The responsibility to protect (quotes from Mitsugi Saotome)

Occasionally, you will hear an aikido instructor say that it is your responsibility to protect your attacker. Sometimes, too, you will hear another instructor disagree, saying that it’s uke’s responsibility to look after him- or herself.

Below is a quote from Mitsuge Saotome concerning our responsibility to protect our attackers. Saotome is not just talking about protecting our aikido practice partners — he’s talking about protecting attackers wherever we find them in life.

It’s an ancient perspective, and at the same time, a set of skills that remain an intense challenge today. See what you think.

(This quote comes from Saotome’s 1993 book, Aikido and the Harmony of Nature, Shambhala, Boston.)

True power is found in the spiritual world, and true self-defense is the protection of the enemy’s karma. The movement of defense is not a game; it is a very serious reality. When the enemy tries to kill you, the only choice is life or death. If you are weak, you cannot defend your own karma or the enemy’s. Weakness is an excuse, an easy way out. If you cannot defend yourself and fall beneath the enemy’s attack, the enemy is guilty and becomes a murderer. But you too have sinned because of your weakness, for you’ve made a murderer. And the karma of the enemy and yourself is the same.

If the enemy attacks and you kill the enemy, then you are the murderer. The result is the same. It does not matter who was right and who was wrong, for the enemy is your shadow. You and the enemy are one life. If you kill the enemy, you are committing suicide. There are no excuses. The Way is very strict. You must defend yourself, and you must defend the enemy. This is your responsibility.

“True victory is not defeating an enemy. True victory gives love and changes the enemy’s heart.” O Sensei’s great satori was the realization that love is true power, the application of the wisdom of God, not the narrow application of human strength. The great spiritual teachers have always taught that you must love your enemy; this is the highest love. If there is love and respect, there is no enemy. When you are no longer blinded by hatred and ego, the enemy becomes a part of yourself. The enemy becomes a teacher to help refine your concepts and your technique, the necessary counterbalance that sharpens your senses. Unclouded by hatred, you can accurately reflect the other’s position and movement, and understand the other’s life and weaknesses. The most important point of Budo training is to understand the enemy. If you understand, you cannot hate. Only in this way can you discover the true path of harmony. (p. 142)

Protecting Your Young, by Alex E. Proimos

Saotome includes in Aikido and the Harmony of Nature a counterpoint to this personal responsibility, suggesting that not everyone can shoulder it all the time, and that our overall human responsibility has numerous profound aspects.

Although the same as the other forms of life, humanity is also different. We have been given the gift of compassion. We protect our weak, for the weak are often our greatest strength. We respect and revere the spirit of God within each individual. We do not blindly follow, for we have been given intellect and have developed morality. We search for truth and try to move closer to the Universal Consciousness. (p. 100)

“The weak are often our greatest strength.” Saotome doesn’t elaborate on this statement. Although I can imagine several interpretations, I wonder what he meant.


Image link: Protecting Your Young



  1. “The enemy becomes a teacher to help refine your concepts and your technique, the necessary counterbalance that sharpens your senses. Unclouded by hatred, you can accurately reflect the other’s position and movement, and understand the other’s life and weaknesses.”

    “We protect our weak, for the weak are often our greatest strength.”

    I wonder what he meant too. It is impossible to crawl into a writer’s mind. Yes, hearty chuckle, probably for the best. Most of us barely have room for our own thoughts.

    I tend to embrace the open-ended (and if you have imagined several interpretations, so do you). If the writer had been more clear, would my mind have wandered to the writings of Pema Chodron, and would I have said to myself, she would think of the “enemy” as an opportunity for practice? For her, it is precisely when we find ourselves in difficult situations that we can grow the most. This includes dealing with a fellow human with gentleness and compassion, no matter how many of our buttons they push. In this sense, enemies are our teachers. They can become our greatest strength.

    Yesterday I attempted a “sound” meditation. The instructions were clear, and it seemed like just what I needed on a day when focusing on my breath was troublesome. The instructions said to notice sounds, pleasant and unpleasant, to pay attention to how they came and went, calmly, with no judgement. Gentle wind chime or blaring car horn, all the same. Equanimity. But of course the blaring car horn is more challenging, and provides more opportunity to cultivate equanimity. If the blaring horn causes tension, note it, relax the body, let it go.

    I would love to hear your interpretations!

    Two minutes into it… no sound but the fireplace blower fan. 5 minutes into it, still no sounds. 15 minutes, still no sounds. No sound = no opportunity to practice? Or was it an opportunity to practice calm in the face of things not going as planned? Funny world.

    1. Ah, you understand the concept better than I do! I think you’re right on: difficult situations encourage us to grow. When I’m snuggled on the couch, abstractly speaking, I would be resting, not growing — but perhaps gaining strength to grow. And when I’m out in the fray, trying things, I gain information on what works and what doesn’t.

      I suppose, interestingly, that it is a cycle in which we grow — we go out and try things, and then we come back in and reflect on the experience, try to figure out what to try again and what to try differently next time. So there is a place for snuggling on the couch, in the whole scheme of things! Yay! We act, reflect, study, and consult with the people closest to us, and then act again — and our world moves forward!

      I have only read part of one of Pema Chodron’s books, but once I figured out what I thought she was saying, it has stuck with me ever since. That idea was about welcoming an emotion, whether it was positive or negative — welcome it, sit with it, and then let it go. Tsvet and I found this very useful in acknowledging the more difficult emotions.

      This sounds like part of the sound meditation you mentioned — if an unpleasant sound causes tension, note it, relax, let it go. It is good practice, don’t you agree? Difficult. I think a lot of trying to grow can involve this process, at least when dealing with stuff that stresses us out. (In addition to learning new strategies for dealing with it.)

      Which of rev. Chodron’s books do you like best? I’d love to check out your recommendations.

      Your story of your listening meditation was hilarious! Isn’t that how reality goes! Ah, we have plans, and then reality has other plans — decide to try to grow through listening to pleasant and unpleasant sounds, and lo, there are no sounds at all! “Ah, sweet child, become detached even from your intentions!” I love it! 😀

  2. She does stick with you. Welcome it, sit with it, let it go. Pleasant or unpleasant.

    I think my favorite book is “The Places That Scare You”. However, when I am truly “stuck”, I tend to re-read “Start Where You Are”.

    Yes, I was frustrated and yet could fully appreciate the humor of my attempt at a listening meditation. 🙂 I believe the intention of this mediation is to teach the body as well as the mind. The recommendation is to notice where the tension in your body lies, and breathe through it. And to mentally note how sounds, both pleasant and unpleasant, rise and fall, come and go. Yes, I think this may serve as very good practice. As far as internalizing the attitude and employing it in real life – hopefully it results little by little, with practice, over time.

    I do try to be patient. Patience is hard. Oh! An opportunity to practice presents itself! 🙂

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