Aikido as a representation of an aspect of Tao

by Allan Watts (from "TAO: The Watercourse Way")

"The Tao does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone" These famous words of Lao-tzu obviously cannot be taken in their literal sense, for the principle of "nonaction" (wu-wei) is not to be considered inertia, laziness, laissez-faire, or mere passivity. Among the several meanings of wei are to be, to do, to make, to practice, to act out; and also it means false, simulated, counterfeit. But in the context of Taoist writings it quite clearly means forcing, meddling, and artifice-in other words, trying to act against the grain of li. Thus wu-wei as "not forcing" is what we mean by going with the grain, rolling with the punch, swimming with the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the tide at its flood, and stooping to conquer. It is perhaps best exemplified in the Japanese arts of Judo and Aikido where an opponent is defeated by the force of his own attack, and the latter art reaches such heights of skill that I have seen an attacker thrown to the floor without even being touched.

The principle is illustrated by the parable of the pine and the willow in heavy snow. The pine branch, being rigid, cracks under the weight; but the willow branch yields to the weight, and the snow drops off. Note, however, that the willow is not limp but springy. Wu-wei is thus the lifestyle of one who follows the Tao, and must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence – that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them. But this intelligence is, as we have seen, not simply intellectual; it is also the "unconscious" intelligence of the whole organism and, in particular, the innate wisdom of the nervous system. Wu-wei is a combination of this wisdom with taking the line of least resistance in all one’s actions. It is not the mere avoidance of effort. In judo, for example, one uses muscle – but only at the right moment, when the opponent is off balance or has overextended himself. But even this effort has a peculiarly unforced quality which is called ch’i, roughly equivalent to the Sanskrit prana – an energy associated with breath.

This may be illustrated with the Aikido exercise of the unbendable arm. The right arm is extended to the front and the opponent is invited to bend it. If the arm is held rigidly, a strong opponent will certainly bend it. If, on the other hand, it is held out easily, with the eyes fixed on a distant point, and with the feeling that it is a rubber hose through which water is flowing towards that point, it will be extremely difficult to bend. Without straining, one simply assumes that the arm will stay straight, come what may, because of the flow of ch’i. During the test, breathe out slowly, as if from the belly, and think of the breath as moving through the arm. This is perhaps a form of what we call, or rather miscall, self-hypnosis, which has nothing to do with sleep. I have found that something of the same kind can be used in opening a stiff cap on a jar, and I knew an old Zen master, frail in appearance, who, seemingly be leaning against them, moved heavy rocks which defeated strong young men."