books to learn more about physical technique. However, one should be aware that if one would like to know what Aikidō looks like, this isn’t the book for you.

This thin book provided me with a great deal to think about. I’d recommend it for martial artists, as well as for those interested in the life of this extraordinary man.

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