I have just read a fictional but realistic account of Dutch sailor Mathys Conradtsen traveling to Hawai’i on the Silver Coin in 1834. The ‘Sandwich Islands’ had been discovered by Captain Cook 56 years earlier. Men slept in bunks below deck full of fleas, 2 ft away from the next man, unable to sit up, in total darkness. They spent their days in a stinking rut, repairing sails, ropes, rigging, standing watch aloft the mast, its height towering over the sway of the ship, stamp sized from above, augmenting their nausea. Suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, bad hygiene, diarrhea and a host of other diseases, dying or throwing themselves into the sea. Catching and disemboweling sperm whales, diving into their heads, melting their precious blubber and storing it in barrels called hogsheads. Eating the same things every day if they were lucky enough to have food, worms squirming in their bread, rats swimming in their water. Slitting the veins of the newly dead and squeezing out mice to quench their thirst. Having their ship smashed by a mad whale. Escaping on life boats, cursed with survival, eating their shipmates and arriving at their destination labeled cannibals.
At Rosendaal station, my host family and friends greet me with warm hugs and shower me with pity for having had to suffer through such an endless ordeal of a journey. I smile, knowing better, and happy to see them.
I’m here to accompany my aikido teacher Katsuyuki Shimamoto and interpret for him at a seminar he will teach over the next 4 days, in Uiden, Zevenbergen, and Mechelen, Belgium. My teacher has been through a rougher ride than me, having recovered only recently from stomach cancer surgery. Really, he is still not supposed to exercise, but here he is, ready to teach his annual seminar and add a new Belgian location to the menu. At our first dinner together since August - Chinese takeaway at our host teacher’s house - it is a truly smile-inducing experience to see him eat a whole plate full of food and go back for seconds. He takes this social opportunity to introduce us - the disciples gathered around him, thirsty for his teachings after dinner - to the theme of this year’s seminar: 一大事 ichidaiji.
The word consists of three characters: ‘one’, ‘big’, and ‘thing/issue’. If the first two are combined, they mean ‘major’ or ‘top’. If the second two are combined, they mean ‘important’. In this way, many interpretations and layers of meaning can be gathered from the term if one thinks about all the possibilities it offers. Conventionally, the word has an everyday meaning and a Buddhist interpretation. In its everyday meaning, it refers to a major tragedy like cancer, or a tsunami. Its Buddhist meaning is the Buddha’s manifestation on earth to save all living things. The major issue. The one important thing. My teacher says he has finally arrived at his own idea about the essence of ichidaiji.
‘Think about it’, he says. ‘There is air for us to breathe. Water to drink. Food to eat. People who have poured the efforts of their own lives into giving birth to us, raising us, educating us, feeding us. There are a million incredible factors that make our life possible. This life we have, here and now, is the most important thing. Honor its every moment with the right effort: good posture, calm mind, all-seeing eyes, welcoming others into your heart and sphere, and creating harmonious exchange. Life is ichidaiji. Consider everything you do with it ichidaiji. Give each moment your best.’
This is the lesson he has brought with him this time, no doubt influenced by his recent bout with cancer, a serious issue that could be called ‘ichidaiji’ in everyday Japanese. But he has found a different meaning in it and blessed us with its power.
His lesson gives us the necessary attitude to spend a magic five days in Holland and Belgium with our fellow disciples who have once again come together from multiple countries including Poland, Israel, and Spain, to learn how to lead better lives and be better people. Through four days of aikido, dancing, breathing, intertwining, and flying around different dojos, and an additional day of sightseeing, fry feasting, waffle wielding, chocolate chomping and beer boozing in Antwerp, Belgium, we truly connect and give each other our best, getting the best out of it. Making every moment count, we celebrate life, love undug and hearts emptied in the grip of a moment, the sweeping power of a breath, the singing voice of inevitability, the musubi of the senses and the mind.
I am also pleased to run into Lawrence on the third day of the seminar, a fellow member of the brethren once gathered around P. in Bath. We met at an aikido seminar in Israel last spring and talked at a party. We found out we had both lived in Bath. Then P.‘s name was mentioned, and we fell through the cracks of first small talk into something closer to an ancient friendship. Once again, we talk about P., ichidaiji on our mind. About Bath. Lawrence has his contact in his phone. Offers help. We see the reflection of necessity and excitement in each other’s eyes. With his spy skills, Lawrence finds out quickly that the Bath aikido brothers practice at Hedley Hall on Thursday nights, and that P. can still be found there. A plan is spawned.