I had a small revelation last night. I’m still frustrated, but at least my mind has been stimulated.
One of the things that troubles me about aikido is that it lays at the intersection of the study of fighting and spirituality. This is, of course, what draws some people to it, and it is true that, on a more abstract plane, the study of conflict and peace must be intertwined. However, aikido does not really exist on this plane. Aikido’s connection to this plane only exists through the reification of its students, starting, apparently, with Ueshiba himself. What goes on in the dojo is the pure study of fighting. And by fighting, I don’t even mean conflict, but actual physical person-to-person fighting. It’s true, the techniques of aikido have been cherry-picked and tweaked to make them into tools that can help lead to understanding of other principles, but it remains true as well that what goes in the dojo is simply the study of fighting.
So, I have always been bothered by the fact that Ueshiba seems to have pursued certain, shall we say, “kata of purification,” especially with weapons. He didn’t just use kata to help produce insight, he actually seems to have performed kata as ritual, as though the practice of physical combat is directly connected to the supernatural world of peace and order. This was brought home again last night by the post at Aikido Journal blog called Historical photos: Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei performing the misogi jo
Stanley Pranin writes, “This series of photos shows Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei performing misogi jo movements inside the old Aikikai Hombu Dojo, c. 1965. If you look closely, you will see that he is actually using two separate weapons. One is the familiar jo — a stick a little over four feet long — and the other a pointed weapon of similar length called the “nuboko.” Mention of this nuboko, literally the “swamp spear,” will be new to many aikidoka. Its name comes right out of the Kojiki, the so-called “Record of Ancient Matters,” that contains the mythological creation stories of Japan.”
Nuboko? Hmmm. If we make a quick Google search on this term, we find no clear photos of weapons or links to schools or nuboko-jutsu or nuboko-do. “Swamp spear” sounds like a short wooden spear one might use to hunt medium-sized reptiles in swamps. However, this is not what “swamp spear” means.
Nuboko is Ame-no-nuboko (天沼矛 or 天之瓊矛), the “heavenly bejeweled spear” that was used to create the islands of Japan. This is described as a naginata, though in the famous Kobayashi painting of Izanagi and Izanami, it appears to be a straight-bladed yari, and in another older-looking painting I can’t identify, it appears as something like a tsuki nari yari.
So where does the name “swamp spear” come from? The kanji for “swamp” is 沼 and can be found in words like lake, pond, and marsh. However, it can also be found in words like 泥沼, meaning quagmire, morass, quandary, difficult situation. Recall what Izanagi and Izanami used the Swamp Spear for. Receiving it from the older gods in the heavens, the two kami dipped the spear into the seas and the drops that came off the blade and fell back into the sea turned into the islands of Japan. In other words, the Swamp Spear is not a type of spear used in swamps, it’s meaning is more like Spear of Chaos, or “the spear that divides order from disorder,” as in
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light and divided the light from the darkness.
So is Ueshiba’s Swamp Spear a 1.5-meter sharp spike or a three-meter combat weapon with a metal blade? It doesn’t really matter. In the case of Ueshiba’s misogi 禊, it is in a sense the ritual that creates the spear.
But this short historical review just brings us back to the original question. How can I analogize the connection between the practice of combat forms and metaphysics (which we now see is deeply embedded in Japanese mythology and not something unique to Ueshiba) to something I am familiar with?
As it happens, totally by chance, last night, I looked up the hymn Jerusalem by Hubert Parry. This is based on the poem “And did those feet in ancient time” by William Blake. The poem is related to the legend that Jesus came to England during the missing period of his childhood.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
As in much Judeo-Christian imagery, the weapons are metaphorical. They represent the poet’s determination to fight to make England a holy land like the promised New Jerusalem. The Chariot of Fire is a heavenly war machine that took away the prophet Elijah in a whirlwind, who apparently avoided death by being taken directly to heaven. I think in this context “unfolding clouds” refers to heavenly help or inspiration; Blake’s spear is his “cloud splitter.”
I think the point we can take away from the fact that the Japanese creation myth includes a weapon is that the formation of order out of chaos–or the creation of a pastoral utopia out of an industrialized nation–is something that requires (or, especially, did require in ancient time) effort that is sui generis with war. “Constant vigilance” in modern parlance.
I still don’t understand how Ueshiba’s religious practices are compatible with this metaphorical vision. It seems to me that if civilization requires warriors to maintain itself, then these warriors ought to be out in the world rather than practicing in the dojo. However, Ueshiba was perhaps more of an occultist than I am. I suspect he believed that Nuboko Misogi literally brought heaven to earth. Perhaps in his conception, the practice of aikido by some elite provided literal power that somehow helped undergird the nation. Or perhaps–what I think is more likely–he thought Nuboko Misogi was something rather like kabbalah–a kind of magic that worked because by being compatible with the way the universe is organized. In other words, Nuboko Misogi was a way of hacking the universe to gain power.