In Aikido we use weapons as a basis of understanding or a metaphor for action – “shomen is like an overhead strike” – and yet we will sometimes change the way we execute any given technique. Aikido does at least make the pretext of keeping the principles the same – meaning that the principles of movement are the same regardless of whether or not you and/or the opponent deploy a weapon.
However this is difficult to make manifest – meaning weapons raise the level of affect and changes the mindset of the practitioner. But this speaks to the heart of the issue – the mind is the primary weapon and the body is second. Fencers acknowledge this directly – they call their science of fighting, mental chess. But that is an advanced appreciation of the science of movement.
Most of the time a weapon wielding opponent will be focused on what is typically understood as the threat – the weapon itself. Weapons become perceived as the most important factor in the equation – everyone becomes focused on the use of, control of, and defense against the weapon – the whole encounter now revolves around the use of the weapon. If the weapon is lost then the aggressor needs to change his fighting principles. But this is a failure of mindset – the principles never change.
When you appreciate that the principles are primary and the body is secondary – then everything else is ancillary. As much as it may be an impolite perspective as an Aikidoist, ultimately we are practicing a martial art, which as a child of the west, I prefer to think of it as a fighting science. A science because we are looking for formulaic means of creating a defined response given a set of input/stimuli and have it be replicable. We repeat any given sequence of action to perfect the movement pattern in order to repeat it instinctively when we encounter that same situation in the dynamic and messy flow of a real encounter. How do we know we will encounter that same situation found in the safety of the dojo? Because as humans with a body there is a finite number of combinations – reference points, frames, lines, patterns – that are possible. The combinations may be vast but they are comprehensible. We train for repetition to ensure a confident and smooth response but we train primarily to ensure that we prevail. Again, an impolite phraseology in Aikido circles, but the goal of a combative encounter is to win. The facts of violence is – to invoke Jeff Cooper – second place is the first loser. The first one to take control is usually the one who prevails.
When you watch O’Sensei in video, the primary lesson to learn is to see that he always created the context – i.e. controlled the encounter. Some criticism of O’Sensei was that he was always dictating the encounter and for all the gloss of harmony of action – the fact is that his use of atemi, the art of the first strike, created the response that nage could exploit. Phrased differently – the first one to act effectively (to cause injury, etc.,) is the one who gets to do it again – or in Aikido is allowed the choice to not maim and kill.
It is a horrible misconception that Aikido is defensive in nature – or more specifically that defensive is misconstrued as reactionary. It is adamantly not a reactionary art. To react is to fail. Training to block is training to die. You can never prevail through defending. To control an encounter is to attack. That should be one of the early lessons in a weapons class. Defending is at best permanently a half-beat behind the attacker. Always trying to block leads inevitably to failure. And as we saw above – failure results in death.
Violence understood properly is a survival tool. Aikido makes the mistake of trying to jump levels of philosophical refinement as if we can talk away the basic goals and focus solely on the higher purpose of cultivation of spirit
I hold in high regards the ideals of self-actualization and believe that martial arts is a great tool to help achieve that goal. However, I do not respect, nor would I want to perpetuate an art that purports to cultivate the spirit without understanding what its historical purpose was. Why? Because without a solid foundation of understanding purpose and without being able to achieve the practical effective self-preservation it is impossible to wield a life-giving sword. Stage fighting and choreography cannot lead to a higher mental state – it can only result in delusional confidence and a pantomime of virtue.
I have always found it ironic that some of the most aggressive spirits I have met I found on the Aikido mat. Because Aikido purports to non-violence most Aikidoists have no comprehension of its use, value and purpose. Conversely, the gentlest spirits I have trained with tend to be those who have lived violence raw and real – veterans of the combat and law enforcement. In this regard, weapons training in Aikido is a means to – as Chris Mulligan used to say – raise the affect level: meaning bring a higher level of focus because the (perceived) threat level is increased. And of course, the real conclusion should be that there is no difference between weapon and non-weapon training: our mindset should be focused and clear regardless of the ancillary elements. The real focus always was, has been, and will be on the mind of the opponent.
And so now we get to the crux of the matter – how do we control the mind of another. It may sound mystical and mystics have written about such matters, but following Master at Arms James A. Keating, I would suggest that magic – stage magicians – are masters at controlling the minds of another. Sleight of hand, misdirection, all the ‘tricks’ of their trade are all paramount skills to learn. Watch David Blaine do street magic and realize that his ability to control the totality of the encounter resides entirely within his ability to control himself. There are many paths to self-actualization/perfection.
How does this help to further our understanding of weapon training in Aikido? The simple rote learning of form – the kata – is just the first stage. Next is the refinement of connection ki-musubi. I would suggest the next step is playing with deception – giving of visual cues (a slight shift of weight, or jerk of movement to throw off your true intent), a refinement of feints to lead your opponent to the position you want them to take. This is the “simple” trick O’Sensei deployed well with his atemi – he took the initiative away from uke to create the situation where blending action rather than destructive force can be employed. The subtle irony of violent first action becoming the life-giving sword.
But first you must know how to use the sword effectively. You must know how to use violence effectively – because without knowing a violent encounter is true chaos. But once you know how to injure – that is how to act effectively – then we can make others react in a predictable manner. (And yes, this will also tie in with Boyd’s OODA loop.) This knowledge should lead to confidence in action – confidence arising from mastery of self, which manifests in the ability to control the encounter: the shortest route to victory.