Living in Japan for so long, I’ve learned a great deal about life from a unique perspective. One of my greatest teachers was my wife’s grandmother, who passed away several years ago. My most enduring memory of obaa-chan (the Japanese term for grandmother) is the first time I went to her house to meet her. She was 81 years old at the time, and still rather sprite. My wife rang the bell, and obaa-chan called out for us to enter. Just as we opened the door, obaa-chan was sliding down onto her hands and knees to bow. There was something magical and mysterious about this moment, meeting someone for the very first time, but initially only getting the slightest glimpse of their face. As obaa-chan descended into her bow, I was left looking at the back of her head, with her hair immaculately fashioned into a bun.
As funny as it might seem, the first thought that sprung to mind was a scene from my childhood. A teacher was lecturing me on how to best prepare for meeting an important person. He said, “If time is limited as two men prepare to meet their potential boss, the man looking to show off will take most of his time to polish the front of his shoes until they sparkle. After all he wants to impress as much as possible from the moment he enters the room. The more thorough man on the other hand will give just as much time and attention to polish the back of his shoes as he does to the front. He does this because he realizes the importance of taking care of every detail. He values substance more than flash. If you take a moment to think about it, it is the thorough man that will make the best impression, as he leaves the room, because he looks as good going out, as he did coming in. The show-off with the scruffy heels will leave the impression of a careless man who values image more than substance.
I thought about this lesson as I looked at the back of obaa-chan’s head, as she paused with her face about six inches above the floor. She had certainly taken the time to attend to every detail. To be standing there while a person offers their complete supplication was a totally new experience for me, and my next thought led me to consider the importance of this ritual in a culture that’s been strongly influenced by the code of the samurai. Going down to one’s hands and knees to bow would offer an adversary the chance to lop off one’s head! I smiled as I held this thought and realized her show of humility also meant she was asking for my kindness. I had the feeling that by displaying her vulnerability she had somehow left me at a disadvantage! Even though I had yet to really see her face and knew almost nothing about her, I already felt I had to find a way to live up to the respect she was showing me.
Feeling suspended in space and time as I bowed sheepishly, I wondered what else I should be doing as I waited for her to complete this ritual. In that moment I remembered the words of my Aikido sensei. “If you want to truly know the mind of your counterpart, show them your vulnerability.”
(Added Note by Kevin Blok)
This is a good lesson for a teacher . Allowing your students to see your vulnerability (at least on occasion) lets them see you as a regular person. It means that they can achieve your level as you are not superhuman or somehow beyond them. It was one of the best lessons I had with my own first Aikido teacher (seeing his vulnerability) and helped me to realize that I too could live an Aikido and a Budo life.