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Among My Souvenirs

by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #114 (1998)

Exhausted, I wandered out of the dojo for some fresh air, and was suddenly arrested by the beauty of the blossoms on the cherry tree outside. I experienced a moment of euphoria, and involuntary tears began to flow. It was not, alas, a full-scale O-Sensei-style enlightenment experience, but one of those funny fits of emotion that seem to pop up when one is overtired.

Shioda Sensei happened to come out of the dojo at that moment and notice my tears. Misinterpreting my condition, he said, “You must be homesick, so far from home. Chin up!” It was a warm comment from a man known for his toughness, but typical of the many acts of kindness I experienced as a live-in student, way back then, in the Sixties.

Then there was the time I fell ill for a few days with a virus. Other live-in students were dispatched to fetch the ingredients for Western-style meals, which were cooked especially, to cheer me up. One of the dojo’s patrons looked in and left some cash “in case there was anything I might need.”

Even after I left the dojo, in preparation for my return to New Zealand, and continued to attend as a sotodeshi (outside student), I was still given very friendly treatment.

There was a dojo film that I was keen to copy and take home with me, so I asked Shioda Sensei if I could borrow it but, thanks to a language mix-up, he thought I was asking for the dojo’s film projector! (This was in the days before video.) To my surprise, he said I was welcome to the projector, if I wanted it! I wondered at the time whether he would have given me the dojo car if I had asked for that. Not that I particularly wanted the ancient Morris Oxford that I was only too familiar with, having acted as his driver for a year or so. But this sort of experience made me feel as if I was a member of the family, as, indeed, I suppose I was.

I had many similar personal experiences which, although significant for me, would be of little interest to readers, so I shall refrain from listing them in detail. They are the other side of the coin, in relation to some of the negative experiences I have mentioned in my articles.

On the mat, too, there is plenty of positive spirit among Japanese trainees of all ranks. This is a form of non-verbal kindness that more than compensates for those moments when you encounter various kinds of nastiness.

The very presence of a foreigner in a Japanese dojo can be a disruption, yet I cannot forget the way so many dojos welcomed me with open arms, even when I turned up without a proper introduction. It is often difficult for a foreigner to reciprocate these acts of kindness, but I have tried to do so, indirectly, by doing my best to pass on what I have learned. Back in my own country I occasionally have the opportunity to offer more material “repayment.” For instance, when we have Japanese visitors, I can give them some of the “honored guest” treatment I received—and for a lot less than it would cost in Tokyo!

Sometimes the generosity of individual Japanese can be extraordinary. For instance, an English friend had the humbling experience, when visiting a master swordsmith in Tokyo, of having one of the swords handed to him as a gift! The sword was one of a handful made each year by this master craftsman, who rejected all those that did not come up to his standards of perfection. It must have been very valuable, but apparently the fact that my friend was a foreigner who spoke Japanese, practiced kendo and had a keen appreciation of Japanese swords was sufficient to override any material considerations.

It is not unusual for foreigners in Japan to admire some item of local art while window-shopping, only to find their Japanese friends presenting it to them later as “a small souvenir of Japan.” Likewise, it is almost impossible to pay for your own meals or entertainment when you have been invited out by Japanese friends.

When it comes to budo, some people maintain that the Japanese always hold something back when teaching foreigners, but I never experienced this. I was invited to join the kenshusei (special research students) at the Yoshinkan, and was not treated any differently from the others in that group. If I failed to understand anything, it was not because the knowledge was concealed from me.

The best souvenirs of Japan, for me, are memories of training and sharing in the spirit of aikido with so many diverse individuals. Also, the atmosphere invoked by some dojos is something that still gives me a thrill, just to recall.

There used to be a kyudo (archery) dojo near the New Zealand Embassy where I worked, and I would often go there just to feel the atmosphere: the beautiful polished wooden floor, the straw-bale targets, the marvelous curved roof-line, the manicured green of the outdoor range, the dignity of the archers wearing their hakama and dogi and performing their highly-stylized movements. Just being there was a guaranteed pick-me-up after a hard day’s work.

Arts like kyudo create a special atmosphere that, to me, is ample justification for practicing them. It is the process, not the end result, that is important. If it was simply a matter of hitting the target, Western archery, with its increasingly high-tech equipment, is probably far more accurate. Certainly a lot easier to learn.

And there are obviously easier and quicker ways of making a cup of tea than performing sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, with all its ritual and hours of quiet kneeling. But making a quick cuppa, or simply hitting a target has never been the main purpose in practicing either of these arts, any more than technical skill alone is sufficient reason for doing aikido.

It may be politically incorrect to put in a word for the Do (Way) part of aikido, but it seems to me that it is high time someone did so. We keep putting the cart before the horse. We have reversed the priorities, and keep coming up with rather thin justifications for this posture: “The increase in violence in our society makes self-defense a necessity these days,” for instance, or, “Aikido must hold its own against other battlefield arts.”

Of course technical mastery is an important measure of one’s inner progress, so should not be ignored, but to make it the sole purpose of training is to miss the whole point. Rather than boast of our skill in aikido, should we not be just a little ashamed of our almost complete ignorance of its inner, spiritual aspect?

Despite everything Morihei Ueshiba said, and the echoes of his words that can be easily found in other disciplines, we continue to behave as if aikido was “nothing but” a martial art or a self-defense system, or (grudging alternative!) a health or exercise system. Our orientation is almost exclusively external.

Certainly, people who quote Ueshiba’s philosophy all the time can be a pain in the neck; but that is why we have the training — so we can work it out for ourselves without merely talking about it.

We have little choice but to start this inner work from the base of our physical bodies, as they are our first line of “reality,” but there is much more to us, as human beings, than meets the eye. It is the inner reality that aikido can help us to discover and explore that gives real meaning to our training. No task is more important, so why waste energy focusing on the physical aspects alone? We shall need all the energy we can muster to undertake the lifelong task of finding and following our own Way.