Monday, May 14, 2012

Humility in Two Acts

(1) It is still in the last millennium and I have been practicing a form of martial arts called Shorinji Kempo for several years. I am not particularly skilled at it. I started training in my mid-30s, far too late to become a really good practitioner, and try as I may my body is too old for the throws and falls and twists. But I love it. A few months earlier I tested for my black belt and it is still new and stiff around my waist.

I am, with other kenshis, members of my Kempo group, at a dojo in upstate New York. I have been assigned the task of teaching the basics to 50 little kids all under the age of 12. Many are the sons and daughters of kenshis much higher ranked than me, and I am ready for this meaningful responsibility.

Martial arts are excellent for kids, and, properly taught by someone who understands that hitting is the least of the skills involved, they can instill respect for adults and training partners, with the utmost reverence afforded to the sensei.  Today, I am the sensei.

The children are in five lines of 10 each. In response to my barked orders, they kick, block, punch, feint; they kiai and look fierce, their tiny bare feet stomping on the sprung wooden floor.

From the corner of my eye I can see one of the kongo zen monks who has come from Japan and is visiting Kempo dojos throughout  the country. He is standing a few yards away, a small Asian man in the traditional long brown robe of the Kempo elder and I can tell from his faint smile that he approves of my teaching methods. He approaches me, we bow and exchange the clasped hand greetings of the kenshi and at that very moment a small boy in the first row raises his arm. He is looking for advice, for wisdom, eager to grasp in his own small hands the skills I have mastered.  I am ready. The boy opens his mouth and asks, “Sensei, where’s the bathroom?” I become the bathroom sensei for the rest of the weekend and several months thereafter.

(2) It is a cicada summer. They have returned on one their seven-year cycles and the air is vibrating with a buzzing drone as tens of thousands of insects celebrate their brief lives.

I am in South Riding, Virginia, with the two young sons of a friend, and we are talking about Buddhism. I have been Buddhist for many years although I rarely go to services; some time back I attended weekly rites at a Vietnamese temple oddly located next to a gun range. I have done some reading and discussed the state of the universe with other Buddhists and for me the entire philosophy boils down to this: Don’t screw with others; be helpful when you can.

I am explaining this tenet in larger terms and Miles, the older of the two, seems mildly interested. Spencer may be interested as well but I’ll never know. He is laconic, and even though not yet in his teens permanently presents the hint of a wise guy smile.
At my feet, one of the cicadas is trying to rid itself of its shell so it can do what cicadas are created to do every seven years and it’s having a difficult time. The buzzing gets intermittent as the insect weakens, and in a Buddhist moment, I pick it up, gently free it of its carapace and throw it in the air so it can fulfill its destiny. From nowhere, a fat red-breasted robin swoops down above our heads, hit the cicada like a fine-feathered cannonball and flies away, smug and now well-fed. Nature is red of beak and claw.  Spencer says, “Cooool,” with an air of wonder I have never seen him display. Miles nods his head sagely and mutters, “Buddhism, hun?”

Humility is truth, wrote Erasmus. I guess there’s work to be done…

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