Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Perserverence: The World's Greatest Dishwaher

Many years ago I read (or heard), a great story about perseverance and determination that I found both hilarious and enlightening, one which I have recounted to my students many times over the years.
The parable redefines our defunct Western notion of what learning is and how it takes place. 

I no longer know how much of it is from the original account and how much I have deleted or flat made up, but isn't that the stuff of oral tradition anyway?

It seems there was a group of Japanese students had just graduated from high school, discussing what they were going to do with their lives. "I think I'll go on to an university" said one. "Me, I think I will work at my father's mill", chimed another. "I think I will marry", said a third, "and have lots of kids". "I have no idea", added a fourth.

All eyes turned to the fifth boy, Miyamoto who blurted out "I want to become the country's greatest swordsman!"

They all exploded into laughter. "You must be joking!?" They scoffed. "No, no I am dead serious. I heard that high in the mountains, there is a small monastery where monks teach this ancient art. Why, don't we all go?"

They stared at him in amazement, but the boy was serious. "Come on" he said, "we can put together some provisions and head out tomorrow morning." One by one, they slowly agreed to join him. "I can just see us all, great swordsmen. People will step out of our path, and bow at us with respect!"

The next morning the five set out with the highest of expectations towards that great unknown. Miyamoto led the way with great confidence. By noon, the group was tired and thirsty and sat down to rest and eat. "How much farther is it asked the first? "Not much", answered Miyamoto, Just over those hills."

By mid-after noon, the weary boys rested again. "Is it much farther?" Asked one. "Probably just around that bend", assured Miyamoto.  At sunset the group set up camp and slept like never in their young lives, there in the thick woods, under a starlit sky. They each dreamed of what the dim future held for them.

The next morning they arose refreshed and ready to make the final assault on the monastery. But by mid-morning the third one began to openly complain, suspecting the quintet might be lost. Miymamoto then reassured them saying "Trust me friends, it can't be much farther", and they plodded forward. But the grumbling continued. "Admit it, Miyamoto, we are lost aren't we? Said the fourth.  "Any fool can see that!"

Miyamoto stalled. He was lost but had a confidence that fate would open the correct path for them. But the first, totally dispaired said "We are fools for following Miyamoto into the forest! And I for one, have had it! I am returning to our village. Who will go with me?" They all stared at one another, not wanting to be the next to admit defeat.

When it was clear no one else would go with him, he decisively turned and headed down the trail back to the village.

"Let him go", said Miyamoto. "We shall not give up so easily", and the four ambled on into the ever rising mountain trail. By nightfall, a second one began to complain. "We should have joined our friend and gone home. We are hoplessly lost!" But Miyamoto pleaded: "Stay with me till morn, and if by then we do not arrive at our destination, we will all return to the village." That night, their dreams turned into nightmares, dark and dreadful.

But by mid-morn the next day, Miyamoto looked worried, knowing his friends were losing hope and that indeed they were hopelessly lost. "Shouldn't be too much further now", he said meekly. "You said that yesterday!" Shouted the second. "You're all fools to continue", he moaned, and bowing his head he began to trudge in the direction of the village.

That night, Miyamoto said to the the remaining three, "In my heart, I know we are on the  path to victory. But let's all give it one more day, and if by noon tomorrow we are no closer to the monastery, I too will give up and we can all go home."

By noon on the third day, it was obvious they were no closer to their goal. "I know this is the right path" mumbled Miyamoto, refusing to quit despite his pledge to the others. "If you two wish to quit, I will not hold it against you." The two friends stared at the ground for a long while, but only one headed down the mountain trail to the safety of the village. "I will stay one more day with you, Miyamoto", said the other. "But tomorrow if we have not reached your monastery, I too will go."

That evening the two bedded down. "Maybe this was just an absurd and unrealistic dream", Miyamoto thought but did not voice to his friend. "Stupid boys", voices from the woods seemed to taunt them. "Did you hear that!? Whispered the friend. "It was just the wind", Miyamonto falsely reassured his faithful companion.

About noon the next day the duo saw a large structure in the mist. "Come on!!" Hollered Miyamoto, galloping towards it. I knew it! I knew we would find the place if we just didn't give up!" Arriving at he entrance of the monastery, Miyamoto banged on the huge wooden doors.

In a few moments, a small unassuming monk answered. "What do you want?" "Well sir", said Miyamoto we are from the village below and we have come here so that you could train us to become great swordsmen." The monk shook his head smiling. "It is a tragedy you have come such a long way, but you are mistaken, we do not train swordsmen here. Go home", he said tersely, slamming the heavy doors behind him.

The pair was stunned. "And to think I believed you", uttered the the remaining friend in disgust. "I should have joined the others!" "Wait, wait", pleaded Miyamoto. "Let's knock again, maybe the old fellow didn't understand me?" So Miyamoto knocked again, and again the same monk answered the door. "You again? What do you want?" He demanded.

And again Miyamoto intoned "We want to become great swordsmen. Please train us." At his point the monk reached for a bamboo stick he had behind the door, and in one fell swoop struck both boys on the back, knocking them to the ground. "Go home! You are grossly mistaken! We do no such training here!" And slammed the doors behind him, even harder.

Reeling in pain, Miyamoto's friend moaned, "I can take no more. I am leaving with or without you!" Miyamoto, not yet ready to concede, embraced the last of his friends. "Be well, my friend", I hope we see one another someday, but I am convicted this is the right place for me." Soon, the last of his friends disappeared into the tree line.

More determined than ever, Miyamoto knocked again, this time backing up a safe distance from the door. The same monk appeared. "What do you want?!" He said in a gruff voice. "I have told you to go away?"  "Sir, I know what you said, but I truly want to become a great swordsman. Please allow me to train a while with you. I promise you will not regret it. If I fail, you can send me away."

Suddenly a monstrous, almost mischievous grin appeared on the monk's face. "You are absolutely right, my young friend. We do train the art of swordsmanship here, but the training is rigorous. Are you sure you want to undertake such a quest?" "Oh, I promise you sir. I will work hard and do anything you ask me to and will not complain!" "Anything? Are you sure of that?" "Yes, anything."

The monk then invited the new trainee to follow him, leading him to a grand kitchen, with an equally grand sink full of dirty dishes and utensils. "Start washing." He pointed to the mountainous stack and Miyamoto joyously entered the task, and the monk left. "Tomorrow, my training will probably begin", he mused. That night he slept as never before, proud that he had not succumbed to his doubts and fears, like the others who given up so easily.

The next morning at dawn the monk banged on his cot with the cane stick."Wake up sleepy head, time to go to work!" But again, he led the young inductee into the kitchen. "There", pointing to the mountain of dirty dishes, "Wash," and walked out of the roon, But just as Miyamoto, sure his training would begin today, was about to ask why, he remembered his promise not to complain so he began on the pile of dirty dishes. "Any moment now, the monk will probably come in and tell me when my training will begin," he consoled himself. Yet, at dusk, as he painfully washed the the final dish, there was no word from the monk.

On the third day, the monk's cane again rudely roused him at dawn. Miyamoto began to hate that cane! In the kitchen, the priest again commanded "wash", pointing to the pile of dirty dishes, seemingly higher than the previous day's stack. "This is ridiculous" hissed the novice, then recoiled lest the monk might hear his complaint. "Did you say something?" Asked the monk. "No, no sir I was just clearing my throat." Again, the monk left him to his day's labor.

But that evening, as Miyamoto was washing the last plate, the monk slithered into the kitchen and with his cane stick, struck a mighty blow to Miyamoto's back, knocking him to the floor, and without a word, walked out of the room! "Damn this priest!" Cried Miyamoto in pain, longing to rush after the monk and give him a piece of his mind. But he again recalled his vow not to complain, biting his tongue.

The next morning, as Miyamoto began on yet another stack of dishes, he had had enough. "He will not strike me again with that cursed cane! I will be ready for him when I wash the last dish". He listened to every sound, and jerked at every shadow. He was becoming a finely tuned machine and was growing proud of himself. But at mid afternnon, just as Miyamoto marveled over his newly acquired sensory acuteness, the monk slid into the kitchen unannounced and cracked him viciously across his back, exiting the room without a word. The pain was excruciating. "Damned that priest!!" Thought Miyamoto. "I'll be damned if this decrepit old excuse for a  monk is going to catch me unaware tomorrow!!. I'll show him, he can't fool me."

But each day the priest caught Miyamoto at the precise moment the lad even momentarily let down his defenses, but one day weeks later, just when the boy was ready to give up his quest to become Japan's greatest swordsman, sensing the presence of the monk in the room, he turned and deftly caught the priest's cane in mid-air, just before it slammed across his back!

"Well done, my son", announced the monk proudly: "Now, we are ready to begin your training!"

Miyamoto Musachi (1584-1645) would go on to become Japan's greatest swordsman. with statues throughout the country honoring him.

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