john stevens, the way of harmony
Thousands of hours went into the development of the techniques, but thousands more were spent struggling with the great matters of human existence.
Recently out of a seven-week round of chemotherapy, Aikido Scholar and Teacher John Stevens has spent the last four years battling with a very rare form of urethral cancer. In the face of one of the loneliest, most painful challenges a human being faces, he has relied greatly on what he has learnt from his life-long practice of Aikido. From his time spent under the tutelage of Shirata Rinjiro Sensei, a student of Aikido’s founding father, Morihei Ueshiba, John Stevens has been regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Aikido and Buddhist studies. His prolific literary contributions such as ‘Aikido: The Way of Harmony’ and ‘ The Sword of No Sword’ have served as definitive compendiums to the techniques and philosophies of Aikido.
In the past few years, Stevens has called the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu home. Here, he continues to instruct new pupils on the philosophy and practice of the hundred year old Japanese martial art form. With the rhythmic roll of the ocean echoing in his study, we speak to John in his seventieth year. Framed by ring binders of research and Japanese literature, he sits at the centre of his universe. In our conversation, the author and Aikido master reflects on how the teachings of Aikido have taught him how to live, and, through the darkness, move into the light.
THE PROCESS IS THE WAY
JOHN STEVENS, THE ART OF PEACE
Life is a divine gift. The divine is not something outside of us; it is right in our very center; it is our freedom.
There are inevitable certainties one must face in the journey of life – the realities of ageing, death and sickness are all states of existence that on the surface, frustrates every individual’s pursuit of peace and harmony. With time, every disorder we encounter, whether physical or circumstantial, has the potential to disrupt the rhythms of our existence. This can give rise to feelings of tension, frustration, and resistance within us. This is because most of all conflict stems from the dualistic dynamic we perceive between ourselves and external antagonising forces – the force of the ‘other’. However, the wisdom of Aikido, like the way of Tao, extols the virtues of a life that moves in harmony and flow with the natural forces of the universe. Like a mirror, the mind and body retains nothing, observing the procession of life’s forces, and dissolving the perceived separation between the self and the world.
“One reason we train is to meet the challenges in life. And those include, getting old, getting sick and dying and being separated from the ones you love- those are the hardest things we encounter.
I have experienced all those things, except dying. Yet, we have to learn to accept and adapt to any challenge. I’ve been sick now for four years and it’s been very difficult. But, Aikido has taught me to learn to accept any challenge, deal with it head- on ,and not being discouraged, but optimistic.
With anything, you have to get used to it and harmonise with it. It’s a central factor to life and goes with the territory of being human.”
– John Stevens
THE STRENGTH IN SURRENDER
Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained.
Aikido techniques employ four qualities that reflect the nature the our physical world. Depending on the circumstance, it teaches pupils to adapt their form to embody various elemental qualities. In one instance, they should be hard as a diamond, in another, flexible as a willow, smooth-flowing like water, or empty like space. Aside from developing physical strength, the philosophical basis of these teachings are taught with a higher philosophical purpose in mind. Training within these elemental frameworks enables students to move in greater harmony with his or her opponent. Akin to the principles of Tantra, Aikido movements are described as ‘stepping stones’ towards achieving greater self realisation.
THE FLOWING BODY
“Sometimes we have to be like a diamond, sometimes we have to go with the flow and other times we have to not be there at all. There is no set form to one’s practice. What is important to remember, is to approach your training, like life, with the right amount of force and finesse.
Physically I was proud of the way I moved. In the old days they would never do push ups or use dumb bells or dead weights because they can be very harmful. They are terrible for your body. If you want to train, train naturally. Do yoga or swim a lot, exercises that work with a range of motion, rather than concentrated physical movements.
The wisdom of Aikido is create a state of being whose responses are natural, flexible and immediate. When all our faculties are harmonised, we have light.”
– John Stevens
(R-Aikido’s Founding Father Morihei Ureshiba)
ILLUMINATING THE PATH
The divine is right here in this very body. Each one of us is a miniature universe, a living shrine.
The path of Aikido is one illuminated by its appreciation for lightness and optimism in the face of adversity. By working to dissolve the borders of distinction between self and other, Aikido’s unifying principles have profound implications that reach beyond training the body for physical strength. Aikido’s teachings encourage students to move towards the higher mission of achieving a greater harmony with life. In his lectures on the study of Aikido, Morihei Ureshiba describes the martial art form as the code (budo) of love. Through the consistent study of Aikido, and its meditation techniques, the practitioner finds a way of ‘opening the rock door that shuts the light away from the human mind’.
‘The reason we train is to foster human life and bring out the best in people. To learn how to face adversity with fearlessness. I believe to really understand things, you should move towards the light. When we meditate, we focus on fill our body with the energy of heaven and earth, the lushness and the vitality of all things being connected and breathing together.
The meditation we do in the morning is a breath to heaven and a breath to earth and your breath – it’s the connection, the power is what we want to identify with. To tap into that tremendous reserve of universal energy.”
– John Stevens
(L- Shirata Rinjiro Sensei, John Stevens much loved teacher)
Reflecting on the seminal Aikido book ‘The Art of Peace’, Stevens muses, ‘the last calligraphy Morhei drew before he died was the word ‘light’. In Aikido we always move towards the light. Life can be bewildering and in the face of life’s challenges, it can be hard to achieve a lasting sense of equilibrium. However, as the spiritual wisdom Aikido ripples through generations of practitioners, it gives us a way to help us see things through, and fight the good fight to the end.
John Stevens is a widely respected translator, an ordained Buddhist priest, a curator of several major exhibitions of Zen art, and an Aikido instructor. He has authored more than thirty books and is one of the foremost Western experts on Aikido, holding a ranking of 7th dan Aikikai. Titles he has authored include Sacred Calligraphy of the East, Extraordinary Zen Masters and The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei.