Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Paving stones on the path to hell

Two Septembers ago, I had the pleasure of visiting an old friend in Japan.
Toshiyo lives in Kyoto and was my home-stay host in 1996 while I was studying Japanese at a language school in the city during a summer break from my teaching job in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. I was matched with her completely at random. But, as I've come to believe, nothing in this existence is ever completely random.
From the time we first met that summer, she has been one of my closest friends and mentors, and Kyoto has been my second home. She is a woman possessed of immeasureable wisdom that is unsettling in its simplicity. I consider her another of my elder sisters.

Nature sometimes conspires against my sense of timing.
My September 2004 visit to Toshiyo coincided with the arrival of a powerful typhoon that was raking Japan from south to north, taking a considerable toll in lives and property.
Returning to her apartment after stepping out for some dinner, I closed my sopping umbrella and leaned it outside her door, not wanting to get her foyer wet. Later that night, I noticed she had hung the umbrella, still dripping, on the doorknob inside the foyer.

I had returned to Japan bearing gifts for Toshiyo and other friends I hadn't seen in years. Toshiyo's gift was a beautiful (and expensive) ceramic pendant whose colors were in the earth tones she so loves. Toshiyo, a refreshingly frank and utterly sincere woman, seemed taken aback at this extravagance.

The next morning, whatever we were talking about somehow led to a discussion of people's actions, and how their intentions can be interpreted in unintended ways.
She reminded me that Japanese people of an earlier age sought to simplify their lives once they turned 60 -- having completed five 12-year cycles of the old lunar calendar, one for each of the five elements that make up the world: water, fire, earth, metal and wood. Toshiyo, then 62 and very traditional in her ways, saw this process as well under way in her own life.
She was slowly and methodically giving away all of her material possessions, save for those that were absolutely necessary to live in this day and age.
And here I was, giving her one more thing that she felt she no longer needed.
She loved the thought behind the pendant, but made me promise her -- made me look straight into her eyes and swear -- that I would never again bring gifts with me when I come to visit her.

Then she glanced over at my umbrella, and took my hand in hers.
"You put the umbrella outside my door because you thought it was the helpful thing to do -- you didn't want to make a puddle in my foyer," she said gently. "All I saw was the inconvenience you caused my neighbors, who had to step around the puddle you created outside."


greenbean said...

Thank you Mike for sharing this wonderful and touching story.Yes, kindness,consideration and gentleness are virtues worth emulating and cultivating.Care for others.Concern for others.Love for others.Learning to let go when the time is right. Thank you for sharing your story.It touches my heart.Deep Bows.

ifje said...

Seems like a very wise lady to me :)

By the way, a small question: do they have retirement houses for old people in Japan? It thought/think that families still take care of their elderly, while we (in Western countries) dump them in such a house. I don't know if this has chanced recently in those Asian countries (since they started to live more Western)?

ifje from Belgium
(sorry for my unperfect English) :)

LBseahag said...

Everyone needs a friend like you. Having a story like that written about you would really be an honor.

I have a good friend from Japan, myself. I adore her, but she keeps getting tickets for her bad driving!

Michael said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Greenbean! Hope you're feeling well.

Michael said...

Good morning, LB,

Well, I call 'em like I see 'em, and my friend Toshiyo is one of a kind. She has a sister, too, and a niece who are equally lovely people. As for driving, Toshiyo used to ride a small motorcycle in her younger days.

Michael said...

Hello Ifje,

Very nice to hear from you!
I never saw a retirement home while I lived in Japan, but I lived in a rural area where social values were more conservative than in the big cities.
Typically, elderly parents live with their children, or close by. And child day-care, at least where I lived, is nearly non-existent; that's what grandparents are for.

I noticed a different attitude, however, toward the mentally ill and physically handicapped. I did volunteer work at a home for people with severe handicaps, mostly physical. Some of these physical handicaps also affected mental capacity.
In Japan, shame still plays a significant role in society, and undoubtedly some of the people in this home were put there by relatives who couldn't bear the stigma. Of course, most were undoubtedly put there because their families were just overwhelmed by the level of care these people required and the expense involved.
Still, discrimination against these people is rather common, and once "filed away" in these homes, that's where they usually stay.

greenbean said...

Dear Micharel, I read with some sadness about the physically handicapped elderly who are ostracised from the mainstream of the society.The Asians "shame" is very real and many families do not want to have any handicap in their households.But I believe this is changing.Taking care of the physically and mentally handicap is very demanding -physically,emotionally and financially draining.I hope we'll take care of our own health and prepare for old age!;-) Deep Bows.

anu said...

Many thanks for sharing such a lovely story Michael. It almost sounds like a Zen story told by a buddist monk.

Maybe, we dont need monks to teach us about the beauty and joy in simplicity and detachment, that is why we have simple, ordinary souls like Toshiyo :).

Michael said...

Hi Greenbean,

Yes, and it's not just the elderly handicapped who are shunned. Younger people with disabilities are discriminated against routinely, and are often put in special classes for handicapped students (even though nothing is wrong with their intellect) rather than being mainstreamed. I'm sure the Japanese have a rationale for this, though I can't imagine what it would be.

Hello Anu,

Indeed, I often think that the title "Zen master" is just a formality that many true masters decide not to apply for, so to speak.

Ali said...

I am so happy to have your words to travel to... this story touched me as it did so many others...

Today, as I let an extra car in line and the person behind me honked, I became somewhat annoyed... I was being kind! BUT, not so kind to the hurried person (and perhaps with good reason) behind me I fear!

Michael said...

Hi Ali,

Yes, kindness is a matter of perspective.

Lone Wolf said...

Thanks for sharing this story Michael. Toshiyo seems very selfless and compassionate but with Strength and Wisdom.

I have been also enjoying more of your photos.

reallynotimportant said...

"Indeed, I often think that the title "Zen master" is just a formality that many true masters decide not to apply for, so to speak. "

I have a very strong suspicion that this is true. Why would you need a piece of paper (or cloth) to tell you what you know to be true.

Mike: I enjoy what you write. Enjoy Christmas.

Michael said...

Hi Lone Wolf and RNI,

Lone Wolf, yes, Toshiyo is an amazing woman. My life is that much better for knowing her. She is gradually losing her eyesight, yet the way she accepts this reality with such poise and grace is an inspiration to me.

RNI, thank you so much for the kind words! I'm grateful and humbled.
Yes, it seems unnecessary to have one's feelings and interpretations "validated" by external means. To share these feelings and observations, yes; to be open to having them criticized in a constructive way, definitely.
But to give them more weight because they have some sort of seal of approval, why?
I remember that when I was preparing for jukai (a process I never completed) with the Zen sangha to which I once belonged, the teacher said that going through the ceremony of receiving the precepts and being given a kaimyo (Buddhist name) and wearing a rakusu was a public affirmation that one was making a vow to live in a Buddhist way. Having made one's intentions publicly known is a way to reinforce that decision on the part of the precepts receiver.
But I don't think the ceremony would have made me any more or less sincere. Sure, if I had gone through with it I probably would've been on my best behavior for a while, but I don't think I would've been somehow protected against backsliding.
For me, the bottom line is that I don't need a new name and wardrobe to follow a path. And, if I break a vow to walk that path, I'll still have myself to live with, even if I no longer see the members of the sangha.