Students of Japanese arts like aikido can sometimes wonder what they’re getting out of the time and effort they put into their practice. This is true whether you happen to study chadō (tea ceremony), kyudō (archery), shodō (calligraphy), kadō (flower arranging or ikebana), iaidō (swordsmanship) or aikido (martial art). As modern Americans, bred as consumers, it makes sense for us to ask “What’s in it for me? What features and benefits will I get from this? Is it worth my time?” Sadly, teachers of Japanese cultural arts in the West have often succumbed to the pressure of consumerism, that their arts must somehow be sold or justified in terms of outward gain. But this entire line of reasoning reveals a basic failure to understand these arts. Turning a Japanese cultural art into a commodity eviscerates its true value, leaving only the empty shell of its form.
In Aikido we can develop many wonderful personal qualities in the course of practice. We develop ourselves in areas of strength & fitness, character, health and certainly self-defense. But all of these are only secondary to the real purpose of aikido.
The purpose of all Japanese cultural arts is the same. The clue is found in the fact that each of the arts mentioned above ends with “dō .” Dō is the Japanese character michi which means road, journey or teachings. Such arts can only be understood when they are undertook in the spirit of walking a path, a way of life. To view aikido in terms of a goal or destination is not to practice aikido. If your central goal is self-defense, losing weight or getting a black belt you are not really practicing aikido. That does not mean that these are not worthy goals, simply that they do not reflect the heart of practice.
I said that the purpose of all Japanese cultural arts is the same. So what is the purpose? The purpose is found, not at the end of the path, but on the path. The purpose is enlightenment. Enlightenment is not a destination, not a mystical moment of ecstatic insight, but an activity. The great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, “There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.” Aikido is an enlightened activity. Aikido is the practice of enlightenment.
The path of enlightenment is characterized by four principles: wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity) and jaku (tranquility) which can be seen as enlightenment. Aikido is the activity of nullifying violence and creating harmony out of conflict. We respect the life of others, even in the face of conflict, and keep our heart free of malice and ill will. And from actively practicing the principles of harmony, respect and purity the fourth principle naturally arises: a peaceful and enlightened mind.