Everything Is Contingent

A few weeks ago I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the World Seido Karate Organization. One evening featured a Seido history roundtable with our founder, Kaicho (Chairman) Tadashi Nakamura and some of his senior students, people who had been there since the start, or nearly so -- or before the start, in some cases, people who had started training with Kaicho Nakamura when he was still part of his old organization, the Kyokushin-kai.

One story that came up is a dramatic event that happened shortly after Nakamura left the Kyokushin-kai. His autobiography tells how he was shot, probably by a Mafia hitman -- I've always gotten a bit of a black humor chuckle of the way the book jacket says he was "gunned down in a Manhattan parking lot" in contrast to the way the calm way the story is told in the book, how he and a few students were trying to fix a flat tire on Nakamura's car (in retrospect, an apparent trap) when they heard a loud noise, and he only realized he'd been shot in the leg when he went to chase after the shooter (!) and his leg started to hurt. Fortunately the bullet had passed cleanly through the muscle. Many of us assumed that the shooter had been trying to "kneecap" him, to end his martial arts career with a crippling injury.

But at the roundtable one of Nakamura's senior students, who was there that night and was also hit, told how all those present had been gathered around the flat tire, and for some reason -- warrior awareness? divine intervention? sheer luck? -- they all stood up an instant before the shots were fired. Without that, there's a good chance they would have been hit in the head or chest, a fatal shot.

And so the entire history of Seido Karate, something that has affected the lives of tens of thousands of people across the world, was contingent on how people were standing in that one instant of time.

That has put me in mind of how contingent everything we experience is, how our lives are shaped by small things that we may never even know about.

There's another story in Nakamura's autobiography that didn't come up at the history panel but is one of my favorites, about how he met his wife Akemi. Once again a pre-conscious awareness (we might call it "magic", in some contexts) was key. He was about to board a train in Tokyo, specifically planning to ride in a center car so he could go right to the steps at his destination, when he felt a sudden intuition:

Fearing that I would be late, I began running towards the center of the platform at Ikebukuro Station so that when I arrived at Shinjuku I would be able to immediately rush down the steps. Suddenly something inside the train caught my attention. The bell had sounded for closing the train doors so I jumped onto the train and went towards what had attracted me. The train was crowded, but I pushed my way through, and when I saw her I intuitively felt, "This is the one." She was a neatly dressed young woman leaning against a handrail. I had not even been aware that it was a woman I had seen, I had simply approached to find out what it was that had caught my attention. I was so surprised that I did not know what to do.[*]

He managed to gather up his courage and walk after her when they got to Shinjuku, and struck up a conversation. (Best opening line ever: "I know that it is rude, but I was so impressed with you that I was bold enough to approach." Listen and learn, gentlemen.) Keep in mind this was Japan in the 1960s, and this was an extraordinarily brash thing to do! But it worked.

Now, if things had gone a little bit differently that day, if one of their connecting trains had been a minute later or earlier, or if the conductor had closed the train doors a half-minute sooner, or if a few more people had been on the train so that Nakamura had not been able to see this striking young woman, this might not have happened. Someone's decision to stop and get coffee or not, or to take a minute to pull out that dress or jacket in the back of the closet to wear today, or to take the steps or the escalator, could have affected the situation on the train that day and thus the way in which that meeting happened.

And had Nakamura not met his wife, his life would be very different. It's quite likely that without her support Seido Karate would have never come to be, and thousands of people who have trained in it over the years would not have had that benefit. Nakamura has written that "One wave sets thousands in motion" -- I'm not sure if that's a Japanese proverb or not, but our friends at Thousand Waves Seido Karate have taken it as inspiration for their name.

And here's the thing -- that train driver and all those other passengers don't even know this story. Their actions that day, the waves they set in motion with their everyday choices. ended up affecting tens of thousands of people, and they have no idea.

And this is true for all of us. My life, your life, have touched people in ways we'll never know.

Zen Buddhists speak of "dependent arising", how nothing exists on its own but only as an interlocking and interdependent set of circumstances. The Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hahn calls this condition "interbeing" -- my being, your being, interpenetrate to such a degree that they are not separate things.

We can maybe see that a little more clearly when we look at the big things and see how they depend on small things, but it's also true that small things depend on small things. And most of our lives are made up of small things -- small, after all, does not mean unimportant, as anyone who's ever stepped on a small tack can testify.

There's a freedom in understanding this. Our own individual beings are doomed to end eventually, after all. But if we can identify instead with that great inter-being, if I can see that the turning of the ceiling fan and the sunlight shining on the "No Parking" sign across the street and the jazz music on the stereo are just as much "me" as the ache in my back and my hopes that a certain lady will accept my invitation to the show Saturday night and my worries about the day job and all those other things I traditionally think of as "me", then even when those traditionally-me things have ended, there is a "me" that continues.

So, oddly enough, in the contingency and fragility of all things, there is a sort of immortality.


* Nakamura, Tadashi. The Human Face of Karate. Tokyo: Shufunotomo Co, 1989. p 92. (back to text)

Image: Indrasnet.jpg, via Wikimedia Commons (user Schnerf?), CC-BY-SA-2.5. Indra's Net, with a gem at each node of the net reflecting all the other nodes, is a Buddhist image of interbeing.

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