The words omote and ura are common terms in everyday Aikido practice. Early in your training you learn that omote refers to performing a technique by moving to the front of an opponent and ura means moving to their back. But there is another deeper meaning in these words as well. Omote refers to the outer world, to what is easily seen or obvious, and ura refers to the inner world from which the outer world arises.

The practice of Aikido is the act of entering through the omote, the physical techniques, into the ura, the world beyond the temporal senses. Most Westerner’s have great difficulty understanding what budo (martial art) is. And therefore they have difficulty understanding what Aikido actually is. They only see the omote. They see martial arts as a way to gain some special ability or practical results like being able to defeat other people, get in shape or defend themselves. In reality, none of these things has anything to do with budo even though they can come naturally as a result of training.

To compare Aikido to some kind of self-defense, tournament or sport fighting is completely missing the mark of what budo is. Strictly speaking budo is not merely for self-defense. This does not mean that in Aikido we are not diligent in developing the real and honest effectiveness of our technique. It means that the purpose of Aikido is beyond the physical. It is the cultivation of the spirit of aiki – of oneness, acceptance, forgiveness and non-dissension – in our own being.

In the seminal work “Zen In The Art of Archery,” we read:

“By the ‘art’ of archery [the Japanese] does not mean the ability of the sportsman, which can be controlled, more or less, by bodily exercises, but an ability whose origin is to be sought in spiritual exercises and whose aim consists in hitting a spiritual goal, so that fundamentally the marksman aims at himself and may even succeed in hitting himself.”

Compare this with the statements of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido:

“I want considerate people to listen to the voice of Aikido. It is not for correcting others; it is for correcting your own mind. This is Aikido. This is the mission of Aikido and should be your mission. Cut down the enemy within yourself”

One of the central concepts in Aikido is kokyu. Kokyu can be translated “breath,” but it has a much broader meaning. It is breath – both literal and conceptual. Breathing represents a continuous journey between omote and ura. We breathe in air from the outside and it reaches the inside. We are nourished by it and it is transformed within us before we return it to the outside. Our Aikido practice is a conceptual breathing in of our opponent – their mind, their actions, their energy and their intention – transforming that energy and returning it. This is an exercise in acceptance. To destroy another person is a crime and a violation of nature. Everything in the universe operates according to the natural flow of omote and ura, yin and yang, When we practice Aikido we are following the path of nature, like the ebb and flow of the ocean and the spirals of the galaxies, into a world beyond the senses.

Any scientist will tell you, nature does not reveal her secrets easily. The dojo is a laboratory where we work tirelessly in what often seems to be a thankless and fruitless pursuit. No glamorous victories await us and no shiny trophies adorn the path. The real work is to polish the spirit. A true scientist and a true aikidoka approach their craft with humility as they are constantly aware of the extent of their ignorance and the enormity of the work that constantly awaits them. When this realization hits you then your Aikido may suddenly seem overwhelming. At this point you’ll be tempted to throw in the towel or complain that the teacher is making it too hard for you. You might be tempted to settle for simplistic answers. Or you might construct some deep and philosophical answer as to why you should not continue to train. This is all the ego’s effort to regain its control. It is what Shunryu Suzuki calls “gaining ideas.”

What the famous Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says in “Zen Mind. Beginner’s Mind” applies equally to Aikido. I will quote:

“There are several poor ways of practice which you should understand. Usually when you practice zazen, you become very idealistic, and you set up an ideal or goal which you strive to attain and fulfill. But as I have often said, this is absurd. When you are idealistic, you have some gaining idea within yourself; by the time you attain your ideal or goal, your gaining idea will create another ideal. So as long as your practice is based on a gaining idea, and you practice zazen in an idealistic way, you will have no time actually to attain your ideal. Moreover, you will be sacrificing the meat of your practice. Because your attainment is always ahead, you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future. You end up with nothing. But even worse than this idealistic attitude is to practice zazen in competition with someone else. This is a poor, shabby kind of practice.”

If you’re a fearful kind of person and listen to your fear you’ll give up. If you’re lazy and you give in to your laziness you’ll give up. If you’re insecure and need to feel better about yourself by learning to beat people up or competing with others then you’ll be disappointed in your practice and give up. This is what Suzuki calls “a poor, shabby kind of practice.” But don’t worry, the ego will make up a really good reason for you so that you can still feel good about yourself. You can blame busy-ness, your kids, your wife, your own body. You can tell yourself you need a tougher dojo (or an easier dojo) which is just another way of saying that you need to feed your ego (or avoid your insecurities). And of course you can blame your teacher. The only way to transcend all these things and follow the “Do” – the path – is shugyo.

Shugyo is a word composed of two kanji (characters). The first character, shu, means tenacity. The old literal meaning of this kanji is to use a brush to strike away the dust that obscures a person’s true qualities. Aikido is personal cleansing. At home, when you go to clean and you really start to look under the rugs, you find a lot of very unpleasant things. And here’s the point: The only person you ever really meet in training is yourself. To think that “unpleasantness” or “lack of fun” means you’re on the wrong path is nothing more than immature, egoistic thinking. If you can get beyond your own ego mind then you can find truly great pleasure and happiness in your practice as well as in your life. This kind of happiness depends far less on your outer circumstances and far more on the quality of your shugyo.

In Japanese spiritual cleansing is called misogi. Ueshiba said that “Aikido is misogi.” If we don’t clean the shelves regularly they become dusty. If we don’t brush our teeth they become rotten. Training is not about “getting what you feel like you need.” It’s about “doing what you need to do.” Words like difficult, hard, painful, busy, bored or tired are given no voice and no special privilege in shugyo. The second character, gyo, means journey. This is why Aikido does not engage in competition. There is nothing inherently wrong with competition, but the momentary victory, the adolescent fantasies and illusions that seem to obsess the typical Western mind, have no place in Aikido.

A term closely related to shugyo is kugyo which translates literally as “carrying on while suffering.” When we encounter suffering – being pushed hard in training, training even when it’s inconvenient or we’re tired, a teacher that’s a little harsh, a failed exam, the challenge of learning something new or even an injury – there is a little voice in our head that tells us to give up. For most people suffering means it’s time to quit. If your practice was built on some “gaining idea” this is where the road will divide. You will be unable to stay on the path. At these times you have to realize that this is the very reason you are training, to be able to carry on in spite of discomfort, embarrassment, confusion, doubt, pain and even in spite of your teacher. If you quit at such a time you cannot fool yourself into thinking that you ever really understood your training in the first place, no matter how many years you show up in the dojo.

Occasionally a student will reach a certain level of training and say, “It’s just not fun any more.” Now, this sounds like something a feckless child would say, but I’m talking about adults! Certainly much of Aikido training is fun and enjoyable. But the purpose of Aikido is not just to have fun. In our society there is a common notion that every endeavor must be justified either by some kind of pleasure or some outward gain. Can we find no more depth in ourselves than this? The true path requires you to move beyond the need for comfort and excitement and reach deeper into yourself.

Aikido teaches us to take the lead and guide others toward peace and harmony. But how can you take the lead with others if you cannot take the lead in your own life? If this article sounds harsh to you then it’s only striking at the chord of your own ego. Pema Chodron, the famous Buddhist teacher says,

“Your teacher will be your greatest problem in your life. At some level their job is to insult you, because in order to become a flexible, loving person you have to see where you are “hookable” so that you can overcome it. Our goals must be in regard to our training, but not regarding what we want to get from our training. Your relationship with your training is like a relationship with a husband or wife. You cannot have this kind of relationship and say, ‘I want to get something out of you, otherwise our relationship is no good.’”

~Philip Greenwood, Sensei