Saki and the Persimmon Tree
Community Drop In Group 4/15/20
I was recently reminded of a story I first heard from one of my mindfulness teachers at UMass years ago who knew the person in the story. It is a beautiful story of meeting challenge in a way that disarms the challenge, changes its nature.
It is interesting how a story can take on a life of its own. The version I came across last week was a very watered down version which had lost sight of Terry Dobson, the actual person it happened to. So I want to share his version with its full depth of insight.
He was an American Aikido student who went to study with a teacher in Japan. After 3 years of study, he found himself becoming restless with the basic ideas. He had learned high level martial arts moves, but always with an instruction that to resort to using this is not needed in true Aikido.
His teacher, who was actually the founder of Aikido, taught that the art of aikido was devoted to peace. Dobson quotes his teacher as saying:
“Aikido ... 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.”
But this instruction was challenging for Dobson. As he says:
“I listened to his words. I tried hard. I wanted to quit fighting. ... 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.”
If we look for a fight, we will find one. His opportunity came aboard a Japanese train when a big man who was drunk, badly disheveled right down to old vomit caked on the front of his shirt, and behaving violently got on the train. The man tried to take a swing at a mother with her baby, and then again at an older woman, both of whom tried to get away in fear.
Here is how Dobson relates what then happened:
“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. I’m gonna take his ass to the cleaners.”
Seeing me stand up, the [man] 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.
Dobson gave the man a look of disgust and dismissal, trying to get him as angry as possible. He wanted the man to make the first move, and wanted the man’s anger to blind him into a foolish move. A split second before the man rushed at Dobson, someone else shouted “HEY!” Dobson says,
“I remember being hit by 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, the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono and hakama. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share. “C’mere,” the old man said in an easy [way], beckoning to the drunk, “C’mere 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 towered threateningly over him. “TALK TO YOU,” he roared above the clacking wheels, “WHY THE HELL SHOULD I TALK TO YOU ?”
Without at trace of resentment or fear, the old man asked:
“What’cha been drinking?” ... “I BEEN DRINKING SAKE,” the [big man] bellowed back,
“AND IT’S NONE OF YOUR GODDAM BUSINESS!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said with delight, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on the old wooden bench that my grandfather’s first student made for him. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My grandfather planted that tree, you know, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice-storms we had last winter. Persimmons do not do well after ice-storms, although I must say that ours has done rather better than I expected, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. Still, it most 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 intricacies of the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “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 a money, I [have] nowhere to go. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks, a spasm of pure despair rippled through his body. ...
Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make- this- world-safe-for- democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.
Just then, the train arrived at my stop. The platform was packed, and the crowd surged into the car as soon the doors opened. Maneuvering my way out, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, My,” he said with undiminished delight, “that is a very difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”
I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled like a sack on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man looked down at him with compassion and delight, one hand stroking the filthy, matted head.
As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been accomplished with a few kind words. I had seen Aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love, as the founder had said. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.”
I love this story and its naming of the Aikido power of kindness. It does matter how we meet others. This is not to say that kindness always “works.” A Pollyanna attitude towards kindness, not backed by deep wisdom and understanding of a situation, has its own risks and pitfalls as well.
It is to say that living a life in alignment with our values makes us stronger and more resilient in face of challenge, and I really invite you to consider this story in terms of your own life.
Where do you know that a powerful strong wise heart might guide you better, moment to moment, than the reactive mind that always wants to pull us back into fight/flight/freeze? Where has this been true today?
And then make it even more specific:
Where in your own mindfulness practice are you engaging more from a fight orientation with your own self. What words might an old wise compassionate sage offer to you that would allow a softening, letting go of any fight, and a willingness to investigate with compassionate care whatever is here?
Instead of fight, do you want to run away more often? Or do you find yourself sort of freezing up? What wisdom might allow that same wise softening and letting go that allows compassionate investigation and care here?
I’m just going to name one practice that supports this orientation, one we used in meditation today: RAIN
Recognize, allow or accept, Investigate and N can be natural awareness, no self or noting—whichever makes most sense for you. Notice how all of these elements were present in this story.
The older man recognized what was going on for the younger man, allowed and accepted the situation without judgement, but with alot of validation. He gently investigated what was at the root of the pain with deep, slow, gentle care, noting out loud for the man aspects of his experience that allowed him to get in touch with the grief underneath the rage.
That is the place healing can begin. For this week I encourage you to be that wiser, kinder older man towards your own self both in
your practice and in your moment to moment daily life. See how often can you remember to use
this skill to re-orient in a way that matters and opens a new door and possibility for you.
Story by Terry Dobson from the book, Aikido and the New Warrior, edited by Richard Strozzi-
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