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O-Sensei Concluded

March 10, 2012

Today ends the three-part bio of Morihei Ueshiba, creator of aikido and acknowledged 20th century saint.

Catastrophic world history happened to Morihei just as it did to everybody else Japanese in the 20th century. Even so, twice more in his lifetime, he knew ultimate reality. His second experience occurred in 1940.

“I suddenly forgot all the martial techniques I had ever learned. The techniques of my teachers appeared completely new. Now they were vehicles for the cultivation of life, knowledge and virtue, not devices to throw people with.”

In 1942, deep into the agony of World War II, his third and final satori revealed “The Great Spirit of Peace” — “The way of the warrior has been misunderstood… It is the art of peace, the power of love.”

For the next twenty-seven years, the five-three giant now called O-Sensei (Great Teacher) went on to shape his fighting style of aikido into an active incentive to peace, a way of winning fights by refusing to fight, by redirecting an attacker’s force instead of opposing it.

Blackbelts often stay in excellent shape well into their sixties. It is almost a job requirement. Martial arts instructors are the only coaches in the world who are not only expected to outplay every man on their team, it’s supposed to get easier as they get older. O-Sensei fulfilled to perfection the Eastern legend of a white-bearded martial saint who is serenely unstoppable in his old age.

Archival films show Morihei Ueshiba in his eighties effortlessly throwing around twenty-ish instructors. To those who are dismissive of what their eyes may not be educated enough to appreciate — it misses the point to dwell on how enthusiastically these young men are cooperating with their grandmaster. After all, they risk serious injury if they do not. Great Teacher’s age has no martial relevance, either. What these films capture is aikido’s ideal being demonstrated by how much of the elderly man’s power over his ukes is technical, the perfection of form, not muscular.

“Ueshiba” means “abundant peace,” and white-bearded O-Sensei lived to fit gracefully into the peace-love-obsessed Nineteen Sixties. Until the end, he went to his dojo every day, often to teach children. Morihei Ueshiba suddenly succumbed to cancer on April 26, 1969. His wife Hatsu died two months later. His son Kisshomaru Ueshiba followed faithfully and well in his father’s footsteps.

Poised before this stunning career, studying it all in all, it seems to be that rarest of human chronicles: the happy life of a consummate human being. Here is the triumphant destiny of a double character — an indoor mind and an outdoor body — both halves of which fulfill themselves absolutely.

If biographies often raise more questions than they answer, the story of this life answers questions most martial artists have yet to ask themselves. After the long and lovely years of O-Sensei, how can anybody doubt that even today there does exist a martial arts path to enlightenment?

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