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Blackbelt Satori

March 8, 2012

“We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit.” Paul Valery

O-Sensei Part One

This romance between martial arts and enlightenment is a global cliche. Philosophic boxers wander through the world’s imagination. Kung-fu cinema stars flying Zen monks whose chi can knock down walls. Anime is full of spry and spiritual old warriors; and even Bodhidharma — smaller but staff-bearing and wearing his Shaolin robe — becomes Yoda in outer space.

Is there any truth behind these legends? Or are temple supermen, to China, what leprechauns are to Ireland?

Blackbelts shrug and half believe. At one level, martial artists deal in nothing but miracles. Ask any boy. We put our hands through cinder blocks. To spiritual seekers, however, the ideal of martial satori is sad and repulsive. Perfecting physical harm cannot possibly debouch into sublime peace like a river into the sea.

Well, why not? Intuitively, there is a certain chiming consonance here. Every day of History chronicles warfare somewhere — martial arts perpetually in action. And any behavior so profoundly typical of our species may be said to share in that mysterious transcendence which forever haunts the human possibility.

Moreover, martial artists can point to at least one 20th century fighting master whose spiritual awakening seems proof that such a blend of bliss and brutality is indeed possible, not Once Upon a Time in China, but here and now. The extraordinary life and career of Morihei Ueshiba will be the subject of the next couple-three posts. I think even non-martial artists will  be fascinated by the great man Japan calls O-Sensei.

Morihei Ueshiba — Modern martial enlightenment irrefutably demonstrated

Morihei Ueshiba first saw daylight, prematurely, on December 14, 1883 in a Wakayama Prefecture fishing and farming village now called Tanabe. The cherished only-son in a family of four daughters, his forty-year-old father, Yoroku, was a well-off land-owner active in politics, and his mother, Yuki, a religious woman devoted to art and literature.

Puny nervous unhealthy little Morihei stayed in-doors and read hundreds of books ranging from physics and math texts to wonder stories of miraculous Buddhist saints. Here the influence of Yuki shows, perhaps, but her son’s susceptibility was all his own. Very early on, Morihei Ueshiba daydreamed of a life lived on the edge of sacred wonder.

Yoroku summoned his boy outdoors by bragging about great-grandfather “Kichiemon,” a samurai celebrated for his muscles. After discovering the joys of strengthening a young body by sumo wrestling, running and swimming, the family bookworm decided to become “the strongest man in the world.”  And soon villagers were telling stories about a boy who carried sick kids fifty miles to the nearest doctor…

Hundreds of books, fifty miles — still only a child, and local legends already gather like small golden clouds around the founder of aikido (the fighting style of, for example, Steven Seagal). This is his future. Calmly living at a mythic pitch becomes the story of Morihei’s life — and helps explain why his enlightenment rings true.

Tomorrow: Attack on Father!

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