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Excerpted from The Way of Aikido by George Leonard. Copyright 1999 by George Leonard. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Putnam, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.

"I will practice aikido for the sheer, unmitigated beauty of it."

George Leonard, The Way of Aikido, Part 5

We Are Not Gods

O Sensei's life was filled with the kinds of episodes from which legends are made. Once, on his abortive expedition to Mongolia, he and his group were ambushed by Chinese soldiers. Facing a hail of bullets, Morihei discovered, according to his own account, that by remaining absolutely calm and concentrating ki in his mind and body, he could see "pebbles of white light flashing just before the bullets.. I avoided them by twisting and turning my body." On another occasion, he was surrounded by men with knives. When they rushed at him, he seemingly disappeared, only to reappear on a flight of stairs some distance away.

A founder's miraculous feats are the bread and butter of the martial arts and are to be taken with a generous seasoning of salt. But those of O Sensei occurred in modern times and some of them are unique in having been recorded on film. After I had been doing aikido for only a few months, my first teacher brought in an 8mm projector so that after class we could sit on the mat and watch home movies of the founder in action.

And there he is, a somewhat frail-looking old man less than five feet tall with a wispy white beard and dressed in a long white robe. He is surrounded by several young martial artists holding wooden staffs. As they rush into strike him, he "disappears" and the attackers collapse in a heap, revealing O Sensei smiling benignly on the other side of them. The flickering, slightly grainy black-and-white images somehow add to the authenticity of the action.

And then two attackers are converging on him from different directions at full speed. Just as they appear to reach him, he has inexplicably moved toward them, just past their lines of attack, and they have crashed together and he has pinned them to the mat, one on top of the other, holding the two of them down with one finger. My teacher reverses the film and plays this sequence over again slowly. Maybe there's something wrong with the film, but it does seem that O Sensei has moved two or three feet and turned 180 degrees in what amounts to no time at all.

And then he is simply performing some of the standard techniques of aikido that we have practiced, except that he is moving with incomparable swiftness, grace, and ease. Attacked simultaneously by three muscular black belts, he sends them flying again and again, like chips from a wood-cutter's ax.

I am sitting on the mat, still soaked with sweat, but the chill that runs up my spine has nothing to do with the temperature. I am aching with the daring of what I'm seeing, the beauty. Already, at this early stage of my aikido journey, I'm beginning to realize that aikido's philosophy rather than its physical techniques might well turn out to be of the greatest significance for the world. And I know I can never match the mastery that flickers on the small screen before me. But I will keep on practicing, not for prowess in self-defense, not for rank or prestige, not even for the wonderful and life-changing lessons that flow from this art. I will practice aikido for the sheer, unmitigated beauty of it.

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