Walking Firmly on the Ground

The following article is a translation of Homma Kancho’s New Year’s speech giving January 4th, 2006 at Nippon Kan’s Keiko Hajime (First Opening Practice of the Year).

Another year goes by and all of our end-of-year ceremonies have been completed. It is now 2006 and the first practice of the year. Happy New Year to everyone!

One year passes so quickly! If you say “365 days” it sounds like a long time, but if you describe the same amount of time as “one year” it sounds so short. I wasn’t planning to give a speech tonight, but I think the office staff will be upset with me if I don’t! Seriously, I want to talk in more detail about stories that I have mentioned previously in parts during practice.

All schools have their own color and style. Nippon Kan too, has a very distinctive philosophy, color and style. I want to try to explain more clearly what Nippon Kan’s color is. Once we are all clear on what Nippon Kan’s color, foundation and philosophy is, we can set clearer direction and goals for this coming New Year.

Recently I read an article in a Japanese Martial Art magazine written by a very charismatic and popular Karate instructor. The article was interesting, but the story in the article was not original. I had read the story years before written by an educational scholar. While the perspective on the story had been applied to the practice of Karate, the ideas the Karate instructor were imparting were not new or his own.

He wrote (I paraphrase), “Some kids were playing outside of their home one day, when they noticed another kid on the block riding by on a tricycle. One of the kids watching ran home to ask his parents for a tricycle like the one he had seen.

“Please, please, please” he pleaded until finally he got a tricycle. Well the boy was on cloud nine as he rode the tricycle around the block, peddling faster and farther than he had ever been before. Everything was fine until one day he saw a kid cruise by on a bicycle. The boy stared. The bicycle had only TWO wheels while his tricycle had THREE. He quickly peddled home. “Please, please, please” he pleaded with his parents until finally he got a bicycle.

Boy the bicycle was fast, and you could ride so FAR! Suddenly the world was a much bigger place and the boy felt like he had life in the palm of his hand. He was very happy riding the bicycle until one day. He was riding in the park when someone rode by on a unicycle. The boy was amazed. The unicycle had only ONE wheel, while his bicycle had TWO. The kid on the unicycle was so high, and he could even jump rope and climb stairs on his unicycle! Back to his parents he went. “Please, please, please” he pleaded with his parents until finally he got a unicycle.

It was difficult to ride at first, but once he got the hang of it, he could ride around with ease and drew stares and applause from all who saw him. Sometimes groups of other children would follow him wherever he went, and the boy was very happy.” The end.

In the magazine article this was the end of the story. The point of this story as told by the popular Karate instructor was “To always have the spirit to meet challenges, an reach for more, going higher and higher until you reach the top”. This is the kind of spirit that is needed to master the art of Karate.

Yes, I thought after I finished the article. That made sense in a way. I myself have been like that at times in my life. Yet, I thought to myself, this was not the end of the story.

For those that believe that success is the ultimate value, and that being the best, being a champion is the ultimate goal, this story can provide inspiration and confidence to keep training and striving to reach the top. Sounds wonderful, but is it really?

At this point in my life I question this value of ultimate success being the “biggest” or the “best”, especially since I have had the opportunity to travel a great deal to many different countries around the world. I have traveled to far away places and each country, especially countries known as “third world or underdeveloped countries” have had their own customs, religions, problems and values that sometimes were very different from my own. I went to these countries myself. I walked on their ground and experienced the lives that they lead. By experiencing their cultures I can compare first hand what is valuable in my culture with what is valuable in theirs. Concepts like success, happiness, wealth, and beauty have taken on a different meaning for me.

So when I think about the boy who finally mastered the unicycle, I think, “So now what? What’s next?” Does the boy ride the unicycle forever? Does he struggle to try to stay up on the unicycle balanced in the air for the rest of his life? Thinking about it, I have known people like that. People that worked so hard to “make it to the top” and worked so hard to stay there that they finally did not have the energy to stay up there any longer and fell off…

At Nippon Kan for the past fifteen years we have served over 40,000 meals to the homeless in Denver. Through this experience I have met many people and learned many things from the reality of their life stories. Some of these stories were like the boy with the bicycle. They too strove to achieve dream after dream until finally they fell victim to these dreams, lost their direction and fell down.

The way this story of the boy and his bicycle was used in the magazine article I read, teaching that what is valuable is to reach for more and more and try to go higher and higher is NOT part of Nippon Kan’s philosophy. As would be told at Nippon Kan, this story is not yet finished, the meaning of the story and what is ultimately valuable is very, very different.

As would be told at Nippon Kan, the boy has become a man and has become a hero riding the unicycle far and wide. While riding about one day, looking down from his perch on top of the unicycle, he spots another man, walking…

The sight of the man walking strikes the man on the unicycle as somewhat amazing. That man is moving, he thinks, without ANY wheels at all! He thinks about the tricycle, and the bicycle, and the unicycle and finally climbs from his unicycle and stares down at his feet upon the ground. He finally gets it. He finds that it has been himself all along that has moved him through life, not the tricycle or bicycle or unicycle, or anything else that we believe we are in need of.

This is Nippon Kan practice philosophy; walking firmly on the ground, stepping with one’s own feet, moving step by step, at one’s own pace through our practice and our life. Meeting life’s challenges, developing oneself and gaining achievements are very important, but it is important to do these things while standing firmly on the ground.

A Zen priest trains simply by sitting in meditation day after day until he finally achieves enlightenment. During my travels last year to Nepal I happened upon a group of people who were working together outside. I watched them closely for awhile, discovering that their task at hand was breaking larger rocks into smaller pieces of rock of which they could sell. This they did, calmly and steadily, from morning till night, day after day. Their simple task had a profound effect on me. I thought, these lives seem so simple, and lacking in any grand achievement, but from what I can see, I believe these people’s lives may have built on a foundation that has allowed them unlimited freedom.

Simple forms of training in my view are very important and can be profound. I have studied priests who read from the same bible every day, and monks who chant the same prayers over and over again day after day. Shinto priests in Japan chant daily too as monks do in other parts of the world. These pursuits are not new, they are pursuits have been followed by man for centuries yet it seems to me they are pursuit of true spiritual understanding.

I have found in some, a false interpretation of the pursuit of spiritual understanding. I have seen those who after reaching from a tricycle to bicycle to unicycle, have set their next goals of attainment higher yet, so high in fact that the goals are “not of this world”. I have heard instructors that profess that answers lie even higher, far away from our selves. As I watch these instructors, I imagine that their feet no longer touch the ground. They hover between this world and another selling salvation in a spirituality or super naturalness that lies beyond what we are.
It is hard for me to believe someone whose feet are not planted firmly on the ground.

As far as I can tell, only ghosts and monsters can float above the ground, and I don’t believe in ghosts or monsters! The answers they speak of are so illusive and mysterious that for me they are not real. Instructors telling students that the next challenge beyond the “unicycle” is one of the spiritual or magical world”, serves mostly those doing the telling, and only confuses those innocent enough to believe.

I have discovered that an instructor or leader that teaches this way usually has materialistic goals in mind for themselves through these teachings. Like the instructor in the magazine, this kind of teaching can be quite alluring and convincing, and can be quite profitable as well.

I warn you, do not drown in this kind of talk.

In our dojo, we take off our shoes and line them up before entering. There is a Japanese Zen saying related to this simple task “Kyaka shoko” which loosely translates as “Look where you are standing”. There is another Zen saying that is part of Nippon Kan’s philosophical foundation, and that is “Hobo kore dojo” which translates as “Step by step, your life is your dojo”. This philosophy is very different than one motivated by never ending upward achievement and illusive otherworld attainment. Both of these lessons “Kyaka shoko” and “Hobo kore dojo” keep us focused, with our feet planted firmly on the ground; a completely different concept than chasing magic in the sky.

There is one well known Japanese Aikido Instructor that talks along the same lines as the Karate Instructor in the magazine, although instead of using bicycles, he uses an iceberg as a metaphor. In his teachings, he notes that an iceberg has only one third of its body above water level, and two thirds remain below. (This by the way is not an original concept either). He compares the iceberg to human beings and declares and that the two thirds of our being under the waterline is untapped mysterious human potential that must be brought above the surface and developed. Developed by his methods of course, and many students have believed in his teaching methods and followed his lead, making him a figure of stature in our Aikido history.

Even thirty years ago when I first heard this explanation I saw it differently in my mind. To me, it seems that because two thirds of the iceberg is below the waters surface and one third is above, there is a natural stability and balance that allows the iceberg to float free. To me it makes more sense that to develop the top third of the “iceberg” or ourselves, one should acknowledge the two thirds below, and simply leave it where it is. Leave it be. In my mind, if you try to dig up what is below, the balance will be lost and eventually the “iceberg” will flip over.

I believe it is time to wake up and realize the fallacy of being taught that you need to achieve more and more and go higher and higher especially if the end game lies in mystery and magic. This approach is usually accompanied by “magic” power demonstrations that promise to change your life, or make you rich or successful… This has been an approach with a commercial motivation that leads away from the true study of martial arts. I think that it is important to understand that these demonstrations are nothing more than interesting exercises explainable through physics, that they will never really change your life. If you can get beyond this, then you truly are closer to the path to understanding yourself.About ten years ago, Reverend Eijun Kujo was giving a lecture on Buddhism at Nippon Kan. He told another story that I found quite insightful. It was the story of the monkey baby and the tiger baby.

“In the jungle, at the first sight of danger, a baby monkey jumps quickly onto the underside of their mother’s chest and hangs on for dear life, chattering noisily as the mother monkey jumps from tree to tree for safety. The tiger baby on the other hand, when danger becomes presence, simply relaxes and goes limp. The mother tiger gently picks the tiger baby up with her mouth by the scruff of its neck and carries the calm tiger baby to safety. This story really made an impression on me, and made me think that people too are like these monkeys and these tigers except that I think people have a choice to be like the monkey baby or the tiger baby.

Reverend Kujo also told me a story about an experience he had with a particular Aikido instructor he ran into one day at his temple. He was in the kitchen preparing lunch when the instructor entered the kitchen and began lecturing him about the powers of Aikido; especially about the powers of “Ki”. For Reverend Kujo who had been in training as a Buddhist priest for decades, the lecture had little meaning. “I was busy in the kitchen making lunch” he said to me, “I did not have the time to listen to his lecturing. I tried to ignore him but he just kept on talking. Finally I said to him, “My body is weak, I am not strong like you. Discussing the subject of Ki and other supernatural powers has little meaning for me. If you want to engage in a true discussion of the martial arts, I have a pot of boiling water on the stove behind me”. “This” he said, “Brought the conversation to an abrupt halt”. “It is difficult to handle people whose heads are in the clouds and not in this world” he said with a smile.

I learned a great deal from Reverend Kujo that day indeed.

From the times of O’Sensei until now, there is a woman that has lived and still practices Aikido in Iwama, Japan. Every year she sends me a New Year’s card. Her cards always include a short letter. This year the letter in her card said “Today I went to morning practice. It was being held outside in the large bamboo grove near the dojo. Everyone was there to practice even though it was freezing cold. To ward off some of the cold, Hitohiro Sensei, (Traditional Iwama ryu, Hitohiro Saito Jukucho) lit a few fires around the glen. The fires helped a little, but still the practice was very hard and very cold.

Her letter said that practice was very hard, yet still this woman has continued her practice since the time of the Founder. She has not quit her practice in all of this time even though practice has been difficult. She has not quit her practice because it was so hot that steam rose from her back, or so cold that ice formed in her brow. I can see in her and her decades of practice the values of a true martial artist; day by day practice, swinging her bokken in suburi strikes one after another after another. She has not practiced to become a famous woman instructor, or to travel the world to teach. She practices just to practice. Undistinguished as an Aikidoka yet a true martial artist, her goals have not been to make more money or become more powerful through her practice; she practices just to practice. This I believe is the way to truly develop yourself as a budoka or martial artist; standing firmly on the ground.

At Nippon Kan, all students stand firmly on the ground. This concept, along with “motion and sweat” has made up the foundation of Nippon Kan philosophy since it was founded. These ideas are not just for decoration, these concepts are for real. I hope everyone will try hard this year in practice, just practice. May everyone have safe and enjoyable training this year without accidents. I will practice this year as well and study and discover more about Aikido and myself along with all of you.
I thank you very much for your support of Nippon Kan and all of our activities.

Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho
January 4th, 2006