Thursday, 13 June 2013

Nothing At All

My first job after leaving university had been in Jyväskylä a small town in the centre of Finland. I had arrived in the middle of September to find Autumn well underway in this land of forests and lakes. I had grown up in the urban sprawl of London and the spectacular displays of red, yellow and orange leaves had dazzled and amazed me.

Now after an absence of twelve years I was back visiting friends. There was so much to tell them - my travels around the world, the different jobs I had done, relationships begun and ended. My Finnish friends were particularly interested to hear about the three years I had spent living and working in Japan - a strange and exotic country to them. While there I had begun studying a martial art which had its roots in esoteric Buddhism and it was something I still practiced. To my friends my life seemed as rich and varied as the colours of Autumn.

Coming down to breakfast one morning I found a letter waiting for me. It had been posted to my London address from Massachusetts and had then been forwarded on to friends in Helsinki who had redirected it to me here in Jyväskylä. It had been on quite a journey! I could feel something solid inside the thick brown manilla envelope. What could it be and who had sent it?

To my astonishment, when I opened it I found a sheet of paper carefully folded around a red maple leaf and a piece of birch bark. On the paper was written a simple message: ‘So impressed by Fall in New England. Ito’. Ito-sensei was one of my Japanese martial arts teachers with whom I had a close connection. I looked carefully at the bark and realised that written in red ink in one corner were some Japanese characters (kanji). I had never learnt to read Japanese and was mystified. What did they mean and what was Ito-sensei trying to tell me? How on earth was I going to get it translated here in the middle of Finland? I guessed I would have to wait till I got back to London where I could ask a Japanese friend to decipher it for me.

Later that same day as I strolled down Jyväskylä’s main shopping street I was amazed to see an Asian face walking straight towards me. As we got closer I realised that the young man was Japanese! I approached him eagerly. “Excuse me. Do you speak English? Are you Japanese?” He looked startled. He must have thought that I was a street salesman or a religious evangelist. “Yes, I am Japanese and I speak a little English,” he replied. I explained that I had just received a short note - just six kanji - from a Japanese friend and wondered if he would mind translating it for me. Once he understood that that was all I wanted he visibly relaxed and graciously agreed to meet later that afternoon in a local café.

Over a coffee and Finnish pastry I found out that he was an exchange student staying with a local family and had been in Finland for just a week. He was interested to hear that I had lived in Japan. The necessary pleasantries completed, I felt the moment was right to show him the script. I carefully took the bark out of the envelope and pointed to the kanji nestled in the corner.

As he read them, first a frown and then a smile passed over his face. “This is a Buddhist saying,” he said. “Mu ichi butsu. Mu zin zou.” I waited for the translation. “It means: ‘Nothing at all. Limitless potential, or everything beyond measure’. I think the man who wrote this must be your sensei, your teacher.” I explained who Ito-sensei was. “He must like you to send you this small gift with such a big meaning,” he replied.

That was 25 years ago. I have carefully kept the leaf and the bark and they now hang in a frame on a wall of my home in London. From time to time something will happen that reminds me of Ito-sensei’s gift and I am drawn to meditate on the message he sent me. So it was just the other day when I was listening to one of Hal and Sidra’s CD’s. The interviewer was wondering whether it was ever possible to find out precisely who we are and whether there is an ‘ultimate self’. This is what Sidra replied:

‘It’s not always a question of who you are, but it’s who you are not that we seem to work with… a constant refining of what we aren’t. The beautiful thing about all this is that we are none of these selves… but we are all of them… This gives us a richness and a breadth that is extraordinarily exciting.’