“What Is The Dharma Of Aikido?”

An "Aiki-Discussion" w/ Teja "Fudo Myo" Bell & Miles Kessler

The word Dharma is an ancient Sanskrit work meaning “Spiritual Teachings”, “Universal Principles”, or “Ultimate Reality.” And even though it isn’t always held this way, Aikido is an art that rests on the foundation of universal principles. This is the “Dharma Of Aikido”.

What Is The Dharma Of Aikido?

By all accounts, Aikido’s founder O Sensei had a profound spiritual awakening into ultimate reality. It was this awakening that transformed his martial arts into Aikido. Ueshiba’s Aikido was a profound expression of the Dharma, which in Aikido has one fundamental taste: Conflict becomes resolved into wholeness.

It is essential that you learn to directly experience, understand, and express Aikido’s spiritual source. To do this you need to awaken Aikido’s universal principles on the mat, in your art, and in your life.

In the below video I entered into an “Aiki-Discussion” with Zen Buddhist Roshi, Qi Gong teacher, and Aikido Sensei Teja “Fudo Myo” Bell exploring the question “What Is The Dharma Of Aikido?”

I invited Teja to join the “Aikido At The Leading Edge” tele-summit as one of the presenters, and we had scheduled a pre-event meeting together to get to know each other more and discuss the event.

Both Teja and I have similar backgrounds as Aikido teachers as well as meditation teachers. You may not think so from the looks of it, but this conversation was actually our first meeting. It is always a pleasure to plug right into a context without much negotiation of meaning and views. Because of this shared context, we were off the races from the get-go. Luckily, I recorded the conversation and am sharing it with you here.

It was a delightful discussion and we covered a lot of ground, including:

  • What is Dharma?
  • How does the Dharma impact Aikido?
  • What is the evolution of Aikido?
  • How Awakening to the Absolute dimension re-organizes your Aikido
  • Meditation and Aikido
  • Sayadaw U Pandita’s admonishment that the point of our practice is to see the Dharma.

Watch now:


Question: Do you think Aikido needs a Dharma? How do you experience the Dharma Of Aikido?” – Leave your comments below!


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Cheryl Whitelaw

    I am moved to respond to your rich discussion, perhaps especially in light of an earlier posting. Your discussion was timely for me as I am mired a little in the relative practice field – trying to hold the spiritual, evolutionary practice of aikido with the technical and martially directed practices (e.g. atemi/striking practice) without getting off-put and overwhelmed by the application of dominating force. Cognitively I can hold both together; in the moment of practice I feel dismay and resistance when I hurt someone else as I learn control during more martial drills. I have reflected this week on my ego need for the aikido path to be about more than another way to win in a fight – so searching a little to situate practice as both effective and evolutionary.

    • Miles Kessler

      Thanks for your comment Cheryl. It’s a perfect description of what arises for us between who we are and the potential we are becoming. It like there are magnets below us that are pulling us down, and magnets above us drawing us towards our potential. And by the way, it’s a fact that our cognitive capacities usually lead our emotional, physical, and energetic capacities. Our ego needs are real, they are us. For us to evolve we must integrate these more basic instincts into the whole of who we are. Or else they will continue to define and control who we are.

  • Robert Norris

    My understanding of the meaning of Dharma is that it is not only the principles but also the vehicle, or the language that is used to convey/transmit/teach the principles. As such, aikido IS Dharma, and our commitment to genuine practice is a commitment to an honest inquiry into what it means to be alive and human, on and off the mat. What really matters therefore is not so much what we think aikido is or ought to be, but how we view ourselves in relation to the world, because how we enter into that relationship will necessarily define the quality of who we are in any given moment and therefore the nature of what we bring to the mat.

    • Miles Kessler

      Hi Robert, nice to hear your input. Yes, in a Buddhist sense Dharma does imply “vehicle”, but the precise word for this is “yana”, as in “Mahayana, “Vajrayana”, etc. As you know, in early Buddhist teachings the root meaning “Dharma” (or Dhamma) is the “ultimate reality.” The state of liberation that one discovers in meditation. That experience of reality that is absolute and irreducible – namely, the 3 universal characteristics of annica, dhukka, and anata (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self), AND Nibanna. These 3 universal characteristics of all phenomena are the underlying code of the matrix, which lead to Nibanna, which is the liberation from the Martix. So in this sense, yes, any teachings, systems, practices or transmissions of these Universal Principles and Nibanna, is also Dharma.

      The only thing I would add to your conclusion above is this: “How we view ourselves in relation to the world” is determined by many things like culture, personal history, collective history, education, up bringing, environment, context, and so on. But nothing ultimately impacts “how we relate to the world” more than “seeing the Dharma”, seeing ultimate reality.

      Like when Neo awakened to seeing the code of the Matrix, he was transformed. Of course he had to die to see that, but so does the ego. It makes all the difference.

      • Robert Norris

        Thanks Miles that helps a lot in terms of reminding me that we walk into the world with the “how we view ourselves” in one hand and the “how we relate” in the other, and that somewhere in the dialogue between the two we find the path towards something intimated or experienced imperfectly, here referred to as “ultimate reality”.

        When I look again at the source where I learned that Dhamma is both the truth transmitted by the teaching and the conceptual-verbal medium by which the truth is expressed (Bikkhu Bodhi’s Intro to the MLDs), I understand that there is the medium (language) and the vehicle (yāna, or school), and that both of these are important aspects in the process of gaining insight into the teachings. We join a school (a community), we learn the language used in the school, and this comes to form the chosen path of understanding. Aikido for me is one such chosen path, and in particular the specific aikido we practice, and on that path I (for example) can experience the full range of human difficulties and intimacies and understandings.

        When I look at that chosen path and compare it, for instance, to other chosen paths I have embraced, for instance what is more specifically referred to when we talk about mindfulness, I realise also that there is something in the path of aikido as I have experienced it so far that somehow doesn’t contain the complexity of what I am reaching for, and sure enough the teachers in aikido I tend to be attracted to the most (you and Patrick at the moment) tend to be people who have walked deep and wide in other broader-spectrum traditions such as vipassana and yoga. Aikido needs its allies, it seems, which is not to say that it is itself lacking, just that perhaps it actually complements these other traditions with something they do not bring, namely an exploration of contemplative principles through relationship with another and a particular focus on physical conflict as a creative source of understanding, while being in turn anchored, grounded, by traditions that have a far older and stronger pedigree in terms of offering a home to communities of students.

        I feel there has to be a clear acknowledgement of the fact that the term ‘aikido’, as it stands today, is an umbrella-term that contains such profound diversities and divisions that it is highly questionable sometimes whether two people are actually talking about the same thing when they use it. This need not concern us, of course. We just keep going on our chosen path. In some sense, however, I feel it is important. One teacher, for example, may emphasise an advaita-style ‘wake-up-now-only-the-moment-counts’ approach, while another may be more interested in the gradual practice. The beauty of aikido is that both can come together and practice in a spirit of genuine sharing without feeling the need to impose their own perspective on the other. This is not only liberating – it is in fact radical and much needed. If we are looking to articulate the Dharma of aikido, then conceptualising that flexibility – its modernity, its comprehensiveness – may be a good place to start. Another may be a serious reflection on the role in modern times of the teacher, and what kind of relationship students of the art can come to expect.

        Of course then there is the not insignificant question of ultimate reality. I am going to stop here for the time being, though, except to recall Herman Hesse in the Glass Bead Game, where he has one of the teachers say that you can’t actually teach poetry. All you can sensibly teach is in fact the technical aspects of prosody and versification. Up to the student to engage with her or his experience with the beyond. But that for me is remains a very very open question…