Lifetime Beginner: An Autobiograhy by Nikkyo Niwano

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Chapter 1 - Juzaemon's Place

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At the time of my birth there were forty-two households in our village, Suganuma, Nakauonuma District, Tokamachi, in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture; at the present there are only six. My family were farmers. We had about eighty ares, or roughly two acres, of paddy land for rice; about fifty ares, around one and a quarter acres, of dry fields for other crops; and about three hectares, nearly seven and a half acres, of mountain forest. This was enough to feed us all, though it did not make us wealthy. Under the one roof of our house lived two families, fourteen people, in a family composition complicated enough to warrant a word of explanation. My father, Jukichi, his father's second son, had been adopted by his own elder brother, Shotaro, who was ten years his senior. Shotaro disliked the backbreaking work of the fields but was skillful at many other kinds of endeavor. For instance, he was a good carpenter and plasterer. He could make wooden pails and buckets as well as a professional. My father, on the other hand, had a personality that suited him to the farmer's steady, hard labor. When my grandfather Jutaro retired from work, he made my father the head of the house and the guardian of the family's traditional inheritance; but my grandfather ensured balance in the family by having his elder son, Shotaro, adopt my father.

My uncle Shotaro and his wife had three children. My mother and father had six. Our grandmother died before we were born, but grandfather was still in good health and lived in the same house with us.

The system, though complicated, worked well. My uncle brought in cash with his work as a carpenter and plasterer, and my father raised food in the fields. Emotional involvements might have created situations that could threaten the stability of the arrangement. But in fact, we all got along well together, with no serious disturbances. Our family life was bright and peaceful. Indeed, whenever any of our relatives had domestic troubles, they would point to us as a model of the way a household ought to live.

Sometimes there were minor conflicts among the women. I do not know how old I was at the time, but I woke in the middle of the night once to hear my mother and father talking. (Their bedding was spread next to mine.) My father was saying, "You shouldn't take it that way. It could cause trouble for everybody." From time to time, my mother made sounds indicating that she understood and agreed.

That incident was my first glimpse of the world of adults, a world very different from the one we knew as children. I recall that it was a shock at the time. It must have made a deep impression on me, for even now, many decades later, the memory is fresh.

But as a child, I forgot the fantasy of the night the moment I awakened the following morning. The liveliness and happiness of our household made the forgetting easy. There was never a time that any of us sat alone for a meal. Mealtimes were always noisy and enlivened by all kinds of conversation. When we left for school, we took turns carrying four lunch boxes - there always seemed to be four children of school age.

People who praise me say that I am straightforward and cheerful. Others say that I am gullible and easygoing to a fault. Both assessments are accurate. But I can add another: I do not like to quarrel or fight. Later I learned peace and harmony as Buddhist ideals, but they were a part of my emotional makeup from childhood. My personality is the product of the character of my family. I suppose I am gullible and easygoing. Be that as it may, I am deeply grateful that my childhood family-life instilled in me a love of peace and harmony. Such love is enough for me.

In my childhood, my grandfather had already retired from all work except some straw weaving. He loved to joke and was so cheerful and so kind that he was popular both in our village and in neighboring villages. And it was not only his good nature that accounted for his popularity. He had a certain amount of medical knowledge and skill that enabled him to give first aid and perform minor surgery on swellings or boils. There was no doctor in our village. Though it falls within the administrative jurisdiction of Tokamachi, the village is located in the mountains, six kilometers from the town. Even today rabbits and badgers run through the neighboring fields. In such a place, people were grateful for my grandfather's medical skills.

All the houses in the village had famous local home remedies on hand. Whenever anyone had a stomachache or caught a cold, these medicaments were called into use and generally found effective. But when people had boils that proved difficult to treat or when they were stung by poisonous insects or bitten by vipers, they invariably came to my grandfather for treatment. I have heard that he usually did his work well. Many people came to him for moxa therapy, for which he enjoyed a high reputation. He did not accept money.

He obtained his medical knowledge while still a young man. At the time, there was an epidemic of dysentery and typhus in the Tokamachi region. A field hospital was set up in our village, and nursing help was solicited from the local people. Since the diseases were dangerous, most people hesitated to undertake the task; but for some reason, my grandfather served as a nurse. While doing this work, he observed what the doctors did and learned the basics of medical treatment and surgery. The length of his service is uncertain; but it must have been fairly long, since he was accorded a certain respect.

Much of his medical lore was Chinese in origin. I recall seeing him compound medicines from herbs by means of a grinding wheel and a stone mortar. Rhinoceros horn rubbed against shark skin to make a powder was considered excellent for colds. I was given this medicine at the first sign of a fever. When midwives were unavailable, my grandfather even delivered babies. Medical laws were still not firmly established at that time; and since he accepted no payment, there was no question of trouble with the government.

His medical work gave my grandfather joy and a purpose in life. He was in the habit of saying that human beings must do something for the sake of others. If they do nothing but eat and sleep, they are no better than insects.

When I was four or five years old, I loved to play in the snow. I would stay outdoors until icicles formed on the hem of my coat and until my hands were purple and my fingers nearly paralyzed with cold. When I came indoors, grandfather scolded me for being foolish enough to nearly freeze. Then he would strip me naked and put me next to his own skin beneath the cotton-padded upper garment he wore. His naked flesh warmed my body. I later learned that this is the best way to prevent frostbite. But for me, as a child, it was only an indescribably pleasant experience. I would soon be toasty warm. Then I would slip my still chilled hands into his armpits. Grandfather would shout with shock at the cold of my hands, and this too brought me immense pleasure. As he warmed me with his own body, grandfather always said, "Shika [my former name was Shikazo] , be a good boy. Don't cause anyone any trouble. And grow up to be a man who does good for others."

Only an innocent child, I had no idea what he meant. His words made no impression on me. I only thought to myself, "Granddaddy's started talking that way again." Now, when I remember them, my grandfather's words seem very important. A child soon forgets things like this. There is no reason to expect him to take seriously advice like "be a good boy" and "grow up to be a man who does good for others." Nonetheless, grandfather's words must have engraved themselves deeply enough on my subconscious to burst into life again more than twenty years later. When I accepted religious faith, I remembered those words and understood their meaning afresh. My strength is small, but I have resolved to serve people by teaching them the way of the Buddha. One of the things that inspired me to take this step was my experience of the warmth of my grandfather's body and the meaning of the words he often said to me.

In rural villages it is not unusual to find many families with the same name. Niwanos were plentiful in our village, and our house was known by my great-grandfather's name, Juzaemon's place, to distinguish it from the houses of other Niwanos. My grandfather, Jutaro, was skillful at settling disputes and troubles not only for us, but also for people from other families. Indeed, whenever anybody had a problem, the advice given would be, "Take it to Juzaemon's place."

One of the strongest recollections I have of him in this connection involves a young bride who had run away from the home into which she had married. Since she had been introduced to the family of her groom by my grandfather, she went to him first. Sobbing, she said, "I just can't live with that family."

"There, there. It's all right," said grandfather gently. "If that's the way it is, you stay here as long as you like." Then he added, "But it would be disgraceful for a runaway bride like you to be seen walking around the village. No matter what happens, you stay in the house."

Morning, noon, and night, she was served her meals. She had no work to do. She was treated like an important guest. And after three or four days, she said, "I guess I'd better go back..."

My grandfather sat her down in front of him and gave her a good lecture. He told her that she had not gotten along well with her in-laws because she had not tried to adjust herself to their way of living and thinking. Thanks to my grandfather's splendid handling of the situation, the bride returned to her husband's family; and there was no further disagreement.

My grandfather was the go-between for twenty-eight marriages, and it was a great source of pride for him that they were all successful. People today would be very surprised at the way weddings were arranged in those days. The arranged marriage is not uncommon in Japan even today, but now the two people generally meet and get to know each other first. In the past, often no such meetings took place. The bride might see her groom for the very first time at the wedding ceremony, as the two of them drank sake from ceremonial lacquer cups. To more modern minds, such a wedding might seem the height of callousness, but miraculously the couples were usually quite happy.

Grandfather had a special way of matchmaking. When someone came to him and said, "Anybody'll do; find a bride for our boy," he would accept. He knew practically everything about the people in our village and the neighboring villages. Thinking, "The father of this house is a sound, strict man; his daughters are likely to be well brought up," he would select a bride. But when people came and specified the kind of person they wanted for their son or daughter, he would refuse, saying that such a task was beyond his abilities. Later he would tell us, "People say they want this or that kind of bride, but who knows what is going to happen throughout life? In marriage one side adjusts and changes to agree with the other side.'' This philosophy - reflected in this remark and in the advice he gave the runaway bride - was one of the great pillars of my grandfather's life.

Another major pillar of his life is found in this sentiment: "No matter what a person does to you, don't hate the person. If you must hate something, hate the wickedness of his act." As a child, I did not understand; but I have come to see that the wickedness is the thing that causes the person to act in a bad way.

Although he never talked about it himself, I have heard that my grandfather, too, was gullible and that he once lost a chance to advance in the world because someone deceived him. I know that, at a labor conscription in 1867, he did not get all of the money that was promised him as per diem allowance.

During the disturbances that preceded the Meiji Restoration of 1868, orders went out to each village to send one laborer to help drag cannons and transport ammunition and provisions for the government troops in their battle against rebellious dissidents. Farmers living in the remote rural areas completely isolated from the centers of political upheaval and change did not care which group won. But, learning that transport for the government forces would be dangerous work, they all attempted to avoid the duty. The government demanded one person from each village. If a village failed to comply, the village man in charge would be forced to undertake the responsibility himself.

One day, as my grandfather was buying sake in the village store, he was accosted by the district head, who urged grandfather to work for the government forces. The headman said that, in addition to the per diem the government promised, the village would pay another per diem. He was, he said, much too busy himself to go. As I have said, grandfather was gullible; and in this case he was possibly influenced by the desire for money. In any event, he agreed to go.

He managed to return home safe and sound and received the money the government promised. But the village never gave him so much as a sen. He used to grumble, "I suppose the district head thinks I'm lucky to have made it home alive and to have collected from the government. But a promise is a promise."

My father used to tell him to stop talking about it and not to complain any more; but my grandfather always replied, "No, a promise is a promise." Though he was optimistic and openhearted, this one thing preyed on his mind; and he continued to talk about it the rest of his life. But he never spoke ill of the district head. That was an instance of his hating only the wicked act and not the person who perpetrated it.

Grandfather lived to be eighty-three years old. Shortly after attaining that age, he received two bottles of sake and a large sake cup from the emperor Taisho, who made gifts of that kind to subjects who passed the age of eighty. My grandfather was extremely happy; but not long afterward, like an ancient tree, he died.

My father can be described succinctly: he was steadfast. He went silently about his farming. I have heard that once, when I was a child, the family was in financial straits until my father cleared fresh land to expand our cultivable area. Then things became much more comfortable. He said very little; he was strict; and I never remember his spoiling or fussing over us children. But we knew we could rely on him. When I was old enough to help in the fields, he clearly explained to me the way to use a hoe and how to weed. There is a trick in handling a hoe at the right angle. At first, I would either dig too deep with the blade or hold the handle so that the blade merely skimmed uselessly across the surface of the ground. Gently my father said, "This is the way." And like a machine, he made successful stroke after stroke with the hoe.

It seems only yesterday that I stood surprised at and respectful of the skill and accuracy with which he pulled weeds, not breaking the roots, and deftly shook the dirt from the clumps. Giving me the hoe, then gripping it himself - his hands over mine - he showed me how I ought to go about my work. I can still feel the rough, strong skin of his hands.

This unostentatious farmer, my father, inherited two traits from my grandfather: skill in medical treatment and talent for peacemaking. Medicine he learned from observing my grandfather at work.

Father left each morning early for the fields and returned late. After he had finished his supper, there were usually people waiting for treatment. Showing no displeasure at all, he would give them moxa therapy. Not infrequently, he was stopped by patients on his way to work. Our fields were located on the middle reaches of some slopes and in valleys remote both from each other and from our house, which was on the farthest edge of the village. In order to reach the fields for work, father had to pass through the entire village, leaving himself open to requests for help from all the inhabitants. Sometimes we children would leave for the fields early. After we had been working for some time, if father still did not arrive, we would laugh, saying that probably he had been buttonholed by someone on the way and was doctoring again.

At harvest time, when we were always eager for any kind of help, the patients still did not hesitate to call on my father. If any of us complained that we were too busy to spare him, he would say, "In a family of six or seven, one person can always be spared to help others. If we do not help when we can, nothing in the world will go right." He talked little, but when he said something, it was to the point and had considerable weight.

When I was about to leave to work in Tokyo, he said something to me that laid the cornerstone for my later life: " Look for a place of work where the salary is low, the hours long, and the work heavy." The impression produced by my father's words was intensified by their very paucity.

My own eldest son, Koichi (now called Nichiko), tells a story about my father. When I decided later in life to spend ten years in religious training away from my family, my wife and children went to my father's house in the country. On the fifteenth day of the New Year holiday that year, they were sitting around the open hearth of the main room in the farmhouse. My son put his foot into the ashes of the hearth several times. Suddenly my father seized the steel chopsticks used for handling charcoal in the fire, swung them up high, and shouted in a rage, "Do that again, and I'll break your leg."

The fifteenth was a day sacred to Seishi-bosatsu, the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta, and it is forbidden to put the feet in the hearth on that day. Koichi knew this and was merely testing to see whether he could get away with breaking the rule. But he shrank in fear at the threatening look on the face of the grandfather who usually did everything he could to please the children. Though I smiled at the story, I understood exactly how my son felt because I recalled many similar experiences that I had had when a child.

The second of grandfather's characteristics inherited by my father was the art of making peace. Many of the households in our village were linked by marital ties. When troubles arose - no matter whether simple squabbles or more serious matters - in my father's time, too, people always said, "Take it to Juzaemon's place." He always worked out a solution satisfactory to all parties. Frequently, he went to help, even without being summoned. He could not stand to see people in trouble and do nothing to aid them.

If, on the way to the field, he happened to see gravel or soil that had tumbled from the hillside into the road or a spot on the roadway shoulder that was crumbling, on his way home he invariably repaired the damage. He knew that in an area like ours, where snowfall was heavy, even a slight defect of that kind could cause snowslides in winter.

He was robust and was always kind and generous. He readily gave away whatever we had in abundance. And he would select the best vegetables for gifts, leaving the damaged and worm-eaten ones for us to eat. He was a good cook, and at all village parties he was in charge of the food. I realize that I ought not to praise my own father, but that is the kind of person he was.

My mother's name was Mii. She was from a farming family named Hosaka in the village of Mizusawa, in the same district as the village in which I was born. A tender, hard-working, ordinary Japanese farm wife, she was for me something entirely absolute. She trained us strictly but never seemed severe. Her affection and care for us were given completely unconditionally, as was our love for her. In a household of fourteen people, she was constantly burdened with an immense load of work.

One of her tasks was patching our clothes. The only time of the year when we wore kimono made of the same piece of cloth from top to bottom was at New Year and the Bon festival in the summer. When the area around the knees wore thin, a sleeve from an old garment - sleeves seemed to damage less easily - would be used to cover the hole or tear. There were people who did patching for money. For instance, an old widow in our village would ply her needle industriously all day long for food and a small amount of money. But my mother, who was handy with a needle herself, never hired anyone for help with the mending.

At night, when we were all in our beds, spread on the floor around the open hearth, I would peep out and see her sewing quietly in the light of a lamp. At such times, she reminded me of Kannon, the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World; and I was able to fall asleep with a sense of complete security and peace.

In addition to ordinary housework and such tasks as patching clothes, mother did a variety of other kinds of work. For instance, weaving in the winter and cultivation of silkworms in the spring and summer left her almost no time for rest. My mother's weaving entailed the entire process of cloth preparation. She purchased flax, split it, spun it into thread, and bleached it to a brilliant white by spreading it on the snow in the sun. After the first snows of winter, from morning to night, we heard the clattering of her loom. In a winter she was able to weave three tan of cloth - one tan, about twelve yards, is enough cloth to make a kimono for an adult. She sold her cloth for from three to four yen a tan. For a large country family, such a cash income was extremely important.

Though that work was strenuous, it was light compared to the labor of raising silkworms, the busiest part of which coincides with the hectic days in spring when the rice seedlings must be transplanted from their seedbeds to the flooded paddies. At that season, the whole house was filled with baskets of silkworms. At all hours of the day and night, the women of the house had to feed those voracious creatures the mulberry leaves they require to grow. Mother, who was most skillful at this work, raised more silkworms than anyone else in the village.

But physically she was never very well. She often suffered from a bad stomach and would bind her waist with cord to ease the pain. In those days, we talked of a "bad stomach." Thinking back on her situation now, I feel certain that mother had a stomach ulcer that grew progressively worse. Every year, when the silkworm work slacked off, she took to her bed. When she was pregnant, she never gave in to her sickness. At such times, sheer nervous strength saw her through. But after the baby was born, she would be unable to rise from bed for a long time. For two or three years before her death, she could not eat what the rest of us ate but prepared plain rice-gruel for herself in a separate pot.

She was the mother who worked tirelessly and without personal enjoyment to save money to buy new sashes so that her six children could be dressed in something special for festivals and New Year. She was the mother who died at the early age of forty-three. She was, for us, the embodiment of Hibo Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Maternal Compassion.

In the remote mountains, at a time when transportation was poor, our diet was so simple that many young people today might be hard put to understand how we survived. The amount of rice we raised was usually insufficient for the needs of the family and was never large enough to allow us to sell any. To eke out the supply, rice was always cooked with a mixture of filler foods, like sweet potatoes, millet, mountain herbs, and daikon radish. In winter, chopped leafy vegetables were added to a kind of rice gruel called okayu. Only in June, at the height of the seedling-transplanting season, did we eat our fill of plain white rice. To supplement our staple, we had only bean-paste soup and pickles. Bean curd was a special treat seen only on holidays of great importance. Seafood was available only in May, when traveling peddlers brought sardines for sale.

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade in primary school, a peddler came to the door with his basket of sardines. Mother told him we did not need any, but I wanted the fish badly and pleaded with her to buy some. She did not listen to my pleas. Nor is that surprising, since to give each member of the family one fish, she would have had to buy fourteen. And that would have meant a considerable outlay for a country family with virtually no monetary income. Still, I could almost taste the delicious fish. Unable to contain myself, I darted around my mother, pulled her sleeves, and pushed her toward the peddler in the frantic hope that she would give in. To an extent, she did. Fortunately, there was no one else in the house at the time; and she bought one sardine, for me. I was in seventh heaven. Rushing to a hill behind our house, in a place where no one could see, I built a fire, roasted the fish, and consumed it. I thought it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.

When I had finished and was starting gaily on my way home, I suddenly felt strangely sad. It was an unpleasant emotion that I cannot describe. I dispelled it by breaking into a run.

That was all there was to it then. But ever since, though I seem to forget it for long stretches of time, I occasionally recall that feeling, always with a sharp pain. That briefly experienced emotion must have been an awakening for me - the first pangs of conscience.

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