64. Smoothed out Gently
“These crumpled pieces, if smoothed out gently like this, become neat and can be used again. Nothing is useless.”
Receiving this instruction, Izumita cheerfully went back to Osaka to continue his work of saving others even more earnestly.
However, it was hard to save others and spread the teachings. Accordingly, whenever his confidence was shaken, he poured water over himself to encourage himself on to further efforts. At midnight, during the coldest season of the year, he would immerse himself in the Yodo River for as long as two hours, and climbing up on the bank, he would dry himself in the wind, as he thought drying with a towel would spoil the effect. It was not so cold in the water, but the blowing north wind would severely and coldly sting his wet body. However, he patiently continued these cold water ablutions for about thirty nights. He would also remain all night in the water holding onto a post of the Tenjin Bridge before walking about to save sick people, as he was once told that he must first torture himself.
One day he returned to Jiba and was received by Oyasama, who said to him:
“Kumakichi, on this path you must not torture yourself.”
Hearing these words filled with parental love, Izumita was able to fully understand the preciousness of the human body, a thing borrowed from God the Parent.
Anecdotes of Oyasama, p. 56
Translation of “Sawa’s note “
“From the history of Oitashi Shikyokai.1 Tokichi Izumita is said to have been the person who helped start Kita, Mitsu, Oe, Nakatsu grand churches and Oitashi Shikyokai.”
I’ve happened to previously translate two articles describing the events that led to Tokichi Izumita to embrace the faith and his subsequent ventures as a missionary in Niigata (see “Further reading” below for links).
It relates how Tokichi sensei was largely unsuccessful in his missionary efforts and that he almost froze to death when he was in the midst of an intense prayer in the snow. He had recklessly stripped his clothes off and asked God to take his “worthless” life if he was not allowed to save anyone through his efforts.
However, people noticed he was missing, helped bring him in from the cold and he was thus revived from unconsciousness. Not long after this experience, his missionary efforts finally led to an ill person to be blessed by God.
He then yearned for and returned to Jiba, where he received Oyasama’s words as related above: “These crumpled pieces, if smoothed out gently like this, become neat and can be used again. Nothing is useless.”
Knowing this background has allowed me to conclude that the words “Nothing is useless” must have made a great impact on Tokichi Izumita, for he had just returned from a missionary sojourn in northeastern Japan during which he felt that his life was “worthless” because he wasn’t successful in spreading the teachings. I imagine the impact of these words were so great that he missed a key part of what Oyasama was trying to teach him. I say this precisely due to the insight shared by theologian Yoshinaru Ueda.
Insight from Yoshinaru Ueda sensei
Ueda sensei has pointed out the importance of the word “yanwari,” which is rendered as “gently” in the English translation. He writes: “When smoothing out crumpled paper2, there are times when it doesn’t smooth out so well and one becomes impatient and thinks of smoothing it out more harshly. If one does so, the paper will rip.
It is the ‘gently’ part of ‘smoothed out gently’ which is difficult to put into practice. Thus, it happens to be what is key here. Then, this man’s water ablutions and immersions are quite severe, which brings us to the next portion.”3
It is almost too easy to regard Oyasama’s two sets of instructions in Anecdotes 64 as two separate and unrelated instructions. Yet with Ueda sensei’s help, I feel that the second one is nothing more than a supplemental one to the first. Although Oyasama had specifically mentioned crumpled paper ought to be “smoothed out gently,” Tokichi nevertheless treats himself harshly as a means to motivate himself.
Tokichi may have been too moved at Oyasama’s words “Nothing is useless” to realize the importance of “smoothing out crumples” in a gentle manner. Thus, Oyasama is prompted to instruct him less subtly with “Kumakichi, on this path you must not torture yourself.”4
Ueda sensei then goes on to mention that Anecdotes 64 is reassuring since it depicts Oyasama teaching that the austerities Tokichi endures are not necessary. Tokichi’s conduct also speaks volumes of the depth of his faith and determination, not to mention his physical endurance. Ueda sensei notes that it may be important to realize that some of our forebears were gung-ho and determined to the point where Oyasama actually had to tell them to ease off.
The significance of ascetic training in Japan vs. the teaching of the body as“a thing lent, a thing borrowed”
It might be worthwhile to note here that pushing the body to its utmost limits is an integral part of some religious traditions. Specifically in Japan, water ablutions and/or standing under waterfalls are common forms of ascetic practice whose main motivations seems to stem from a desire to accumulate spiritual power (known as tapasya in the Hindu tradition), build one’s reputation as a religious practitioner, strengthen the spirit, punish the body as a means of penance, or any combination of these reasons. Shugendo in particular comes to mind as a unique Japanese tradition in which ascetic practices are highly valued.
While there are a number of examples from history where Oyasama fasted5, Tenrikyo adherents typically do not engage in ascetic practices. The reason may largely be due to the very instruction that the tradition attributes to her in Anecdotes 64.
A cynic may maintain that the very reason Oyasama instructed fervent believers such as Tokichi Izumita to refrain from such practices was that she was making sure none of her disciples would establish a religious reputation that eclipse or surpass hers by repeatedly going though punishing austerities.
But such a view ignores the importance of the central Tenrikyo tenet that the human body is “a thing lent, a thing borrowed” from God. One particular Tenrikyo publication comments on the instruction “You must not torture yourself” as follows:
Every religious tradition tends to have some form of training. Such training includes ascetic austerities in which a practitioner pushes the body to the limits by fasting or exposing oneself to freezing water.
However, the body is a thing borrowed from God. An awareness of this teaching ought to change the way one uses the body. Oyasama also taught: “God is never happy to see beloved children suffer” and “God is pleased only to see children enjoy themselves” (Anecdotes 161)(6
Finally, since religiously inspired self-mortification is discouraged in the Tenrikyo tradition based on the teaching of the body as “a thing lent, a thing borrowed,” I often wonder if it is possible to regard taking care of one’s health by exercising and watching what one eats as forms of devotional practice.
Although Christianity may have beat Tenrikyo to the punch when it comes to environmental issues (i.e., regarding “environmental stewardship” as a religious duty), I can’t really think of any religious tradition that would regard maintaining one’s personal health as a religious obligation. I imagine Tenrikyo would do well by aggressively promoting exercise and eating a healthy diet among its congregation in and outside Japan but no one seems to have had the audacity or creativity thus far to push such a worthwhile cause.
- Tenrikyo Church Headquarters. 1976. Anecdotes of Oyasama, the Foundress of Tenrikyo. Tenri: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters.
- Tenrikyō Dōyūsha, ed. 1995. Ikiru kotoba: Tenrikyo Oyasama (kyoso?) no oshie. Tenri: Tenrikyō Dōyūsha.
- Ueda Yoshinaru. 1976. “Kōhon Tenrikyō Oyasama-den itsuwa-hen ni tsuite.” Michi no dai 65 (May 1976), pp. 26–43.
- The Footsteps of Our Predecessors, Part 4: The Conversion of Tokichi Izumita (1 of 2)
- The Footsteps of Our Predecessors, Part 5: The Conversion of Tokichi Izumita (2 of 2)
- The Footsteps of Our Predecessors, Part 2: “I’m Not Doing the Saving”
- Koji Sato’s Omichi no joshiki: A Single Vegetable Leaf / Ascetic Training
- Takano, Tomoji. 1985. Disciples of Oyasama, Foundress of Tenrikyo, pp. 45–50
- I’ve been giving serious consideration to “auxiliary church” as a possible English gloss for “shikyokai.” ↩
- This is rendered as “wrinkled paper” elsewhere. “Crumples” or “wrinkles” can be seen as metaphors for our habits, personality traits, and shortcomings that we need to work on before we can fully live a productive and fruitful life. The theme of “smoothing out wrinkles” from crumpled paper has been already been brought up to some degree in my discussion of Anecdotes of Oyasama, 45: Wrinkles of the Mind and by Sato Koji sensei in Omichi no joshiki: Smoothing Out the Wrinkles of the Mind. ↩
- Ueda 1976, pp. 38–39. ↩
- Although it may be more accurate to translate the original Japanese phrase here as “You should not cause the body to suffer when following the path,” “you must not torture yourself” is good enough as a translation. It is even possible to argue that the latter is a better translation in the sense it cuts to the chase more than a literal rendition would. ↩
- See my discussion of Anecdotes of Oyasama 25 for more on Oyasama’s fasts. ↩
- Tenrikyō Dōyūsha 1995, p. 1. ↩