Is Aikido a religion?

by Tuomas Martikainen

Q: Is Aikido a religion?

A: Well, we have to find to out first what is religion. To start with, we need to note that 'religion' in common usage is a western concept, which attempts to describe a category of our western life. In the West, 'religion' usually defines actions (e.g., praying) and actors (e.g., churches), which connect to the human being to something superhuman, e.g., a god or spirit, which cannot be reached by scientific research. In that sense religion is a real factor in people's lives, but it is also culturally bound to the western societies and reflects their social structures and institutions.

In the academic research that sort of definition of religion is also used, where the supernatural in some form is essential to define religion. There are also other views, but they are not as relevant to the current argument about Aikido's nature.

For example, Melford Spiro has defined that "religion is an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings." Thus, religion is social and related to superhuman beings.

Q: Is religion only an attitude towards the supernatural, which is guided by an institution?

A: Yes and no. Those are essential features, but there is also something more. Religion as a phenomenon can be divided into different dimensions. Religiosity can be seen to be composed of various dimensions (Charles Glock). There is a ritual, an ideological, an experiental, an intellectual and an ethical dimension. Different religions and different people emphasise the dimensions to various degrees. In the West, we are inclined to think that true religion is promoted only by 'believers'. However, even if this is true from their own point of view, it cannot be accepted. Religion is a complex phenomenon and it is very difficult to say that somebody is not religious, if, e.g., he/she does not follow the rules of one church, but follows the rules of another.

Q: What about Aikido then? Is Aikido a religion?

A: Well, this is quite interesting. Aikido is a Japanese tradition, which claims to have spiritual dimension, even though it is mainly a physical activity. Anyway, a common argument is that Aikido cannot be understood from a western point of view, because it does fall into the western categories (e.g., religion), but I think that this argument is overemphasised. Why? Simply, because we train Aikido in the West and thus it is naturally a part of our western life. We won't become Japanese via Aikido training, that is quite clear. So, we have to accept that Aikido is western phenomenon today.

Aikido claims to unite the body and the mind in a way that is not common in the west. It speaks of 'harmonizing the body and soul, or spirit, to the endless life force of the universe', or something like that. This is to be done though rigorous and life long training. Also the life of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, seems to have had many mystical features, which remind the life of a sage. So, from a western point of view, we can say that Aikido promotes some ideas in regard to the supernatural, which could be related to the supernatural realm. Also, if one is to follow the path of the founder, he can be seen as a role model much like the saints in, e.g., the Catholic Church.

Even the ultimate ideal of Aikido, which is being in harmony and peace with your surroundings, sounds quite 'religious' in my ears, but that sort ideas have been promoted in secular writings as well.

Q: So, Aikido is a religion?

A: Well, at least we can say, that it has some similarities, but I think that we are talking about something else, after all. Aikidoka are very aware of their tradition and usually quite learned about the history and philosophy of the art, but for the large majority Aikido is just a hobby. The art reflects their ideas about life, but it does not solely lead their actions. Also, there are several competing interpretations of Aikido's nature. Some of them are very spiritual and some very physical. In most of the dojos, the philosophical or spiritual side is not emphasised, but he attention is brought to the actual physical training.

If we compare Aikido organisations and institutions to various churches, we can find that Aikido does not resemble all that much. while churches usually stress the social aspect of community, Aikido does not. Aikido training is an indivialistic enterprise to figure out your own physical self and to study its relation to other people. The core in Aikido training can be seen, when the 'attacker' takes a grip on the 'victims' hand. Physical information is changed and the feelings should guide the technique. The point is self expolation with the help of others, but the journey is made solely by you.

Q: So, Aikido is not a religion?

A: I see that you are impatient, but wait just a second. Life is not simple and short answers can lead to a false or partial understanding. Aikido is complex, religion is complex and life is complex. My point is that we can see things that remind us of religion in Aikido, but essentially it is up to every human being him/herself if Aikido is a religion or not. Basically Aikido is not a religion and the majority of practitioners do not either understand it as religion. For some few individuals Aikido might be religion, but in different way than in the 'normal' churches.

But what I think is interesting is that Aikido training and reading has promoted new ideas to people's self understanding. The idea of mind and body unification is essentially an eastern concept, which is now, partially through Aikido, spreading to the western countries. Aikido training also reflects trend of individualisation, where people's life worlds differentiate and people create their own 'postmodern' life philosophies based on different traditions from all over the world, but that is another story.

Q: Hmm, I am sorry, but I have to go. It was nice to hear your opinion. Bye, bye.

A: I am happy that you managed this far. By the way, Aikido training can increase your patience, because the goal is far, far ahead. Bye!