Aspirations for the New Year

As a fractious year draws to a close, may we choose to be guided by true nobility. Here is a story to help us discern the great power inherent in action guided by kindness and empathetic wisdom.........


 This is from the late Aikido master Terry Dobson, one of the early Westerners to learn Aikido under the founder Morehei Ueschiba. He held a fourth degree black belt in the art. On returning to the USA in 1970 he was a writer and taught Aikido and worked with conflict resolution for over 20 years.

 A turning point came in my life one day on a train in the suburbs of Tokyo, in the middle of a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty - a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows. At one station the doors opened and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car, he wore laborer’s clothing and was big, drunk and dirty. His front was stiff with dried vomit. His eyes bugged out, a demonic, neon red. His hair was crusted with filth. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple, and it was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

 Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled towards the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion.

 I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up. I was young then, some twenty years ago and in pretty good shape. I stood six feet and weighed 225. I had been putting in a solid eight hours of Aikido training every day for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. The trouble was that my martial skill was untested in actual combat, because as students of Aikido we were not allowed to fight.

My teacher, the founder of Aikido, taught us each morning that the art was devoted to peace. “Aikido,” he said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate other people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard. I wanted to quit fighting. I even went so far as to cross the street a few times to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. They’d have been happy to test my martial ability. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart of hearts, however, I was dying to be a hero. I wanted a chance, an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

“This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet.: This slob, this animal, is drunk and mean and violent. People are in danger. If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt.” Seeing me stand up, the drunk saw a chance to focus his rage. “AHA!” he roared, “A FOREIGNER! YOU NEED A LESSON IN JAPANESE MANNERS!” He punched the metal pole once to give weight to his words.

I held on lightly to the commuter-strap overhead. I gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I gave him every bit of nastiness I could summon up. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to be the one to move first. And I wanted him mad, because the madder he got the more certain my victory. I pursed my lips and blew him a sneering, insolent kiss. It hit him like a slap in the face. “ALL RIGHT! he hollered, “YOU’RE GONNA GET A LESSON.” He gathered himself for a rush at me. He’d never know what hit him.

A fraction of a second before he could move, someone shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous lilting quality of it. As though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something and he had suddenly stumbled upon it - “Hey!” I wheeled to my left and the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as if he had a most important, most welcome secret to share. There was not a trace of fear or resentment about him.

 “Come here” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk, “come here and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly; the big man followed as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

 The old man continued to beam at the laborer, “Whatcha been drinking?” His eyes sparkling with interest. “I been drinking Sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man. “Oh, that’s wonderful!” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see I love Sake too. Every night me and my wife, she’s seventy-six you know, we warm up a little bottle of Sake and we take it out into the garden and we sit on our old wooden bench and we watch the sun go down and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great grandfather planted that tree and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It’s gratifying to watch when we take our Sake and go out to enjoy the evening, even when it rains.” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling, happy to share his delightful information.

 As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften, his fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah” he said, “I love persimmons too…” His voice trailed off. “Yes,” said the old man smiling “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.” “No,” replied the laborer, “My wife died.” He hung his head. Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a home, I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money, I don’t have anywhere to go. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. A spasm of pure despair rippled through his body.

 There I was, standing in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my ‘make this world safe for Democracy’ righteousness, and I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

 The train arrived at my stop and as the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically, “My” he said, “That is a difficult predicament. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

 I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking his filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words.

 I had just seen Aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it is love.