Don’t make a thief! by Stanley Pranin


“We can modify our behavior in such a way as to emphasize good deeds
whereby we establish a karmic credit balance through the course of our lives”

stanley-pranin-encyMany years ago I conducted an interview with a well-known aikido shihan named Shoji Nishio. Nishio Sensei related a fascinating episode that left a deep impact on me and that I have never forgotten. Not only was the actual event he described memorable, but his analysis of the ethical differences between aikido and sport martial arts—judo specifically—was highly perceptive. Here is the story he told the Aiki News staff that day in 1984:

Mr. Tohei went to Hawaii in 1953. On his return, he brought back a leather coat which was impossible to obtain at that time in Japan. It had fringes like the ones you see in western movies. He had a leather coat when it was impossible even to obtain leather shoes! I really thought it was amazing. Then, that coat was skillfully stolen. That was what had happened when I turned up for training. I saw that all of the uchideshi had been made to sit in seiza and Mr. Tohei was shouting something. Then I heard that Tohei Sensei’s coat had been stolen. At that time Mr. Noguchi, Mr. Genta Okumura and Mr. Sunadomari were some of the uchideshi. Then O-Sensei appeared asking, “What’s up?” When Mr. Sunadomari explained what had happened O-Sensei responded: “Oh, it was stolen, was it?” (Laughter) Then he came into the dojo. Tohei Sensei also sat in seiza because O-Sensei entered. O-Sensei started to walk around them. We were really wondering what he was going to say. What he said was: “You’re the one to blame, Tohei.” Then, he disappeared.

Koichi Tohei is one of aikido’s most famous figures. He first traveled to Hawaii to introduce aikido in the islands and enjoyed great success. Tohei’s efforts produced many aikido dojos and thousands of students in Hawaii, especially from among the ranks of judo and kendo practitioners. He returned to Japan after about a year’s stay and was regarded as somewhat of a hero among the uchideshi and students of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. He eventually became aikido’s first 10th dan.

Nishio continued with his story:

Tohei sat silently for a while. Then he, too, disappeared. Everybody was relieved and started training. (Laughter) After practice, I was leaving for home and ran into O-Sensei who was on his way to the bathroom. I went up to him and said, “O-Sensei!.” He said, “Ooh!” I asked, “A few minutes ago when Tohei Sensei had his coat stolen, you said he was the one at fault. Why did you say that?” He answered, “Don’t you understand why? Those who practice budo shouldn’t have that kind of spirit. One shouldn’t show off things which people desire to have. You can show off things you can give, but otherwise you shouldn’t act that way. Poor man, he took the coat because he wanted it. However, by taking it, he became a thief. It’s all right to have the coat stolen, but he was made a thief. Stealing is a bad thing, but the man whose coat was stolen committed the original sin. He created the occasion for an opening (suki) in the man. As a budoka, that’s bad.” I was really amazed and I learned the depth of Aikido.

A budoka’s suki

O-Sensei’s reproval of Tohei focused on his ostentatiousness in owning such a flashy coat and his negligence as a martial artist in allowing the theft to occur. What’s interesting about this anecdote is that O-Sensei’s reaction to the situation reveals his perspective as a man of budo. Because of his religious orientation, much of the founder’s teachings is couched in Shinto-based imagery that contains allusions that are not understood by modern Japanese. This would cause students who were exposed to his frequent lectures in the dojo to become completely lost and cease paying attention to his words. Here we have a teaching easily understood by anyone, that cuts to the chase and confirms the martial spirit of aikido.

Tohei was a young and hugely talented teacher who was enjoying an effusion of adulation among his aikido peers and juniors for his achievements in America, the victor in the Pacific War. Through his technical and teaching skills he had demonstrated his ability to dominate and charm the martial arts community of Hawaii that included many strong experts who towered over him. Certainly a show of ostentatiousness on the part of a young man under the circumstances is understandable.

From the standpoint of the budoka, the theft of the coat raises a series of interesting issues. One could point to the obvious lapse of alertness on the part of the victim of the theft who left such a valuable and desirable object in a place where it could be stolen. Another consideration in this case is the notion of attachment. The theft of his prized coat was particularly irking because Tohei felt a strong attachment to it because of its uniqueness and high cost. Such attachments are for budoka weighty concerns that cloud the mind and adversely affect judgement.

On another more subtle level, O-Sensei’s response suggests that budoka should be acutely aware of their surroundings. They should understand the social, economic, and political situation of the environment in which they find themselves. They should be able to sense potential danger to persons and property and plan accordingly. In short, budoka should assimilate the training and lessons learned in the dojo and apply them to daily life. In Japanese, this type of opening to an attack is called a “suki.” A simple suki or attention lapse can lead to dangerous consequences for the budoka or anyone else.

On a philosophical level, I think this story reveals something of the level of humanity inherent in O-Sensei’s teachings. It recognizes a responsibility that we all have for the consequences of our actions or inactions on the lives of others with whom we come into contact. The founder viewed all human beings as part of a world family and possessed of a divine nature. While we may not be able to directly control the actions of others, we can certainly exert an influence for better or worse depending on our level of awareness and moral character. By keeping this constantly in mind, we can modify our behavior in such a way as to emphasize good deeds whereby we establish a karmic credit balance through the course of our lives. Through good works we can gradually become aware of our divine nature and reach an enlightened state of mind; such is the thinking of the founder.

Rising above revenge

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