The strength of the Japanese spirit
The emperor of Japan Hirohito died at age 87. The destiny of this man raises many questions and the numerous books (more than 150) that were dedicated to him still have not fully explained this mystery. Even though the emperor Hirohito should not be identified to his people, one cannot help but wonder how Japan, a country that was annihilated in 1945 by the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has managed to become, in such a short time, one of the leading world powers. Without claiming to provide a complete answer this question, I would like to give a testimony based on my personal experience that might provide relevant explanations.
SPIRITUALITY – Arrow of the Yakushiji pagoda in Nara. Hakuhô period – 645-710 – Bronze
Editor’s note: This article was written by Master Nocquet in late 1984. The calligraphies are by O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba himself.
In my youth, I have spent three years in Japan [from 1955 to 1958] and I have recently had the opportunity to return to Tokyo some 30 years later. The things that I have seen there, although they tend to sharpen the issue previously mentioned, become somehow the necessary trigger for a reflection that might yield more answers than was previously expected. I feel that it is my duty to deliver the fruits of this reflection to all of those who bear the charge, in one way or another, to educate the youth of our country today.
Located at about 100 km from Tokyo is a strange monastery called the center of retreat Karuizawa. Against all odds, this place does not actually serve as a shelter for any religious community but instead, it is a staying place used for the employees of one of the largest petroleum companies in Japan. In the meditation room, an alcove (tokonoma 床の間) occupies one of the walls and it is decorated with a roll of painted silk (kakemono 掛物) upon which has been reproduced a famous painting of the Zen monk Sengai. This painting represents a storm shaking a willow tree. His branches are shown spread by the strong winds while his trunk remains undisturbed. The kanji that comment the painting simply mean “patience”. Regardless of the strength of the winds, the willow remains still which probably means “Let the winds disturb your branches but you are just like the trunk, you must remain still during the storm.”
Other kakemono display drawings which, also they seem unrelated, always suggest the same meaning, delivering the same message of wisdom. One can for example contemplate a monkey leafing through a book; or some bamboo leaves evoking the relationship between the single and the multiple; or even a frog meditating; a beggar; a pilgrim; or at the peak of Zen art, a simple circle. Of course such abstract representations are disconcerting for the occidental mind that is constantly in search for a clear and immediately perceptible meaning. I cannot think of any western company that would find important to send their staff off to mediate on the beauty of the circle, be it deep within ancient forests or on the verge of active volcanoes, even if the real admitted aim is to improve the workforce efficacy, as it is always the case in Japan. This is however one the keys for the outstanding Japanese success. Over in Japan, people understand that the control over things is all the more efficient and effective if it originates from the control of oneself. This skill is developed like a muscle through the means of precise techniques that have been practiced in Japan for centuries.
Japanese people usually happily stay clear of intellectual speculations, as for them, the sole purpose of reflection and meditation is to transform man from deep within. It is all about wisdom rather than knowledge. The wise is the one who manages to establish himself into harmony. There are several traditional techniques available to achieve this. At the Karuizawa center, Zen masters are invited during retreats in order to help participants to discover the spirit, the Ki, within them.
“You are not in the flesh but in the spirit, because the Ki is within you”
One of these masters proposes to all participants to meditate upon these words rather similar to the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans and he gets them to repeat the words as a Zen koan. This particular sentence is a source of great hope for all men. Obviously, in this sentence, the words “flesh” and “spirit” do not mean “body” and “soul”. These two notions are by no means the material components of human beings but instead, they designate two modes of behavior. The “flesh” is man left to its lusts. In absence of “spirit”, man without Ki is inevitably dominated by the negative forces that inhabit his “flesh”. However, only the spirit defends the body, delivers man, and makes him capable of living according to a new lifestyle, in the mastery of oneself.
The one who is master over himself and who exceeds himself…
The Ki produces marvelous effects in those who know how to awaken and nourish it. It delivers from discouragement. The Ki, the original spirit, the cosmic force, is much more powerful than all urges and tendencies, all the instincts and passions that tyrannize us by chaining us to habits and lead us to errancy. From the force of Ki springs out such energy that none of the “flesh” urges can dominate us. The Ki allows us to live plainly and in joy because it makes us novel creatures, truly free, delivered from evil and of all negative thoughts. These words often repeated and meditated at length operate within us a change of attitude and dispose us to face up more serenely all the difficulties of daily life.
The main difficulty that we have to face comes from the evil that surrounds us and that attacks us from all parts; physical evil under the form of diseases, psychological suffering of the moral distress. The forces that produce these sufferings have such potency and monstrosity that they seem impossible to oppose or resist. Often, they appear to us as fatal and unavoidable; as determining as are natural urges. This feeling of powerlessness spoils our will and makes us unable to resist the evil forces that invade us. This attitude of dismissal is so widespread; the inertia that it provokes is so strong; that it seems unrealistic, even somewhat pretentious, to claim to get rid of it.
This ambient “Naturalism” is a dangerous temptation because it implies that our “natural” instincts, our most primitive urges, apply upon us a determinant pressure that it would be vain to try to neutralize.
In effect, it tries to convince us that for man, the “spirit” is completely dependent upon the “flesh”. The combination of both factors previously cited, i.e. the intrinsic power of evil and the weakness that triggers the conviction of the inanity of our efforts to free ourselves, seems to confine us within an inescapable vicious circle. Moreover, in our modern societies, the means that technical progress put to our disposal are often insidiously put to the service of evil, which creates a climate of mistrust and suspicion that weakens and paralyzes us. Within this vitiated atmosphere, evil organizes itself and takes frightening proportions.
Based on my personal experience, I can say that the words told by the Zen masters allow us to react. They offer the insurance of the presence of Ki inside us. To believe in the power of Ki is to convince ourselves that the cosmic force that concentrates within us overpowers immensely all forces of evil within and around us. Ki is strongest because it nourishes itself from “good” and rejects “evil”.
Ki gives us the means to face up all dangers. First, it allows us to eliminate the fear we have to go against the consensual flow, to resist the influences and enslavement of the common ways. It gives us the strength to reduce to nothing the intimidations of the ambient medium. All in all, it allows us to be ourselves, humbly, but firmly, carriers of this intrinsic force of life that ensures us the final victory.
It goes without saying that the weakness within us is not immediately evacuated. However, the assiduous repetition of the formula equates to an injection of optimism, it inoculates within us its cosmic energy. Perseverance is of the essence and progress is not measured upon immediate results but on the long run. It takes time to build the foundations of an inner temple and to ensure the solidity of the edifice of a love purer and purer towards human beings. This takes place in obscurity, in the humility of a daily work, repeated dutifully every day. The most important factor is not to let go, since the Zen in action precisely lies within this tenacity, this perseverance.
…for a just victory…
To believe in the presence of Ki is to persevere with confidence and renew each day our good resolution. If in a first period, it seems to us difficult to stick to them, but let us not loose courage, Ki will win and achieve the task that it has undertaken within us. The attentive repetition of these words during the retreats in Karuizawa not only teaches the participant mastery over oneself, but also creates within each individual a very strong secret place that is the source of a singular cohesion which benefits the whole company.
In order to prevent objections, I would like to say that the communitarian aspect of this practice should not provoke the same kind of reprobation that a passively gregarious attitude would rightfully trigger.
Indeed this culture, the cultivation of Ki does not require a negation of the individual. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It incites the individual to grow and to overcome the limits of his own “little self” and his own isolated “ego” while taking part in a collective activity that is rich in altruistic values.
The cooperation of all towards this work of self-elevation forms between the participants a very solid bond. Union is strength.
When I left for Japan in 1955 in order to study Aikido under the personal instruction of the founder of the discipline, Master Morihei Ueshiba, I decided to live at the dojo of the world Aikido headquarters in Tokyo. My ignorance in the Japanese language has locked me for nearly three years in quasi-solitude. As difficult as it might have been for me at certain times, it has also placed me in irreplaceable conditions for meditating. During my solitary reflections, I understood little by little that there were in my life many things that were quite secondary and I felt that they were actually dissolving like sugar put in water when placed under these circumstances. The only thing that I had left was the spirit of the essential; something that seemed to me like a deep necessity of inner liberation.
There are forces within us which are asleep. We have to awaken and activate them. If nowadays Japan faces economic competition with more vigor and pugnacity than Occident, it owes it to the remarkable fact that its leaders are encouraged to retreat in places such as the Karuizawa center. These practices help them to realize that the essential thing for man is to develop its inner energies.
We, occidentals, are far from believing in the usefulness of such practices while in Japan, it is considered necessary that everyone makes the most of the inner energies that lie within, especially if they are hidden. These energies, unique to everyone, have a common source: the Ki. It constitutes for the individuals a profound source which nourishes a strength multiplied for a common effort which will benefit the entire nation.
In Japan, the practice of martial arts starts by the systematic study of the reflex gestures that are necessary for a good fight during a sportive competition. The aim is to strengthen the body and increase its power and endurance in order to beat an adversary; it is therefore solely a muscular training. At this stage of corporal education, the aim is to strengthen the practitioner, to teach him how to avoid the assailant, and to not fear pain. He is taught to dominate the natural instinct that incites him to display his potency, and to save his strength until the right moment for using it with maximum profit, at the appropriate time.
This method of teaching martial arts places the fervent adept in a climate of game which creates a new state of mind in him. It progressively substitutes in him the gross instinct of domination, the infantile will to immediately impose himself, with a peculiar nobility of attitude and spirit. Ever since the very first day of training, the Japanese practitioner learns to eliminate all traces of aggressiveness in his own game. He is taught a chivalrous state of mind that anchors itself progressively within him. This is the state of mind of “bushido”, the way of the warrior. It brings self control and prevents the practitioner from wasting his strengths in futile events. If martial arts are so widely spread and practiced in Japan, it is because the leaders of the country have understood the direct link between physical activity and the muscular pleasure that it triggers on the one hand, and the immediate efficacy of its use for the sacred cause of national defense on the other hand. For the attentive observer, the practice of Karate, Kendo, Judo and Aikido in Japan constitutes an indirect preparation for real combat.
This aspect is poorly understood in Occident and it deserves some thinking. Recently, I was reading an article written by Alain Giraudo published in « Monde des Loisirs » where he wrote: “In Occident, we keep saying that Japan is changing but in fact, when we return to Japan, we find that only the dress code evolves. Society in Japan remains organized on a feudal military model. Although there is officially no army in Japan, the country could well mobilize three hundred thousand fighters in a couple of days without any problem.”
… is certain to achieve this victory
To be fair, we must admit that in Japan, the practice of martial arts is not an end in itself. In Europe, in France, however, it can represent a certain danger. Combat sports currently benefit from an extraordinary popularity and while they can improve the strength and dexterity of a large number of practitioners, and therefore serve the national community, they can also undeniably favor the blooming of an unhealthy combative spirit.
It would be rather regrettable if the joy of owning the mythical “black belt” was the cradle of the puerile and dangerous desire to immediately display one’s superiority. On the contrary, for those who have really assimilated the authentic spirit of martial arts, the training essentially consists in refraining one’s egoistic, spontaneous, and aggressive instincts in the aim of saving one’s energy for a perfect control of the self, which is the necessary condition for victory and enhancement of humanity.
To conclude these rather unusual reflections about the practice of martial arts in Japan and their contribution to the social progress of this nation, I would like to say my true conviction. It is that a healthy practice of these arts – that is to say a practice freed from the sole desire of victory, and therefore freed from the spirit of competition; a practice born from a desire of becoming a more complete human being – constitutes a mean of culture so efficient that it will soon become the necessary basis for the education of all citizens.
One could of course argue that this kind of close combat is not very pertinent nowadays and therefore, that it is useless to prepare oneself to it or to simulate the exercise, but answering this is not difficult. The practice of martial arts does not aim at developing the instinct of aggressiveness, but rather to create a mental attitude that is totally opposed to it. Whether it is about fighting from a close or far range, with or without weapons, what is important – and that is what also allows to the development a healthy practice of martial arts – is the attentiveness to the partner, the anticipated acceptance of what he wants, and the utilization of his energy in a fraternal intention.
Who could argue against the statement that such an attitude prepares efficiently for cooperation and social mutual help?