184. A Way of Perceiving (satori-kata)
On February 6, 1886, Shirobei Umetani, while at the Residence, received a message from home that his second daughter Michie, who had been sick for some time, had died. When he was granted an audience with Oyasama, in the course of the conversation he mentioned this. Oyasama responded:
Umetani, thinking Oyasama had misunderstood, repeated once more, “My child is dead.” Oyasama only said:
“Fortunately, it was not the elder one.”
Anecdotes of Oyasama, p. 145
In 1886, Umetani Shirobei and Tane had four children: eight-year-old Umejiro, five-year-old Taka, three-year-old Hidetaro, and one-year-old Michie. (Note: These ages are according to the traditional count.)
As Umetani Shirobei has appeared a number of times in earlier selections from Anecdotes of Oyasama, it may prove insightful to provide some background information here.
Supplemental information to Anecdotes 184
Shirobei made his first visit to Jiba on February 20, 1881 after his elder brother succumbed to an eye disorder. It is said that Shirobei embraced the faith after he heard an intermediary explain the teachings to him. (It is assumed that he made a vow his wife Tane to follow the faith together not long after this.)
Ten days later, he returned again with seven or eight people. On his third pilgrimage, he returned with 30 people. He received the confraternity name Meishin-gumi on this occasion and became its director. (Details of this event described toward the middle of this post.) He also participated in the quarrying for the stone Kanrodai on May 14. (Previous link provides details.)
On April 18, 1884, Shirobei attended a meeting in Osaka regarding the prospect of petitioning the government for permission to freely and legally practice the teachings as taught by Oyasama. Also present at the meeting were Shinnosuke (Oyasama’s grandson and head of the Nakayama household), other leading followers, and members of the Meisei-sha in Kyoto. According to Inoue Akio’s research, there was a disagreement over whether to petition as a “practical ethics” (Shingaku) movement as favored by Meisei-sha members or as a faith-healing movement as based on instances of miraculous healing that were occurring at Shirobei’s Meishin-gumi. Shirobei’s daughter Taka (aged four at the time) succumbed to a swelling of the mouth that left her unable to eat immediately after this.
The following description of the meeting can be found in the The Life of Oyasama:
Since they were unable to reach an agreement on the points of discussion, it was decided that the members from the Residence would return and make an inquiry of Oyasama first and then discuss Her answer among themselves before making a decision on the procedure (pp. 199–200).
This path that you are establishing is a seed bed, a seed bed connected by a narrow path. You are scattering seeds here and there, planting as you are walking.
Those who received this Direction believed that the “narrow path” referred to the Meisei-sha’s Shingaku sermons that emphasized moral philosophy. When Shirobei made an inquiry of Taka’s illness, the following Direction came: “Sah, sah, I will pave it, pave it immediately.”
Leading followers then turned to Shirobei and said, “Shirobei-san, you’re going to be the head of the movement.” Then:
[A] petition was submitted on May 9, 1884, to establish an organization under the name “Tenrin-O-Sha: Institute for the Study of Practical Ethics,” with Umetani as its head. The reply was issued on May 17: “This office has no authority to grant such a request; therefore, the petition is denied (however, we have no objection as to your purpose).” And so an office of Tenrin-O-Sha was opened in the Junkei section of Osaka. (The Life of Oyasama, p. 200).
However, Takeuchi Miyoshi, a member of the Ten’e-gumi in Osaka and a former Osaka Prefecture detective, was not satisfied with the situation and gathered other malcontents with the intent to create a larger, national movement. To sum up what happened next (a few details can be read here and here), Shirobei ended up being left out because of this power play by Takeuchi, which is ironic given the fact that he didn’t set out to become the head of the Tenrin-O-Sha in the first place. Shirobei refused to attend a meeting that was to decide the officers for this new institute and the feasibility of adopting a monthly salary system.
As a result, Shirobei was ostracized by his peers and he did not return to the Residence for about a year. When Tane went on pilgrimages in his place, no one but Oyasama or Iburi Izo would speak to her. Izo encouraged her by saying: “Do not base your faith on your relationships with others. Your relationship ought to be with God,” an instruction intruigingly similar to what Oyasama once said to Shirobei.
In 1886, Shirobei turned 40 and chose to eliminate all silks from his home. Records reveal he only gained 17 yen by selling everything. His infant daughter Michie became ill the very day he did this. When Michie was born, Oyasama had said, “I shall name her Michie because she will serve as a guidepost (michishirube).”
On 1/3/1886 (lunar calendar), he left Osaka and it was night when he reached the Residence. When he tried to pass through the South Gatehouse, strangely, his feet stopped and he could not move any further. It was 15 minutes past midnight. He would later learn that Michie passed away at that very moment. It was Shirobei’s first pilgrimage to Jiba for almost a year.
Insight from Inoue Akio
In his discussion of Anecdotes 184, theologian Inoue Akio has proposed that there are potential three levels of “perceiving” (satori):
- Personal (In this case, the personal satori or spiritual insight attained by Umetani Shirobei through the passing of Michie)
- Collective (The collective spiritual insight that followers who can trace themselves to the Meishin-gumi/Senba Daikyokai may attain from this episode)
- Universal (The universal spiritual insight made available to all Tenrikyo followers)
Inoue sensei’s proposal initially led me to have high expectations. Unfortunately, although the discussion he eventually goes into (on the theme of “family bonds”) is intriguing enough, I ultimately felt that his discussion of #3 (“universal insight”) was only remotely related to Anecdotes 184 at best. However, the information he supplies for #1 and #2 provides more than enough for further contemplation.
Level of personal insight (by Umetani Shirobei)
Shirobei was unable to sleep after receiving word Michie had passed away. The morning after, intermediaries at the Residence suggested that he request a Divine Direction from Izo, who declared:
You claim to have resolved the mind of sincerity and resolved your heart. But where is this mind of sincerity? How have you resolved your heart? You were told that there would be a test after the New Year, that there was no knowing what matters you would see. Sah, now it has been seen!
Shirobei remained prostrated with his head bowed low. Then the following words came:
As I intend to save the multitudes, would I lead you through a path as intractable such as this? Sah, do not despair, do not mourn. Look at the final days of Kokan, daughter of Oyasama in Jiba and ponder.
It is said that Shirobei felt greatly shameful at hearing these words. Although he thought he had resolved a mind free of attachment to material things, he harbored an attachment to his beloved daughter.
One of Shirobei’s children, Hidetaro, was later adopted by Kita Jirokichi and became the minister of Shimagahara Chukyokai (served 1917–1926). He wrote on his father’s experience losing his infant daughter as follows: “My father came away with the insight that our material possessions and the body are not the only things that God lends us. Because God also entrusts us with the children born to us, it is only natural that we ought not to despair or mourn if the time ever comes for us to return them to God. My father felt as if he stepped out into the light realizing this and boldly returned to Osaka.”
The history of Senba Daikyokai describes Michie’s passing as follows:
It is possible to perceive that Michie served as an instrument of God who prompted the founder and his wife (Shirobei and Taka) to spiritually mature in their faith. Oyasama purportedly had said at her birth, “I shall name her Michie because she will serve as a guidepost.” True to these words, the founder and his wife were guided so they could solidify their faith with a deeper level of conviction.
Shirobei would become ill the next year in 1887, and a Divine Direction instructed him to make a “bold decision.” He dreamed he made a pledge to quit his occupation and commit himself entirely to God. Shirobei then abandoned his occupation as a plasterer and devoted himself entirely to missionary work. When Tenrikyo Church Headquarters was established, he was named as chargé d’affaires, placing him in charge of accounting and dispatching personnel.
The level of collective insight (by Shirobei’s son Hidetaro)
The following series of events occurred during Hidetaro’s tenure as minister of Shimagahara Chukyokai. Hidetaro’s 10-year-old daughter fell victim to an epidemic of paratyphoid fever. Although she had been blessed with a recovery, she suddenly passed away from a bad cold.
Although the affiliate branches of Shimagahara were barely able to make ends meet at the time, Hidetaro’s spirits fell at his daughter’s passing. He later wrote that although his position obliged him to offer loving guidance to the people at these churches, when he approached the small coffin to say his final farewell, it felt as if his ribs were being ripped out of his body. Short of breath, he forced his increasingly unresponsive body into a back room and collapsed. Unable to say a single word to anyone, he drew the last of his remaining strength to write the note, “Please hold the funeral.”
Shirobei rushed to his son’s side and roared, “Don’t you understand the teaching of a thing lent!?” Hidetaro wrote that his agony cleared away like “air being released from a balloon.” He recalled how his father Shirobei embarked on a path of fervent devotion after losing Michie. Hidetaro thought to himself: “God places children in our trust. I grieve because I considered my daughter as a gift from God. But if God places children in our trust, it is only a given that we may have to return them when the time ever comes. Further, God never places a child in our trust without a reason.”
Hidetaro was then filled with the urge to express his appreciation to God and to his late daughter. At a loss at being able to express the joy his father’s instruction gave him, it is said that Hidetaro approached the altar where his late daughter had been enshrined and thanked her with joy in his heart.
I had always assumed that Oyasama’s words, “Fortunately, it was not the elder one,” referred to Shirobei’s eldest daughter for some reason. Or, to paraphrase “Wasn’t it good that it was your ill younger daughter who passed away, not your healthy elder one?”
However, upon further reflection, Oyasama may have been referring to any or all of Shirobei’s three elder children. It may be worthy to note here that the original Japanese phrase does not distinguish between singular and plural nor gives any hint of what gender the child(ren) she is referring to could be, allowing it to be translated as, “Wasn’t it good that it was not any of the bigger children that passed away?”
Considering that Oyasama had once warned, “The path will be cut off” when Shirobei once stopped bringing his son Umejiro to the Residence, I don’t think Shirobei would have been able to live himself if it was Umejiro that had passed away instead of Michie. (Then again, I doubt that Oyasama would have ever uttered a warning that carried such an implication.)
I have three young children of my own, and I cannot even begin to imagine how I would react if I were to lose one of them. I doubt that I ever could respond to such a situation with the same fortitude as shown by Umetani Shirobei. I would likely react like Kita Hidetaro did before his father’s instruction allowed him to gather his composure.
Inoue Akio. 2009. “Kazoku no kizuna: 184 ‘satori-kata’.” In Itsuwa-hen ni manabu iki-kata 3. Tenri: Tenri Daigaku Oyasato Kenkyūsho, pp. 171–197.
 Information in subsequent sections are from Inoue 2009 unless otherwise noted.
 It may be noted that Oyasama often told followers beginning in 1880 to go to Izo for God’s instructions of “matters regarding dust.”