A New Year Message from Gaku Homma Sensei
January 1st, 2002
This year I began my New Year as I have for many years-by conducting Toshi Koshi Geiko, or “New Years Eve Practice”. This special practice begins at 11:30 pm. on the 31st of December and continues until after the New Year begins at midnight. Nippon Kan is located just south of downtown, so during practice and meditation the sounds of fireworks and distant celebrations could be heard as we brought in the New Year.
Toshi Koshi Geiko is the only practice of the year where I perform a special Shinto ceremony using narimono or “things that make sounds.” The melodic sound of special bells and the powerful tones of drums add a special atmosphere to the ceremony.
For this New Year, many of my students have asked me about my opinions on the world since the tragic events of 9-11-2001. Not being a politician or war analyst, I do not have ready answers as to what is correct or prudent to do in a time of terrorism. I do of course, condemn any acts of terrorism, and have thought deeply about what we can do as an Aikido community to strengthen the harmony in our world. I am reminded of a Buddhist story about bells; like the ones I used for the New Years Eve Ceremony.
Bells used in Buddhist ceremonies are called kane. These bells are not like cowbells with clangors or sleigh bells with pellets inside to make them jingle. These bells have nothing in them at all. The bells rest gently on a soft cushion and are rung by being struck on the side with a wooden stick. When struck, they make a rich vibrating tone.
There is an order for this harmony, which is integral to the quality of the resonance and tone of the bell sound. If the cushion rests on top of the bell instead of the other way around, the sound of the bell is not the same when struck. Or, if the bell rests on the stick, and is struck with the cushion, the sound is also not the same. Each object, the bell, the cushion and the stick have their proper places, and only when combined correctly do they produce a harmonious sound. In essence it is important for us to understand and respect the place and purpose of all three objects. In this way together, they can appreciate the nice sound they make together.
In the world there are many different cultures, religions and lifestyles, cultures that have survived climatic and environmental changes for centuries. In the mountains of Nepal, a way of life has existed unchanged for generations. The people there survive by herding yaks and harvesting salt. Deep in the jungles of the Amazon, are communities of people who have had little or no contact with the outside world, their world, is of the jungle, where the skill of the hunters determines who survives.
Some cultures have survived the harshest of conditions. For other cultures, like our own in the United States for instance, physical survival is not quite as much of a challenge as it once was. In our modern day world watching television and drinking beer in ones underwear is made possible year round in an environment controlled by central heating and air conditioning.
World-wide there are many different systems of belief. People have adapted to the challenges of their own particular environment. In primitive cultures, where daily life was closest to the elements of nature, people tended to have a religion or a system of believe as an integral part of their daily lives.
Regardless of a community’s system of believe adapting to a foreign environment is a challenging task.
What would happen for instance if you transplanted someone whom had spent his or her entire life in the jungles of the Amazon into downtown Manhattan? Or vice versa? If you took someone who had grown up in New York City to a place without toilets, electricity or stores to buy their food and clothing, it would be difficult for him or her to survive. It is always difficult to adapt to a culture or environment that is foreign, and it is also difficult for a community to adapt to someone new and foreign entering its realm of order. I do believe, however, that it is very important for us to try to understand and respect cultures that may be unfamiliar to us. Like the bell and the cushion and the stick we need to find the harmony that a mixture of cultures can create.
I have been living in the United States for over 25 years. As part of Nippon Kan’s cultural exchange program I have taken over 400 Americans to Japan. The major cities in Japan today are similar to cities world-wide. Excepting possibly language barriers, there are few inconveniences traveling in Japan. It has been interesting for me to learn through years of guiding these tours about different traveler’s abilities to deal with a new culture. Food often becomes challenging, and some American travelers after initially being excited about new foods, start dreaming of pizza and ice cream sometimes after just one or two days. I have learned that sometimes if these food urges are not met, irritability arises, and negativity over the entire experience can occur. This is an example of simple difficulties that one culture can have understanding and assimilating with another. When minor obstacles such as this can cause misunderstanding, it is no wonder that miscommunication on an international scale is an issue.
I have also witnessed cultural challenges among Japanese visitors in the United States. Nippon Kan has hosted over 200 visitors from Japan, serving as guides for short term visits and advisors for those on more extended stays. As a rule Japanese arriving for extended stays arrive full of hopes and expectations. They want to do everything TODAY! They are full of energy and excitement. What I have found however, is that a few months later the same person may have taken on a drastically different attitude. After the initial excitement, a typical pattern is for visitors to begin comparing everything to Japan, using a Japanese rule of measure. “Lines are too long here compared to Japan…the only seasonings used here are salt and pepper, whereas in Japan… This is a critical time in the Japanese visitor’s experience. I always advise, for I have been there myself, “This is part of the process of understanding. You are experiencing what everyone does when adjusting to a new culture. Be patient with the process…this too shall pass”. I have seen some give up and return to Japan. On rare occasions I have even heard of a suicide. The differences between their expectations and the perceived reality of their experiences were too great for them to overcome.
Last year I visited Mongolia, Scotland and Brazil. In Scotland and Brazil we stayed in Western hotels, traveled by modern transportation and had an abundant variety of foods available to us. Mongolia however was a little bit different. Once outside of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the horizon was empty and endless, dotted sporadically with the white tent structures of the Mongolian nomads. It was not only stepping into another world, but stepping into a timeless one. The “ger”, or nomadic houses we visited had no indoor plumbing or electricity. The space was furnished with a couple of beds, a heating stove in the center of the ger and an altar with images of the Dalai Lama and Genghis Khan. Most dwellings housed from six to ten people and were moved every three months or so to find suitable grazing lands for the accompanying horse, sheep, goats and occasional yak or camel. This is a lifestyle that has continued for over 2000 years including the time of Genghis Kan over 1000 years ago.
The lifestyle we were lucky to witness has endured centuries of harsh conditions, yet arts, crafts and music have flourished. The Mongolian people were comfortable and happy with the world around them. Even politics have had little effect on the life of the Mongolian nomads. Over 15 years ago Mongolia shook the Russian rule that began in 1921 and became a self-governing democracy, yet life on the Mongolian plains has remained virtually unchanged.
Recently, I watched a television report from Afghanistan. A popular woman reporter was commenting on conditions in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban rulers. Followed by camera crews, she wandered through a recently liberated village, assessing the living conditions. She was obviously uncomfortable by what she found. There was no running water or electricity in most of the houses. The children wore tattered clothes and sometimes had no shoes. The houses were furnished with the poorest of amenities, the floors made of dirt, the walls peeling and crumbling. Children worked in metal works or tapestry factories for one dollar a week, instead of attending school. One dollar a week may not be much, but may be sufficient to help a family buy enough food to survive until a time when conditions might allow a broader development of human potential.
I don’t think it is fair to judge the conditions in Afghanistan by an American reporter’s standards. Having electricity or Coca Cola or fried chicken or neatly pressed clothes is not mandatory for a successful culture. To assume that countries that do not have these amenities should be looked down upon is a mistake. It is, of course, deplorable for large companies to use child labor in Third World countries to keep labor costs down. Afghanistan, however, is a country that has been at war for a very long time. Afghanistan is a country that needs a lot of rebuilding before new educational systems can be put in place. In the meantime, children that can work are able to learn a skill that is a means for survival, which is better than wandering the streets. Studying computer science and mathematics in a western- style school system may not be appropriate in different situations in different parts of the world.
Craftsmen that began their training as children made the arts and crafts from other parts of the world displayed in museums here at home. These young tradesmen have carried their traditions from generation to generation. We cannot over look the value of continuing these traditions as well as the importance of this kind of cultural education.
For us in the United States to sit in our living rooms so far away and accept negative reports on the conditions in Afghanistan can lead to misunderstanding if we do not broaden our scope of understanding. After time, these reports can become reality to us and the basis for not only our individual opinions but also foreign policy.
Reactions to this kind of judgment can be detrimental, turning attitudes into a struggle between the “have and the have not’s”, the material rich versus the material poor. Leaders on either side tend to support their own position and cultural values, condemning the other’s position. This can lead to war and ultimately terrorism. Communication, education and positive reinforcement can help break through these cultural barriers.
As Aikidoists under the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba we practice the Japanese martial art of Aikido around the globe. From different cultural and geographical back grounds, we practice together. This is a positive step for all of us in trying to understand one another and the cultural backgrounds we represent. I appeal to all Aikidoists to continue to study and research the cultures of others with a positive mind. We need to be open, not only to Japanese culture which has brought us Aikido, but different cultures around the world.
Like the bell, the cushion and the stick, we need to understand and accept the validity of other cultures, different from our own to make a harmonious sound. The more we can study and be tolerant of as people world wide, the harmonious sound we can make can turn into the sound of an entire orchestra.
I believe education is a pathway to world peace. Since the inception in 1976, Nippon Kan’s philosophy has been built on the concept of reaching out to the community. Taking off the walls and ceiling of the dojo and joining our community in projects of service. This has been the beginning and is now reaching communities around the world. Our target is the harmony of the sound of the bell, through active participation in bringing more real love and peace to the world.
Happy New Year to All!
Nippon Kan and AHAN Founder
Translated by Emily Busch
January 1, 2002