As a scientist, I have often encountered teachers who considered the epistemological approach as an aberration in the study of a Budo, sometimes even like an insult directed towards their work or their own persona. Today, I would like to discuss the benefits there are in studying a Japanese martial art (taking my own speciality, Aikido as example) while keeping in mind what the Enlightened have brought to us.
We are living in a time where pseudoscience and superstition enjoy a great popularity. This would be quite harmless if it was not undermining our critical thinking and by extension, our general knowledge. The human brain has this tendency to seek for meaning within all the experiences that we encounter every day. While this capacity is essential for helping individuals to make sense of the various stimuli that they are constantly subjected to, it sometimes misfires, leaving us in desperate “need” of quick and simple explanations to concepts that can be difficult to grasp. According to Daniel C. Dennett, a famous professor in cognitive sciences; the fact that science admits holding only a limited amount of knowledge can become so intolerable for our spirit that we will tend to seek elsewhere some absolute truths, unchanging and therefore reassuring: dogmas. It is in these gaps left by science that we can often find the most detestable methods and discourses.
The essential challenge for today’s martial art practitioner is to manage dealing with a certain duality. The strict etiquette of our arts makes it rather difficult to explore and experiment on new ideas. Although progress only comes from a critical state of mind, these notions are quite unwelcome within a dojo. Indeed it would be intolerable to see a student interrupting endlessly the class, asking for further explanations or contradicting the teacher. What is there to do then? How can we make cohabit in the most fulfilling manner a heritage coming from the times of Samurai with a modern thought process, all this without having one undermining the other?
Within religion, belief in the absence of evidence is considered as a virtue but if carried within the practice of martial arts, it becomes a problem. Of course the comparison Aikido/religion does not seem pertinent to me since Aikido has not been conceived in such a way by its creator (see the interview of André Nocquet, a direct student of O Sensei Ueshiba). It is not, of course, in our ideals of peace, neither in our codes, nor in our rituals that we have to seek for a religious manifestation. Every sport has its own codes and these are more rooted within a warfare heritage (teams/armies, colours/uniforms, position on the pitch/battlefield) than a religious practice. However, I happen to think that it is precisely in the intellectual submission and in the acceptation of anything and everything that we tend to lean towards the religious.
I have heard on many occasions teachers claiming that they, and no one else, held the only true Aikido, as O Sensei was doing it. They generally illustrate these claims by opposing their approach to the one of other teachers, implying that these poor souls are doing fake Aikido if not, no Aikido at all. The reasonable stance is to stay sceptical in front of those who hold these kinds of discourses, if only because such claims are by definition mutually exclusive: if one is right, therefore all the others are wrong. How, as critical, yet open minded practitioners, can we get out of this nonsense? Obviously, we cannot challenge all our teachers in a deadly fight or ask them to privately demonstrate to us their might at each class. Keep in mind that we are practicing a Do, not a Jutsu. On the other hand, the attitude of being slightly sceptical should not necessarily be considered as a lack of respect. A sceptic is someone rather curious, and interested in many things. If otherwise, he would not invest time and energy into studying a discipline or a subject. The most important thing to keep in mind is that a sceptic is by default ready to accept anything as long as a convincing body of evidence is present to support the phenomenon. As descendants of the Enlightened, we should be sceptical budoka, critical towards ourselves, our knowledge and our art while respecting our teacher and the essence of our discipline. We must of course stay open minded and lucid in front of our own ignorance in many subjects. Here is a difficult task to carry out, but not a dichotomy however!
In some places, the sheer fact of pronouncing the word “scientific” becomes an insult, a “faux pas” that the experienced practitioner would never commit and that the novice would be barely forgiven for. The words “non-overlapping magisteria” that we owe to the prestigious palaeontologist, Stephen J. Gould, often come back to my mind. According to Gould, there are domains in which science has no right of entry. Although he is clearly referring to esoteric matters and religion, I think that a lot of people which I would describe as “mystical frauds” would gladly see this rule be applied in martial arts too. We often hear people say that a discipline that has existed for a thousand years cannot be wrong or else, it would not have lasted for so long. I would say that on the contrary, if the discipline in question has not changed (progressed) along with our general knowledge, it is very likely that it will be plain wrong, or in the best case scenario, enormously incomplete. Take the theory of relativity as an example, it is agreed that any reasonably good graduate student in Physics understands relativity better than Einstein ever did. I let you draw the parallel with Aikido if you feel like it… The consequence of this is that science has heroes and texts containing groundbreaking ideas but no prophets and certainly no books of revelations. This crucial difference is the condition sine qua non for any progress to occur.
To come back to Stephen J. Gould’s proposition and although I have the greatest respect for his work, I would have to say that on the contrary to what he said, I think that it is crucial that science should be left free to investigate every aspect of our human experience. Science has no agenda, no dogma; a scientific theory is doomed to always eventually being proved wrong or incomplete and to be replaced by a better one more in accordance with the facts; reality. Science is the spirit filled with wonder of the child that discovers and experiences the surrounding world free from all preconceptions. It is however true that science currently lacks the tools necessary for the study of phenomenon such as Ki but nothing leads to think that it won’t change. We should therefore stay open minded but also critical as regards to claims that some ill intentioned or ill informed people might make.
While we are talking about Ki, I always wondered why the most famous masters had this tendency to only demonstrate their prowess on their on students. The reason which is often given to us is that it would be “too dangerous, that it takes training to be able to take it”. There is a good example in this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdrzBL2dHMI).
Right, in boxing; you don’t give an uppercut to a beginner. This argument sounds reasonable but it unfortunately also makes their claims hard to verify. The question I am asking is purposefully direct but not impertinent, nor disrespectful (I really mean this but I also know that some people will jump on any occasion to justify them feeling offended; be my guest). It is honestly and without malice that I ask these questions. After spending many years practicing budo and looking for these manifestations, it is actually likely that deep inside, I kind of wish that all these incredible powers exist. There are a few people who have accepted challenges to prove that their prowess were true… but with little results as is shown in this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEDaCIDvj6I) where a Ki master gets punished by a MMA fighter. About MMA, these lots have their own belief system too but I will spare them for a subsequent article.
Besides exposing a fraud, this video illustrates quite vividly the auto mystification that this so called master suffers from. It is one thing to put your students in danger by teaching them mumbo jumbo but it is an entirely different thing to put yourself in the ring. The bottom line is that to do so, you have to firmly believe in your stuff. This video also leads to an interesting reflection when we realise that it is probably his own students, by their submissive attitude, who led their master to such degrees of self deception; who said there was no justice? Coming back to the first video, it is interesting to notice that it shows a very powerful feat of the human mind: the power of suggestion. The students, while they are convinced by the powers of their teacher, become automatically much more susceptible to suggestion. As we see, they fall down and suffer of an acceleration of their pulse accompanied by an abundant sweating. On the opposite, sceptic strangers remain unaffected if somewhat amused after being subjected to these contact less strikes. The famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences”. The point is that it is up to the people coming up with these special feats to give the proof of their existence, the reasonable attitude being to remain sceptic unless proved otherwise.
But what about all this progress that we inherited from the Enlightenment? Is it really a good thing and is it transmissible to Aikido practice? It is well accepted that our society as a whole is less aggressive and more open; exchanges between countries having never been so rich and numerous (unless racism, obscurantism, religious fundamentalism and greed come back into action). From an individual’s point of view, we live longer, more comfortably and we are in better health. Of course, everything is not perfect and consecutively to these waves of progress, we have had to face new crucial challenges such as global warming, reduction of biodiversity, increased needs in food and drinking water and so on. I think, however, that the attitude which consists in rejecting everything modern while saying “things used to be better” shows a great incapacity in apprehending the present. The Chinese philosopher, father of taoism, Lao Tzu illustrated this fear of progress very well more than 2000 years ago when he said “experience is like a candle attached to one’s back, it only lights up the path already travelled”. Let us be serious for a moment, and youngster, even if he spends more time than is really good for him in front of the TV watching Fame Academy is not dumber than its counterpart 100 years ago, he is of course far more educated. It is also a bit dishonest to criticize progress when one benefits from all the advantages of living in an industrialised country where we can have access to scanners, chemo-therapies and where the infantile mortality is amongst the lowest in the world. Fortunately for the human species, this reactionary stance is not the common feeling and to only talk of what I know well, I would like to salute the outstanding work of the great majority of biologists who work on how to resolve the major issues that our planet faces in spite of a distrustful public opinion and unhelpful governmental policies.
For me, it is precisely this incapacity to question things which is our greatest challenge in traditional martial arts. We have this tendency to raise some people up to the status of icons possessing unreachable mastery. Of course, we do this, only relying on great deals of tales and second hand stories about their supposed supernatural capacities. MMA practitioners and other competitors have understood this well and mock us about this quite often. It is capital for us to accept the idea that we can and we should become better than our masters on a physical level as much as on a mental one. If Aikido did not evolve or improve but on the contrary, suffered from the fact that each student could not become better than his master, there would be very little remaining of what Aikido’s founder Morihei Ueshiba created. Somebody like Ueshiba Sensei was very ahead of his time in terms of mentality with his universalistic vision and his insistence on the peaceful resolution of a conflict while at a time of global war and living in an ultra-nationalist country. He was a hero of his time but to the light of today’s moral values, his opinions can now sound as very retrograde. Another vivid example is Abraham Lincoln, the heroic 16th American president who, by today’s standards, would be considered a racist and a bully. These people are therefore models in the context of their time but they cannot escape the criticism of our current society and the investigation using our modern knowledge. It is our duty to do better than them, we now know better!
In Aikido, we must give up the kind of discourses held by those who do the only true Aikido of the founder because we saw earlier that these kinds of statements are unreasonable. The only person who did the founder’s Aikido was the founder himself. Indeed, what we do is different but we must embrace this fact in order to go forward and make our discipline enter the 21st century proudly, not turning our backs to the future like the orphans of a patriarch that we never actually even met. We must see in each student of Aikido an opportunity for a new reflection, a new sensibility, a new interpretation of the fundamental principles that the founders showed us and certainly not like a corruption of Ueshiba’s teachings. This is precisely our critical thinking that will keep us from this degeneration and allow us an evolution.
To conclude, I am far from denying all that is not explainable in martial arts, I would even say that it is obvious to anyone who looks that the great masters of martial arts perform outstanding feats. However, it is only if we keep an open mind, critical thinking but also a respectful attitude that we will be able to access to the mastery of these things. They seem only supernatural because we do not understand them well and because we tend to mystify them. Supernatural and godly is always located at the limit of our knowledge. Even Newton, the brightest mind that walked this earth could not help but feeling that way. Whether we are talking about Ki or judicious timing and placement while respecting the physiological axis (bio-mechanics), it is through this shift of perspective that we will truly reach a deeper and more thorough understanding of our discipline. An analogy could be a child who would watch a stage magic show in amazement from the audience and later, would go to see the show again from backstage. In Aikido, it is when we try to be more Japanese than the Japanese that we deny our inheritance because in these times, we deny to ourselves the possibility to apprehend our discipline with our own occidental sensitivity in spite of the fact that this art has been conceived to be universal.
Descartes taught us to ask questions so let’s dare asking them, but let’s do it politely, respectfully and let’s stay open to all that this universe has of mysteries and wonders but without pouring the syrup of superstition all over it and without wrapping it with the cheap, shiny paper of mystification. This, to me, is the key to build up this famous golden bridge that should unite Orient and Occident so the two can at last understand each other well.
I am a molecular biologist, a martial artist, a musician, a travel enthusiast and a writer. You can check out all my articles on