The Misunderstanding of Ki

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

Ki! When the word is mentioned it fills the mind with thoughts of wondrous ability, many times considered far beyond the realm of normal human experience. Probably the one personage to pop into the head of the practicing martial artist, when Ki is mentioned, is Morihei Ueshiba, the great master and founder of Aikikai Aikido.

Morihei Ueshiba

The tales of Ueshiba's Ki abilities are fantastic, almost to the point where they seem fantasy rather than true. Yet there are too many people, many still alive today, who witnessed for themselves his ability, to think the stories are not true. The Aikido O'Sensei had the ability to draw upon incredible strength, discern situations, and move harmoniously, in ways that even today have not been duplicated, though some of his students have come close.

It has been wondered by many, why was Ueshiba able to reach such a high level of Ki skill, that no one else seemed capable of duplicating? Let me say immediately that this is not to detract from any of the wonderful Aikido masters currently teaching today. There are many skilled, competent, master teachers of the Aikido art currently carrying on Ueshiba's tradition, but most of them, will admit to being unable to duplicate Ueshiba's ability.

The main difference between the Ki of Morihei Ueshiba and that of most people today deals mainly with the modern martial artists' misunderstanding of Ki. This probably started, at least as far as Aikido goes, and probably for the rest of the martial arts world, since many instructors have looked to Aikido for their understanding of Ki, with the split between the Aikikai and Koichi Tohei.

The Split and The Polarity

It is in this split that we see the polarity which has caused a misunderstanding of what Ki is and how to properly develop the ability to direct it. Let it also be said that this situation is merely a microcosm of what is happening in the martial arts world today.

If we take Morihei Ueshiba as the definitive Ki master, and there have actually been many over the years, but the most famous would have to be the Aikido Kaiso (founder), then what we see in him, which is missing in the two lines draw since him, is a unity in the understanding of Ki.

Waza and Ki

Let us take first the Waza idea of Ki. This concept is simply, practice your Aikido techniques and Ki will develop naturally without any special effort. While there is an element of truth to this statement, it ignores the fact that conscious intensity helps to direct Ki more specifically than mere movement.

An untrained person when they move, still directs their Ki, if we hold to the idea that every aspect in life is the manifestation of the flow of this intrinsic energy. This is why an attacker can be sensed by a person who has developed Haragei, the spirit arts, which can act like an early warning devise, perceiving the projection of Ki which precedes a conscious assault. The more intensity in the emotions of the attacking person, the more palpable is the preceding energy.

Thus everyone projects Ki naturally. A trained athlete, who has spent years practicing a sport, will have a much more focused mind, and thus better control of their own personal energy and body. Yet how many times do you see a sixty, seventy, or eighty year old athlete still practicing their game? Yet think of how many martial artists are still actively teaching and capable of demonstrating their arts at age seventy, eighty, and even ninety.

The difference between sport personalities and martial artists (which does not include the martial arts competitor, for they are mainly sport practitioners and less true martial artists), is that the true martial artist is not a competitor and thus does not waste their energy in empty pursuits. Also the martial artists, thinking specifically of Aikidoka and Bujutsuka who do not engage in competition, can develop true harmony of the spirit, since they are not thinking of beating another person.

The Other Side – Ki Alone

Thus the sports competitor is practicing disharmony and contention and can thus never achieve the harmony and cooperation necessary to the higher levels of Ki. And this leads us to the second aspect of the Aikido split, the practice of Ki alone. There are those who content that the practice of Ki is what Aikido is all about, thus combat effective techniques, in their opinion, do not have to be valid or effective for the development of Ki.

In many of these types of Aikido schools, the majority of time is spent on Ki exercises which have nothing whatsoever to do with Aikido. The students will be taught how to extend Ki, hold one point, and do immobile postures, to prove how effective their Ki is, and yet many of them know nothing about the actual practice and use of Ki in actual movement. Most of all, many of these types of Aikidoka, know nothing about self defense.

There is one story told about how Bruce Lee while on a Hong Kong talk show, shared billing with some Aikido practitioners and other martial artists. The Aikido practitioners were saying how they could take an immovable stance, and allowed the other martial artists to try to move them by pushing them over. Eventually the host asked Bruce Lee if he thought he could move the Aikidoka. Lee stood up, walked over to the Aikido practitioner, punched him in the face, knocking him down. The Ki ability of immovable posture was not put into a fighting context by the Aikidoka, thus Lee was able to catch the man off guard with a punch.

If we look to Morihei Ueshiba, we can see that both of these extremes, total focus on Waza to the exclusion of Ki or total focus on Ki to the exclusion of effective self defense, combat oriented Waza, are out of balance with what he originally taught. Ueshiba was a master technician of Waza, while at the same time being a fully focused spiritual practitioner of Ki.

One may ask, how did O'Sensei accomplish this? The answer is simply, he believed in his art and in the Universal Ki. The main problem with most people is that they want the physical attributes of Aikido, without sweating, and they want the power of Ki without faith. You can have neither without their intrinsic cause.

A person becomes good in martial arts techniques only by constant and repetitive practice. There is no other way, there are no shortcuts. This is what the Japanese call Shugyo. austere training. Shugyo has in some cases been translated simply as, hard work. Yes, for the lazy, it would be nice if you could perform some magical moves that suddenly gives you the power of Ki, but the true martial artist enjoys the physical labor of their art. To train and to sweat is to live fully. The life of the martial artist is one of physical labor, but it is also the joy of that labor. A martial artist who does not enjoy the hard work of training, is no martial artist at all.

Faith and Ki

Ki training, in all honesty, is more a matter of faith, as all spiritual disciplines are, rather than a process of learning. Yet it is a matter of exercising that faith, so that we have the confidence to draw upon the spiritual strength of Ki whenever we need it. Some of the Ki exercises have an element of validity, if they are then related to actual Aikido techniques.

In example, when a person learns the Orenaite, unbendable arm, it is an impressive feat, especially when a small person lets a big person try to bend their arm, or if three people try to bend the arm of one person. Yet in and of itself, it has no meaning. But when you relate the Orenaite to proper Zempo Kaiten Ukemi, forward rolling break falls, or to the Aikido techniques of Kokyu Nage and Irimi Nage, suddenly the reason for projecting the Ki into the arm takes on a greater sense of reality and practicality, which actually helps the Aikido student better focus their Ki, since they understand there is a practical reason why.

But the bottom line is, Morihei Ueshiba's Ki grew out of his faith in the spiritual world and this allows us, as martial artists to understand that in order for us to reach the higher levels of Ki development, it must be a matter of spiritual faith. Luckily this is not a matter of religion, but a matter of belief. Nearly all, if not all, of the living religions of the world, have the belief in something beyond this empirical world. Even some of the religions that have been branded nihilistic or godless, have the belief in a superior something that is far and above the physical existence, though in some cases they resist the urge to name or personalize this ultimate for fear of being blasphemous in the attempt. Rather they try to harmonize with the Ultimate, rather than simply try to explain it.

Universal Ki – God

Thus that which supplied Morihei Ueshiba with the power and ability to perform in the incredible manner in which he was capable, is none other than faith in the spiritual existence of, what he referred to as the Universal Ki and which people of the Western world would be more apt to name God. In dealing with Westerners, Ueshiba was used to talking to them in ways they could understand, willing to talk about Jesus on the same level as his charges.

Ueshiba himself, was a Shinto priest of the Omoto Kyo sect, yet with a universal outlook, as befitted a truly spiritual person. It is believed that this ability to look beyond culture and religion paralleled the ideas of his fellow martial artist and friend, James Masayoshi Mitose.

When Mitose taught the martial arts in the United States, though he was raised a Buddhist priest, he related the spiritual training to the teachings of Christ. So much so that he eventually became a Christian minister. Yet even as a Christian, he would explain his martial arts concepts using both Buddhist and Christian terms which he felt were complimentary, not antagonistic.

It is known that Mitose was a friend of Ueshiba and well respected by the master, who instructed that Mitose receive both a certificate of Judan, tenth degree black belt, and one which recognized him as a remonstrant of Aikido. Mitose had been with the entourage which followed Choki Motobu, believed to be his maternal uncle, around. Among those in the group was Yasuhiro Konishi, who visited Ueshiba many times. It is this connection which could have produced in the Kempo master a universal understanding of Ki and it's ability to be applied through any faith.

The Foundation of Ki is Love

Like all true matters of faith, the foundation to Ki is love. Morihei Ueshiba achieved a higher level of love, the deeper he immersed himself in the study of Ki. This is a point that many of the Ki only people seem to miss. There have been those who have practiced Ki only style training, which while capable of doing certain Ki tricks, lack the essential love of Ueshiba and also lack his amazing martial arts ability.

The same could also be said of those who are Waza practitioners, that while they have good fighting skills, they lack the ability to deal with the high level combat situations which marked the life and skill of Morihei Ueshiba. Many of those who profess technical skill are quite proficient, but put them in the ten or twelve on one situations which the Aikido founder faced and they would be incapable of duplicating his prowess.

This is one of the weaknesses of the current group of Jujutsuka who are touting how great their skills are, while they do fine in a one on one situation on special mats or in rings, their skills do not hold true when on the street or against more than one opponent.

It is through martial arts training that real Ki development comes, due to the life and death nature of the subject. A person trying to develop Ki through special non-martial arts exercises is like a person trying to swim without water. It is through the serious thought of combat, of the potential to be injured if unsuccessful, or to kill if unrestrained, that causes the most powerful focus of the Ki.

Ki Training – Martial Arts Training

Any true form of martial arts training is Ki training. It is not necessary to have a separate branch of Ki study if the emphasis in the actual martial art itself is genuine. Each punch should be a focus of Ki, each throw a harmony with the Ki of another, each Kata an act of flowing Ki, each weapon an opportunity for the extension of Ki, each act a form of meditation opening the mind to greater Ki development.

Ki is the essence of life. There are those who will stumble through life never achieving anything and always wondering why. These are people who never touch the essence nor know its source. Just as Ueshiba recognized his own personal Ki and then understood it's relationship to the Universal Ki, so too must we, if we want to truly achieve the highest levels of development. Even at an advanced age and with a level of mastery most would envy, Morihei Ueshiba knew that he had to practice, a statement he made to his students many times over.

If you would achieve the highest levels of martial arts while truly achieving the best that you can as a human being, then it must be understood that it begins with hard work in the practice of the Waza of the martial arts. It progresses to daily training for the discipline of the body and mind. It requires the achievement of Mushin, which opens the mind to the flow of the spirit, and it takes faith that the spirit is there and compassionate. Then it takes the growth of love between you and your training partners that will eventually extend to all of humanity, in the ultimate living expression of the manifestation of the Universal Ki.

Ki! The wondrous ability of the martial arts, which when properly developed leads to a truly extraordinary love of peace and harmony, which is the true ultimate goal of the real martial artist. Develop your Ki.



All images and text on this site are the exclusive property of the Christian Martial Arts Association.
All rights reserved © 2010