A long-forgotten piece of paper grabbed me today. Above is a photo of it in situ on a wall of my studio. (It’s near the top to the left.) I don’t remember the name of the man who gave it to me or many specifics of its gifting, but I do recall that he was not Japanese but had spent many years living there. I also remember he was responding to some long and complicated story I was sharing about being upset with some unexpected circumstances in my life. I remember him saying something like, “You know, the Japanese have a saying about that.” And then he promptly wrote it out in kanji, transliteration, and translation. I remember not really buying into the message of this saying as it was explained to me at the time. But I also know I have never gotten rid of this piece of paper. It has been pinned to a wall somewhere in my life for over 40 years (and through three moves!).
Some random energy pushed me to see this forgotten artifact today. Perhaps it grabbed me because I happened to be in this very corner of the studio, eagerly looking for something else that I needed in a short cabinet nearby. Maybe it grabbed me because being “sheltered in place” has me lingering in and looking more carefully at my surroundings.
Minoru hodo atama wo moo tageru ina ho kana.
As the rice stalks become more bountiful, they bend more deeply.
This is a very well-known Japanese proverb. Young rice stalks grow straight up, but the more mature the rice plant, the more they bear, therefore the more they bow. As rice matures with its seed head (panicle) weighing down the stem like a Japanese bow of respect, so will a person as s/he attains greater and greater mastery at what they do over time, become more and more humble. This explanation did not sit well with me. I thought that it was really about how one should never speak up for oneself or speak truth to power. I felt that it meant that one should put up with what life has given and not complain. That one should bear the weight of suffering for some greater good. Isn’t that what bowing meant? I refused to accept that message 40 years ago. Yet, oddly, I didn’t throw this paper away.
I still believe that one should speak up for oneself. I still believe truth needs to be spoken to power and that one should put every effort into making changes as opposed to putting up with one’s lot. But I have also learned over these many years, that my ideas are not always right. That I don’t always carry the solution or even come close. That listening to others, that being open to others, makes our actions and thinking and behavior in community more powerful together. I have learned that ultimately we are all one and deeply interconnected and that focusing on an ego usually just mucks things up because it runs counter to concern for the whole. I have learned these things but do not always conscientiously apply them. Perhaps I needed a big reminder today from the cosmos about flexibility and humility. “Sheltering in place” 24/7 with one’s partner may have been just the impetus for that specific reminder.
The rice stalk, when the richness of the harvest is at its peak, bows deeply because it is flexible. What it carries, will never break it. The more one knows, the less they know. Maybe this is why this piece of paper is still on my wall.