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Here I’ll try to explain the more esoteric ideas associated with Aikido, and clear up some of the misunderstanding over the nature of ‘Ki’. Of course, I’m nowhere near the most authoritive source on this, but I’ve been practising several years at a dojo that’s taken Ki as the foundation for developing skill in the more traditional techniques, and it’s taken me that long to grasp what’s actually being taught.

The Way of Peace
Why is Aikido referred to as ‘the way of peace’, and how does the training promote a philosophy that’s almost never taught in a dojo? It’s commonly held that this philosophy originated with Morihei Ueshiba, and that his mission was to somehow use Aikido as the vehicle for promoting world peace.

The Daito-ryu techniques are what Ueshiba excelled at and started out teaching in the 1920s, and at some point Aikido became officially independent of Aiki-jutsu. An academic study of Admiral Takeshita’s journal claims Aikido began as a Daito-ryu study group, which Ueshiba soon rebranded. Of course, Ueshiba researched other martial arts, and many initial students had brought with them a mastery of Judo. This evolved into what officially was called Aikido in 1942.

By all accounts, Ueshiba was indeed a deeply religious man in his later years, and the Omoto religion seemed to be his biggest influence. Onisaburo Deguchi also strongly encouraged the development of Aikido.
Ueshiba did a fair bit of evangelising to anyone who would listen. Other than Koichi Tohei’s Book of Ki Sayings, I couldn’t find much to indicate that Ueshiba’s students cared about or understood the religious aspect. As far as I can tell, that reached the West primarily through John Stevens.

Thanks to the research posted on the Aikido Sangenkai blog, we learn that the ‘way of peace’ was actually carried over from the Daito-ryu as a core principle. The following quote is attributed to Takeda Sokaku:

‘The purpose of this art (Daito ryu) is not to be killed, not to be struck, not to be kicked, and we will not strike, will not kick, and will not kill. It is completely for self-defense. We can handle opponents expediently, utilizing their own power, through their own aggression. So even women and children can use it.’

Just like Aikido, which is extremly useful to someone who is small and lightweight (as I can attest). The wording in a scroll written by Yukyoshi Sagawa, a contemporary of Morihei Ueshiba and another student of Takeda, should also be familiar to Aikido practitioners:

‘As the Ki of Aiki is natural it unifies and reconciles without the slightest ill feeling or resistance. The harmonious reconciliation that is Aiki must be the basis for the formation of human society.’

It could also be called ‘The Way of Peace’ because Aiki is a great leveller. A smaller person with confidence in the methods, a natural awareness and the right body language is no longer an attractive target for the predators in society. If enough people learned how to use it, we’d expect there’d be less violence.

Ki and Aiki
Sagawa’s statement doesn’t make a lot of sense to anyone who doesn’t know what Aiki is. Here’s my (revised) understanding of it: Anyone who’s driven a car knows that an engine can’t move a car from a static position – we start the engine first, then bring the clutch to just the right point to build momentum. That connection is an example of Ki. Likewise, a lightweight couldn’t normally make a technique work against a heavyweight in a fight, but it becomes possible if the technique is applied at a precise moment when the heavyweight’s centre of gravity isn’t synched with the rest of his body – this is also a manifestation of Ki. Essentially ‘Ki’ is the connection or ‘linkage’ between two bodies for redistributing mass and power. It can also refer to the connection between different parts of the same body, hence the term ‘mind-body co-ordination’.

What Takeda Sokaku, Ueshiba and later Koichi Tohei taught was a way of applying that principle in a fight. Attacks are not countered by strength or physical effort, but instead through understanding body mechanics and body language. It takes a while to become proficient at using Aiki, but it provides a much better chance of survival in a real fight than the techniques themselves.
Because Aiki (let’s call it ‘Ki’) wasn’t well understood by everyone, the idea began circulating that it was some mysterious ‘force’ or ‘energy’, and Aikido sometimes became associated with the ‘no-touch knockout’ bullshit. It’s possible to imagine how that then became conflated with Ueshiba’s religious teachings.