Success through smallness.
Perseverance brings good fortune to
I was walking with a friend a few nights ago, sharing tales of lusty, high adventure drawn from a mid-winter’s odyssey to Boston, when Joe offered a remarkable insight: “You know, it’s the settled man who keeps the wanderer on the road.”
He flashed his familiar cat-grin, then explained the enigmatic observation, citing the example of an old friend who at 29 remained truly committed to the highway. “We worked together one summer for Duke Power,” he said, “and this guy kept me spellbound for hours with his stories. I’m sure he understood the power he held — the awe those tales inspired — and that power is a hard thing to give up.
“The wanderer is both a conqueror and a victim. He’s walking around with a stick of dynamite hissing between his teeth and the settled man can feel it.” Joe slapped a fist into an open palm. “The settled man’s thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out and do something.’
“That’s why the wanderer is dangerous, why many people won’t give a drifter a break or a decent job. If he hangs around too long, he’ll set somebody off.”
Last winter I journeyed North to Amherst, Massachusetts, hoping a week away from Chapel Hill would free some jammed-up energy. The attraction was an eight-day seminar on Oriental medicine sponsored by Michio Kushi and the East-West Foundation, covering a broad range of formal studies including Zazen meditation, macrobiotics, visual diagnosis, shiatsu massage, yoga, breadmaking . . . a supermarket of gourmet New Age goodies, with the central focus being Michio Kushi’s lectures on “The Order of the Universe.”
Kushi came to the U.S. 25 years ago upon being graduated from Tokyo University to study at Columbia. A disciple of George Ohsawa, he has lectured on Oriental medicine, philosophy and culture for the past 15 years, establishing the East-West Foundation as well as other enterprises including Erewhon, Inc., a natural foods distribution company, two Boston restaurants, a bookstore, and the East-West Journal.
He is a slightly-built, keenly intelligent man who invariably wears conservative dark blue or black business suits when leading his seminars — a mode of attire emulated by some of his disciples — and always maintains a formal relationship with his audience, lacing his lectures with a remarkable dry humor while encouraging his pupils to seek answers for themselves.
Kushi’s style is perhaps best revealed in the following excerpt from an informal session in Boston at one of his regular week-night classes. He is seated in a straight-backed chair before an audience of about 20 men and women, most of whom are sitting in a kneeling posture with erect spines to cultivate better concentration.
Now, let’s study karma. There is much karma in this life. Among human relations, there are many like man and woman, parents and children, teachers and students, sickness, nationality.
Let’s take the example of man and woman karma. Suppose you like someone and you start to live together or you may marry. Five or ten years pass and many difficulties go and also much bondage. This bondage is responsible for much happiness and also much suffering. You think this is karma and you stay and suffer.
The second example is parents and children. You may not like your parents but you cannot get away from this karma. Same thing with children. They may declare independence, or you may not like them, or they may not like your ideas. But you cannot get out of this situation. Even what they do against your desires, you have the responsibility. This is parent-children karma.
Let’s see the example of sickness. While you are living, you may get a sickness like cancer. In the Orient Go Byo means karmic sickness or incurable sicknesses, like when children are born disabled, they say they carry Go Byo or karmic disability.
Buddha, three thousand years ago, wondered why man must have karma from which he cannot escape. He considered birth, death, sickness, and aging to be the four biggest sufferings of human beings. From there he began his spiritual search. After many years he solved this and could start to teach.
In the case of man-woman relations there are various happinesses and various sufferings. Sometimes you want to get away. Sometimes you think deep in your heart, “Better my wife die tomorrow,” or “Better my husband get heart attack tomorrow.” Yet you feel you cannot get out. Must be this is from a previous life that you met and you are spending some period or whole life as married human beings or boyfriend and girlfriend. This way you think.
So, how to get out from this karma. Many spiritual seekers avoid marriage. But everything has its front and back. If you give up being with someone, you are also giving up the joy and happiness of a relationship. What can you do?
Student: Eat the same food and eat very simply.
Student: Achieve a balance in everything.
Michio: Let’s be practical.
Student: Change your food and your activity.
Student: Maybe you should try not to have any expectations of each other.
Michio: Is this possible?
Student: We should try to understand ourselves better and become more aware.
Student: Develop willpower.
Student: Have children.
Student: Have many other relationships.
Michio: Then more karma comes. What is karma?
Students: Justice . . . time . . . destiny . . . lack of awareness . . . order . . . cause and effect.
Michio: Karma is like you put seeds on the ground and they will grow. If you put them on cement, they will not grow.
Student: What is dharma?
Michio: This is the opposite. When you graduate from karma, this is dharma.
Although the Amherst seminar exhausted my pocketbook, it whetted my appetite for a better understanding of both Oriental medicine and Kushi’s ideas. So, at the end of January I arrived in Boston with 35 cents in my pocket, and generous enthusiasm.
The enthusiasm was nearly wiped out the first day in the city when I became lost for four hours in 60 mph winds. The frostbite lasted another three weeks.
Gradually, with the aid of those who went out of their way to help, I learned the art of subsistence survival in the city — washing dishes at a natural foods restaurant in exchange for meals, playing my guitar on street corners with a little wooden bowl set out to gather loose change, knocking on doors in Cambridge in early mornings to shovel snow or do housework, and earning the tuition for further courses in Oriental medicine by performing odd jobs for the East-West Foundation, such as postering (a great way to learn the streets) and addressing envelopes.
Needless to say, I lost weight but never went hungry. Even on days when I had no money, there would be a meal. Old friends and strangers alike displayed their human kindness and generosity time and time again. You learn to trust that everything works out if you don’t worry and that people are basically good, regardless of your disagreements with their politics or lifestyles.
One night, for example, I walked into the 7th Inn, a natural foods restaurant, without even a dime for a glass of spring water. Hoping to work in exchange for a meal, I was walking toward the kitchen when a woman who’d attended some of the seminars beckoned me to her table. “Can you eat my dinner?” she asked. “I’m just not as hungry as I had thought and hate to waste food.”
This was not the only time my needs were met so unexpectedly. Long time hitchhikers probably dismiss such occurrences as simply the way of life on the road, but to me, they were revelations and miracles, especially at times when I didn’t know for certain where I’d stay that night or when I’d eat my next meal.
Michio: Next example, suppose your parents worry about you and want to have you do something. You don’t want them to worry about you, but this continuously goes on. How do you become free of this?
Student: When you achieve understanding.
Student: When you become responsible for yourself.
Michio: Karma means order of the universe — yin attracts yang, yin repels yin — this very inevitable order. To graduate from karma means that you turn certain situations into the opposite. With parents and children, how do you turn this around?
Student: When you teach them.
Michio: Very good. When parents become your disciples, when they listen to what you are doing and bow to you and say, “We will become your disciples,” at this time you can get away from karma.
Then, when you have children, how do you get out of these emotional relations?
Student: Make them higher than you are.
Student: You become the children of your children.
Student: You cannot change this karma.
Michio: When you become parents, you have half joy and half sadness.
Student: You learn to look at the sadness in a positive way.
Student: You must learn to see your children, not as your children, but as other people.
Michio: That would be like wild animals. Parent’s love of children is so strong. Parental worrying is so strong. How you get out of this. You just don’t care? This is not the way.
Student: Give up your possessiveness.
Student: Don’t spoil them. Use more discipline.
Michio: Graduation from parental karma comes at the height of parental love, not by discarding love and caring.
On Easter weekend I visited my parents, whom I had sent only a couple of postcards during the last two months. They were naturally concerned about my health (“You look too thin!”) and puzzled about why I’d traveled without the money to be a first-class tourist. “You could have called home for money,” my Dad said. “Why did you feel you had to wash dishes?” [One of Michio’s ideas, with which I now agree, is that even when skylarking along the road thousands of miles from home, you should let your parents and loved ones hear from you. Why make them worry?]
I’m not infatuated with washing dishes, but neither do I enjoy only hanging out in museums while traveling. Hitting the road without the funds to lubricate the hinges of every door makes traveling more of a challenge and necessitates becoming aware by tuning into people and tapping your own dormant resources of ingenuity.
I spent days talking to folks ranging from old sad-eyed winos in Boston Commons who wanted to sing along with “Mr. Bojangles,” fumbling with all but the last word of each line, to activist Jerry Rubin; from social critic Ivan Illich to other young people from Kansas City to Tokyo who’d been drawn to Boston.
Traveling with only a thick wool coat and a rucksack underlined how little I really needed to survive and be happy, despite my packrat tendencies. I felt uncomfortable when I returned to my Chapel Hill bedroom cluttered with old records, books that will probably never be read, tattered magazines, and other small mountains of paraphernalia. It didn’t take long to become blase about the mess again but now I realize it’s got to go. Too often we define ourselves by our tastes in books and music, our possessions, but they can also become a great weight on our souls.
A friend once told me, “Money is something you should never apologize for having — or not having,” and this applies to wandering, too. Don’t worry about dollars and cents. Work when you can and accept the gifts of the universe and the kindness of strangers. Above all, say thank you, thank you, thank you, and remember to try to give far more than you receive. If you keep yourself empty, something new must flow into your being to sustain you, but if you’re like a jug of wine that is never shared, nothing can come in and what’s already there will go stale.
If you’re on a spiritual path or a specific diet, try not to be too rigid, especially while on the road. While studying macrobiotics, for example, I began to scrupulously avoid sugar and sweets. However, there was no point in refusing the free love feasts offered each Sunday evening at the Hare Krishna temple on Commonwealth Avenue, despite the fact that their cuisine consists of about 50% sugar. You need to be flexible. I must add that I now understand where those guys find the energy to ring bells and jump up and down, chanting and singing all day long.
Finally, living on a day-to-day basis, breaking away from established routines and habits, really helps me to observe how important it is to keep a clean slate, not piling up unfulfilled promises and debts. If you can treat each day as if you might not see your friends and lovers tomorrow, it helps you realize that there’s little point in procrastination — a vice I plan to eliminate sometime next week.
To release yourself from karma, you finish up what you began. You accomplish; you graduate. Suppose you eat something wrong. You become sick. Then you pass through that sickness and graduate. By that you become free from that karma.
When you are born and haven’t begun various human activities, you don’t have much karma. But as you grow, you begin many things. This creating goes on endlessly in the form of many intermingled situations. You may become confused, attached. But you have to proceed further after human life.
Death means birth into the next world. If you were confused in this world, you cannot proceed smoothly without freeing yourself first. When you begin something in this life, you have to finish it before entering into the next life.
This does not mean that you must stay alone in the mountains because you are afraid to do anything. You can do whatever you want, but pursue it, experience it, and finish it. Then you can become free of karma.