Ōsensei intended Aikido to be far more than a system of techniques for self-defense. His intention was to fuse his martial art to a set of ethical, social, and dispositional ideals. Ōsensei hoped that by training in Aikido, people would perfect themselves spiritually as well as physically. It is not immediately obvious, however, just how practicing Aikido is supposed to result in any spiritual (= psycho-physical) transformation. Furthermore, many other arts have claimed to be vehicles for carrying their practitioners to enlightenment or psycho-physical transformation. We may legitimately wonder, then, whether, or how, Aikido differs from other arts in respect of transformative effect.
It should be clear that any transformative power of Aikido, if such exists at all, cannot reside in the performance of physical techniques alone. Rather, if Aikido is to provide a vehicle for self-improvement and psycho-physical transformation along the lines envisioned by the founder, the practitioner of Aikido must adopt certain attitudes toward Aikido training and must strive to cultivate certain sorts of cognitive dispositions.
Classically, those arts which claim to provide a transformative framework for their practitioners are rooted in religious and philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism (the influence of Shinto on Japanese arts is usually comparatively small). In Japan, Zen Buddhism exercised the strongest influence on the development of transformative arts. Although Ōsensei was far less influenced by Taoism and Zen than by the “new religion,” Omotokyo, it is certainly possible to incorporate aspects of Zen and Taoist philosophy and practice into Aikido. Moreover, Omotokyo is largely rooted in a complex structure of neo-Shinto mystical concepts and beliefs. It would be wildly implausible to suppose that adoption of this structure is a necessary condition for psycho-physical transformation through Aikido.
So far as the incorporation of Zen and Taoist practices and philosophies into Aikido is concerned, psycho-physical transformation through the practice of Aikido will be little different from psycho-physical transformation through the practice of arts such as karate, kyudo, and tea ceremony. All these arts have in common the goal of instilling in their practitioners cognitive equanimity, spontaneity of action/response, and receptivity to the character of things just as they are (shinnyo). The primary means for producing these sorts of dispositions in trainees is a two-fold focus on repetition of the fundamental movements and positions of the art, and on preserving mindfulness in practice.
The fact that Aikido training is always cooperative provides another focus for construing personal transformation through Aikido. Cooperative training facilitates the abandonment of a competitive mind-set which reinforces the perception of self-other dichotomies. Cooperative training also instills a regard for the safety and well-being of one’s partner. This attitude of concern for others is then to be extended to other situations than the practice of Aikido. In other words, the cooperative framework for aikido practice is supposed to translate directly into a framework for ethical behavior in one’s daily life.
Furthermore, it should be clear that if personal transformation is possible through Aikido training, it is not an automatic process. This should be apparent by noticing the fact that there are Aikido practitioners with many years of experience who still commit both moral and legal infractions. Technical proficiency and broad experience in the martial arts is by no means a guarantee of ethical or personal advancement. This fact often comes as a great disappointment to students of Aikido, especially if they should discover that their own instructors still suffer from a variety of shortcomings. In fact, however, this itself constitutes a valuable lesson: Technical proficiency is an easier goal to attain than that of personal improvement. Although both of these goals may require a lifetime of commitment, it is considerably easier to make the sort of sacrifices and efforts required for technical proficiency than it is to make the sacrifices and efforts required for substantive personal transformation and improvement.
The path to self-improvement and personal transformation must begin somewhere, however. Perhaps the most important (and easily forgotten) starting point for both students and teachers of Aikido is to bear constantly in mind that the people one is training with are one and all human beings like oneself, each with a unique perspective, and capable of feeling pain, frustration and happiness, and each with his or her own goals of training.
If one takes seriously the notion that part of one’s Aikido training should aim towards self-improvement, one may sometimes have to consider how one will be viewed by others. Someone may have superb technical ability and yet be viewed by others as a self-centered and inconsiderate bully.